Christians need a different foundation for body image. Rather than one that is subjectively informed by insecurities and worldly influences, our body image should be objectively constructed by what God declares about our bodies.
In the last post, I defined body image as a mental representation of your body that influences your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Body image is an important part of the Christian life. If God created our bodies, became embodied to redeem sinners, and bodily indwells believers, then your body is clearly important to him. Thus, the way you think about your body matters. Then, the way those thoughts make you feel about your body matters. And finally, the way those feelings make you act matters as well.
My main point is that Christians can have a God-honoring body image. If we allow Scripture to form proper thoughts about our bodies, these thoughts then go on to fuel right emotions and behaviors.
However, we will never be satisfied if we align our physical expectations and assess our body by the world’s standards and ideals. Negative body image will be a frequent struggle and may even lead to actions of physical harm through eating disorders, over-exercise, or self-harming behaviors.
In order to understand a God-honoring body image, you first have to set it in the right context. Let me explain.
Theology of the body.
The first context is a theology of the body, which categorizes and explains everything Scripture says about the body. Just like other doctrinal beliefs about the Trinity, the church, end times, etc so we can look throughout Scripture and figure out what all Christians should believe about the body.
Scripture defines our understanding of the body, which is why body image is part of a theology of the body.
The second level of context is embodiment. God created men and women as body and soul beings where our material body and immaterial soul are distinct but united, equally valuable constituents of our personhood. Throughout the history of the church, there have been different philosophical understandings of the body, particularly ones that elevated the soul and devalued the body. Gnosticism is one example. Anything material was considered evil while immaterial was good. This meant people could treat their bodies as if they didn’t matter. Naturally, the body was devalued and denigrated.
But a proper body image has to believe that the body is valuable as part of who we are as embodied humans. In other words, we can’t have a God-honoring body image if we have an anti-body anthropology.
For believers, our body image should be God-honoring and produce right thoughts that lead to right feelings and right behaviors towards the body. I think 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is particularly helpful in establishing this pattern.
In this text, Paul confronts the Corinthians’ acceptance of Gnosticism – an anti-body philosophy that gave them license to do whatever they wanted with their bodies. The Corinthians’ were in the midst of a dualistic culture that elevated the spiritual over physical, where a major manifestation of that mindset was the people’s engagement in sexual immorality. The Corinthian Christians’ major problem was a misunderstood theology of the body, so they treated the body however they wanted. Paul countered this mindset by letting them know their bodies are valuable and that God rightfully owns them.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul packs a punch in just eight verses. He makes several statements about the body that apply to body image because he was confronting how the Corinthians thought about their bodies. Paul weaves seven explicit truths about corporeal existence throughout these verses:
1) bodies are meant for the Lord
2) bodies will be raised
3) bodies are members of Christ
4) bodies are joined to the Lord
5) bodies are temples of the Spirit
6) bodies are owned by God
7) bodies are instruments of glorifying God.
Paul emphatically argued for the body's value and God's authority over it.
Another significant thing Paul does in these verses is to show how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are connected with embodied humanity, particularly with our physical bodies. I think this Trinitarian involvement with the body through the divine works of resurrection, redemption, and indwelling are pivotal to the formation of a theology of the body. Paul highlights specific ways each person of the Trinity is involved with the bodily experience of redeemed humanity: the promise of future re-embodiment in the bodily resurrection, the redemption of embodied believers through Christ's bodily atonement, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in embodied believers.
If God cares about embodied humanity to be this involved with our bodies, these truths should shape our body image. Remember, the body is valuable and God has authority over it so believers should think about and treat their bodies in a way that reflects this understanding.
Based on these verses, several principles can be drawn out that apply to the formation of a God-honoring body image. I’ll walk through those in my final post on body image.