I wrote my first college paper on Hills Like White Elephants, succinctly summarizing my thoughts on Hemingway’s very-short short story in just one and a half double-spaced pages. Suffice it to say, my meager word count didn’t fly with my professor, who expected more from an English major, even a freshman. It felt ridiculous to write a paper nearly as long as the story I was writing about, but thankfully my professor gave me a second chance to do just that. It was a useful lesson for someone who had chosen a degree based on expository writing. By the end of my college career, I finally understood that the main skill provided by a degree in English is that of a milkmaid—you take a topic and squeeze from it every drop of nutrition available. When you think you’ve covered every angle possibly related to said topic, you give a few more pulls just to be sure.
I’ve often wondered if seminary develops this same skill. After decades listening to pastors spend anywhere from fifteen minutes to a several-month-long series breaking down the meaning of a handful of Bible verses, I recognize the familiar tricks. They unpack a big passage the same way I eventually wrote my college papers: start with a claim or thesis, then lower the topic to its basic foundations, walking audiences through every tangential scenario related to that claim. You get a lot of mileage out of something when you start at the ground and work up.
Author David Stine has definitely figured out this formula, which is on display in his book The Whole Life. It came as no surprise to learn he is a pastor, perhaps an English major, too. He certainly picked up the milkmaid skill somewhere. Not many people can write an entire book based on two short Bible verses. Yet somehow Stine pulled over two hundred pages worth of exposition from 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, which reads, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.”
How do those brief words become ten chapters? Stine argues that God desires his followers to have a well-balanced life. He takes the phrase “spirit and soul and body” as a command for believers to cultivate health in all aspects of their life, what he describes as “Whole Life Balance.” From there, he breaks the book into three sections—spirit, soul, and body—and shares personal anecdotes, research, and interviews related to each topic.
A Wake-Up Call
David Stine was a mega-church pastor in Washington, D.C. when a medical condition forced a wake-up call so extreme it forced him to step down from his role at the church he founded. He was ten years into D.C. Metro Church, which served the nation’s capital. At the time, his marriage was strained, he was constantly stressed from managing such a large organization, and he averaged only two hours of sleep per night. During a routine checkup, doctors flagged several concerns, which led to a battery of tests and eventually the diagnosis of Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune hyperthyroid disorder. Though Stine had unknowingly lived with the disease his whole life, it is a condition typically triggered by extremely stressful situations—something he couldn’t reconcile with his important position. Less than three months after his diagnosis, he had to resign from his church.
As a pastor, Stine had thrown himself into what he believed was God’s call. But his sole focus on spiritual concerns kept him from being being sanctified “wholly,” as 1 Thessalonians 5:23 describes.
“I was neglecting my soul and body,” Stine writes. “Thinking that concentrating on my spirit alone would solve all my burnout problems. It was an exercise in futility.”
Three Equal Parts
Although Stine’s error was in neglecting the body, he doesn’t assume the same tendency for all of his readers. More than just a book on physical health, The Whole Life uses 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 as a template for discussing the equal importance of spirit, soul, and body. This is not a book about a specific issue, but rather one of balance.
“While many in today’s society focus solely on the body and neglect the spirit,” Stine writes. “Many Christians do just the opposite, only focusing on our spiritual growth.”
The Whole Life is an interactive book with practical tips for each area of life—from anagrams to help readers remember the different aspects of prayer to a list of healthy breakfast choices. There are also comparisons of popular workout regimens and diet programs to help point readers to one that best fits their lifestyle and personality.
Stine spends a lot of time going back to the basics, spelling out Christian principles in a way that is easily digestible for those new to the faith but very familiar to those of us with a church background. Issues like: living for God’s approval instead of the approval of others, the importance of regular prayer and bible reading, the need for community in one’s life, and so on. Stine’s health tips are just as common: eat whole, unprocessed foods, avoid fast food restaurants, and practice portion control.
The Whole Life is a road map for those beginning a journey towards a healthy spiritual or physical life. The personal stories Stine shares make him immediately relatable, as a fellow traveler and not an intense workout trainer or perfect pastor. And this, of course, is the whole point of the milkmaid skill. It’s why we take deep looks at short passages—whether they are verses from the Bible or dialogue by Hemingway. Writers can easily tell us their point in three paragraphs, if they desire. But to show readers their meaning—to share, teach, empathize, and convince—takes someone willing to go back to the foundation and spend time with a thought. To remind readers not what we do, but the reasons why we do it.
Cover photo by Anna Dziubinska.