Issues Facing Missions Today 19: The Daniel Plan?!
What do Liberation Theology and the Prosperity Gospel have in common? They both peddle a Gospel that emphasizes physical well-being. Now we have Rick Warren, Daniel Amen, and Mark Hyman’s version of this teaching in The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013). Just what’s wrong with this? Well, lots. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being healthy and fit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be so and, for that matter, have no physical challenges at all? It’s a great idea to eat well. But we’re looking down the road at some seriously confused ideas about the Christian life when spiritual life is confused with diets and when clerics and churches start messing in this area. I’d like to list several of the dangers I see, without presuming to hit on all the issues by any means.
First, this isn’t the Gospel. This kind of an emphasis creates a refocusing on priorities. Just what energizes us, what demands our time, what creates community in the church? Imagine Winston Churchill standing up in Parliament during World War II to deliver an address not about the war being fought for the very life of Great Britain but about a diet plan. Where does the ‘emphasis’ lie in the work of the Church in the world? Moreover, The Daniel Plan confusingly reconceives ‘repentance’ as ‘change your mind’ through a pathetic word study (ch. 1) and suggests that faith is self-determination (ch. 3, see below). Not only is the emphasis off, essentials of the Gospel such as repentance and faith are redirected to dieting. At one point, we are even told the Gospel of Dieting, ‘The good news is that God can change your mental autopilot far faster than you can.’ Now, there’s a version of the Gospel I never heard from Billy Graham.
A second problem is making this an issue in the church, tying this to the spiritual life, and creating an ethos of acceptance or rejection, of shame and approval, around body sizes and health. By pressing an issue such as this within a community, an attitude is fostered that raises eyebrows when an overweight person enters the room. An expectation of health and fitness associated with the Christian life is as hideous as the pressure placed on sick persons in the Prosperity Gospel.
Third, clearly people struggle with weight, health, and fitness for a large number of reasons. Someone may be in chronic pain, have a disease, have a different metabolism or any number of health issues that makes health illusive even if the person wishes to be otherwise. Jesus and his disciples did not travel around Galilee with a diet and health plan, leaving people feeling ostracized from the Kingdom if they didn’t get with the programme.
Fourth, the church is not conceived in Scripture as a socially superior society in terms of its members’ physical attributes. We are not called to physical engineering any more than we are to social engineering. The Shepherding movement in the 1970s left many people distraught because church elders became too manipulative in people’s personal lives. Over-zealous elders gave advice about homes, finances, and marriage. We strive for spiritual holiness, and the shepherd elders in the church are to tend the flock in this area of life, not in the petty details of their diets (1 Pt. 5.1-4). Leaders with too little to do begin to meddle in minutiae.
Fifth, American Evangelicalism is beholden to faddism. One year it is the Prayer of Jabez, another year it is the Left Behind Series, then it is a call to support military troops (could you imagine Jesus’ disciples riding around Israel in their ministry van with this sort of message on a bumper sticker beside their fish symbol?), and on it goes. What will be peddled next year? The culture itself chases the latest fads, the hottest news story, or whatever is rated at the top of the charts or in fashion. The Daniel Plan is just one more fad pressed on a gullible public by a popular cleric.
Sixth, apparently there is money is this latest craze. Buy a book or a T-shirt. Accept money from a corporation for exercise equipment. This is innocent enough at one level; it is allowing money to dictate priorities at another.
Seventh, Western culture is self-obsessed. Narcissism is alive and well in the church too. When Paul says, ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor. 6.19), he is not talking about personal health care but avoiding sexual immorality.
Eighth, this focus on The Daniel Plan by a church—or by a Christian organization or a Christian institution—raises questions about what policies will be set around hiring (or promoting) staff. If a potential employee is overweight, unhealthy, or has physical problems, will that person be passed over? If he or she has a child with special needs, is the organization going to reject the person because only the healthy keep health care costs low and model for the community the kind of person a Christian should (according to this perspective) be?
Ninth, the use of Scripture in The Daniel Plan is embarrassing. Take, for example, the use of Scripture on just one page in Chaper 3, entitled ‘Faith’. It begins with a quote from Phl. 4.13: ‘I can do all this through him who gives me strength’ (Phl. 4.13, as quoted). The translation is actually slightly off—what’s with the choice of various translations in this book? The larger issue is that the text is not advocating faith that one can improve one’s life, as the chapter states. Rather, Paul is saying that he can endure anything—even being well-fed! (v. 12)—in his devotion to the mission Christ had set before him. Mt. 9.29, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you,’ is also co-opted for this alternative teaching. Of course, the text has to do with healing, not a positive attitude at the beginning of a diet. Galatians 6.9 is quoted: ‘Let’s not get tired of doing what is good….’ Paul is speaking of doing good works for others, not having the power to keep going in one’s self-help programme! These three passages appear on just one page! As a colleague pointed out to me, the result of Daniel’s actual diet was that he and his fellow dieters were fatter (Dn. 1.15)!
Tenth, the Old and New Testament do address gluttony and greed. These are, however, characteristics that are associated with a larger character category than just overeating, such as the stubborn and rebellious son of Dt. 21.18ff. Moreover, these sins are sins among others. As another colleague said to me about this, shall we have the Zacchaeus Plan next: to give half one’s possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone that we have defrauded in the course of business (Lk. 19.8)? Frankly, that may well be a more Biblical emphasis than a focus on one’s own diet.