Six Pack

Posted on January 28, 2011

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I once bought a book on how to have six-pack abs.  I wish I hadn’t.

For one, the book is a bright orange color, so there’s no hiding it on my bookshelf.  I can’t wedge it between ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and a collection of Flannery O’Connor stories and act like I’ve never seen it before.  This book will not stay un-seen.  It’s a glowing, spring-loaded eyesore that leaps from the shelf and tackles you with its presence, like an irradiated Great Dane.  It’s a freshly landed meteorite from the “You Bought WHAT?” galaxy.  You can’t miss it.

For another, it was also a waste of money.  As it turns out, having a six pack is virtually impossible.  According to the book, here is the foolproof, three step process to carve out a six-pack:

1) eat a low fat diet, heavy on the fruits, vegetables and protein smoothies.

2) during a workout, target your core with exercises- twists, crunches, rippers- that sound like names for doughnuts.

3) be one of the .001% of the population genetically predisposed to have the body fat of a hummingbird.

This is where Operation Six Pack breaks down for me, because the only thing I am genetically predisposed to is eating Qdoba burritos in both hands.  So now I basically own a giant encyclopedia of body image issues.

What I didn’t learn from the book was just what exactly the purpose of having a six-pack is.  The book’s major selling point seemed to be “if you have a six-pack, whenever you want, you can look at your six pack!”.  Which I understand.  Everybody wants to look good in the mirror, or at the beach, or when they’re DJ’ing at their favorite club as their ‘job’ on a reality show.  A six pack helps with that because it’s like a werewolf:  it only occurs when the conditions are perfect, and it usually ends up with no shirt on.

But athletically speaking, I don’t exactly see the point in toned abs, and the book didn’t answer this either.  Of course having a strong core can’t hurt athletic performance, but I’ve never heard any athlete point to their six pack as the reason for anything, besides how they can look like an Under Armour mannequin at a sporting goods store.

REPORTER: Lamar, you played an incredible game tonight.  What gets the credit for your dominating performance?

PLAYER: It was my six pack, Carl.  That’s where the magic came from.

REPORTER: Your abs?

PLAYER:  The deep waves, absolutely Carl.  Specifically the right middle one.  He was really working hard tonight.  He carried me out there.

REPORTER: I wasn’t aware that your abs had any role to play in how well you shot the three.

PLAYER:  Oh yeah.  Hootie, last night he was telling me, ‘Tomorrow night’s my night, baby.  I’m feeling a triple-double.’  And I told him, okay, we’ll do some extra side planks just for you.  And they really paid off.

REPORTER:  Your left middle ab’s name is Hootie?

PLAYER:  That’s right.  Daniel-San, Swayze, and Rutherford B. on the right, and then the left side is all Blowfish, up and down.

REPORTER:  And did the other abs have any role to play tonight?

PLAYER:  Some.  Top right and bottom left were helping me on the offensive glass, just with where to get position and stuff.  The other three actually didn’t play; they endorse Capri-Sun juice drinks and tonight’s game was sponsored by Sunkist.

REPORTER:  You can force certain abs to function and others not to?

PLAYER: I’m a remarkable man, Carl.

So the book mostly turned out to be a flop.  But I did learn one thing from it:  what six packs have to do with how we treat shame.

See, nobody pursues chiseled abs because they feel right about their body and are satisfied with the way it looks.  No, a six-pack happens because of a desire to perfect our physical appearance.  This perfecting instinct grows from the root idea that we’re wrong somehow.  We’re less attractive than we should be, we think, and our current physical condition is something to be insecure about.  Magazines and movie stars and infomercials tell us that they can remedy the shame we feel- and so we give ourselves a six-pack.

The shame doesn’t have to be only physical, either.  When I was a kid I had an  “active imagination”, which is parent code for “lies constantly”.  I once told everyone at my church that I was going to visit my friend in St. Louis, even though I didn’t know anyone there. I told our next door neighbor that I’d been traded from one team to another in exchange for two other players- in Little League. I once bragged that I had every video game system in existence, but nobody was allowed over to play them because my mom didn’t like people messing up the house.  What?

I did this because I felt ashamed of who I was.  Who knows why- I personally blame the bowl cut and the glasses- but for whatever reason, I decided that I wasn’t good enough, or cool enough, and that the only way to make up for that was by inventing someone better. I lied to cover up my shame at being worse than I wanted to be.  I tried to give myself a six-pack.

Six-packs are our default method for dealing with shame.  Adam and Eve set the template in Eden when they hid from God (Gen 3), and we have been following that playbook ever since.  So God provides all the covering we’ll need in the sacrificial death of Jesus (Colossians 1:22).  Jesus deals with our shame by taking it upon himself.  In return, he covers us with his perfect obedience.  Jesus gives us his six-pack.

The twist on a six-pack is this:  even if I had one, I’d be too ashamed to admit it to anyone.  Because if people saw my rock-hard core, they’d know that I spent hours in the gym crafting it, reading books about it, and just generally wasting my life in pursuit of something shallow.  They’d know that I bought into the idea that I can’t really feel good about my body without great abs.  Suddenly, the six-pack isn’t a blessing, but a curse- what once covered my shame becomes what I’m too ashamed to admit I’m covered by.

For us as Christians, sometimes the double bind on our life in Jesus is the same.  In Christ’s death our forgiveness is secured, our sins covered.  The shame in our heart is vaporized by the reality of God’s love. We find covering that’s more powerful than good works or superstition, and the gospel ushers us into a life unhindered by insecurity.  It really is good news.

But then something happens:  shame returns.  We hear what the world whispers about Christians- they’re intolerant, hypocritical, intellectually backwards, they believe ridiculous things about floods and boats and serpents.  Our imagination takes over- if anyone ever found out that we follow Jesus, they might think less of us.  “You’re a Christian?  Wow, I thought you were normal until I found out about your imaginary friend.  You must be really messed up if you need that crutch to make it through life.  Eww, you’re not going to try to witness to me at all, are you?  I don’t want to join your little book club.”

In these moments, we understand how it felt after Jesus died.

To be Peter at the campfire, humiliated, shaken from prior certainty (Mark 8), now saying, “I told you, woman, I do not know him!” (Luke 22).

To be the chagrined men on the Emmaus road, who “had hoped [Jesus] was the Messiah….” (Luke 24).

To be the disciples, huddled together in terror that the Jews would find them and hurt them (John 20).

Each of them, no doubt, felt foolish that the man they’d believed in was just as powerless as the next so-called prophet.  Everyone else was right.  They were fools and laughingstocks.  And now they had nothing.

But Jesus’ resurrection proved that he was not just another six-pack.  “Look at my hands.  Look at my feet.  You can see that it’s really me,”  Jesus says to the apostles.  “Touch my body and see that I am not a spirit.”

This experience with the Risen Christ resolves, for them, the tension of who reigns in this world.  Their peers?  No.  Their culture?  No.  Their philosophers?  No.  Who can make them feel ashamed for following this resurrected Jesus?  No one.  So they “worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy.”  And it is the same for us.

God’s grace to us in Jesus is that He balances out shame on both sides of the salvation equation.  He provides both a lamb who dies and and a Lord who lives.  No longer does shame dominate our past, or dictate our future.  Jesus’ blood covers one; His life covers the other.

I can’t say that I’ll never try to get a six-pack again.  I’m an extremely slow learner.  But if I ever do, I’ll try to remember that Jesus is the one who saves me, and not anything else.  The only thing I can feel ashamed over is my orange book.

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