We unintentionally believe a lot of lies about our bodies. The lies fall to both extremes: on the one hand, that the human body is an object of worship, and on the other, that it’s a pointless vessel.
As a young athlete from the age of 10 through my college years, I heard the former lie as gospel truth. Then I began to hear new lies (more toward the latter) in Christian circles. Today, as a competitive marathon runner, and a coach to triathletes and marathoners in their 30s to 50s, I see that the lies never really go away.
To remember the truth about our bodies, it is worth our time to go to the One who thought of physical bodies, and then made them.
Lie: Only the Soul Matters
In a culture obsessed with image, we should be surprised at how often we are told that our bodies don’t matter. Even a casual viewing of Netflix will reveal story after story where the mind and soul transcend the body. Take one of my son’s favorite movies, Big Hero 6, which is a cartoon superhero movie about a band of geeky college students, with an adolescent boy and a robot named Baymax at the center of the team. The revolutionary things about Baymax are his programming and his soft pliable body. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), Baymax gives up his body so that his friends can live, but his programming chip is saved. The message is subtle: the body never really mattered; it was just about the soul—the programming.
This is a theme of many modern superhero stories. Every hero’s journey involves a first conflict in which the hero is finally freed from the shackles of their weak body to live as their heart compels them. It’s only the truly good superhero stories that have a second conflict in which the hero discovers how to marry their physical strength with their love for those they feel compelled to protect.
When we think our bodies don’t matter, we can start to believe we have a sort of golden ticket to do whatever we like to them or with them, be it engaging in harmful sexual experiences, abusing alcohol, overeating, under eating, taking drugs, smoking, or even not sleeping enough.
We can also be tempted to simply ignore our bodies. A Christian worldview has not immunized us from gluttony/excess and the neglect of health. Historically in Christian spirituality, investing in the temporary—our bodies included—has been looked down on. It has been about the programming, the eternal soul.
Truth #1: Self-Care Matters
This truth is grounded in the bedrock doctrines of incarnation and in the fact that we are created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 reminds us, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And in Jesus, God went so far as to reveal his image, which is our image, in himself, to us, as a physical human being (Colossians 1:15, 19; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
The divine image every one of us is created in is a gift from God, and should be taken care of as such. And since everything is a gift from God, we have a duel challenge: to care for the one body given to us, just as we may feel compelled to care for anything else that has been created by God. This means that, for the Christian, proper care of our bodies will be a reminder to steward our environment, our finances, and our campuses and communities, even though they too are temporary.
When we practice habits of self-care, we begin to see that we are stewarding a magnificently complex gift: our body. We are also opening ourselves to a primary means God has given us to engage with him. At their best, healthy attitudes toward rest, food, and exercise can bring a sense of balance, optimization, and joy. When I run—one of the ways I steward my body—there is a chance to play, while remembering I am more than a brain. This occurs when we are using our bodies toward exertion, whether on trails, in water, indoors, or under the sun.
Truth #2: Less Than Perfect Is Still Good
Before we continue to celebrate the virtues of our bodies, we should pause, because this is where many of us can begin to idolize self-care and youth to the detriment of emotional and physical health. We mistakenly feel justified in a compulsive drive toward perfection. I can start to conclude that if my skin color, height, shape, and age don’t align with the “ideal,” then as a person I am less useful or valuable. And if someone else is far from the “ideal,” then we might think they don’t matter either.
However, even in sickness we experience the grace and mercy of God while we rely on him for all. We can observe how our body heals from injury and eventually adapts to physical challenge. As our bodies adjust to stress, we can marvel at our uniqueness and that out of all of creation, we are the image bearers of God. And when they don’t heal, then we can remember our own frailty and the brevity of life.
This summer I will celebrate my 42nd birthday. The older I get the more I am reminded that I am getting further from prime time and from the target 18-34 demographic that all forms of media cater to. The truth is that all of our bodies are deteriorating and temporary. Time is still unbeaten. There is wisdom in considering that our earthly bodies are given a limited number of days. In frailty, I am reminded that my body is finite, and that my weight, marathon time, or image in the mirror is not the grand sum of my worth and identity.
A Better View
Toward the end of the apostle Paul’s days, as his body lay sore and beaten in prison, in his letter to the Philippians he says:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (1:20-24)
Paul’s body served him well as a vehicle for the gospel. Some estimates have Paul walking as many as 10,000 miles, and sailing thousands more. In the ancient world, a person could expect to travel 20 miles per day on foot. So even in the best of conditions, Paul’s three missionary journeys were staggering physical accomplishments.
Paul used the gift of the earthly body that God gave him to its total limit, but for eternal purposes. He did not try to preserve his life for vanity and personal glory. His example reminds us that our bodies are important, but they are not to be worshiped. Rather, they are to be used up. Therefore we act as stewards of our bodies, meeting God as we do so and working to become healthier so that we can serve him longer.