What do we do with the body? This isn’t a line from Dexter. It’s no part of a murder mystery plot. This is a question about us.
We all have bodies. They are the way we are present to each other, the way we show up in the world. But at the same time, we have a sense of some unbodily part of ourselves—a soul, a spirit, something inside and different from our skin.
This article is part of a fall wellness series RELEVANT is producing in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
Faith seems to be something on the spiritual side of things. Many of us have a sense that what’s “on the inside” is what really matters about a person. And whether we accept that or not, we still have this question we have to answer, what do we do with the body?
Do Bodies Matter to Our Spirit?
One answer is the reply I heard in the churches in which I grew up: The body is a shell, a vehicle for your journey on earth until the bus to heaven comes. In this line of thinking, the body is only a temporary skin that will burn with everything else on earth. What really matters, I was taught, is the spirit, the soul, that ephemeral side of the self that is pure and godly.
This view is dangerously close to the heresy of Gnosticism. This belief, popular in the days of early Christianity, claimed that the body and all material reality are evil. For Gnostics, the spiritual is what is good, so the way to gain salvation is to move toward a purely spiritual state. The body is something we must transcend.
Early Christian theologians rejected this view as they defined the borders of orthodox belief. These early brothers and sisters saw in Genesis a creation God called “very good,” a creation that includes physical bodies. While they agreed that the material stuff of the world had been corrupted, they could not agree to say that what God had called good was really the source of all evil.
There was also the key idea of the incarnation. In this belief, God took on a body with real human flesh in the person of Jesus. These early theologians saw this as a work by which Christ was renewing creation, restoring the bodily life through resurrection. Christ’s mission was not to rescue spirits for an ephemeral heaven, but rather to bring resurrection to a created order that had been trapped by the powers of Death. For Christians, the body is not a thing to transcend, but to resurrect.
Embracing God’s Design
So what do we do with the body? We follow Christ into our own incarnation. We must embrace our bodies as a part of the creation Christ came to redeem and restore.
How do we do this? First we must accept our bodies as gifts from God, gifts whose value has already been given. Whatever the messages echoing from the grocery store magazine rack might claim, all bodies are good bodies, even if some bodies are broken or diseased or not living into their full flourishing.
Like the creation on which these bodies are dependent, Christ’s work is to restore and redeem this brokenness. We must remember, the body’s goodness is its true and everlasting reality; our brokenness is a temporary truth that will not always be so.
As a part of this truth, we must balance the various parts of ourselves—mind, body and spirit—so that we can live into the flourishing of our whole selves. This means that, at times, we must say no to our desires in order to care for the health of our bodies.
For example, there are times when my mind and spirit long to stay up late binge-watching Breaking Bad. My body, on the other hand, longs for the sleep it needs. It is important here to listen to my body.
The same goes in eating food. There are times when I crave food even when my body is telling me it is full or when I long for sugar when I know that won’t fulfill the needs of my body. We must listen to our bodies and our whole selves in balance so that one side doesn’t overwhelm the other.
Understanding the Influence
We should also learn to understand how our bodies influence our spiritual lives and vice versa. For example, I find that it is easier to pray, live into my faith, and care for others when I am well rested. While waking early for a “quiet time” is important, don’t do it at the expense of your sleep. Your prayer life will benefit from an earlier bedtime if you aren’t getting eight hours.
Another way to embrace our incarnation is to become more aware of our bodies. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but some of the best are in exercises like Olympic weightlifting, yoga or running. Each of these forms of exercise, if done properly, forces us to pay close attention to they way we move our bodies. Avoid mindless exercises, especially ones that allow you to watch TV while moving. Distracted exercise helps reinforce the divide between our bodies and spirits by occupying our minds with one thing while our bodies do something else. Stick to exercise that unifies rather than divides.
Finally, we live into our incarnation when we embrace the creation on which we are dependent. This is especially true when it comes to our food. In almost every case, what is best for our bodies is also best for the creation as a whole. This means that we should eat meat only from animals raised on pasture rather than confinement operations, eat vegetables grown on a small scale using organic practices, and buy both, whenever possible, from local farmers.
With these practices, we can begin to embrace the gift of God’s very good creation—our bodies and the Earth. It is time to say yes to the incarnation, especially our own. In this, we join in the hope, not of a heaven by and by in they sky, but in a new creation that is already breaking forth, even in our own flesh.
Ragan Sutterfield is the author of This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey Into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. A native Arkansan sojourning in Northern Virginia, he seeks to live the good life with his wife and two daughters.