Western culture and society, and all those influenced by them, have a love-hate relationship with the body.
By all accounts and appearances Western culture loves the physical body and its desires. Everywhere we look it seems we find an alluring figure selling us everything from chewing gum to automobiles. People give full expression to the desires of the body in terms of consumption of food, drink, and drugs as well as sex. Billions of dollars are spent for makeup, surgeries, gym memberships, and health products in the drive to obtain the perfect body.
The drive for the “perfect body” manifests a strong hatred in Western culture for bodies as they are in reality. Many people deemed “beautiful” by society wear so much makeup that you would not recognize them without it. The images we see in advertisements are “Photoshopped”; even the people whose bodies are ostensibly on display do not really look that “good”! All of us, men and women alike, judge our bodies according to these impossible standards, and therefore all of our bodies fail miserably to reach the standard. We incessantly focus on our “flaws” and “imperfections”; precious few have a positive view of their body. Furthermore, no matter how well or poorly we treat our bodies, as we age, the body begins to decay and fail at many of its functions; we are not able to function the way we did before; we feel as if our bodies are letting us down. Western culture and society upholds ideal bodies; any body not near the ideal, on account of appearance, size, age, or disability, is disparaged, dishonored, and marginalized. “We” don’t want to see such things!
All Christians who live in Western culture or society are subject to this love-hate relationship with the body; this is proving increasingly true for Christians in other cultures and societies as well on account of the strong influence of Western media. How, then, should Christians navigate these cultural trends? How should Christians view and treat the body?
Christians do well to understand how both paganism and Greek philosophy, especially from Plato, lay underneath Western cultural assumptions and beliefs about the body, and they ought to reject both of them. The influence of Greek philosophy proves pernicious, even among those who profess to follow the Lord Jesus; it is manifest in quotes as the following: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This quote is often attributed to C.S. Lewis, but more likely comes from George MacDonald. It seems spiritual and thus well and good but it is really Gnosticism, a Christian form of Greek philosophy, repudiated by Scripture. Embodiment is essential for the human experience; we are not humans with bodies, but humans because we have bodies. The breath of life with which God inspired Adam was not human; when the breath of life was breathed into the body which God had made, Adam became human (Genesis 2:7). The Word of God was not human before He took on flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth; at that point He became human, the Son of Man, and in His resurrection maintains a transformed body and thus remains human (John 1:1, 14, Acts 7:55-56, Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Timothy 2:5). For good reason David praised YHWH for how wonderfully and fearfully he was made; and what did God make but his body (Psalm 139:13-16)?
Therefore God has made us as human beings with bodies; not only did He make humans as a category, but His hand was involved in the shaping of us as individuals. Yes, because of sin and death our bodies have been corrupted, and we likely all suffer from physical challenges, disabilities, and “imperfections” (cf. Romans 5:12-20, 8:19-24). And yet each of us can glorify God in our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). We can appreciate our differences without judgment or condemnation, recognizing that all have different abilities that can be used to serve one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 4:10-11). We do not need to fear or hate our bodies because they do not reflect some impossible or unsustainable standard; yes, our bodies not only manifest imperfections but will decay and die, but our hope remains in the resurrection and transformation of these lowly physical bodies for eternity in Jesus, the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Philippians 3:20-21). God did not give us bodies to oppress us or to cause us constant distress and grief; instead, being in the body is an essential aspect of being human, and Christians do well to reflect good stewardship of the bodies which God has given them (1 Timothy 4:8).
Nevertheless for good reason did Paul speak of sin in humans in terms of the flesh: so much of our difficulties with sin revolve around the satisfaction of bodily desires (Galatians 5:17-24; cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Too many in Western culture reflect the decadence consistent with paganism: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32; cf. Romans 1:18-32). Excessive living is “in”: excessive exercise, excessive eating, excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol, and/or excessive expressions of sexuality fueled by pornography. God’s will for the Christian is sanctification, manifest according to 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 by abstaining from sexually deviant behavior and possessing his or her “vessel,” or body, in sanctification and honor, and not in the passions of lust. Therefore Christians must maintain self-control and self-discipline in all things: avoiding all sexually deviant behavior, indeed, but also manifesting healthy and moderate behavior in terms of food, drink, and exercise.
In a culture of excess God calls the Christian to moderation and sobriety. The Christian ought not be excessively devoted to the body; neither should the Christian hate the body, ignore it, or act as if it is unnecessary. Christians do well to recognize that to be human is to be in the body, and we do well to act as good stewards of the bodies God has given us, establishing healthy disciplines in terms of food, drink, and exercise. But Christians also know the body will decay and die no matter how well they take care of their bodies, and their hope and trust must be in God in Christ for the resurrection when we will no longer experience suffering, pain, or decay, but enjoy eternity in transformed bodies. May we live so as to obtain the resurrection of life and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry