I’m tall – taller than most of the people I meet. But I don’t play basketball. At least not well. Basketball requires your hands and feet to do the things your brain tells them to do, and quickly. Mine usually don’t.
Because I’ve been an athlete most of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time with guys that have way bigger muscles than I do, and when I was in high school I set a goal to be able to bench press my body weight, because that’s the goal my weight training coach told all the skinny guys to start with. It was a good starter goal. You know, a goal for before we started getting strong.
I’ve never bench pressed my body weight.
Now I’m 31, and I’m somewhere in the awkward middle ground between balding and bald.
Despite my incessant gangliness and my disobedient hair follicles, I can’t say I’ve ever hated my body. But I’ve never been super-pumped that this is the one I ended up with, either.
It probably didn’t help matters that one of the most popular verses among the athletes at my Christian high school was I Corinthians 9:27, which encouraged us to “beat our bodies” and “make them our slaves.” Our bodies were the enemy. They had to be brought into subjection in order for us to achieve either athletic success or holiness.
But we also encountered Ephesians 2:10, which taught us that we were God’s “workmanship,” a word which could perhaps more appropriately be translated “masterpiece.”
Reconciling these two verses was so easy that I didn’t even see the contradiction – obviously, Ephesians 2:10 is talking about me, not my body.
Me was something I saw as wholly internal, a disembodied entity that had to fight through corrupted, rotting flesh to find freedom and expression in the world. I was a Platonist and I didn’t even know it.
But then in college I made the connection that the same guy that wrote I Corinthians 9:27 also wrote Ephesians 2:10.
And I took a human biology class, where I learned how indescribably intricate and beautiful, and how well-planned the human body is.
And I started listening to Louie Giglio and reading Dallas Willard.
I paid a little closer attention to the book of Romans and the Sermon on the Mount.
I heard about Origen, a man who learned by experience that even a castrated man can lust, and I realized that Jesus must have known that it’s not our hands and eyes that cause us to sin. I realized that even if I did cut off my right hand, the first thing I’d do is figure out how to use my left hand to sin.
And if my body is evil, then why was it so important for Jesus to be incarnated? He was born in carne – “in flesh.” And when he rose from the dead, he didn’t leave his carne behind – he took it to heaven with him.
Jesus, in heaven, is carnal…
If you have the same baggage with the word carnal that I do, that last sentence might short-circuit your brain. Or it might just offend you.
But the word carnal, at its most fundamental level, just means “in flesh.”
Here’s what I’ve been studying recently that has helped me understand this:
In Greek, the word soma is the primary word for “body.” It’s used when a writer wants to talk about hands, feet, ears, and epiglottises (Epiglotti? Epiglottoes? Epiglets? …darn plurals). But there’s another word that shows up all over the Bible. It’s the word sarx. Sarx can be used to talk about the body, but it can also refer to the things we usually mean when we use the word carnal. The NIV often translates this word “Sinful Nature,” and it is a word that is often specifically non-physical.
For example, in Galatians 5:16-26, Paul contrasts the works of the sarx (flesh) with the fruit of the pneuma (Spirit). Among his list of the “works of the flesh” are idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissention, and envy. This isn’t the whole list, but it’s most of it. And here’s the point: most of the things Paul lists as acts of the flesh don’t actually require flesh.
In Galatians 5, Paul is drawing a parallel between two primarily non-physical things – two life orientations. Granted, these attitudes result in behaviors that involve our physical bodies, but they don’t come from the body. They are first and primarily internal. Jesus said nearly the same thing when he compared the man who commits adultery to the man who only desires to commit adultery (Matt. 5:27-28). The deeds of the body always flow from our inward orientation.
As he makes clear in Romans 6:13-14, Paul’s view of the body is the same as Jesus’ – the parts of the body are tools (lit. weapons) that can be used for good or for evil.
And as Dallas Willard says, our bodies are our connection to the world, so if we’re going to make any kind of difference in the world, it’s going to be by using our bodies. But when we dissociate “me” from “my body,” we lose our God-given power to make a good and holy impact in the world. We deny that of all things in creation, we alone were created by the touch, and not only the word, of God. It should come as no surprise that our denial of God’s touch in the denial of His Word about our bodies has resulted in our corporate failure to touch the world.
But let us never forget that the ministry of Jesus was a ministry of profound physicality.
Let us never forget that when Jesus healed people, He almost always touched them. The One who had created them with his hands re-created them, restoring their wholeness just as he first knit their DNA.
So can we take delight in “fleshly” pleasure? Most definitely. Jesus certainly did. And he did so in such a way that he left us an example of how to enjoy the great gift God has given us in our bodies.
Anyone who pays even a little attention to the world can see that God’s instructions when it comes to pleasure and our bodies are simply His explanation of the best way of living.
One of the reasons God asks us to keep sex within the marriage covenant is that He knows sex is better there.
One of the reasons he asks us to handle our money wisely is that he knows the great joy of being free from debt and free to exercise extreme generosity.
He’s the one who made strawberries taste good, and poison taste bad.
And the flowers.
And the ocean.
And our bodies.
I know a guy who flies all around the world just to take pictures of the most beautiful places on earth. That’s his job. And because he’s really good at it, he’s been able to make a living selling his pictures.
What I love about his job is that everything he photographs is already there. He just captures it. His job is to help people worship a God who didn’t have to make the world beautiful.
And according to Ephesians 2:10, we, that is, our bodies, are his masterpiece.
So, love your body. It’s your connection to the world. It’s a gift to you from God, and someday, in heaven, it’s going to be perfect, but until then, don’t let sarx use it for evil. Take care of it. And be like Jesus – use it to make other people’s lives better.