Body Talk: Is there a Christian Way to Think About Our Bodies?

By Judy Paulsen
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The first time I encountered the term eating disorder I was about twelve and read a letter addressed to Dear Abby, a syndicated advice column published in many North American newspapers. The letter was from the mother of a teenage girl who thought she was fat even though she was dangerously skinny. The woman’s daughter had stopped eating much of anything, and the mom was sick with worry. The term anorexia nervosa was, as yet, relatively new to many people.

I couldn’t get my head around the scenario described in this letter. I came from a family of six kids who all dug heartily into the food my mom put on the table. If there was any tension at dinner time it involved maintaining that delicate balance between getting what your eyes so desired and not seeming so eager that you received the gentle but firm reprimand, “Make sure there’s enough left for others.” I couldn’t fathom the struggle the teenage girl was experiencing. 

A common struggle

But when I was twenty, I found out that my best friend had been suffering with an eating disorder for years and hadn’t told me. This news came as a punch in the gut because I thought we told each other everything. It only served to emphasize the shame and isolation she must have felt. I thank God she got professional help and has since learned to manage her relationship with food and with her own image of her body. But I continue to see women of all ages struggling with feelings that their bodies aren’t what they used to be, or should be, or could be if they just worked harder, or perhaps had a little help from the latest diet, a few shots of Botox, a facelift, liposuction, the $400 anti-aging cream, hair extensions, microdermabrasion treatments, or a wee “nip and tuck.”

This desire to have a “better” body is beyond a desire for better health. It seems to arise from a shame for the bodies we have, and a passion to conform to an idealized norm. Recently, supermodel Cindy Crawford quipped about the digitally enhanced images of herself, saying, “Even Cindy Crawford can’t compete with Cindy Crawford.” Is it any wonder we have women of all ages suffering under the weight of negative images of their own bodies?

In what ways might this state of affairs be related to a spiritual issue? Could our desire to look differently than we do, in some way, be one more repercussion of that age-old human assertion of our autonomy from our Creator? Could it even be a form of idolatry? Or perhaps simple vanity? To suggest that seems cruel when most women are pummeled every day with advertising images and messages of what constitutes the perfect body. But whatever forces are at fault, a shocking number of women of every age struggle with a negative view of their physical selves.

What if a Christian view of the body could help people make peace with their bodies? What if we could learn to live counter-culturally (in terms of body image) as Christians? 

Created in the image of God

Not surprisingly, Scripture has quite a lot to say about the body, for God clearly cares about us as holistic beings. Our bodies are not just unfortunate appendages attached to our spiritual selves. Our bodies are part of a whole package of physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual components that makes us who we are, as people created in the image of God.

Drawing on the riches of Scripture here are a few ways we might begin to develop a distinctly Christian understanding of our bodies, and so practice some new, counter-cultural, and healthier habits. 

Make it a practice to attend to the blessings of the body you have been given and give thanks for it.

Consider the aspects of your body that you are most thankful for. Reflect on these and be grateful for them.

Consider the complexity of your visual system, or the extraordinary way we localize sound, or the way your reflexes protect you, or the way your brain smoothly commands volitional movement of your muscles. Meditate on the amazing way your body takes in oxygen and sends it to every cell via your respiratory and vascular systems. Give thanks for your digestive tract that keeps you energized, and your reproductive organs, with the power to bring new life into the world. Your body is so much more than a set of measurements or a reflection in a mirror. Each of us is a wonder of creation.

For meditation:              

"I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." (Psalm 139:14) 

Care for your body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. 

While our society obsesses about the physical beauty and athletic prowess of human bodies at their “peak” (roughly lasting only one decade or less, for most of us), Scripture speaks of an amazing value in our bodies right across the full spectrum of our lives. Whether young or old, our bodies are meant to be the home of God’s Spirit; poured into us for the flourishing of both us and the whole world. No matter how beautiful or ugly the culture sees our bodies, God apparently sees them as sacred spaces in which He can reside.

For mediation:                

"Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Resist the idols of our age-related to the body; a narrowly defined physical perfection.

Consider it a counter-cultural act to refuse to pay homage to the false idols set up by the beauty and fashion industry. While there’s no harm in enjoying a haircut or a new outfit, we need to resist our culture’s focus on externals over and above things like a character that displays the traits that God values most.

For meditation:              

"Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight." (1 Peter 3:3-4)

See the images of the body promoted by much of the advertising industry for what they are, the promotion of products, and choose to live more simply, spending less time focusing on their definition of what makes a “perfect ten.”

Make simplicity something that extends into care for our body. Pare your wardrobe down; donate lesser-used items. Resist buying yet another hair product or face cream that promises to “renew and rejuvenate in 2 weeks.” Consider instead how you might spend a little more time focusing on things of the heart: thanking God for who He is, reaching out to someone lonely, or simply meditating on the beauty of creation. Cultivate a grateful heart.

For meditation:              

"But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Reflect on the best way to honour God with our body.

Scripture describes our bodies as intricately involved in our worship of God. But it is not talking simply about what we’re doing with our bodies when we gather on a Sunday morning. Plainly put, Scripture understands worship as the whole of our lives. Everything we do with our bodies can be offered up in service to God, particularly when it involves serving others. So, while our society grants special honours to people displaying particular forms of beauty or fitness, we honour God as our Creator, by offering Him our bodies and living for Him.

For meditation:              

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship." (Romans 12:1) "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10) 

Reflect on the mystery of the eternal body you will one day enjoy.

One of the cruelest consequences of vanity is that it grasps for that which simply cannot be held onto for long. We are all aging, as our bodies increasingly remind us over time. But Scripture reminds us that the forces of aging and decay don’t get the last word. As Christians we look forward to that mysterious Day of Resurrection, prefigured by Jesus’ own resurrection, in which our bodies will be uniquely still us, and yet altogether changed. Our ultimate hope for our bodies lies beyond the grave. And on the Day of Resurrection, no one will be worrying about the number on the scale or the presence of wrinkles. We will be focused on worshipping the Lord of Resurrection Himself.

For meditation:              

“…who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:21)

Can Scripture help bring healing to our society’s messed-up notions about body image and beauty? I believe so. But perhaps before that can happen, we, as the Church, need to unmask the idols of our age that seek our adoration and seek to consume us. As Christians, let’s choose a different path that honours the Living God and thanks Him for these amazing bodies He has given us to use throughout our lives for His glory and for the sake of the world He loves.