It’s mid-January and social media is relentlessly reminding me that I am supposed to be on a new diet and fitness regime. Apparently, after a few months of treating our bodies like garbage cans, it’s time to clean up. Our culture has a body problem. More accurately, it has a worship problem. We worship bodies. It is why we spend so much time thinking about how we look, dieting, and exercising to recraft our bodies into the right kind of image. And as we do, we put faith in the promise that we can reach perfection. Our bodies can be healthier, more beautiful, more stylish; perfect bodies garner better dates and achieve the perfectly stylized Instagram feed. When our bodies are perfect, we will love ourselves more, and most importantly, others will love us more—adore us even.
As we pursue body perfection, we join other worshippers in procession to our chosen chapels where our transformation will occur. Be it Whole Foods or SoulCycle, Crossfit or Keto, we join a family of other believers on a journey to self-betterment. We are our own gods and our bodies shrines to our perfection and worth. So when we fail, gain weight, or simply don’t end up looking like our idealized version of ourselves, we are lost. Our object of hope has failed us, telling us to try harder and leaving us miserable. Our culture has created an entire religion around perfecting bodies, but this religion has nothing to do with the gospel.
The gospel is news, but it is also a story, and the decisions we make and actions we take reveal which stories we believe most. When we participate in the cultural story that our bodies are made to be worshipped, we start embodying that story, putting our hope in its promise of salvation and moving our bodies in accordance with its discipleship. But scripture teaches us that our bodies are of infinite worth not because of how they look or if others deem them beautiful, but because they bear the image of God (1:27), belong to Him as instruments for worship (Rom 12:1-2), and house the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Our bodies are ground zero for God’s redemption in our lives, and the gospel teaches us that our hope in Christ frees us from our obsession with self to worship the one for whom our bodies were made to worship. Our bodies are very good and made for good works, but oftentimes, Christians find themselves in a different story. The cultural narratives that tell us what our bodies are for are robust but empty; scripture tells a better story.
Today, the question we shouldn’t be asking is how am I going to lose 10 pounds. The question we should be asking is what is my body for? Is it made for an endless pursuit of perfection? Is it made to be starved and run into submission so that it might finally have value? Is it made to be worshipped? Until we can answer what our bodies are for, we will never know what we are supposed to do with them.
A better story
The first time I heard someone teach about body image and the Bible was in 9th grade at a high school retreat. I remember the breakout session only because of the overwhelming emotion that I felt while I was listening: disappointment. Was there anything in the Bible that could stand against the mental, emotional and spiritual battle over our bodies? Does the gospel extend to my body—how I think about it and how I experience it today?
After a year or two of marriage, I was feeling down for some reason about my appearance. My husband had been a steady voice of truth regarding how I viewed my body, but in this conversation, I bitterly told him that it didn’t matter if he thought I was beautiful, I often did not. This is one of the stories our culture tells us, that our bodies only have value if we love ourselves; we can’t be loved until we learn how to love ourselves first. But this is not the story God tells us, and my husband challenged me with biblical truth. We are loved by God before we love ourselves and in spite of ourselves. He doesn’t love us because we deserve it, he loves us because we are his children.
Most of us live as if what God says about us is untrue, or at best unimportant. We might say his words matters, but our actions prove that we are living in a different narrative. Does it matter what God says about us? If it does, we have to allow that voice to penetrate our hearts and minds, fighting to believe that voice over others that tell us our value comes from our clothing size or how well we kept a diet.
But the story we believe about our bodies doesn’t just impact our own lives, it directly impacts the people around us. In Ephesians 5 Paul says that a husband and wife are one flesh and should treat one another’s bodies as if they were their own. So often we think of sin as between me and God, or perhaps me sinning against someone else. But the reality is that all sin impacts the body of Christ. According to scripture, when I hate my body, I hate my husband. God gives us other people to keep us accountable to his word so that we don’t allow ourselves to fall away from his truth.
But this isn’t a principle that only applies to married couples. Before marriage, I found myself learning to fight the cultural narrative about our bodies with my girlfriends in seminary. One of them would vehemently say, “That is NOT the gospel,” when one of us was bemoaning how unattractive we felt, that we had gained weight, or that we felt insecure not wearing makeup. We started fighting for one another with the truth, creating a culture in our friend group of relearning and abiding in God’s story for our bodies. This is why God has given us the church: to exhort one another when we are believing something less than a story of grace and redemption about our bodies. The church is, after all, called the body of Christ, we depend on one another like a hand depends on its fingers to teach one another the truth and uphold one another as we learn to believe it in our bones, not just our minds.
Our bodies do not belong to us.
One of the most prominent narratives about our bodies is that my body is my own. I do whatever is best for it, don’t tell me what to do or how to use it, I am in charge. The Christian faith could be boiled down to simply this: it’s not about me, it’s about God; my life is not about what I want, it’s about what God wants. If we are in Christ, all of us belongs to Jesus, not just our mind or our hearts, our bodies belong to God.
When I was pregnant with twins, I was very aware of how much my body would change. I feared the expected 50-70lbs weight gain that most mothers of twins endure, wondered how this new phase of life might impact the mental battles that I had gotten used to winning regarding how I thought about my body. I was surprised in my first trimester when I started feeling a new responsibility to take care of my body because it was home to two tiny humans as well. I didn’t stay out late with college students I worked with, I didn’t eat unhealthy food—I wanted them to thrive and their life was just as valuable as mine. For the first time, I physically understood that my body was not my own. Everything I did, I did with them in mind. My body was no longer just about me.
But if we are in Christ, Paul says, You are not your own, but you have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:20). Although Paul is addressing the Corinthian church exhorting them to honor God with their bodies in terms of their sexuality, his reasoning extends beyond that. In Colossians, Paul touches on the same idea, that when we are united with Christ we participate in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (2:9-15). All of our life becomes hidden in Christ. All of our actions must reflect our allegiance to him. How I use my body reflects my identity as one who is in communion and union with Jesus, and how I think about my body, the story I believe, will directly impact my actions. Just like my body belonged to my children more than it did to me while I was pregnant, in Christ, our bodies belong firstly to him to bring him glory.
A better object of worship
Jesus’ whole life was lived in this reality, his body belonged not just to him, but to his Father and to the people that his body would ransom. On the cross, he died not so that our lives could be about us, but so our lives could be about him. The good news of the gospel is that my life is no longer about me. And the same goes for my body. My life is not about how I look, how in shape I am, what I wear, or what I eat. My life is about God. The gospel draws our eyes off of ourselves and fixes them firmly on the only one worthy of the worship. Where our culture upholds physical beauty and fitness as perfection, we know better. Our bodies are not worthy of our worship, only Christ is.