When I first moved to the Dallas area in my late twenties, I came with dreadlocks in my hair and patchouli in my wake. I stuck out like a sore thumb in the land of teased blond hair, perfect noses and teeth, and sculpted bodies. I could not understand the obsession with a seemingly perfect physique—a uniform look almost immediately identifying someone as “from Dallas.” I recently saw a photo of a dozen women on social media; they all wore the same outfit (skinny jeans, leather booties, oversized sweaters, and beanies), had the same smiles, displayed the same soft curls in their long balayaged hair, and cocked their knees at just the right angle for prime photo taking.
This drive to have a uniform appearance has created an infuriating flatness to the complexity of creation as God designed it. None of us is immune from it though. We think that by finding sameness—or friendship—with others, we’ll find it with ourselves. The poet Jane Kenyon calls this struggle to find peace with the body a difficult friendship: “This long struggle to be at home / In the body, this difficult friendship.” We cannot seem to find peace with the bodies we’ve been given by God, and so our meager attempts at caring for the bodies we have indulges a foray into caring for the bodies we wish we had.
Our truer obsession is being beyond the body, beating the body we’ve been given, adding or subtracting to our substance, pressing back aging and sagging and the effects of bearing babies and hard work. The obsession is not the right self-care for the body as an image bearing being, but a pursuit of the body of our dreams. What we ultimately want, if we can admit it, is immortality. We desire eternal youth, vitality, beauty, and rigor. The problem is, while those things are coming for us after the resurrection, they aren’t going to happen for us on this side of it. Our bodies as they are today—the ones riddled with decay and brokenness and discomfort and frustration—will not live on into eternity. They will get out of the grave and they will change. Living as if we can somehow achieve an immortal, resurrected body now isn’t respectful of the person God has made us to be on this side of the earth’s story.
For the Christian, respecting our body as it is today matters, because it shows we understand we are not God, we are not infallible or unlimited. We work within the limitations of these bodies for as long as we live in them this side of heaven. “Respect for the person is inseparable from respect from the body. . . .A biblical ethic is incarnational. We are made in God’s image to reflect God’s character, both in our minds and in our bodily actions. There is no division, no alienation. We are embodied beings.”
Our world wants to think of our bodies as gods, using tropes like “you’re worth it,” or “it’s our right.” But as Christians, we should know it’s far more mysterious, glorious, and ordered than that. Caring for our bodies to the point of worshipping them is no longer “care” at all. It’s idolatry. It’s putting our body in the place God should be. There’s an order to the way we love things, and God should be our first love. Love and care of our bodies should always go underneath that. God’s design for our bodily care is right and good, and the only way we will follow that design is if we love God most. “If affection” of our bodies, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “is made the absolute sovereign of a human life, the seeds will germinate. Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” Saint Augustine’s City of God was based on the idea that all sin is a result of a disordered love, and this is what self-care—specifically the touching of our bodies as we care for them in all their complexities—has become for many: a disordered love.
Each of us needs to hear the same message about our bodies, but for different reasons. The Christian who thinks their body is bad needs to hear that their body matters—it houses the living God, the Holy Spirit. It certainly can’t be bad if God dwells in it. On the other hand, the person who treats their body as a god needs to hear the very same message: their body houses the living God, therefore it cannot also be God. They need to move their muscles and lift things that feel too heavy at first in order to strengthen their arms for God’s good use, not to make them sculpted and toned. They need to eat as though their body was a temple, not to be worshipped, but to house the One they do worship. They need to care for their body not as a god but as a worshipper of the God who made it.
The poet John O’Donohue wrote, “May you keep faith with your body / Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary.” As long as we live in the bodies we have (and not the bodies we want to have or someday will have), we will sometimes drink the cup of suffering or decay. We will have circles under our eyes and crooked teeth and love handles and aching muscles and unmet desires. We will have literal itches that need to be scratched and hands that need moisturizer and faces that need to be washed—all by our own hands. Many of us will have strength in our muscles, light in our eyes, mobility to work and explore, and bodies that keeps on working for our good—all things we recognize as we touch them with our own hands. We are temples, but not the perfect ornate ones we imagine them to be or want them to be. Our temples are earthly tents, and we get wet when it rains or hot when the temperatures are high or cold when it snows. We are subject to the elements of living on earth. But these tents aren’t our home. These biological itches are not the end of us, or the beginning. We’re on the way to glory, and our are bodies coming with us, but better, more perfect than we can imagine.
 Jane Kenyon, "Cages," Collected Poems (St. Paul: Grey Wolf Press, 2005), pg 36.
 Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2018), pg 34.
 C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harper One, 2017), pg 56.
 Saint Augustine, City of God (New York: Random House, 1993)
 John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pg 61.
Cover image by Leighann Blackwood.
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