A few summers ago, I braved the sweltering Texas heat in our garage storage space to sort through and organize a mass of boxes which had randomly accumulated there a few months earlier when my parents left me with all of my childhood possessions in an attempt to declutter their own garage. While I hate sweat, I disdain clutter even more. So despite the outrageous temperature, I decided it was time to sift through my childhood keepsakes and memories.
I don't remember everything I sorted through that day except for the stack of journals I opened with some embarrassing hesitancy (If you've ever read the words of your pre-teen or teenage self, you probably know what I mean). To my surprise, the words I read reminded me over and over again of a struggle that I thought I had passed long ago but if I'm honest, is one I still battle with: the ability to feel connected, in any positive sense, to my body.
Pages from college journals of calorie counting and exercise regimens reminded me of the worst times - the times that I can say now where I was directly confronting an eating disorder. But even the earliest pages from high school and middle school showed that I didn't trust myself, that I was deeply insecure about how I looked and who I was, and that I would take any opportunity to plot some new plan to "become a better version of myself," both mentally and physically. Like many young girls, I don't think my body issues stemmed from one thing directly, but formed over a long period of time, based on an internal dialogue of lies carefully constructed on external commands to look a certain way.
You may be aware of a new movement in the past few years broadly named "body positivity." In many ways, this movement and outlook is exactly what that girl from my journals needed during her early 20s. As a whole, the goal of body positivity is to fight against the myth that our bodies, especially as women, are our enemies and that they deserve constant critique (if not constant punishment and torment) in response to their imperfections. Instead, body positivity pushes us to see the body as good.
There is certainly Biblical precedence for viewing the body, and the physicality of our world, as good. While a false and gnostic view of the body as evil and "unspiritual" often rears it's head especially within modern American Christianity, the Scriptures abound with flesh and blood. Christ's incarnation lies very clearly at the center of this confession as we see God working through his own son's flesh and blood to redeem his people and his world.
There is certainly Biblical precedence for viewing the body, and the physicality of our world, as good.
God's word also tells us that we have been created as good, and this is not a fact to take lightly or to move past too quickly. It is, in fact, a wonderful thing to be inherently human! Sometimes we glaze over the beautiful reality that our creator looks lovingly down on us simply because we are his and says, "It is good. It is good that they think, good that they feel, and good that they move. It is good that they work, good that they eat, good that they rest." As the Book of Concord points out, "God not only created the body and soul of Adam and Eve before the Fall, but also our bodies and souls after the Fall, even though they are corrupted, and God still acknowledges them as his handiwork, as it is written, “Thy hands fashioned and made me, all that I am round about” (Job 10:8).
But as the body positivity movement has gained traction, we must also be aware of some of its pitfalls. Pitfalls that, Christians especially, should be careful not to fall into. As much as we can and should reclaim the idea that our bodies are good, we must hold in tension the reality that in this life, we also very much need saving from our physical, emotional, and mental selves. Through illness, injury, and old age (let alone the conscious decisions we each make to either over-prioritize or ignore our bodies), our physicality constantly lets us down. As Paul so pointedly states, "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24)
The reminder that we are God's handiwork isn't enough to redeem us from our complicated and broken relationships with our physical forms. As the Book of Concord continues, "We believe, teach, and confess that original sin is not a slight corruption of human nature, but that it is so deep a corruption that nothing sound or uncorrupted has survived in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers.” To solve this problem of corruption, we often try to convince ourselves that it’s not so bad that we cannot think or work ourselves out of it.
Ironically, we try to confront the problem of sin by utilizing the very parts of ourselves - body or soul - that are corrupted.
Whether we hate our bodies or laud their imperfections as our saving grace, the problem is that the self remains our focus. Body positivity and self-love have led to all sorts of ways in which the body - once deplored and critiqued - is now turned to as redeemer. As we elevate our physical imperfections in an attempt to instill them with value, we run the risk of simply stacking up our defects – along with our bodily triumphs – as forms of righteousness. The underlying message being one of a reverse theology of glory: the more imperfect we are or the more our bodies have suffered or gone through, the more valuable we become.
