March 2017 Feature Article
Now that I am middle-aged, I am more acutely aware of my physical body. There are some things I cannot do anymore, like stay up late, my knees hurt especially when walking down stairs, and I put on weight easily. When I was younger I was quite oblivious to these physical limitations, but no longer. The media and cultural preference for youthfulness means that some people may look down at me because of my grey hair, and pity me that I am past my physical prime, but I have come to appreciate my physical-ness and these restrictions.
Some people take the view that the body is unimportant, since we are all going to die and our bodies will decay anyway, so we can do what we want and indulge in all our fleshly desires. Others go to the other extreme of almost worshipping their bodies or physical prowess and so undergo punishing routines to appear beautiful or to win medals. The biblical view is neither of these, but that the body is fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator God and so is to be cared for and respected.
The Christian view of the physical body is unique among other religions and science as we believe that we are created by God out of both the dust of the earth and His breath (Gen 2:7). Each part of the body is wonderfully made. We see that in a new born baby so beautifully and fully formed even when she is so tiny, and with the potential and capacity to grow into adulthood. Many of us have eyes to see with, but few of us appreciate the complexity of the physiology of the eye – nerves, lenses, muscles, membranes, etc. – which when all is working well together, enables us to see.
In the Incarnation God himself took on human flesh and thus the human body is given dignity and worth. Jesus lived, eventually suffered at the hands of Pontus Pilate and died. He rose in a glorious resurrected body, the first fruits of those who have died. Since death came through one man, Adam, so resurrection of the dead will come through one man, Jesus (1 Cor 15:20-22). The disciples could recognise him in his resurrected form, that person in that body walked, talked, and ate, yet had the power to go through locked doors and disappear in an instance (e.g. Luke 24). That same Jesus is now in the heavenly realm in that resurrected body and will return again in that body.
It is out of this foundational belief that all human beings are created in the image of God that propels Christians into ministry to care for unwanted children, the mentally incapacitated or the elderly because they too are created in God’s image and therefore worthy of care and love. These people may not be able to thank us or repay us but we still care for them.
Our physical bodies are also wonderfully made in that our bodies are finely interconnected. We need both eyes to balance and see depth. Our bodies are also marvellous complex wholes – the air we breathe and the food we eat provide the basic nutrients for our bodies to function, to grow strong and healthy, and to enable a baby to grow into maturity and adulthood.
Each part of the body is needed (maybe not the appendix) and even the loss of one small part can affect the whole body. Still the recent Paralympic Games has shown that a loss of a limb or even a sense of hearing does not stop people from competing in sports. We marvel at the skill and ability of these sportspeople, especially when we ourselves find that when we have injured one part of our body we can barely function.
We are also spiritually, emotionally and mentally one cohesive whole. When we are struggling emotionally we find that we easily fall sick, or find it hard to connect with God. This psychosomatic whole which is our human identity then is also foundational in the way we treat others. We strive to be sensitive to the whole person, e.g. looking beyond physical deformities to the person. We recognise this interconnectedness in healing and pastoral care; that one cannot deal just with physical symptoms without also touching on the emotional and spiritual.
The body then is to be taken care of and cherished. Not in an obsessive way in a way but in a way that honours our Maker. But it’s not just my body that is to be cared for, as Christians we are also to care for all bodies. Hence the need for physical ministries, like healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. And so we respect the body even to the end, and bury the body with dignity.
Above and beyond being physical bodies with God’s spirit in us, we are also created in the image of God (Gen 1:26). That rich phrase means that we have capacities such as the ability to love others, and have attributes such as creativity, which are given by God. As Prof John Wyatt adds, being created in the image of God also means that human beings are not self-explanatory but we derive our meaning from outside ourselves, from the God in whose image we bear (in John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 2006, p.431). Therefore human beings are to reflect the divine attributes and character of God.
Just as God in Trinity is in relationship within Himself, so humans are made with the capacity to relate with one another and with God. As relational beings we must live in community to best express our humanity. We are created to be in communion with others.
Therefore as we contemplate the fullness of what it means to be physical human beings, we can exclaim with the Psalmist, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them…Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:4, 9).