By Leslea Linebarger
Our bodies can actually be our best guide to our inner spiritual condition, if we pay attention.
A few summers ago I attended a conference at Gordon Conwell Seminary on sexuality and spirituality. You know things are moving into mainstream when the seminary begins offering workshops on the topic! All kidding aside, I was grateful for the topic and the opportunity to glean from another’s perspective. Especially since the keynote speaker was Lauren Winner, author of the book “Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity.” One of the early questions she asked was this: Is your body a stumbling block between you and God or is it a bond? Some of both? She gave us a chance to discuss among ourselves the messages we’d gotten about sexuality from the church and culture.
I was taken back by the fear and negativity I heard from the other attendees. The predominant messages they’d gotten from the church were either negative or minimalist, even to the point of whitewashing the sexual imagery of the Song of Songs. The messages they’d received from culture were seen as negative as well, although at least sex was portrayed as desirable here, albeit in a lustful way. From the group as a whole, I sensed a large fear factor, which left no room for owning and celebrating our sexuality, as Lauren was encouraging us to do. Most of them who spoke up seemed more concerned about, once again, “reigning things in.” Almost everyone who shared identified more with our bodies being a stumbling block rather than a bond. I felt sad about that, and after reflecting, decided that maybe the majority of those who came were dealing with sexual problems within their families and congregations, desperate for a way to control those unruly desires that erupt in unhealthy ways. It’s a sad state of affairs when all we can do is speak to our dysfunction, sin and fear. It doesn’t leave much to celebrate. I think this is where we came in. Is that our only choice? To rein in or deny desire lest we fall into temptation?
My women’s group recently studied the book Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton. It’s a beautiful resource for looking at the spiritual disciplines in a fresh way. In the book, Barton writes about a growing awareness of the connection between her physical body and her life in Christ. She says, “Up to this point, I had been quite out of touch when any sense that my life in a body had anything to do with my spirituality. Intent on trying to be ‘spiritual,’ I had somehow relegated life in the body to some lesser category that warranted little of my attention.”12 For this author, seeing the connection between the two helped her realize that caring for her body needed to become a priority as well if she was to stay healthy spiritually.
Our bodies are worthy of care and reverence. How aware are you of your body and its rhythm and its needs? Do you listen when your body says, “slow down, caution, rest?” Do you nourish it, hydrate it, strengthen it with exercise? Do you have healthy boundaries with your time and energy? If we don’t care for ourselves first, we won’t be able to sustain caring for others for very long. Self care is a healthy part of self love.
“Ok,” you may be saying, “now I know that’s over the line. We already naturally love ourselves. That’s the thing to fight against.” If it’s not already clear, we can carry some pretty warped ideas in our heads about what’s selfish and what is part of self-acceptance as a child of God. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, body and mind. And the second is like it — to love others as we love ourselves.” That second part often gets overlooked, yet it may be our biggest obstacle to the other two — loving God and loving others. If we don’t love ourselves in a healthy, self-accepting way, how can we truly love anyone else? We block the flow in the same way that seeing only our flaws keeps us from accepting ourselves as beautiful creations of God. And all our attempts to love others will come from a place of insecurity in our core. It’s a place of self-rejection, and it’s a hindrance to becoming the whole person God created us to be.
We’re told in Genesis that we’re made in God’s image. We’ve talked about being the temple for His Holy Spirit to dwell, alongside all the negative ways we think of “the flesh.” But God is good, and when on the sixth day He created us male and female, He declared that “excellent.” We are His crowning glory. It continues in Genesis, “Male and female He created them.” That tells us something about ourselves and something about God, from the very beginning. About ourselves we learn that He created us intentionally as sexual beings with distinct and complementary differences. Also that he then examined us and declared us excellent in every way. Not just good, but excellent. (Genesis 1:31) What implications are there in that fact alone? One thing it says is that God not only designed but also delights in us — body, mind and spirit. Including our sexuality. It’s one of the unique aspects of body, mind and spirit that make us fully human. Our sexuality is not what makes us separate from God, but rather part of what it means to be made in His image. And He declared our humanness not only good but excellent. If our sexuality doesn’t matter, why then did God create us as sexual beings with drives and desires? He didn’t have to. What are your thoughts?
12 Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 79.