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Bodies — why we struggle with them and what God is doing about it

When my Mom had a massive stroke 27 years ago that left her body significantly handicapped, I was left with a question that was new to me but had been asked for thousands of years before:

Why would a God who is has no body create a physical world and give us humans, who are created in his image and likeness, these wonderfully awkward bodies?

In the Leonard Cohen song “Lover Lover Lover,” the great singer-songwriter begs:

I asked my father
I said, “Father change my name”
The one I’m using now it’s covered up
With fear and filth and cowardice and shame…
He said, “I locked you in this body
I meant it as a kind of trial…”

This concept of being locked in our bodies is nothing new. People with disabilities like my Mom feel it. People who are have eating disorders feel it. People with gender dysphoria feel it. People with chronic pain feel it. People feel it as they age and can’t do what they always did with the ease they had before. People who are losing their hair, who have cancer, who can’t carry a tune, who are picked last for sports teams, who feel out of control with their sexual urges, who have body chemistries which cause mental illness, who have a skin color which causes them to be mistreated, and on and on — for so many reasons, people get disconnected from the very bodies they cannot ever leave, wishing they had different bodies or none at all.

The Canadian band Arcade Fire complains:

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

Picking up on that theme, our science fiction writers have been writing stories and making movies about advanced races of beings who are all mind and no body — disembodied consciousness formed of the union of reason with energy. For some reason this form of pure being seems preferable to our animalistic bodies. But after meeting one of these writers at a book signing, I came away wondering if it wasn’t a profound dislike of his own small, weak, and unhandsome form which fueled his imagination for something other than what he was born with.

The body hatred so many feel in our culture is only magnified by our obsession with our bodies. The idolatry of the body is a real thing and so many, even among those who claim to worship only the God of the Bible, bow before their bodies far more than they pray to their so-called Lord.

Come on, let’s be honest here. There are many of us who give ourselves over to grueling exercise regimes. (The fine line between exercise and torture is crossed far too often by the body-obsessed.) Too many of us eat food that lacks any real flavor at all. (Come on, those shakes and protein bars are horrific! There is no joy whatsoever in eating them and no community around the table to be had while gobbling them down.) And there is no real and lasting joy experienced in the bodies we do have, for there is always the fear of gaining weight or losing function through injury. (I was at peak fitness a few years ago after going through P90X several times when I stepped in a hole and sprained my ankle. And the first thing that went through my mind was: “There goes my ability to exercise. I’m going to get out of shape.”)

As with every form of idolatry, the god being worshiped enslaves the worshiper and body-idolatry does just that. Narcissistic self-pleasure in six-pack abs and the fear of losing it all create a vicious circle of ecstatic worship and terrified service.

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are the body-deniers, who like the science fiction writers, long for a bodiless future. But some of these do it for over-spiritualized reasons.

I heard a preacher talking about the day we will “shed our bodies” and how what Jesus is all about is our souls. He completely ignored the fact that Jesus came in a body, healed bodies, fed bodies, died in a body, was raised in a body, ascended to heaven in a body, will return in a body, and will resurrect us and our bodies to live in a heaven come down to earth where we will still have bodies.

But it’s a natural thing for those who actively struggle with sin to look askance at their bodies. All of our lusts and gluttonies are sins of the body. Our hungers and thirsts are bodily. Our vanities are bodily. Thefts and murders can only be done because we have bodies (even digital theft only makes sense ultimately because of bodies — it’s only for physical realities that we need money; for ears that we listen to digitized music; for eyes that we watch digitized movies). We wouldn’t need to work if it weren’t for our bodily needs of food, shelter, and clothing.

But along with their myriad struggles, our bodies are also the source of our greatest joys.

The pleasures of eating and drinking all rely on bodies. There is no joy in that cup of coffee in the morning, that piece of chocolate in the afternoon, that craft-brewed beer in the evening without bodies. We have whole professions built on making the most of the flavors of food and drink. Without the need to eat and drink, the need for tables would disappear and with them the place where most community happens.

The thrill of sports evaporates without bodies. Watching a figure skater glide, a downhill skier fly, a basketball player dunk an alley-oop, a golfer chip a shot from a sand trap straight into the hole — these and so many others are only made possible when bodies are trained and exceed the limits of what the rest of us can do. And it’s the exceeding of these limits which makes our chins drop in awe. For there is no awe without bodies.

