It’s the time of Instagram, images, countless videos, and something called TikTok. This era is the age of the body; more broadly, it is a season when questions about humanity confront us continually. Though Christians sometimes skip over anthropology, our doctrine of humanity matters tremendously (I have made this case in book-form and have a lengthy section on the body).
In what follows, I want to lay out three temptations we face regarding the body. I then want to hone in on what Christianity uniquely offers the world on this subject: the doctrine of stewardship.
Our first temptation is to idolize the body. The body is a lesser thing; it is created by God. Like every created thing, it must not be worshipped. It is not made to bear worship; it cannot do so. Only God deserves worship. Everything in the created order made by God is accessible to us through faith as a means to worship God, but nothing in the created order should be worshipped, including the body.
But this is precisely what sinful humanity does. We idolize the body either by pursuing its supposed perfection or by obsessing over how our body is not perfect. In either circumstance, we make the error mentioned above: we exalt the body. We give it a place in our lives it should not have. We feel great anxiety about the body. We compare ourselves to others, whether favorably or unfavorably. Preening self-regard and brutalizing self-hatred are in truth two sides of the same coin. Both mentalities reveal idolatry of the body. Though such problems are commonly called “mental health issues” today, in truth these matters are spiritual and theological at base. We idolize ourselves, and sin in doing so. The way out is through the grace that is ours in Christ Jesus; only he can free us from this trap.
Our second temptation is to ignore the body. We should confess this straightaway: our materialistic, pleasure-driven, never-grow-up culture makes it easy to live gluttonously and unwisely. Food and drink and unhealthy practices become “medication” for us. We have real trials and challenges and issues to work on, but instead of engaging them with repentance and gospel wisdom at the center, we ignore them. We ignore the body. We go further still: we sinfully and even spitefully abuse it. Made by God for our good and our joy and our growth, the body becomes a vessel of pain. We take out our frustrations upon it and, in doing so, damage ourselves.
It is tragically easy for these patterns to become cyclical: we gorge ourselves and feel awful, then feel awful about how awful we feel, and then turn back to consumption for release. But there is no release or true resolution in this cycle. This is because our sinful, man-centered remedies never bring resolution. In a powerful irony, man-centered remedies only increase our suffering exponentially, even unto death itself.
Though we hear otherwise, we do not need self-help ideas. We do not need self-affirmation from non-Christian gurus and celebrities. We do not need “body positivity” as construed in secular terms. We may benefit practically from health and wellness teaching, but our infinitely greater need is God and his transforming truth. We need, specifically, to repent of abusing our God-given body, of making it a vehicle of our wayward desires and feelings grounded in an unbiblical identity. We need a doctrine not of crass usage leading to bodily sickness and breakdown, but a doctrine of sacred stewardship leading to godly wisdom and flourishing.
Our third temptation is to de-spiritualize the body. This is a surprisingly popular problem today. We are tempted to prize matters of the soul and separate spirituality and godliness from bodily concerns. Our quiet time matters, in other words; our mealtime doesn’t. Our service to the church is important; what we see or hear or consume isn’t. Our feelings in a worship service reveal our heart; what we want to do sexually (or act upon) in our homes doesn’t. This is all an ungodly dualism. In falling prey to it, we can on the one hand tweet a fancy graphic about how Christ claims every inch of the cosmos and on the other forget that Christ has claimed every inch of our corporeality. God is the God of the massive, and God is the God of the small.
We need to see instead that part of caring for our soul is caring for our body. The body and soul are not split apart; they are united by God’s design. Our life in the body—the one God gave us in his perfect wisdom—is deeply intertwined with our worship of God. The way we eat and drink either glorifies God or doesn’t (1 Cor. 10:31). Our bodily sexual practices either glorify God or don’t (1 Cor. 6:9-20). In distinction from a naturalistic worldview, which teaches us that nothing matters, the Bible teaches us that everything matters—including all our bodily life.
In avoiding various temptations, our biblical call is to steward the body. How different this is from ungodly thinking. As noted, we should not idolize the body, obsessing over it in either a proud way or an anxious way. We should not ignore the body, treating it as mere matter. We should not de-spiritualize the body, disconnecting it from godliness. Instead, when God saves us through the gospel of Christ and gives us a renewed mind and a transformed heart, we should steward the body, receiving it as what it is: a gift from God. We are either a man or a woman because God created manhood and God created womanhood (Genesis 2:7, 20-21). This is a gift, and also a calling.
