“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” —St. Paul, First Epistle to the Corinthians
“This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you.” —Toni Morrison, Beloved
When Kasia and I were still dating, she noticed a few odd things about my behavior—and thought she had a scientific explanation for them.
She noticed that 1.) I would often space out, which for the longest time she interpreted as me becoming withdrawn and emotionally unavailable; 2.) I would periodically go into “mini-funks,” bouts of deep depression that generally only lasted three to four days, which made her believe that I had some kind of depressive disorder; 3.) I would often complain of having “brain fog,” barely able to string two lucid sentences together, which she attributed to internalized stress; and 4.) I would get tired and worn out much more easily than a man of my health and fitness should, making her wonder, What on earth is wrong with my boyfriend?
Eventually, she rejected all the psychological, emotional, and even spiritual explanations for why I struggled with those things. No, in her mind, she knew exactly what the problem was. It was actually very simple.
“I think you have food allergies.”
Food allergies? I thought. I’ve never had food allergies! Besides, how could what you eat cause all those problems?
Did I mention my girlfriend (soon-to-be wife) was a doctor?
“Of course it could cause those problems,” she said. “Allergy sensitivities cause inflammation. Inflammation can cause everything from brain fog and sluggishness to feeling depressed and emotionally strung out.”
Didn’t matter that I wasn’t a doctor. I wasn’t buying it.
“Listen,” I said. “It’s just the way I’m wired. I’m prone to what some early Christians called ‘debilitating melancholy.’ That means I’m just a sensitive soul. Those things are probably the result of sin in my life, or demonic attack, or something like that. Or maybe I have some trauma from childhood that I’ve buried and haven’t dealt with yet, and that’s what’s causing it.” Now, as Kasia and I talked, we did agree that emotional issues and psychosomatic symptoms like fatigue and depression can have a spiritual source. But she was pretty emphatic that a significant amount of my symptoms could be attributed to a simple explanation: I was eating things I shouldn’t be eating.
I resisted her. I refused to go off wheat and dairy, as she suggested. What! No cream in my coffee? No Minsky’s deep-dish pepperoni pizza with extra cheese? No Wildcat burger from Kite’s Bar and Grill? Impossible!
It wasn’t until a year or so after Kasia and I got married, when I went to hang out with my friend Barret, that I decided it might be legit. I told Barret about what I thought was her ludicrous theory, and was surprised by his response.
“Kasia thinks I need to go off gluten and dairy,” I lamented to Barret. “She thinks my weird symptoms have to do with food allergies.”
“Oh, totally, dude!” Barret said. “That’s a thing. For sure. I know this girl who went off gluten, lost sixty pounds, and felt a billion times better.”
“Really?” I said. “Okay, cool. I’ll do it!”
That was that.
“You don’t listen to your doctor wife,” Kasia later told me, rolling her eyes. “But you listened to your college-age friend.”
“Hey,” I said. “He’s my bro.”
So I went off gluten and dairy. Guess what?
Within a couple weeks, I felt like a new man! My ability to concentrate was exponentially better. I had more energy. Sure, I still struggled with being down in the dumps from time to time, but that was usually because I had a rational reason to be discouraged. (Like I didn’t feel like I was performing well at work. Or the political divisiveness of our nation got to me. Or they cast Ben Affleck as Batman.)
But at the end of the day, my mind felt clearer, my body felt better, and guess what? This positively affected my spiritual life.
What I’m trying to say is that, yes, you could be in spiritual turmoil because you’re harboring sin against God in your heart. Or you could be in some sort spiritual warfare with the Forces of Darkness.
Or . . .
You could just be allergic to wheat or dairy.
You could have respiratory problems because there’s mold in your house.
You could struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome because you have a genetic predisposition to it.
In other words, there could be a physical reason that you are struggling spiritually. Your soul may be suffering with your body.
If you want to pursue your God-given potential, what you need to fully understand—or at least remind yourself of again and again—is that there is a direct relationship between your body and your soul. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it nicely: “human beings are a unity of the physical and the spiritual.” This statement is clearly supported in Scripture. The book of Genesis often relates historical events in mythopoetic language, using vivid literary imagery. To describe the creation of Adam, the first man, the Bible says that God created his body from the “dust of the ground” and breathed into him the “breath of life.” The word we translate “breath” is the Hebrew ruach, which can also be translated “wind” or “spirit.” This passage clearly communicates not only the two constituent parts of every human being—body and soul—but also their deep connectedness.
