When you and I look in the mirror, we see the primary tool that God has given us to know and serve him. We have covered some of this ground in previous weeks, but it is worth revisiting since, as Dallas Willard says, the role of the body in the spiritual life is "the least understood aspect of progress in Christlikeness."(2) Your body is not the enemy in your attempts to live life with God. Instead, it is a marvelous vehicle for loving God and loving others, and it is the only instrument God has given us to do so. But... you and I know our bodies well. We know that they fail us. Jesus' statement to Peter, James, and John on his last night with them sounds truer than what I wrote in the previous paragraph: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." We know too well the temptations that are ever present in our bodies, as they seem to unceasingly pull us toward gluttony, greed, lust, vanity, and all-around superficial living. Isn't the "spiritual" life about learning how to effectively tell our bodies to shut up so that we can get on with the really important things God wants of us? And, at the end of it all, isn't the point that we finally become free of these bodies, leave them behind, and go on to live the ultimate spiritual life forever with God in heaven?
That has been a prevalent Christian viewpoint for a long time, but scripture and the best of Christian tradition answer with a resounding "no." Our bodies are the height of God's good creation, and if our lives with God in this age are ever to make sense, we must come to the essential role they play in becoming the kind of people that God wants us to be–forever.
Though the importance and worth of our bodies is communicated throughout the Bible, it is nowhere stated more emphatically than in the passages dealing with Jesus' resurrection. To see how well your theology on this issue matches up with what the Bible says, notice your reaction to this statement: Jesus never left his body behind. We know that the story says his tomb was empty, but–after that–he never left his body behind. What this means is that there is still an embodied Jesus ruling as the anointed King of the world. What happened to him (being raised in his own real body–though it was different in some ways) will also happen to everyone. Our bodies really matter, and they always will, as the future that awaits us is just as embodied as the life we know now (only–in some good sense–more so).
So, in the context of this Lent and our discussion this week about returning to God, what difference does that make for the lives that we are really living in these bodies today? Willard again:
Our part in this transformation, in addition to constant faith and hope in Christ, is purposeful, strategic use of our bodies in ways which will retrain them, replacing "the motions of sin in our members" with the motions of Christ. This is how we take up our cross daily. It is how we submit our bodies a living sacrifice, how we "offer the parts of our body to him as instruments of righteousness." (Rom 6:13)(2)
In other words, those pulls away from God that we are all aware of in our bodies are not just in our imaginations, but they are real, ingrained, bodily habits that need to be dealt with. More than dealt with–they need to be "killed off," "crucified with Christ," as we replace them with habits that are conducive to God's life in us rather than opposed to it.
It is progress for us to realize that the things that block God's life in us are always bodily, whether in an obvious case like sexual lust, or in a less obvious example such as gossip. (How many times has your mouth said something before you realized what you were doing?) Yet even when we accept that, how do we deal with those things? If a main bodily stumbling block for me is overeating and finding my comfort in food rather than in God, how do I employ my body in the opposite direction?
The answer has to do with something we can call indirection. We don't defeat greed by trying really hard not to be greedy. We don't kill off the embodied habits that cut us off from God's life by just trying to do their opposites. No, we put other bodily habits in place (such as giving, praying, and fasting–or others like reflecting on the scriptures, solitude, worship, fellowship, etc.) which open us up, piece by piece, to God's grace. There is more grace than we can imagine and when we open ourselves to it through these means that have been passed down to us, our bodies become places where God dwells, and he deals with the sinful habits over time.
In light of what we've already said this week, this can only happen over the long haul when,
- first–our minds have been filled with the things that lead us to think about God as he really is, then our emotions become characterized by love, joy, and peace rather than hurry and worry;
- then–that part of us that chooses, the heart/spirit/will, naturally–even easily–chooses things that lead us in a Godward direction;
- and then–naturally, every one of those choices will be empowered by these bodies that we live in. This is true regardless of how they look, how old or young they are, and what medical issues they might be facing.
So, what is one way that you already know to "present your body to God as a living sacrifice" today?
A Prayer for the Day:
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer (2) See Willard's Article, "The Human Body and Spiritual Growth"
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]