[Note: This is the second of a four part series developing a Christian theology of physical health. See here for part one. The three points you need to understand going forward are: 1) Your body is not your own, but God’s. 2) God likes your body. 3) You are supposed to use your body to glorify God.]
We have an unhealthy relationship with health, and I suspect a big part of it stems from non-preventable health issues. From cancer and Alzheimer’s to back and knee pains, a majority of us suffer in one way or another from non-preventable health issues. We fear what we cannot control, we fear pain, we fear death, so we avoid unhealthy bodies. We have an unhealthy relationship with unhealthy bodies.
Bartimaeus is a blind man, reduced to begging on the side of the road, when Jesus passed through Jericho, heading for Jerusalem. (Mark 10:46-52) The very next event in Mark’s Gospel is the triumphal entry that starts Holy Week. Jesus is on a mission, the most important mission the world has ever known. Bartimaeus has heard about Jesus, but never encountered him before. So when he heard that it was Jesus coming through, he had to find out for himself if life really is better with Jesus.
But the church got in the way. Mark tells us that those who were following Jesus tried to silence Bartimaeus. This is where we see our unhealthy relationship with unhealthy bodies. We just don’t like unhealthy bodies. They make us uncomfortable. We silence them. We ignore them. We push them off to the side. We relegate them to a particular place where they stay out of the way.
We might not do this in the most literal sense, but far too often we do it with our words. We see an unhealthy body, and we say to that body, “Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason.” We see that blind man and we reassure him, “You will see again in heaven.” We see someone whose cancer treatment isn’t working and we tell them, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to climb through a window. I don’t want to wait till Heaven to see again, I want to see now. Everything happens for a reason? I sure would love to know what that reason is.
We say these things thinking we are being faithful, thinking we are lifting up the spiritual, but we aren’t. In truth, we say these things to unhealthy bodies because we are uncomfortable and we don’t know what else to say. We say these things to unhealthy bodies because we don’t want those unhealthy bodies to get in the way of our all-important mission. We forget that unhealthy bodies are our mission.
When Jesus encountered an unhealthy body, he stopped. When Jesus and Bartimaeus stood face to face, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He did not assume he knew what Bartimaeus wanted. He did not offer words of consolation. He did not attempt to spiritualize Bart’s blindness or pain or suffering. He acknowledged the worth of this blind man, he met him as an equal, a beloved child of God. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked, because Jesus understood that God loves unhealthy bodies. God cares about unhealthy bodies. God is glorified in unhealthy bodies.
We have an unhealthy relationship with unhealthy bodies, and we think those unhealthy bodies cannot glorify God. Oh, we wouldn’t word it that way, but it’s true. We all have in our own heads an idealized body, what the right Christian looks like, and we subconsciously hold others to that imagined standard.
At best this leads us to such pity for bodies that don’t meet that standard that we rob them of their dignity and tell them they cannot do anything. At worst this false standard of healthy bodies leads us to racism and sexism and all other –isms that cause us to destroy and hate God-created bodies that do not match our ideal Christian image.
What if instead we saw the intrinsic worth of every body God has created? What if instead of deciding what a whole and healthy person looked like, we decided to allow God to be glorified in every body around us?
We have some very healthy bodies in my church. We have a group of competitive cheerleaders who have competed on the national stage. Those girls have disciplined their bodies and their minds so that they can do flips and kicks and toss each other around in unified rhythm; and folks, I sure can’t do that. Those young ladies are using the bodies God has given them, and I think God is glorified in that movement, that ability, that training and discipline.
Most of us here cannot do what those young ladies do. Most of us wouldn’t try. Charlene, another of my church members, had her leg amputated last year, and I don’t think she is up to doing backflips yet. From one point of view she will never be whole again. She is an unhealthy body, then. But that is not what I see when I look at Charlene.
I love Charlene. I love how she smiles. I know how hard it is for her to walk on that prosthetic leg, and the frustration it brings her, but she is walking anyway. I am proud because I know that Charlene is glorifying God in her body. It would have been easy for her to say, “I can’t do this.” It would have been easy for us to say, “Oh you poor thing, this is too hard for you,” or, “You will walk again in glory.” But I know that God is proud of every hard-fought step Charlene takes, and God is glorified in her body. She is today walking in glory here on Earth.
A few months ago I visited another church member just two days before she succumbed to cancer. You could literally see it in her muscles. The best she could do with what strength she had was open one eye to see me. Do you think God only cared about her when she was healthy? Do you think she was only worth however much she could do? Hardly. Scripture tells us that we are created in God’s image, to love and be loved. As I visited with her, I witnessed the love her husband has for his wife. In one single moment, quick and subtle, he was speaking of her and reached out a hand and caressed her cheek. I don’t know how many times he has done that in their life together. But right there, in that instant, I saw how his love for his wife in her unhealthy body glorified God.
From young, strong bodies that can do backflips to weak, frail bodies lying at death’s door, there is not a body out there that cannot, should not, glorify God. Health is wholeness, and we are not a healthy Church, we are not healthy followers of Christ, until we are whole; that is, we are not a healthy church until we are a church where all bodies are accepted and loved, their God-given dignity and worth kept and guarded. Then, in our frailty and weakness, God’s love and power are made complete and perfect.