Psalm 139 says our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The birth of our daughter a month ago bore witness to that truth with worship-inspiring beauty. Now the experience of being a new parent is making me realize the responsibility I have to steward my body well: I have to be healthy to keep her healthy, alert to watch over her, rested enough to be patient with her. I need to steward my body, not only to care for her, but to set an example for her of how to pursue health wisely.
Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold have written a new book about such stewardship of our bodies. It’s called The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation. The reasons to care for our bodies in the book range from responsibility to others to the spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits of pursuing whole-body health. But the most important reason is God-centered: As Hess and Arnold write, “With our physical bodies, we bear a message of what we believe about God, the world and ourselves” (p. 16).
The book’s consideration of our human relationship with food provides a good example of how our treatment of our bodies bears witness to God. Food is not morally neutral. Every choice we make regarding food makes an impact not just upon our bodies, but upon the earth and the bodies of others. Accordingly, every bite we eat proclaims whether we believe the environmental beauty of God’s creation is worth caring for, whether the workers who harvested our food deserve a just wage, and whether or not our own lives are worth sustaining. The book’s insights here range from practical tips to pursuing health to convicting observations about the emotional impulses behind our eating. I was personally convicted about my relationship with peanut butter after reading this: “In reality, excessive comfort foods point to the fact that I am letting something (food) comfort me, rather than allowing Christ to be my source of true comfort” (p. 36).
Where the book brings conviction, it also brings gentle guidance and hope. Hess and Arnold wisely point out that we can start making better food choices simply by distinguishing between what is actually food and what is merely edible, or by asking ourselves if an item “would have been considered a food item one hundred years ago” ( p. 124). Similarly gentle guidance is given concerning exercise, care for the environment, and critiquing the messages which our media sends us about body-image. For those who want to go into more scientific or practical depth in any of these topics, a very good selection of books is listed in an appendix of references.
I’m thankful that this book has been written because so many of us need to hear the message that our bodies are worth caring for in appropriate ways. As the authors say, “Some Christ-followers have been raised to think that caring for themselves is bad or selfish” but “Self-love is not the same as self-indulgence. . . . Self-love comes from wanting to care for the body that God has given you. This is not sinful but rather a sign of wise stewardship” (p. 60). This gives me encouragement as I think back over my own story of struggling to pursue holy physical health, and as I think about my roles as husband, father, and pastor. There are people I know who I want to read this book because they need to understand that they have a responsibility before Christ to care for the body He redeemed.
That’s a starting point, but it’s not the whole story. Helpful as The Life of the Body is, I do have to say that it would be enriched by a deeper knowledge of and interaction with the monastic literature of the early Church. There is a common presumption that the desert fathers and mothers held a Platonic view of the body which denigrated the body’s importance (a view which Hess and Arnold agree with on pages 15 and 94). On the contrary, the desert fathers and mothers had a much deeper knowledge of the intricate relationship between our bodies and our spiritual lives than modern writers appreciate. For just one example, they were keenly aware that over-eating made one vulnerable to both sexual temptation and anger. They fasted not out of failure to appreciate the value of their bodies, but because they took serious the original context of Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 6 that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” namely that this is why one should flee sexual immorality. Medieval saints and ascetics weren’t the only ones to believe that the body should be “subdued and beaten into submission to the ‘higher’ realities of spirit and soul” (p. 94). The Apostle Paul believed the same thing: “I beat my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). If you asked Paul how his body bore witness to Christ, he would have pointed to the suffering he endured: “I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
Taking that into consideration, Christian care for the body is ultimately not just about the pursuit of health, it’s about the pursuit of holiness. Hess and Arnold observe in the book that “Discipline in one area of life can carry over into other areas of life in significant ways, easily crossing between that which impacts the body and that which impacts the soul” (p. 15). Amen. That point is absolutely true. But the depth of its meaning isn’t fully expressed here. The insights in this book are the first steps for putting that truth into practice. I believe that those who are ready to take the next steps in their spiritual formation would seriously profit from reading the ascetics of the early Church and asking what messages their bodies proclaimed about the crucified and risen Christ.