Honoring Jesus Through Caring for Our Bodies
Honoring Jesus Through Caring for Our Bodies
High school soccer was the first time I can remember experiencing my body’s response to stress: I couldn’t eat less than four hours before a match, otherwise my nerves would flourish into a debilitating nausea. I learned that my anxiety often locates itself in my stomach.
Fast forward about 15 years.
About one year into keeping a private counseling practice in addition to full-time church ministry, I developed such persistent pain and nausea in my stomach that an endoscopy was recommended after months of having tried various dietary changes to rule out allergies and sensitivities. It is amazing how powerful stress can be, even if we aren’t conscious of it. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that I’d exceeded my capacity: I was living my dream and doing what I loved. But my body was telling another story.
It’s a wild thing to both have a body and to be a body. These two realities are inseparable, really, and a robust understanding of the Christian faith necessarily demands a rich theology of embodiment. This is particularly important for student ministers, whose focus on caring for others often lends itself to patterns of body-dismissal that are perhaps less God-honoring than we might imagine.
Our God revealed himself fully in the person of Jesus. In his perfect humanity, Jesus was a man who lived a fully-embodied life with all of the limits and requirements we, ourselves, experience: he was hungry, he needed sleep, he experienced emotions, and he, too, likely even had gas on occasion.
Our God has made clear that bodies were designed with intentionality: he created them good in Genesis 1 and 2, and he distinguished them from one another as male and female. He gave them a distinct, beautiful, and complex purpose in their design to worship him, enjoy him, steward creation, and love others. And he brought redemption through the breaking of his own body on the cross, bringing ultimate hope for the myriad of ways the fall impacted all parts of our bodies. No neuron, no hormone, no ligament, and no skin cell is without the taint of sin. Our bodies are not what they originally were. And they are not what they will be (according to 1 Corinthians 15:35-58). But they are an enormously important factor in our movement in the world and in our ministries. They are the now-but-not-yet experience for us in the most intimate form: they are now deteriorating in their trajectory toward death, yet they will ultimately be transformed into everlasting soul-dwellings of perfection. What glory!
The Body as a Premier Picture of God’s People
Lest we fall into the error Western individualism so sneakily invites, we also want to remember that the body is one of the premier illustrations Paul uses to represent God’s people as a whole. 1 Corinthians 12:11-27 describes diverse, mutually interdependent, multifaceted relationships within the body of Christ. It is clear that all parts of the body are needed, and the “less honorable” parts are to be treated with greater honor. What if this applies not only to the more vulnerable members of God’s family, but to the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, as well?
Relating to our own bodies is a fraught thing: it is one manifestation of our relationship with ourselves, which is warped by sin and sometimes influenced by Satan. This means that I, Liz, have a certain relationship with my deteriorating left foot, which is in need of surgery, and I have another relationship with my emotions, which shift and change. I have a relationship with my thoughts, which come and go, and I have a relationship with my impulses and desires. It is worth pausing and praying to consider the ways we relate to these various parts, because we are often out of tune with certain realities the Lord may be using to draw us back to himself. Or we may be absorbed in other realities (our diet, for example) that consume our energy and attention.
A helpful exercise for taking the metaphorical pulse of our relationship with our body: Pause for a moment and take a deep breath. When you consider your own body, what is your first thought? Your first emotion? Does your mind bring up a particular area of dissatisfaction? Do you notice tension in a particular part of your body? Do you feel a sense of shame about your body? Is there a sense of delight in the way your body serves you?
Who is telling the story of our Bodies?
After taking stock of where we are in our own journey of embodiment, we can pray that the Lord would reveal which parts of that journey would be appropriate for sharing with our students. For instance, you may want to consider sharing with them a lie you believed about our own body growing up as a teenager (E.g. “I believed I had to have flawless skin to be desirable”). How did the Lord bring truth to that lie? How did be begin working redemption into that relationship with your body? Culture’s narratives often shape our view of our bodies in light of their appearance and/or desirability. Implicitly, they say: “Are you strong enough to attract this woman?” or “Are you skinny enough to attract this man?”
But over and over again, we are invited to pay attention to where something other than Yahweh has become the Lord of our relationship with our body, and to repent and return to him. Our bodies are designed to worship him, to serve him, and to love one another. Our care for them may even be best understood as an act of repentance and of stewardship. We have been gifted bodies with certain needs, limits, brokenness, and talents. And we exist as embodied souls who desperately need the grace of the Lord Jesus to walk through every day. We need for the Spirit to reveal the glory of our broken bodies through himself. And we need to honor the limits of our bodies in light of God’s invitation for us to trust him with all things, including our energy expenditure, our sleep, our food intake, and our play. God is the author of our bodies and their Redeemer, as well.
Temptations Toward Justifying Dismissal of our Bodies as Youth Workers
Serving in full-time ministry does not particularly lend itself to a naturally healthy relationship with our bodies. It can be easier to agree to a last-minute coffee request than to stick with the plan to hit the gym on a Friday afternoon. And there are often pressing spiritual and emotional needs of families that provide pretty rational reasons for ignoring the limits of our own bodies. I would suggest that those of us in full-time ministry have an even greater likelihood of rationalizing the neglect of our bodies with specific insidious idolatries like effectiveness, limitlessness, perfectionism, or the need to be overly-available. But maybe that’s just me.
Along the way, I am sensing that gentle Voice more and more – the One who reminds me that my body is as valuable as my heart and mind, and it is equally as important in my ministry. I am learning to receive and extend the grace of Jesus to the broken and failing parts of my body just as he extends it to every outcast in Scripture. I am learning to grieve and wait on Jesus with a holy curiosity about the weaker parts, such as my deteriorating left foot. And I am learning to slow down and get support with parts such as my stomach issues (which, incidentally, resolved after I closed down my private practice and began working a much healthier schedule).
Who is Lord over your body, and the particular parts of your body you struggle with (e.g. your weight, your cholesterol, your appearance, or your blood pressure)? Is it the tender King Jesus, who loves to honor and dignify? Or is it the voice of someone else shaming you? Is it the voice of culture treating you like a consumer instead of an image bearer?
May Jesus enter into your relationship with your body in a new way, bringing hope and redemption. For as we steward our bodies to his glory, placing them back under his Lordship over and over, we invite our students to the freedom of the same. And they join us in the life long journey of trusting him with all parts of ourselves. Our scheduling of several 30-minute walks during the week may just be an act of repentance that the Lord uses in ways we can’t imagine, just as tending the failing parts (E.g. my foot) with humility and hope in Jesus may be, also. Ask the Lord to help you discern wise ways to provide your students with glimpses into your own redemptive journey with your body: it may be terrifyingly humbling, and it may be a beautiful place the Lord intends to use for His kingdom’s sake.