By Rebecca Landry
She glanced at the photo we had taken and critiqued her own “saggy arms” and “wrinkled face.” She quickly added, “I promise I’m not vain; I can’t even stand to look in the mirror!” Rather than convince me that she was not pridefully obsessed with herself, her comment served to convince me that she was hatefully obsessed with herself.
Is it healthy to hate and shame ourselves toward the goal of weight loss? Is it right to dismiss our bodies because they are perishing and the spiritual realm carries more importance? What would it be like to look at pictures of ourselves not with hatred nor with pride, but with genuine love and compassion for what we are—beloved humans? The souls and hearts we have travel around in these mammal bodies we inhabit. What can we Christians do with these physical beings we are bound to?
I Hated My Body
Caring for our bodies involves much more than just buckling down at the gym and in the kitchen, although it does involve those things. Our bodies matter because they are this temple we live in and because they profoundly affect other aspects of ourselves, namely mental, emotional, and spiritual. They also matter because our bodies are a part of ourselves. If we do not love them and care for them and have compassion on them, we may not truly realize the ways in which God loves and cares and has compassion on us.
A couple of years ago, my counselor asked me about my body image. In a defensive manner typical in counseling, I said, “My body image is fine. I think I’m pretty.” And I believed it. I thought that since I didn’t think I was ugly, my body image (and my relationship with my body) was fine and healthy. Later we discussed a sickness that had plagued me for months. At that point she asked, “What do you think of your body?” I realized the truth when I answered, “I hate it. It hasn’t served me well, and I hate it for that.” I was against my own body.
I had poor body image—not because I thought I was ugly (I didn’t) but because I hated my body itself. My relationship with my own body was broken. She began to talk to me about having compassion on my body—a concept I rebelled against at first. Loving myself didn’t come to me in the form of loving the physical aspects of myself that I dislike. Instead it came to me in the form of a deep caring and compassion for this thing called a body that I possess and with which I am intimately connected. It is mine and it is God’s, and he loves it and I love it.
I began to have compassion on my body—to not hate it because of how I felt it was failing me but instead to have compassion on it because of what it had been through. I began viewing my body as a distinct part of the composite me. We are more than our bodies, but our bodies are definitely a part of who we are. Our bodies are parts of ourselves, but at times we must step back and view them as separate entities. We should do the same with all aspects of ourselves—body, mind, emotion, and soul. Each aspect affects the other, and we must not count our bodies out of this equation.
Souls with Bodies
In C. S. Lewis’s book Screwtape Letters, our bodies’ connection with our souls is spoken of. The demon characters in the novel conspire to trick humans, saying that people don’t realize that “whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
It’s not a mistake that our souls were created with bodies. Our bodies are aging and perishing, but they still merit our attention not only because of their own value but also because how they influence other aspects of ourselves.
Doctors can tell us how our bodies affect our minds and vice versa, but we don’t even need them to tell us. If we are in tune with ourselves, we know it. We don’t need doctors to tell us that we snap at our friends when we get hungry or make poorer decisions after many sleepless nights. Doctors and counselors inform us that physical health affects depression, and they remind us to control anxiety with our bodies—through deep breathing, exercise, and other avenues. Even if you believe that our bodies don’t merit attention because they are perishing, maybe you can believe that they merit attention because of how they affect our mind, emotion, and spirit. Is it possible that we get a taste of glory, a taste of redemption, when our bodies are properly and healthily interacting with our souls, minds, and emotions? One more taste of the wholeness for which we were designed, and we are left longing for more and longing for Heaven.
Delighting in What It Can Do
I swam competitively for many years, including all four years of college. Throughout those years, I gave a lot of thought to what it means to glorify the Lord through sports. That concept was discussed a lot in my family growing up, and we hear it often from professional athletes who are Christians. Some athletes take a knee or lift a finger to the sky to acknowledge God, many speak about him in interviews, and others display good sportsmanship during games or love their teammates well. All of these are well and good, and I put thought into how to love my teammates well and be a respectful competitor. But many of those methods of glorifying Christ didn’t necessarily apply to me as I swam back and forth in the pool for hours on end and then competed in my own lane.
I came to realize that glorifying God through athletics can be done through words and actions but also simply through loving what the body can do and taking joy in doing it. Our bodies are gifts God has given us, and we worship him as we delight in his gifts. Sometimes bringing honor to God is done in the privacy of your own heart and mind. I began to glorify God through my sport, not necessarily through words but by delighting in what my body could do. We bring glory to our Father through joy in his gifts and what he has created.
Temples of the Spirit
Through learning to have compassion and care for this bodily aspect of ourselves, we begin to see ourselves differently and understand that we must not berate the person that Jesus loves. We gain a deeper understanding of love, grace, and compassion. At our deepest we are souls, but we are also bodies, and our bodies contribute to the me and you that Jesus loves. We often claim for other people that they are beautiful and valued and dearly loved by Christ. But if we disregard our very own bodies, and thus disregard a very real and significant aspect of who we are, do we fully believe that we are loved and valued to the core?
Our bodies merit attention simply because we have them and they are temples of the Spirit. They merit attention because they affect our souls, emotions, and minds. And they merit attention because they are part of who we are, and our God delights in us. “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save: he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, English Standard Version). You are much, much more than a body, but are certainly a body, and God sings over every aspect of you.
Rebecca Landry is a social worker who loves soaking in sunshine, speaking Spanish, and living in Lexington, Kentucky.