by Ian Reid
It’s that time of year again. The exercise and eating plan was put into effect. The regimen was working out well. I was going to the gym; I was being careful with what I ate; I was even cycling to and from university. Then something happened. Easter. Every year. With those Cadbury Creme Eggs and massive Toblerones. How can you resist ripping the head off of an Easter bunny? Every year it happens. I fall into a heap and end up putting on a few more kilos than when I started, and I’m addicted to chocolate (again). I try and try every year to get my body into shape, but I just can’t get it to work or look the way I want to. Many of us feel this. Our bodies aren’t what we really want them to be. I wish I were taller, thinner, younger, stronger, fitter, faster… If there were a body exchange program, many of us would happily trade this one in and get a new one.
Christians have for a long time had a strange relationship with their bodies. Some have denied the body; some have beaten it into submission; others have indulged it. We feel a tension between the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and the fact that training the body is only of ‘some use’ (1 Timothy 4:8). For many modern Christians, we’re confused about our bodies. While the surrounding culture grows obsessed with the body, many evangelicals have ignored it entirely. To our detriment, we have a gap in our theology of bodies.
Of course, my language itself here is problematic: I’m talking as if the body is somehow separate from me. But it’s not: as the Bible tells us, it’s part of what it means to be a human creature.
When we consider what it means to be an embodied human, we might start with God the Son, who wasn’t a body but became a body: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) Prior to the incarnation, you could possibly imagine that bodies were bad — that although God had created bodies good, the fall meant that they’d been subjected to decay and death, and so their goodness had disappeared. But the incarnation makes this negative view of the body impossible: God came and dwelt in a body! When you think about that long enough, it’s weird. Have you ever stared hard in the mirror and thought, “Wow, eyebrows are unnerving. Who would have thought that is what an ear should look like?” And yet the creator and sustainer of all things came and took on flesh: he was fully God and fully man. A perfect and good God couldn’t possible take on something that’s evil or bad. So the incarnation makes the clear and resounding statement: “Bodies are good”.
This statement isn’t just confined to the incarnation, however. The New Testament continues to show the goodness of bodies through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In Luke 24, after his resurrection, Jesus turns up unannounced and shows the disciples that he’s very alive and very fleshy. The disciples are weirded out (as you would be when your dead friend suddenly appears in a room with you): “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” But Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (verses 37–39) Jesus (and Luke) is at pains to convince his disciples that he was raised in the flesh.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, Paul explains to his friends that Jesus rose bodily: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (15:20) He goes on: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (15:42–44) Paul’s correcting a common view of the time that the body is something to escape. (He’s mocked for the idea of a bodily resurrection in Athens in Acts 17.) The Scripture promises that, far from escaping our material existence, we’ll enjoy a resurrection body that’ll last forever. Our bodies will be changed in some ways, but on the whole their nature and character will be the same (just like Jesus’ body). Jesus still bears the scars of his death even after his resurrection: he’s changed, but there’s a continuity, too. Paul calls our new bodies ‘spiritual bodies’ — they’re real, physical, tangible bodies, but they’re filled with God’s Spirit, glorifying him in every way.
If we’re to keep our bodies into the new creation, this affects how we value them now: again, they’re good. Oliver O’Donovan, a Christian ethicist and theologian, calls this “the vindication of creation”: what God created as good (including our bodies) is still good now and will continue to be good into the new creation.
We’ve touched on a couple of Biblical truths about bodies, and these should change the concrete details of our lives as we seek to glorify God. To begin with, a right appreciation of how God has made us blows away what we commonly think of as ‘a good body’. We’re constantly pummelled by images of what the world sees as perfect bodies. This makes us desperately unsatisfied with what God has given us. When we start to see our bodies as God does, we realize that they really are of high value, even if the world doesn’t think so. God values them so much that he took on one himself, died to redeem ours, and ensures that we’ll continue in bodily form into the new creation. This means our bodies really matter now. It also means we should be thankful for them.
God is a giver of good things and one of those things is our body. Our immediate response should be one of gratitude. Lord, thank you for making me bodily and thank you for giving me the body you gave me. What will that lead me to do? My lifestyle will reflect the fact that my body isn’t my own: it’s to be given in thankfulness to God — given to loving him and loving others. My body will be used to lead a life of righteousness (Romans 6:13). This will also include good food and sufficient exercise, because I know this gift needs to be treated in the way that the giver designed. For those whose body ‘isn’t as it should be’, there should be both joy in who they are, and also hope in the new creation. How I use my body in relation to other bodies will also be transformed. It might change the way that I dress (for some of us, that might mean a wash and a haircut; for others, it might mean dressing less provocatively). If I’m married, my body is no longer my own, but given in service of another (1 Corinthians 7:4). And I won’t see others just as bodies, but as whole persons who are a gift from God. Gratitude pushes us to glorify God as joy and thankfulness flow out of our hearts and change the way that we use our bodies.
In our culture, it’s so tempting to get this wrong. Some of us worship our bodies, using them for our own glory rather than God’s. We want to look better, attract that boy or girl, or secure that promotion. Others of us find this just too hard (“I can never reach that level of physical perfection!”) and so we abuse our bodies in various ways, rather than looking after God’s good gift. Either way, we’re allowing the culture to influence too heavily how we use our bodies: we’re not mindful enough of how to lead embodied lives for God’s glory.
When our efforts are for God’s glory, our motivation is eternal and springs from true understanding and from gratitude. We’re thankful to God and try to please him, the Giver of Good Things — even eyebrows and ears.
Ian is married to Erin and has two young sons. They live in Palmerston North, New Zealand, where Ian is the Regional Team Leader for Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship. He enjoys good TV series, punk rock, and going for long swims along the beach.