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Monday, March 6, 2017

Honest Lent: Your Body's Needs

Diagram of organs of the human body.
The next Honest Lent reading is Galations 5:16-26.

So it's about "the flesh" and "the Spirit." There is a list of "the acts of the flesh" and another list of "the fruit of the Spirit." What's surprising to me is that "the acts of the flesh" are, for the most part, very obviously immoral things. Which isn't at all what I think of when Christians talk about "the flesh."

In my experience in evangelical culture, "the flesh" meant our natural bodies and everything that comes with being an incarnate person in a body- and "the flesh" was evil. Anything our bodies needed or desired was suspect. It was "selfish" to pursue our bodies' needs and desires- it was only okay if it could be justified as obedience to God. For example, it's not okay to say "I want to sleep because I want to sleep." (Because hey, you are being lazy- if you were really devoted to God, you would wake up early and read the bible. How selfish and wrong to put your desire for sleep before God.) It has to be spiritualized, like "God commanded us to rest, God designed us to need sleep, sleep is a way of showing that we trust God and we realize we're not so important that the world can't survive without us for several hours a night."

I believed "God is all I need." And it was a sign of devotion to God to push my body, to sacrifice, to ignore my body's needs. Wake up early instead of sleep. Attend tons of Christian groups and bible studies even though I naturally need more "alone time." Don't buy nice things for myself- that money should be donated to poor people on the other side of the world. Pray and pray and pray when I feel lonely, squash down my romantic attraction.

(Someday I'll write about how purity culture is the reason I've never gotten a massage. Well, also I don't want to because I don't like random people touching me- but yeah, in purity culture, the idea of purposely spending time touching and pleasuring your body is just HORRIFYING.)

In short, I pretended I didn't have a body that had needs. "The flesh" was evil. "The flesh" was a source of temptation. There's this idea in Christianity that the self- the soul- is a totally separate thing from the body. That your body doesn't have anything to do with who you really are. It's just a "temporary vessel."

I don't believe that anymore. I believe I am a body, subject to the laws of biology. (Also there's consciousness, which is a real thing and seems like more than just a biological phenomenon, but I'm not sure exactly.) Eating, sleeping, emotions, pleasure. (Go ahead and put sex on the list if you want, though I wouldn't know about that.) When I get angry, my body feels shaky and I have a really hard time with fine muscle movements. When I get nervous, my stomach feels sick. Emotions aren't just abstract things; they have actual effects I can feel in my body, and noticing those reactions is very important in terms of health. Mental health is an important part of health.

And what's more, your body is REALLY COOL! All these natural processes going on without you even knowing. Really complicated, important science stuff.

So don't "war against the flesh." Pay attention to your body. Your needs matter. Your desires matter. Your health matters.

One more thing I'd like to mention: In this passage, "the flesh" and "the Spirit" are presented as totally separate, binary, like there's nothing in between. When I read passages with "vice lists" like this, my instinctual reaction is to be like "okay, those are all really bad, that's not me, so I'm okay." The writer says, "I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." As if all people can be neatly classified into two groups. As if these things are all so incredibly bad, and therefore the punishment is incredibly bad, there's no spectrum of gradually increasing degress of badness. As if, if you find that you have any of these faults listed here, you're officially the wrong type of person and that's that.

What if, instead, we say immorality is incompatible with the kingdom of God? So to the extent you behave immorally, you will be unable to participate in the kingdom of God- not as an externally-enforced punishment, but just because by definition your immoral behavior creates a situation that is not good and therefore not part of the kingdom of God.

I'm not a fan of this dichotomy between "the flesh" and "the Spirit", as if they are two completely separate, opposite forces at war in our lives. Especially because it leads to the teaching that our bodies are inherently bad, and that it's inherently good and godly to ignore our bodies' needs and desires.

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