God Gave Us Bodies
Much of the religious thought of the world goes something like this: The real world is the invisible, "spiritual" world. The physical, material world that we see is either an illusion, or evil, or in some other sense a barrier to the soul's welfare. Spiritual progress is made by denying the "flesh" its appetites in order to focus one's energy upon the spiritual. Fasting, celibacy, sleep deprivation, unrelieved exposure to heat or cold, and poverty are all "disciplines" whereby the physical is suppressed that the spiritual may flourish. "Holy men" are those who are particularly adept at these ascetic disciplines. Through them, in combination with meditation on the divine, they are able to climb out of the material world, to ascend a spiritual ladder into the world of pure spirit, of the ideal, of God.
The apostles warn against this kind of asceticism. The Apostle Paul writes, "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)-- in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence." (Colossians 2:20-23)
The ascetics are always saying, "do not handle, do not taste, do not touch." Handling, tasting, and touching inhibit spiritual progress, they say. But the Apostle Paul calls this "the commandments and teaching of men." Yes, he says, "they have the appearance of wisdom." They have a certain logic to them, and seem to be very "religious" and "spiritual" practices. This "self-made" religion is very clever. It features "self-abasement" and "severe treatment of the body." Yet in the end it is fundamentally flawed because the problem is not the body, not the physical, not the material per se. Sin, the flesh, evil, may all corrupt the physical, but the physical is not itself evil. Consequently ascetic practices "are of no value against fleshly indulgence."
Similar statements are made in 1 Timothy 4:1-5: "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer."
The "doctrines of demons" of which he speaks are identified as "forbidding marriage" (i.e. celibacy) and "abstaining from foods" (i.e. fasting). The way of the ascetic, with his dualism of the spiritual and the material, is not the way of the Christian.
But doesn't Jesus command fasting? Yes, but not because it has any inherent power. What the Bible encourages is abstaining from certain things for certain seasons for the sake of devoting oneself to prayer. One might set aside food (Matthew 6:16-18), sexual relations (1 Corinthians 7:1-6), or work (e.g. the weekly Sabbath) in order to devote time for prayer. But the abstaining is not undertaken because there is any value in abstaining, or because there is any dishonor in partaking. Abstinence is only valued as a means of dedicating time to the things of God generally and to prayer specifically.
Through Origen (c.185-c.254), neo-platonism's ascetic philosophy made deep inroads into the Christian church. Medieval piety was essentially the piety of the ascetic. The ideal was the monk and his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and his disciplines of fasting, celibacy, and prayer (which required that he rise from his sleep at regular intervals through the night in order to pray and sing Psalms, thus depriving the body of sleep while devoting the soul to prayer).
The refutation of asceticism may be found in 1 Timothy 4:4: "Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected." Creation is good. The physical, the material, the body is good. The fact that God gives us bodies means that the body is a good thing.
Not only does the doctrine of creation refute ascetic spirituality, but so also does the doctrine of redemption. Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. The tomb was empty. Our bodies also will be raised from the earth and reconstituted (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Even as Jesus Christ "continueth to be God and Man, in two distinct natures and one person forever" (Shorter Catechism #21), so also we shall be physical beings for all eternity.
The body counts. This has significant implications for how we do ministry.
"Is evangelicalism (i.e. conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing Protestantism) monasticism's last stand?" asked J. I. Packer. There is a kind of spirituality or piety (the better word) that locates spiritual maturity in the degree of one's disdain for the physical and material. "I only need God," they will say. This can be a noble assertion of faith ("besides Thee I desire nothing on earth" - Psalm 73:25) or, more often I fear, it can be an expression of spiritual pride. "Unlike you unspiritual people, I care little about my physical appearance, or where I live, or what I wear." Concern for good food, one's physical surroundings, rest, relaxation, and aesthetic considerations are seen as "worldly." The refutation of this super-spirituality is this--God gave us bodies. We cannot pretend that we are disembodied spirits for whom the physical environment is of no consequence. We are not, nor shall we be in eternity, merely spirits. Since God gave us bodies, certain things must follow.
- The body's care matters -- the body should be bathed, groomed, dressed, fed, rested, and exercised. The health and hygiene of the body matters. It is not "spiritual" to see these concerns as "worldly." It would be wrong to say that if one were more "spiritual" one would not care about shaving or combing one's hair. God gave us our bodies. We are to take care of them.
- The body's activities matter -- eating, eliminating, sleeping, waking, playing, recreating, and procreating are all legitimate functions of the body. It is not true that if we were more "spiritual" we would not care about food, job, sports, naps, or marital intimacies. God gave us bodies. The body's natural functions are legitimate in their place. It is perfectly fine for the very most spiritual people to enjoy a fine restaurant, work out, and carry on after the manner of Proverbs 5:18-19.
- The body's environment matters -- if we were really spiritual, would the design and appearance of our homes, church buildings, and the built environment of our city matter to us? Let me ask it this way--if we were more spiritually-minded, would we be indifferent about whether a Bible Study met in a gray, windowless basement or in a well-decorated, multi-windowed, light, airy room with a high ceiling? Answer--no. In fact, I think just the opposite: the more spiritual we become the more we will care about the beauty and function of our built environment. Why? Because God gave us bodies. If we were disembodied spirits we might not care about the aesthetics of a room, about design, light, color, sound, or texture. But because God gave us bodies, the environment inhabited by the body matters. It makes a difference how we design our houses and buildings and how we decorate them. The nature of our natural and man-made environment impacts the quality of our lives and the fruitfulness of our ministry precisely because we minister to people who are physical beings.
We shouldn't fail to note our vulnerability to idolatry in each of these areas. Like the ancient Greeks, some have made an idol of the body in their pursuit of the ideal of physical perfection. Others make an idol of the bodies activities -- worshiping food, spectator sports, sex, recreation, or work. Still others bow down before houses and cars and boats and vacations, making enjoying "pretty things" the chief end of their existence. Yes, each of these three categories are susceptible to corruption. But in themselves they are not evil. Indeed they are God's gifts, given to beings with bodies, bodies to be cared for and enjoyed.