By: Chris Howell
“God can’t use you if you’re dead.” I always chuckle a little bit to myself when I remember these words, which were pronounced during a sermon by a former professor.
He would come from time to time and preach to the church that I attended in Dallas. I forget the details of the sermon, but his point in making this statement was not to deny the impact of those who have been martyred for the Christian faith, nor to imply that the Holy Spirit is somehow limited by our finite bodies. His point was simply: the degree to which we take care of ourselves as believers has a direct impact on what we can physically accomplish for God.
While I think my former professor is right, I also acknowledge that his statement makes some Christians uncomfortable, probably for two reasons. For one, most teaching on Christian theology and sanctification (becoming more like Jesus) focuses on the mind and the heart, the immaterial aspect of what it means to be human, while ignoring or at least diminishing the role of the health of our physical bodies. In its extreme, this represents a form of Gnosticism: that salvation comes through intellectual enlightenment, through use of the mind which is good, as compared to the body, which is inherently bad. It echoes the abuses of the platonic ideal which viewed the body as the prison of the soul, which is set free at death.
This dichotomy of the body and the mind is not found in Scripture. To the contrary, God calls his creation, including humans, and including the bodies that humans inhabit, good. While the body doesn’t necessarily represent God physically, because he is Spirit (John 4.24), it is the form that He chose for us to live out His image. It is the form that is designed to be on the earth and the form, albeit glorified, that will live eternally on the new earth.
First Corinthians 6 is often quoted in support of the importance of the body. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” In this context Paul is speaking specifically to the desecration of the body that occurs when believers engage in sexual immorality. Basically, “you need to stop sleeping with prostitutes because that is not what your body is meant for.” It belongs to God and is to be used for his purposes. Whereas the Corinthians thought the indwelling of the Spirit meant negation of the body, Paul argues the exact opposite: the presence of the Spirit in their bodily existence is affirmation of the body. As a result, we should take care of our God–given bodies.
The second reason my professor’s statement makes many people (including me) uncomfortable is probably because most of American culture is designed to maximize our comfort and minimize any physical or technological inconvenience, much less suffering. This is not to say that comfort and convenience are inherently bad, but we often pursue these fleeting ideals at the expense of the health of our bodies.
The convenience of prepackaged and fast food along with sugar laden refreshments has resulted in America deserving its rank as among the most obese countries in the world. The ease with which we have access to entertainment argues strongly for a life spent largely in a comfortable chair, reclining on a couch, or simply in bed. The immediate gratification of the Internet leads many people to indulge in seemingly uncontrollable appetites (and addictions in some cases) for gambling, pornography, or the intellectual equivalent of fast food: social media. Ironically, access to 24 hour gyms and the pressures of a media rich culture provide fertile ground for other forms of addiction: working out to the point of physical exhaustion, as well as the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ which risks perpetuating an inflated sense of self worth if not outright narcissism.
All of these abuses represent different aspects of disordered worship. Instead of worshiping God we are worshiping the creation in some sense, with devastating effects. What’s more, these abuses of the body can’t be simply compartmentalized; what you do with your body affects your mind and spirit, a perspective that finds broad acceptance both within and beyond the Christian community. While different approaches to wellness abound, most healthcare professionals would agree that the material (body) and immaterial (mind/spirit/soul) always act on each other:
“communion with God revives physical energy; chemical imbalances in the brain’s neurotransmitters depress the soul/spirit; and a depressed spirit reduces the body’s ability to control tissue inflammation.” James Beck and Bruce Demarest, The Human Person in Theology and Psychology
“we daily experience the counterproductive influence of the body’s fatigue on the accomplishment of inward purposes, and this calls for repeated refreshment breaks, exercise, and rest. The disciples had intended to watch and pray with Jesus in Gethsemane. Instead they fell asleep. That happened, Jesus explained, because though “the spirit is willing… the body is weak” (Matt 26.41). Paul’s physical limitation kept him from becoming conceited (2 Cor 12.7). Although the spirit has radically different qualities from those of the body, the condition of the body affects the spirit in different ways.” Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology, Vol 2,
Five years ago, our family learned firsthand the impact of physical health on one’s ability to serve and pursue God’s call for our lives. My wife was diagnosed with a very severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. Suddenly this athletic woman who ran five days a week, worked as a children’s minister, played in a band, and tirelessly served her kids and husband was knocked down with chronic pain, fatigue and malaise. Her ability to do ministry was greatly hampered. Fortunately today she is doing better, but God used this experience to force us to reevaluate how we went about taking care of our bodies.
So how should Christians approach an understanding of the importance of their body? Well, at the very least, and from personal experience, I can tell you that what you do with your body matters. It matters not only because of the consequences you may experience; it matters because your body is not your own. It was purchased when Jesus died on the cross along with your mind, spirit, and soul. The Bible constantly exhorts us to remain fit, in every sense of the word, so that we might be of the utmost service to the kingdom of God (Eccl 9.9-10; Col 3.17, 23-24; 1 Peter 4.7). So it matters what we look at, what we read, what we eat, how much we sleep, what medications we put in our bodies, how much leisure we afford (or don’t afford) ourselves, and the list goes on. Our family’s lifestyle has changed dramatically for the better because of my wife’s illness. Our renewed attention to fitness has not resulted in an obsession with ourselves or our appearance. It has resulted in worship and appreciation of God’s gift to us in the form of our health, and a greater respect for our bodies as vessels made for service to Him.
The goal of being fit as a Christian is not to attain a certain weight, preoccupy ourselves with our physical appearance, obsess about diets or spending habits, or create legalistic rules about leisure or recreation that rob us of enjoying the blessing of God’s creation. The goal is to live a life of worship, acknowledging the gift we have each day to use our entire being, that is body, spirit and soul, to the glory of God and for his purposes. So in whatever form it takes for you, glorify God in your body!