By Adam Jeske

How to Be Healthy: From “Should” to “Shalom”

In fourth grade, I read a book called something like The Junk Food Encyclopedia. And I enjoyed it. I even stopped eating Cheetos (at least for a while).

So I guess I’ve always been interested in health, from nutrition to exercise to rest to (more recently) stress and emotions.

A year ago, I was one of those people with a lingering, unrequited resolution to “get back in shape.” My desk job had started to take its toll, my metabolism wasn’t what it once was, and my knees were cracking when I went up stairs.

I was not feeling very healthy.

So I tried to change.

I tried to watch what I was eating. I tried to exercise more. I tried to walk around the office rather than just sending emails.

I failed.

As 2014 began, I was wondering, Is this it? Have I turned the corner into middle age? Is it all downhill from here?

But at the dawn of 2015, I’m 15 pounds lighter and much stronger, with really good habits in place.

What happened?

I think that we North Americans have a tendency to look at one small slice of life and try to troubleshoot it, fix it, or maximize it. But health is not one part of our life; it’s a theme—or perhaps a characteristic—that weaves throughout all of it.

The Hebrew Bible uses a word that can help us reframe our approach to health: shalom. Sometimes translated “peace,” it’s a broader term that captures the good wholeness (or whole goodness) of life in God. There are good gifts to be enjoyed. There is good work to be done. There is good rest to be taken.

But shalom isn’t just about our individual health. Shalom also covers relationships. It goes beyond personal health to interpersonal health. In fact, it stretches further still to include the structures of society and the creation of systems that are right for human flourishing for the glory of God. The range of the term stretches from peace to strength to fitness to peace to reconciliation to community and out from there.

All this, because God is good. He desires good for us and for all of his creation, and he made a way for us to live in shalom again through Jesus.  

Getting healthy is a system-wide change.

I thought about shalom a lot in 2014. This was partly because in June my wife and kids and I moved back to South Africa for a year for my wife’s research as an anthropologist. As one might expect, my whole life changed. Due to various decreased responsibilities, I had more margin in my week, which I then invested.

I started exercising more and talked to fit friends about their habits. I read more about nutrition. I cooked healthier foods and made more meals from scratch. I took more walks. I started tracking what I was eating. I slept enough. I drank enough water. (Well, sometimes . . . eight glasses is a lot.)

All these changes are related to eating and exercising. But these happened in conjunction with many other changes too.

I spent less time online due to a dodgy Internet connection at home. I read more books. Our family had fewer evening commitments (or opportunities), so we hung out all together almost every night. My prayer life was both more disciplined and more joyful than it has been for a few years.

I think these changes fall outside of how most of us think about health in the U.S. But they all helped me make the changes that do come to mind.

If you want to be healthy, you may not need to change a few things. You may need to change almost everything.

And by God’s grace, we can.

Yes, I had the advantage of moving to the other side of the planet. A mentor of mine recommended I intentionally use the disequilibrium that comes with such a major change-of-place to make other changes. That seemed to work for me.

But I think you can manufacture this to some extent too. Rearrange your home. Change the time you go to bed. Invite friends to pray for you (and join you!) in living differently. Set reminders in your phone for various elements of your new flow.

What is health for?

The last ingredient in the changes I made in 2014 was motivation. When I have simply felt that “I should” get healthy, I generally struggle. Habits are too strong, temptations too frequent, will power too flimsy.

Instead, I’ve started to think about the process of becoming healthy as merely making happen what should be, what is right. It is a series of small steps toward shalom, starting right with what I put in my mouth and what I do with the miraculous body that I am.

And these small steps enable bigger steps, in concentric circles. When we are energetic and strong and well-rested, we are better able to do good, to help others, to be kind, and to fulfill the high callings we have as Christians.

Image by Matt Kirk.

You might also be interested in these resources:

The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation

What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive


Adam Jeske has served in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa.

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