It was the end of a long, hot day. We’d had a busy day getting up to all sorts of fun and now it was late in the evening, and we were sitting round a camp fire. I was 20 years old, and sat next to my friend Naomi. While we were sitting there, she just took my hand and held it for a while. Somehow we both knew it wasn’t a romantic thing – it was just friendship. We just sat there holding hands for a while, watching the fire and listening to others chatting around us. All that happened about 15 years ago – it was on a Christian Union summer house party (don’t ask). But the event is notable because it was the first and only time that such a thing has ever happened to me.
Why do I mention this? In my last post I mentioned an article about the body I’d been reading. It’s got me thinking again about how much of the Christian world at the moment – in the West, at least – seems to be fairly gnostic: that is, the body is often seen as a bad thing. No-one actually comes out and says this, of course! – but sometimes our theology is revealed more by what we do than by what we say.
Bodies are sexualised – I can’t speak for women, but for me as a man you don’t have to look very far to see women’s bodies being sexualised on TV, media, etc. It’s mainstream now – and it has been for a long time. ‘Sex sells’. so they say. Christians are rightly upset by seeing sex used in this way – but I think the reaction is seeing bodies as sources of temptation to be avoided rather than something good which God has made.
So, for example: for me, as a man, rather than seeing a woman’s body as a beautiful thing which God has made, I see it as a source of temptation and try to avoid them as much as possible. I think this is a large part of what contributes to avoiding cross-sex friendship.
But is it right to think like that?
‘In the beginning…’
I’m always struck by Genesis 2:25: “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” ‘Body-shaming’ is a horrible modern term, but there was none of it before the fall. Adam and Eve were comfortable in their own skin, comfortable with their bodies. God made their bodies, and made them good – every part of them. Shame didn’t come until after the fall – in 3:7, once they have eaten the fruit, the first result we are told about is realising their nakedness and feeling shame.
I often wonder – although we live in a fallen world still, Jesus came to inaugurate the new creation – to reverse the curse of the fall and free men and women from slavery to sin. Should Christians therefore be more or less ashamed of bodies? I think Christians should be people who are known for rejoicing in all aspects of God’s good creation – human beings and bodies included. God made our bodies, he made them good, God made beauty, we should rejoice in it!
This also means Christians should be more eager to use their bodies, more eager to touch – e.g. give someone a hug, etc. We are supposed to love one another – and, as embodied creatures, we don’t just love someone with words – we love them in an appropriate physical way as well.
But – am I being over-optimistic here? We do live in a fallen world, after all: does the reality of sin mean we should hold back? I don’t think so.
Using our bodies
One of the things which I never noticed before until recently was how the New Testament talks about bodies. Here, for example, are Paul’s words in Romans 6:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. (v12-13)
We should offer ‘every part of ourselves’ to God – body, mind, and soul – as an instrument of righteousness. This is more than our bodies, of course, but not less! What we do with our bodies matters.
Paul, again, writes in 1 Corinthians 6:
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?
Here Paul warns against sexual immorality – because how we use our bodies really matters. Our bodies are “members of Christ himself” – what a high view of the body!
Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So the Christian life is a bodily life – not simply a ‘super-spiritual’ life.
Lastly, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.
Controlling our own bodies – this is sanctification. Again, not a ‘super-spiritual’ thing but an earthy, bodily sanctification. I hope that we as a church should expect the Spirit to be sanctifying us in every way – not to expect sinless perfection in this lifetime but to have realistic yet positive expectations for change and growth.
This is what I come back to time and again as I go to the Scriptures: we are exhorted many times against sexual immorality – but the point is not simply to avoid sexual immorality but to do what is right. We should be people who use our bodies in the right way, rather than simply in the wrong way.
I’m not a person who does physical contact very easily. I’m not really a hugger – generally, when people are giving out hugs and kisses at the end of my home group, they avoid me. Clearly they’ve understood my body language! But is that right? Is it right for me to avoid physical contact?
It seems to me, from the Scriptures, that to be pure is not simply avoiding wrong physical contact but doing right physical contact in its place. Similarly with bodies – not simply avoiding thinking about bodies in a sexual way but positively thinking about them in the right way.
We live in difficult times in the church, and I am increasingly convinced that we need to show the world a better way – A Better Story. How we see bodies and how we use our bodies really matters in this sexualised age when so much has gone wrong with the way our society sees and uses bodies. Let’s pray and trust that God can renew us by his Spirit, even at such a time as this.