What is interesting is that, throughout the history of the Church, true believers have defended the importance of the body against the false and dangerous idea that the body doesn’t matter, or even that it is bad. One of the earliest major heresies was Gnosticism, which taught that all physical matter, including our bodies (and Christ’s body), was corrupted. They believed that only the spiritual could be pure, so they denied the redeeming power of the incarnation and Christ’s physical resurrection, claiming that his appearances after Easter were merely a spiritual presence, that he had become “purified” through his death. This could not be further from the truth; Saint John wrote that “the Word [a title for Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, emphasis mine), showing the powerful fact of the incarnation. Similarly, Saint Luke, in his gospel, really emphasizes the physicality of Jesus after his resurrection:
“And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.” (Luke 24:40–42)
Saint Paul went so far as to say, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins . . . [and] if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:14,32). In context, it is clear that the Apostle means raised physically; that is, literally and metaphorically. The renowned America novelist John Updike captured Paul’s sentiments well:
“Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.”
All this to say, from the resurrection to this day, Christianity has always emphasized the importance of our physical bodies.
When we sin sexually, we sin against our own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:18).
When our lives are evaluated at the Last Judgment, one of the most important criteria is whether we met the physical needs of the poor and hungry (James 2:16).
But bodies aren’t just an occasion of sin for us, an opportunity to fall or fail to do justice for our brothers and sisters. Christianity has always taught that Christ, by entering creation, dignified it. That doesn’t just include our bodies, it especially means our bodies. By becoming one of us, Jesus changed what “one of us” means, including “people with bodies.” Contrary to popular belief, heaven is not a cloud-filled, disembodied state. Eternal life with Jesus means living in physical, resurrected bodies, like his own, in a physical universe that has been resurrected and restored to perfection (1 Corinthians 15).
In addition to all this, it is very telling (in my opinion) that three of the major metaphors for the Christian life involve physical training and exertion. Of all the ways he describes the life of faith, Saint Paul uses three analogies more than any other: Christians are like farmers, athletes, and soldiers (2 Timothy 2:3–6). Farming requires immense physical toil. Athletes must work hard to perfect their bodies for competition. Prior to the dawn of modern weaponry, soldiers could not possibly hope to win a battle unless they were in peak physical condition.
The implications for those of us who want to pursue our God-given potential are obvious: if we want to be all that God wants us to be, we must take our physical fitness seriously. We must eat well, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and get good rest and sleep. More than that, if we are serious about improving ourselves, evolving as human beings, we must challenge ourselves physically, just like we would challenge ourselves mentally and spiritually.
In other words, it is great for a believer to want to study hard to gain greater understanding of, say, the doctrine of the Trinity. It is obviously valuable for a Christian to want to challenge themselves to pray more often. But it is also valuable for a man or woman of God to commit to more difficult physical challenges: to graduate from running 5Ks, for example, to training for half marathons.
The reality is, too many Christians use Saint Paul’s words as a proof text: “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value in all things” (1 Timothy 4:8). Too many amateur Bible interpreters have read this to mean the Apostle is downplaying the importance of physical exercise. He’s not. He’s emphasizing the importance of godliness! But if you take the rest of the Bible into account, it is clear that fundamental to godliness is how you take care of and train your body. It is, after all, the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” Wouldn’t we want that temple to be built in the most sound, sturdy way, presented as beautifully as possible? I can tell you from my own life that when I place value on my physical health and well-being, good things happen in my spiritual life. When I become more disciplined in the gym, that discipline overflows into my Bible reading and prayer life. When I learn to exercise, regardless of whether I feel like it or not, it conditions me to resist various temptations, whether I feel like doing what God desires of me or not. Training to become physically fit reminds me of the importance of training to become spiritually mature.
To be a Christian, both theologically and practically, is to recognize that our bodies matter, and what we do to and with them matters. If we genuinely believe that they are temples of the Holy Spirit, we are obliged to treat them with reverence and care, disciplining body and soul so that we can grow close to God, and eventually enjoy eternity with him.