A few weeks after returning to work from maternity leave, I got an assignment for the Today show, which involved travel to Washington, D.C. The story was about a pastor who held church in movie theaters. Being a new mom, I didn't want to be far from my baby, on a Sunday, no less. Frankly, I also wasn't very interested in the story. I didn't want to go, but I didn't have a good reason to turn it down. I agreed.
I printed out my research and read it on the train to D.C. The pastor's name was Mark Batterson. While reading his bio, I realized that he'd recently written The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears.
I bought a copy to read on my trip home.
I didn't grow up with any particular faith. My mother is Baptist, my father agnostic. We never went to church. I went to Catholic mass with my grandmother just once, and found it terribly boring. But I was always certain–alway–that there was a God. I just had no clue how to get in touch with Him.
I started reading the Bible, and along the way I fell in love with God. Crazily, madly, head over heels in love. Most of what I knew about religion had been misperceptions based on stereotypes. This was nothing like that. It felt pure. I felt my spirit move within me for the very first time ever.
Part of the reason my faith means so much to me is that I had to come to it on my own. I felt lost and without answers for so long that now I am tremendously grateful to have spiritual footing. But I am not perfect. I'm human. While most days my faith is strong, from time to time, it gets tested. I'll be filled with questions that I can't find answers to, not in the Bible and not through prayer, and it's discouraging, causing me to wonder if God's promises are in fact real. That's the state of mind I was in when I began reading Pastor Mark's book.
One of the biggest struggles I was having at the time was about prayer. My issue was that I had already been blessed with so much in life, that I felt guilty about praying for more. It seemed greedy and ungrateful. Of course, there were things I wanted in life, but I went about pursuing them on my own, which left me feeling guilty for not seeking God. I felt trapped. Couldn't move forward. Couldn't move back.
I don't believe in coincidences. In this case that was more clear than ever. The whole reason for me being assigned that particular story was so I could read that particular book. God found a way to get me the answers I needed.
I devoured The Circle Maker in a matter of days, underlining passages as I went, writing notes in the back. One of them was on the concept of fasting. While the book is about prayer, it also makes the point that "fasting is a form of praying hard." I had never thought of it that way.
After finishing the book, I was determined to put it into practice. Now feeling free to fully pray for what I wanted, I had to ask myself a question: Well, what do you want? Doing that was like opening up a floodgate. All of my privately held desires came pouring out. One of them was that I wanted to get my weight under control once and for all. I wanted to feel good about myself. I wanted to accomplish what I never had before. I wanted to vanquish my demons. That had always seemed impossible to me before. Now, I felt I had an avenue to get there: fasting and prayer.
Those first 40 days without my poisons wasn't just a detox. It was also a spiritual fast. That's why I chose 40 days, the same amount of time Jesus fasted in the desert. This was different than anything I'd done before. In the past, I'd prayed to God for help. This time I was making a vow. The responsibility was mine. During that time I didn't touch any of my poisons at all. Not one morsel. Not one crumb. It was excruciating. It was beyond painful. The only thing that got me through was that vow. I didn't want to let God down.
Changing a lifestyle, overcoming an addiction, abstaining from one of the most powerful and constant forces in your life is remarkably, ridiculously hard. That's why so many of us have failed, time and time again. If you are a person of faith, draw on it in the face of this challenge. That's what faith is for, to sustain us through hardship. God wants you to be happy. He also wants you to be healthy. In fact, that's one of the most meaningful ways to honor the creation that is you. As I've gotten more fit, I've come to marvel at the human body, and all it's capable of. This continues to be a spiritual journey for me. Every single time I begin an exercise—my first strokes on a bike, my initial steps on a treadmill —I silently thank God for allowing me to be there, moving without pain or injury, getting stronger, honoring His creation.
So what if you're not a person of faith? Are you destined to fail? Absolutely not. Everyone has some higher power. Everyone. Maybe you make a private vow to your children, promising to do everything you can to be there for them as long as possible. Maybe it's a vow to a deceased parent, saying, "Mama, this is for you. I'm going to do better now." We all have something we hold sacred.
My physical changes have been facilitated and accompanied by countless spiritual ones. That manifests itself in all kinds of ways, down to my breathing. Yes, breathing. One of the key things to manage during exercise is your breath. Whether my heart rate is on its way up or slowly coming down, I'm monitoring my breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth, until I feel okay, settled into a new rhythm. Now, in life, I do the same thing constantly. When something is upsetting, I instinctively start to breathe. Deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, until I feel okay, settled into a new rhythm. I've started doing yoga for the sole purpose of lovingly caring for my mind and my body, stretching my muscles, slowing down my mind, physical and spiritual exercise in one. I do lots of other things that keep me spiritually fit and have nothing to do with my physical self, from writing in a journal, to reading the Bible or a good novel, to just sitting quietly for a time. All of those things are about caring for my spiritual self. And they all keep me from the food.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of ESSENCE Magazine, on newstands now!