What different language this is from postmodern anthropology. Our culture does not tell us to receive the body as a gift from God. Our culture teaches us that the body is a blank canvas that we (as little gods) should use to construct our self-chosen identity and live however we feel. In such a pagan worldview, our God-given body does not shape our desires; our self-driven desires shape our body. Christians have the complete opposite doctrine of the body than secularism or neo-paganism does (as argued in this new series). Our body is an enchanted thing. It is a gift from God. It is a vessel for worship, but not a crude or brute vessel. It is a God-designed vessel. We are intelligently designed in the extreme. We do not seek to crack this code as Christians and rewrite our software. We fight the depletion and corruption of the body through science and medicine and healthfulness, but we do not rewire ourselves in any form. God made us. Knowing this truth makes all the difference.
As such, we should treat the body well, very well. We should seek health. We should within appropriate bounds present ourselves well. We should feel no shame about our frame even as we pursue modesty as both men and women. We should avoid gluttony; avoid willed starvation; and seek rigorous self-control. Yet we also delight in all the many joys that God has lavished upon this world. With gusto, we eat dark chocolate; we drink delicious coffee; we dig into a pile of spaghetti and meatballs; we watch birds play in the rain; we jump off twenty-foot cliffs into ocean waves; we hit fastballs over fences; we ski down slopes that are so fast some government bureaucrat surely dreams of outlawing them; we drive a stick-shift truck, and thrill to hear its old engine roar once more; we hug a loved one near death for one final time, knowing that there is true feeling in that physical embrace beyond words. Sometimes the body, it seems, communicates what words cannot.
With thankfulness, we also rest. We sleep as deeply as we can, knowing that a peaceful mind yields a peaceful heart which serves a peaceful body. At the same time we push ourselves; we discipline ourselves for purposes of godliness; we do not willingly yield to decrepitude, but strive to be vital and strong as long as we are able. As men, as God allows we seek to develop righteous strength, godly physicality, so that we can protect women and children even at the cost of our own bodily health. There is considerable satisfaction we gain from striving for discipline and fitness and flourishing. We feel alive, fully alive, when we grow stronger and healthier.
While calling for discernment and repentance, such a quest leads to joy and fulfillment God intends us to have (for men and women both). There is pleasure, real pleasure, in taking dominion of the body and not being ruled by fleshly appetites and ungodly instincts (Romans 8:9). Such work, please note, is distinct from non-Christian fitness culture and non-Christian beauty culture, both of which necessarily fall prey to unbiblical identity-formation. We are not seeking strength or health or beauty or attention as our goals. These things may come or they may not as we steward the body, but the end goal is never to look a certain way or hit a fitness target or win praise from other people. The end goal is to glorify God by ruling the body in the power of the Spirit.
This kind of life will stretch you and push you. You may well end up looking different than unbelievers who have all the time in the world to focus selfishly on their appearance. As one example, for the good of children, Christian fathers and mothers willingly embrace duties and callings that yield pain, hardship, and even suffering. Having children as God allows changes you. It may give you lines on your face and bags under your eyes and (for women) marks from child-bearing on your stomach. You might get way less sleep than you would like for years and years. You might have a child (or children) with special needs, requiring special care. In seeking not only to raise kids but to disciple them in the Christian faith, you will have to give much up. Even as you pursue bodily health to God’s glory, you may still look different from those whose lives demand no great sacrifice of self. Remember this, though: all this is worth it. All this is bodily worship, often anonymous and gritty, but all of it seen by God—and soon, all of it rewarded by God.
Stewardship, we see, is ultimately not self-protection. In the gospel of grace, bodily stewardship is oriented to right self-sacrifice. We treat ourselves with care and the body with respect, but nonetheless all themes lead to this Christocentric conclusion. Jesus did not selfishly keep himself from us. He gave us his body; he gave us his very life.
Here we see that our doctrine of the body is deeply ironic. In a world cursed because of a bodily fall—the eating of fruit!—we find freedom in the final analysis not when we strenuously preserve our bodies, or worship them, or obsess over them, or ignore them, or de-spiritualize them. We find freedom when we steward them well, a vocation from God that leads us, ultimately, to spend our bodies. How remarkable. We find lasting happiness when we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, a tiny reflection of the one who assumed a body for us and our salvation, an offering for our sin, a fool for God, broken unto death, but then: raised.
So shall it be for us.