And that includes the awe inspired by luxury. Sports cars. Rolex watches. Sprawling mansions with spectacular views. And though we may shake our heads at opulence while there are still those who are sick and starving in the world (victims of their bodies), we wouldn’t mind a bit of it ourselves. Our bodies thrill at the physical delights of luxury.

The word “beauty” has no meaning aside from our bodies.

We wouldn’t need each other without bodies — need, that most essential aspect of community. I couldn’t borrow a lawn mower and my neighbors would have no need of my ladder without bodies. Without our need of food, there would be no borrowed egg or cup of flour. There is no gratitude without something to be grateful for.

Our bodies are the source of so much glory … and so much shame. No beautiful clothing; no naked shame.

Our bodies are the source of so much weakness and strength. Without them, there is no falling down and no picking up.

Without our bodies, there is no sickness and death. But neither is there resurrection and life.

And this is something the Scriptures are unbending on: We don’t have bodies, we are bodies. And we will always have bodies.

Whatever else is included in the life of the age to come, what we generally call heaven, the Scriptures are clear that it will include bodies.

In 1 Corinthains 15, Paul writes his great chapter on the resurrection. And resurrection requires bodies — bodies that die becoming bodies that rise up again. And Paul claims that biblical faith rises or falls based on the truth of the resurrection of bodies (and not just souls as so many believe).

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Cor. 15:13-14)

Having established the necessity of the resurrection to biblical faith in the first half of the chapter, Paul turns to the nature of our bodies before and after the resurrection starting in verse 35. He writes of bodies that are psuchikon and bodies that are pneumatikon. But here’s where we get into some translation trouble and end up missing the point.

Psuchikon is an adjective built off of the word psuche from which we get the word psyche. Most literally, it refers to breath. But it generally refers to the breath of life, the soul. So, psuchikon most literally translates as “of the soul,” but most translations render it as “natural.” It doesn’t help that the word only appears three times in the Bible, all in a cluster in 1 Cor. 15, so we don’t have other contexts to help us have a sense of what Paul was getting at with his use here. But what the translations that have opted for “natural” are getting at is that the soma psuchikon is a “body suited for the life we live now.” This is in contrast to the soma pneumatikon, which is generally translated as “spiritual body.” But “spiritual body” is an oxymoron; it’s either a body or a spirit, for saying “spiritual body” makes as much sense as saying “physical spirit.” Pneumatikon would be better translated not as “spiritual,” but as “Spiritual” or “of the Spirit,” referring to the Holy Spirit. So, if soma psuchikon is a “body suited for life as we live it now,” then soma pneumatikon is a “body suited for the life of the Spirit.”

 

All this to say, our bodies now are suited for the souls (psuche) we have now. But the bodies we will have in the resurrection will be suited for God’s Spirit in ways that we aren’t suited for the Spirit now. We taste of God’s Spirit and experience God’s Spirit to a degree now, but in the age to come there will be a change in us where in our very bodies we will be more fully suited to experience life with God by his Spirit fully resident within us.

In the resurrection, the tensions we face and feel right now will be gone. We won’t be done with our bodies, but we will be done with the struggles we have with our bodies.

We were created for more than we experience right here and now. We were created to be fully physical. And we were also created to experience the life of the Trinity by the indwelling of God’s Spirit. But we are broken and don’t experience either ends of the spectrum as we were designed to. We experience all kinds of problems in our physicality and we experience all kinds of problems in our spirituality. Both of these will be reconciled in the resurrection.

The body-spirit divide will be done. Our bodies will no longer feel like cages, like we’re locked in them as a kind of trial.

Physical disabilities, sexual disorientations, destructive hungers, physical addictions, messed up chemistries, empty vanities, poverties and hoardings — these will all pass away, as will our sense of disconnection with God. And in their place, the beauty, satisfaction, pleasure, and glory of the creation God smiled on and sees as very good will be renewed. In the new heavens and new earth, we will be renewed ourselves with bodies suited for the life of the Spirit and all will be beautiful.

Why do we have bodies? Because God loves beauty. And the day where all is beautiful is coming. The resurrection of Jesus is the downpayment on that day.