As Lore Wilbert wrote in her recent blog post, "What the Body Positivity Movement Gets Wrong," while body positivity has made many more comfortable in their skin outwardly, the way we think and feel about our bodies as vehicles for good in and of themselves - no matter how positive - is still not enough to redeem them:
Maybe we’re not hiding our bikini clad body, but we’re still hiding behind the story of the babies it grew or the husband who loves it, she says. Or we’re hiding behind the story we’ve lived with our bodies, hoping to be found worthy within them. We’re still looking for reasons to be loved and found lovely.
Just like so many of God's good gifts, the body can quickly become an outlet for our idolatry, whether that means using every attempt to disassociate from it, or working our hardest to redefine redemption by our inherent flaws and inadequacies. Either way, the aim seems to be that while our bodies are not perfect, or while our mind fails us, if we look hard enough, we can and will uncover some part of ourselves that's good enough to save us. Humanity is inherently optimistic in holding out hope for itself, even if that means sectioning parts of ourselves off.
One manifestation of this is seen within the idea that we can speak directly to our bodies as if they possess their own consciousness. While perhaps this assertion may provide some type of mental help to the individual struggling to see any part of themselves as good, in my opinion, it still leads to a gnostic sense that our bodies and our minds are separate entities warring against each other for control.
Yet in Scripture, no one aspect of our bodies or minds is separated out as either the best of us or the worst of us. There is no schizophrenic battle between flesh and spirit, and God's redemption is never spoken about as limited to either of these areas. In fact, the terms "flesh and spirit" are not meant to refer to either our outward or inner selves, but both to our entire being. While we tend to want to interpret "spirit" as our inward (good) spirituality and "flesh" as our outward (bad) physicality, this is not an accurate delineation.
Martin Luther reminds us of this in The Freedom of the Christian:
It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body...on the other hand, it will not harm the soul if the body is clothed in secular dress, dwells in unconsecrated places, eats and drinks as others do, does not pray aloud, and neglects to do all the above-mentioned things which hypocrites can do. Furthermore, to put aside all kinds of works, even contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do, does not help. One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says. (LW 31, p. 345).
Our problem isn't necessarily that we don't understand something about us needs saving. Our problem comes in the fact that we don't go far enough in admitting just how pervasive sin is. Sin is never simply a matter of mind overcoming body, or body overcoming mind. It's not even a matter of controlling ourselves more completely or perfectly as anyone who struggles with chronic or mental illness can tell you. Instead, sin is so pervasive that it would continue to touch every part of our lives and our bodies even if we decided to eat perfectly, act wisely, and think completely positively about ourselves.
This leads us back to Paul’s original question, "Who will save us from this body of death?" Is there any way we can, in this life and the next, find freedom from the need to turn our bodies into self-contained vehicles of righteous potential? I can’t help but wonder what hope there is for so many, like myself, concerning the good reality of our physical selves that doesn’t then also point us toward an idolization of our flesh.
Fortunately for us, Paul answers his own question, and further defines for us the difference between spirit and flesh, in the following chapter of Romans: "But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you" (Rom 8:10-12).
I can’t help but wonder what hope there is for so many, like myself, concerning the good reality of our physical selves that doesn’t then also point us toward an idolization of our flesh.
Those who are in the spirit aren’t those who have freed themselves from the sometimes ugly and painful reality of their physicality nor those who have embraced themselves in all their imperfections. Rather, they are those who confess that Christ alone has the power to redeem that which his father first created. Christ alone has the power to give new life to that which remains dead.
This is what I wish I could tell the young girl from my journals – Yes, you are beautiful. Yes, you are loved. But even in your ugliest and darkest moments, even when either the reality or guilt of eating disorders washes over you anew, God looks at you as precious not because of how broken you are nor because of how much you've overcome, but simply because of the broken and suffering body of his son, which was raised anew so that your own mortal body may have life eternal in the Spirit.