The amazing art of Rima Staines (click on picture to link to her site)
In part one of The Matter of the Body I shared that a great deal of the disdain Christians sometimes show towards all things physical is rooted, not in the robust spirituality offered in Christ, but in a perversion of that spirituality, which exalts the spirit and denigrates the physical realm. This has its roots more in Plato than Jesus, and as a result of it, sitting and praying viewed as more valuable than climbing a rock or playing soccer. Eating industrial food shot through with hormones and antibiotics is fine because its cheap and our bodies will become dust anyway so who cares?
God cares, that’s who—and you should, too. But I’ve already made that point in the previous post, so start there, with part one. Now it’s time for a little balance:
If the danger among Christ followers is that we ignore the body, the danger in our materialist western culture is that we idolize it, reducing the richness of a whole life to nothing more than the pursuit of physical prowess, sexual satisfaction, and a culturally defined standard of beauty. Tim Ferris’ most recent best-seller The 4 Hour Body feeds right into this lust. Ever the pragmatist, Ferris calls his disciples to a complex regime of vitamins, herbs, and chemicals, coupled with rather strict exercise regimes, all with a view towards maximizing strength and enjoying the youthfulness and beauty that comes with it. He’s “planning on living to 120…”
Maybe—but is that really the point? While our enjoyment and stewardship of the body is important, the pursuit of our culture’s “youth and beauty” fixation is terribly unhealthy. Eating disorders, exercise addiction, and a host of body image issues stem from our pursuit of perfectionist ideals. And we’ve not even begun talking about the depression rises in those who, for whatever reason, lose their health. We like to shut people away, out of the limelight, when they lose their luster, and as a result, our treatment of the elderly in our culture is abysmal, in spite of the fact that Bible tells us that gray hair is badge of honor. The highest office in the church is called “elder” for a reason.
So we need a paradigm that enables us to enjoy and care for our bodies without falling prey to the idolization of youth and beauty. Here are some truths that can keep this whole thing in balance:
1. The Universe is One. There’s no physical realm/spiritual realm. There’s a universe, and all of it belongs to God. But if the point of Part 1 was to suggest that body belongs to God, the point of Part 2 is to suggest that spirit belongs to God also. The Bible takes it even further, not by creating a dualism, but by explaining that our body will first decay and then be transformed, so that we can consider ourselves warned about the decay part and not panic when we creak upon rising at the age of 65 (or less…or more). Our spirit, on the other hand, can grow stronger and stronger in this life. That’s why Paul says spiritual discipline is so valuable. That’s why some of you reading this who run triathlons need to spend a little time each day reading your Bible, keeping a prayer journal, practicing solitude, even walking slowly instead of running so that you can absorb what God is teaching you through creation. Need help? I wrote about this here.
2. Our bodies are dust. This isn’t intended to lead to fatalism and neglect of the body. Instead, it’s intended to give body stewardship a sense of proportion by pointing out that people who exercise, eat well, sleep well, drink good pure water, have a strong social network, get their omega-3s, and do everything else right still die. Our organs carry lots of excess capacity and that capacity diminishes with use, so that eventually the one that gets weakest fastest fails. Good care of one’s body means we’re increasing our odds of living more days, and that that days were given, we’ll be more likely to be enjoy them. But something will happen—someday, that will bring down the curtain. We’re fools if we either believe otherwise, or fail to live today in the light of that reality.
3. Our world is fallen. It’s sad to say that in this fallen world, the right things don’t always lead to right outcome. My dad ran track, played basketball and baseball, never touched a cigarette or a drop of alcohol in his life, and died at the age of 53 of pneumonia, brought on by chronic lung disease. People would say to me, “Poor guy must have been a smoker eh?” and I wanted to hit them. Their comment reveals our obsession with formulas, how we like to believe that we can build a pain free world by just doing the right thing. I address that in this sermon, pointing out that formulaic living is a fantasy produced by our obsession with cause and affect. Stuff happens—and the good news is we have the tools to deal with it.
4. Our scars are OK. I have scars, physical, emotional, spiritual. You might too (might—hahaha). The older I get the more I’ve moved from loathing the scars, to accepting the scars to finally, agreeing with Paul, that our weakness, our scars, are creating a strength in us we wouldn’t otherwise have. That’s more than OK, that’s something to be celebrated.
How have you learned to make peace with your body and enjoy it, without idolizing it? I welcome your thoughts.