Extremes don’t work in diets—or your prayer life

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Like half the country, I would like to shed a bit of weight. Before you send me a V.I.P. discount code for your amazing protein shake, let me assure you: I do know how to lose weight. I have done it many times before. There was the time I ate only coffee, ice, lettuce and horrible pre-mixed whiskey cocktails from the gas station. The pounds melted off, and I was an emotional wreck. Then there was the plan where I spent countless hours on the StairMaster while reading Wordsworth and crying. I know they say you cannot lose weight by exercise alone, but what if you are too dizzy to eat? You just have to know how to work it.

With this glory-free history of hitting my goal number on the scale, I am fairly content to be what I am now, which is fat but more or less happy. If I am neither wasting away nor in danger of knocking out close friends when my arteries violently explode, then I feel like I am doing all right (and so does my doctor).

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Here is what I have discovered: I have a much better shot of keeping my weight in reasonable check without losing my mind if I think less about the scale and more about “non-scale victories.” Instead of focusing solely on numbers, I accept credit for achieving things that are harder to quantify but are worth so much more—things like reaching the top of the stairs without wheezing, shopping for clothes without sobbing or finding out the garlic bread is all gone without flying into a rage.

I have a much better shot of keeping my weight in reasonable check without losing my mind if I think less about the scale and more about “non-scale victories.”

A non-scale victory is when I painfully resist a second helping and realizing once I have cleared my plate that I really am already full. Or when I give into temptation and scarf down far, far more cheese than any sensible being should ingest—but the next day I simply start over with my target plan, rather than spiraling into a black vortex of self-loathing.

What makes these victories both poignant and powerful is they do not reduce me to a clinical number, but instead they acknowledge and rejoice in the specifics of everyday life. Yes, the number on the scale matters, but I am more than a number. And when I see myself as a whole, worthy person with some flaws, rather than as a giant, walking flaw, it is easier to build on what is good.

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So let us imagine, for a moment, that my problem is not that I am overweight but that my spiritual life has gone rather flabby. Imagine I look into the mirror of my soul, and I really do not like what I see. What to do?

Non-scale spiritual victories are when we pray without prodding because God is real and someone to talk to.

Based on past experience, I know I am prone to extremes. I might dive headfirst into a doomed attempt to bargain my way into God’s good graces by ticking off harsh penances and self-accusations, hoping to nudge the needle into purgatory, at least. And then, when I inevitably fail at the ascetic life, I might flee to the other extreme and wallow in self-indulgence until the very thought of pleasure makes me sick.

Not a lot of dignity there—and no recollection that I am made in the image of God and that this means free will but also inherent dignity. And that is why it is more fitting, as well as more effective, to judge myself according to what we can call “non-scale spiritual victories.”

Non-scale spiritual victories come with seeing ourselves clearly and holistically, rather than in a reductionist manner. For example: It is good to go to confession a certain number of times per year, but it is really good if we find ourselves facing confession with eagerness and gratitude, rather than bitterness or dread. And it is really good if we dread confession now, but we go anyway as a favor to our future selves—because we can see further, and we know we are more than our weakest moments.

Christ sees us as whole people. He does not stand in some spiritual clinic with a pen and clipboard, frowning disapprovingly at our numerical progress.

Non-scale spiritual victories are when we pray without prodding because God is real and someone to talk to; when we spontaneously thank him before we even think to ask him for something; or when we approach him trustingly, without a groveling sense of guilt. Or when we pray simply because we know we need it, even though we are not feeling it right now.

A victory is when I struggle to suppress a snarky remark on Twitter, and once I have resisted it, I realize how empty the pleasure would have been. Or when I fall into some old, rotten sin, but I take it to confession and simply start over that same day.

A victory is when I see evil clearly and reject it but also feel pity for the person perpetrating it, rather than disgust. When an enemy suffers, and I do not rejoice. When I realize maybe I should not actuallyhave any enemies.

When I find the courage to defend an idea just because it is true, even though I am afraid my friends will find it unacceptable.

Each time we choose patience over cruelty, dignity over degradation and mercy over vengeance, we choose Jesus instead of death.

When I feel comfortable saying the name “Jesus” out loud anywhere, not just in church.

These little victories do not mean the struggle is over. But they do mean I am probably on the right path.

Maybe it feels odd to talk about giving myself credit for spiritual achievements, when the whole point of our faith is that we should be striving to lose ourselves in Christ.

 

But Christ sees us as whole people. He does not stand in some spiritual clinic with a pen and clipboard, frowning disapprovingly at our numerical progress. He knows the true shape of our whole lives. He never reduces us to a number on a virtue scale. Instead, he sees and values the honest, intentional, joyful, hard-won, hard-to-quantify, individualized victories we achieve when we see ourselves both as intrinsically valuable and in need of constant conversion.

Of course, all analogies come apart eventually—and so will all bodies, no matter how healthy and holistic we are in our approach to their care. We come forth like a flower and wither; we flee like a shadow and continue not.

But all the victories we gain in the name of Christ are victories that will last and will be added to his glory. Each time we choose patience over cruelty, dignity over degradation and mercy over vengeance, we choose Jesus instead of death. And that is worth noting and rejoicing over.

And no, you will never persuade me that Jesus has anything against a little extra cheese.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Jones
1 month ago

Simcha, this is a wonderful piece. I love everything about it and have already shared it with a bunch of friends. I especially love that you stayed in the "I" and "we". Your writing is incredibly strong - and your message compelling, companionable and charming - when you stay in that space. Your gift in preaching is as witness, not as lecturer (that "you" thing to which you occasionally succumb in your writing. I was ready to be annoyed as soon as I saw that "you" in the headline! Did you write that? If so, please knock it off, Simcha. If not, I don't understand why the editors seem prone to headlines that set up setting up arguments.) I am all in with this style. Great great piece

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