A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF THE BODY AND HEALTH

by Fr. Paul O'Callaghan

 

Obsession with the body and health are undoubtedly outstanding characteristics of modern American life. Commercials sing to us, “You work hard for your body, so you better treat it right.” Health spa chains tell us, “I want your body!” Body-oriented commercials try to sell us everything from milk to deodorant, usually accompanied by visual images of so-called perfect bodies in athletic gear. And this kind of imagery is all around us in a way that gets into our minds without our even being aware of it.

Let me give you an example. The other day my son Sean came to me in the kitchen and asked for a glass of milk. After he finished, he said, “Dad, does milk make your body good?” Where do you think he got that question?!! So you can see how much this body-awareness, this body-obsession, has become a part of American life. Even our kids are picking up on it without being aware of it.

Because of this influence, I want to give what I believe are some basic guidelines for a Christian view of the body and health.

The first point I want to make is this:

Christianity does not share in the modern American body-obsession. According to Orthodox Christian teaching, it is possible to have an overly high view of the importance of the body. Christianity says, “The body is important, but there are other things that are more important.” You may remember Jesus’ words: “Do not fear them that can only kill the body. Fear him that can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28). In other words, He’s telling us, “Don’t worry about the death of the body — there are other things more important than the body — worry about the death of the soul!” The first epistle of Timothy points us in the same direction when it teaches that, “Bodily exercise profits are little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). Along the same lines, Fr. John of Kronstadt remarked several times about how we lavish care and concern on our bodies, which will die, corrupt, and decay, while simultaneously neglecting the care of our souls, which will live forever.

For Christians, that part of us which is immortal — which will survive beyond the grave and stand before the judgment seat of Christ — is what we really need to be concerned about. So it is easy to see, from a Christian point of view, why obsession with the body is a profound error in judgment. There is something more important than the body.

There’s still another reason why we Christians should reject the current American body-obsession. This is because underlying our modern obsession with the body is the worship of sex. What the TV, and media are really telling us in all their “body-language” is that the most important thing in life is sexual attractiveness — having that “sexy” body that will draw your object of desire to you like iron filings to a magnet. Media “body-awareness” is just one aspect of the obsession with sex that it has fostered in our culture in recent decades.

This is not to say that Christians cannot recognize the beauty of a well-proportioned human body. Anyone who has read the Song of Solomon can see how the beauty of the body is celebrated there. But in our age, due to media influence, there has been a subtle shift in emphasis in the way our culture views the body.

You can see how powerful this influence has become by looking at how our language has changed over the years.

Years ago, for example, (and some of you will probably remember this), people didn’t talk about others having a “nice body” the way we do today. Back then, if you were talking about a man, you would say he had a “nice physique.” If it was a woman, you’d say she had a “nice figure.”

Now, I admit the significance of this might not be immediately clear. You might think, “Well, so what? What’s the difference?” The difference is this: When you’re talking about “physique” or “figure,” you’re talking about the appreciation of form, beautiful form. When you talk about someone’s body, you’re referring not to form, but to flesh; and that ties in with lust, not the appreciation of beauty. The connection with sexual idolatry is there, and we shouldn’t be blind to it.

These are the main reasons Christians cannot fully endorse the current American “body-fad.” Again, this is not to say that Christianity does not have a positive appreciation for the body. Just as we do not want to overvalue the importance of the body, so we do not want to undervalue it either. And we find the reasons for this in the Bible, especially in the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. There he tells two things about our bodies: first, that they are members of Christ, and secondly, that they are temples of the Holy Spirit.

Our bodies belong to Christ — in fact, they are part of Christ! They are temples —dwelling places of the Holy Spirit! How can they not be important? If God dwells in them, they must deserve our care and respect, and neglect of them can only be called sin.

Now let me ask you, if our bodies are members of Christ, can it be right to abuse them by smoking and overeating? Think about it. If our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, can it be right to let our hearts, lungs, and muscles grow weak and sickly through lack of exercise and self-control? Think about it!

I believe that the proper care of our bodies is a divine responsibility given to us by God. This is one reason (apart from staying clean from sin), that Scripture tells us to “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).

But here is a curious fact. At the same time as we Americans foster an obsession with beautiful bodies on T.V., we are also notorious around the world for being out-of-shape and overweight. We had a visitor from Sweden staying with our family recently, and one of the first things she remarked about Americans was how heavy we appeared to her. And the reason for it, I believe, is that we lead an unnatural lifestyle. Her mother rode her bike to work every day, even in the Swedish winter! But what do we Americans do? If we have to go half a block down to the store, what do we do? You know as well as I — we get into the car and drive! Is it then surprising we’re in the kind of shape we’re in? This is why we had to invent artificial exercise — we don’t get the normal exercise that used to be just a part of living.

Now when you take this and couple it with the fact that we don’t feel guilty about overeating anymore, you can understand our problem. It used to be that gluttony — overeating — was considered one of the seven major sins. But nowadays, who feels guilty before God when they eat too much? Who really takes care that their eating habits are conducted in a godly way? So when you take our overabundant food supply, add that to our lack of concern about overindulgence, and then combine that with our life of physical ease, it’s easy to see how we can be abusing our bodies as members of Christ.

Undoubtedly, many of us need to repent and change our ways. But first, we really need to understand that our responsibility to our bodies is actually a responsibility to God.

So when we think about abuse of the body in our society, the main problems we have to be concerned about are overindulgence and lack of conditioning. But throughout the history of the Church, there has been another kind of temptation to undervalue the body. This is the view that you must subject the body to extremely harsh treatment in order to progress spiritually. So zealous Christians have kept themselves in a state of near-starvation, deprived themselves of sleep, dressed in rags (or less), refused to bathe, worn hair shirts, scourged themselves, and have engaged in even more bizarre disciplines to aid in their spiritual quests. Following the same basic approach, in modern times, some sects forbid women to wear make-up, or to cut or style their hair. To do so is considered “worldly” or “fleshly.”

But such man-made disciplines are definitely unbiblical, probably of little spiritual benefit, and possibly harmful. We have no reason to believe that God wills them.

When John Chrysostom was a young man, he went and lived in a cave and practiced severe discipline of the body in an attempt to draw near to God. He ended up suffering with life-long stomach problems as a result. In his later (and wiser) years, he strongly discouraged people from practicing extremes of self-denial. St. Gregory Palamas, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and many other saints also urged moderation in attempts at self-discipline.

The true Christian approach to the body is based on the wise principle of moderation. St. Paul tells us to “Let your moderation be known to all men.” It is not “worldly” or “fleshly” to take proper care for our health, to groom ourselves well, or to dress nicely. It is not sinful to appreciate the beauty of the human form, which, after all, reflects the Supreme Beauty of its Designer.

Sin only enters the picture when appreciation turns into obsession, when the greater value of the eternal is forgotten, or when neglect or abuse takes place. Let us guard against these as we seek to “glorify God in our bodies.”

Father Paul is pastor of St. George Church in San Diego, California.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
April 1989
pp. 11-12

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