Educating the Body

–March of 2007

Educating the Body

Eva Sutton is a ninety-two-year-old resident of a nursing home.  Her days are lived in the shadowy world of dementia.  She has a number of children and grandchildren, but if you mention them to her she will talk of another era.  She rattles on about her mother and father as if they were alive and she was still a child.   Eva was an active part of her church and its organist for over forty years.   So on most days, she will sit at the piano in the foyer of the nursing home doing what she loves the most—playing the old hymns. The hymns that she played for decades are now lodged in her bones and are released through age-bent fingers with what appears to be little effort.

Eva Sutton reminds us that the body learns – that it can be educated.  That it can be deeply and resiliently marked by that education.  Her fingers and tongue and lips remember the old hymns, even when her broken mind doesn’t.

The athlete calls this “muscle memory.”  One practices movements over and over again until one can do them without thought or any mental awareness of what is happening.  We ride our bikes, milk a cow, swim, make our beds, play basketball and do a host of other things without ever thinking about or analyzing the movements we make.  Our body knows what to do, and it just does it.

The Apostle Paul understood this and admonished us to “…exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (I Timothy 4:7-8).  He understood that spiritual formation involves the whole person, not just the spiritual part of us but the physical body as well.  Actually, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life and is a chief ally in the formation of Christlikeness.  Paul again makes this clear in a question to the Corinthians: “Are you unaware that your body is a temple to the Holy Spirit from God, Who is within you?  And that you are not your own property?  A price has been paid for you.  So make your body a showplace of God’s greatness” (I Cor. 6:19-20, paraphrase).  This truth is quite a shock for many 21st century Christians who disconnect the mind and heart from the body in their spiritual walk.  For those who “walk in the flesh,” the body may well be the primary barrier to conformity to Christ.  But that is not because it has to be that way.  The body is not some uncontrollable mass that carries our head around.  It is not inherently evil, or the cause of evil.  The body, when presented to God, can be a servant unto righteousness — in fact, it must be.  The proper training, enculturation, and disciplining of the body is absolutely essential to spiritual formation.

Actually it’s the body that often learns first and can retain that learning long after the mind is gone.  We teach our children to speak words of appreciation long before they understand true gratitude, for we know that trained, repeated responses of thankfulness can in the long run create an attitude of gratitude that can mark them for life.  We instruct them in the posture and words of daily prayer years before they understand its real value because we want them to develop the habit of daily prayer.  We repeat this process with acts of mercy, deeds of kindness, and respect for authority and age.  We are “training up the child in the way he should go: so that when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

For those who need help in this area, there are some practical steps you can follow to bring the body under the control of the Spirit.

  1. Surrender your body totally to God.  (Romans 12:1.)  This must be decisive and complete.  You must then understand that the body is no longer your own to do with as you please.
  2. Refuse to make the body your ultimate concern. (Matthew 6:25-34.)  Contemporary culture idolizes the body.  We are overly concerned with food, fashion, fitness, longevity, sickness, and death.  We can become far more concerned about the body’s wellness and care than we can about its usefulness to God.   The body is not a god to worship.  I recently went on an extended fast just to let my belly know I was still boss and that feeding it was not the ultimate concern in my life.
  3. Stop misusing the body.  (I Corinthians 6:12-17.)   Stop using the body to speak the language of this present world.  Christians do not dress to look sexy or any other way that misuses the body by accentuating its sensuality. They do not need a “power tie” or any other clothes that tend to elevate them above others or possibly intimidate others.  We do not misuse the body by lacking sleep, being a workaholic, or eating too much or the wrong things.  The body doesn’t have to have a steak, sex, or Sony’s latest Play Station when it wants it.  Food is our servant, and we are not its slave.  Sex is for the mutual benefit of a husband and wife in the context of a marriage relationship.  Recreation is my servant, kept within the bounds of wise stewardship.
  4. Honor and care for the body as God’s Temple. (I Corinthians 6:19-20.)  The body should be nourished, cared for, rested, and adorned so that we may glorify God in our bodies.
  5. Train the body in godliness and grace. (I Timothy 4:7-8.)  Writers on spiritual formation have listed around twelve spiritual disciplines that have been used through the ages to cultivate Christlikeness and to keep the body as a servant to righteousness.  Make the practice of some of them or all of them a part of your spiritual exercise routine.

Coy McGinnis has been a preacher of the gospel for over fifty years, much of that time spent in evangelism.  He recently passed away after battling cancer for several years.  Toward the end, there were times when his mind was not clear from the sickness and the medicine.  On one such occasion in the middle of the night, while still asleep, he cleared his throat, announced his text, quoted it, and then preached a complete sermon from John 1:29.  When he finished the sermon, he stretched out his arms and pled for souls to come to Christ.  He was never aware of any of this.  Preaching has so marked his life that he could literally do it in his sleep.

The body can be deeply marked and thoroughly educated.  If you don’t think so, don’t try to convince Eva Sutton or Rev. McGinnis – they know better.

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