looking in the fun-house mirror: on body image & Romans 8

posted in: on being a captive set free | 1

In the spirit of post-Thanksgiving bingeing and pre-Christmas sugar overload, I decided a fresh diet-and-exercise start was in order for Monday. Nothing too crazy, just cutting back on sugar and eating out and adding in a little exercise. So I woke up early in the morning, worked out, had a shake for breakfast, and made an omelet for lunch.

By 6:00, I picked up Little Caesars on the way home. Because, snow. And screaming kids. And, well, pizza.

So I decided to try Tuesday, which would normally be against the rules but since it was the 1st, it was acceptable.

Exercise again.
Drive thru for lunch.

Usually this would be enough to send me into a funk of failure. But good things have been happening in my heart and mind these past months. So while more energy and focus from better food and exercise are good goals I still have (Here’s to Monday!), I am finally starting to just feel “okay.” Okay in my own skin. Okay with imperfect Mondays and try-again-Tuesdays (and Wednesdays, Thursdays, etc.). Okay in these pants that are bigger than I’d like, because I look at my babies-now-big-kids and think I’d rather have them than be able to fit into my college jeans.

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image credit: littlepeoplescove.com

The Fun-House Mirror

I remember the first time I realized my body image was distorted. A roommate offered to loan me a pair of her jeans. I looked at her and laughed out loud–she was obviously several sizes smaller than I. But she persisted, so I tried them on. They fit! And not in a squeeze-into-them-and-hope-they-won’t-rip way! It was shocking. I thought back to those eating disorder specials on TV in junior high. The girl looked at her reflection and it acted like a fun-house mirror. We saw that she was skin and bones, but her reflection screamed back at her: You’re fat! You’re disgusting! You’ll never be beautiful! No one will ever want you!

I don’t know why I was surprised to find my view so distorted. I knew the fun-house taunting all too well. When I was 12, the onset of puberty and a sudden growth spurt finally got me the attention I craved, and I determined to do everything I could to keep it up. The years that followed were marked by cycles of diets, exercise plans, and forced vomit. All the while, I looked in the mirror and heard those cruel boys shout: Whale in the swimming pool!

While those jeans were a bit of a wake-up call, issues with my weight and identity have lingered in the years since. Having a baby well before my peers only exacerbated the problem as I compared their young, unmarked bodies with my own stretched and worn one. And while the security of marriage and a loving husband helped some, it turns out having two more babies doesn’t do much for one’s figure. It has continued to be a struggle as I consider what it looks like to honor God with my body while also fighting the lies of our culture and the taunts of the fun-house mirror.

Romans 8 and Body Image

I’ve been studying Romans 8 for several months in preparation for a conference a few weeks ago. While I was there, someone asked the question, “What does Romans 8 have to say about body image?” It passed quickly without a thorough answer, so I thought perhaps it is worth revisiting here. Here are four applications I take from Romans 8 that relate to body image:

#1: God does not condemn you.

Beauty is culturally defined and therefore entirely arbitrary. Some cultures want child-bearing hips, ours asks for legs the size of toothpicks. The question we must ask ourselves is what is the standard I am trying to achieve and why? Scripture does not give us an ideal body type. But God does give us a moral standard under which we all fall short.

The desire to look in the mirror and like what we see is the fruit of a deeply rooted desire of the soul to be okay. The law of God is written upon our consciences and we are ever aware of our many failures to measure up. Extra weight, diet failures, missed workouts–in our fallen minds, these become more evidence indicting us. So we respond by trying to justify ourselves. We make a plan, start on Monday, and work to achieve some impossible standard of perfection.

Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The reality of the Gospel is that, in Christ, you are okay. In your current physical state, whether you ate a made-from-scratch, organic, clean meal or ordered a greasy pizza, whether you ran 15 miles or sat at a desk all day, you are okay because the blood of Christ makes you okay.

#2: People cannot condemn you.

If we’re honest, we don’t necessarily want to achieve a certain physical state because we want to please God (though I think that underlies all of our efforts), we want to please others. We want people to think we’re beautiful, sexy, confident, strong, fill-in-the-blank. So while God’s law does not demand physical fitness, it has become an extra law that has been heaped upon our shoulders by ourselves or others.

But while Romans 8:1 assures us we are free from condemnation, verses 33-34 take that further, applying it to our fears: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” There is no one who can condemn us! Because God has justified us in Christ, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

The beauty of God’s love for us is that it does not depend on us. It is not based on something within us or around us that may change; it depends upon God who never changes.

But the love of people is fickle. I experienced that in the form of teenage boys. I got skinny, they wanted me. I didn’t give them what they wanted, they didn’t want me any more. I did give them what they wanted, they didn’t want me any more. So I found myself trying to be skinnier and more beautiful and more available to try to earn their attention and acceptance. But it turns out I didn’t need it! I have all the approval I need because of Christ. If you think I’m fat, well, that’s on you. I’m not saying there are not heart and sin issues that may need to be addressed when it comes to food and exercise, but I am saying that achieving some ideal body type will not give us the satisfaction we crave. Feeling approved of by people will not give us the satisfaction we crave. It will never be enough. Only when we rest in the acceptance that is ours as God’s beloved children will we find the freedom to peel back the layers and address the issues beneath the surface.

By definition, body image refers to how we see ourselves. So it’s necessary to take this one step further. While I think a distorted body image flows from an assumption about how others view us, the reality is, we also want to please ourselves. We want to look in the mirror and like what we see. Yet even here, we have no power even to condemn ourselves. Christ’s blood trumps every accusation, whether from outside of us or from within. Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:2).

#3: God is at work in all things.

In Romans 8:28-30, we see God’s promise to work all things for the good of those who love God; the good being the transformation of our character, that we would be more and more like Christ. I see at least a couple of implications to the discussion of body image.

First, it’s a matter of priority. God’s priority is our holiness. Achieving a certain body type does not necessarily make someone more or less holy. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4: “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (v. 7-8). He does not say that physical training has no value, but he puts it in its proper place. The goal, the focus, the priority is Christ-like character, not a culturally acceptable body type.

Next, how God works. Since God is working to bring about our holiness, and since He is at work in all things, then it follows that your struggle in physical disciplines bears fruit in spiritual ways. Our struggles and successes related to physical appearance are a means God will use to expose our idols, root out our pride, challenge our selfishness, etc. This gives us hope in the struggle. When you blow your diet for the 354th time, you can have confidence that God will use even this failure to continue to shape you into the image of His Son. He has promised to finish what He started (Phil. 1:6).

#4: Our bodies are tools, not treasures.

When I was in college, I took a “break” to live in Los Angeles (because that’s what responsible people do). While I was there, my parents generously decided to give me a car. They flew me home, my mom drove the car out with me, and then she flew home. The next day, I totaled it. They may have been really angry, but in this case, they hid it well, because while I apologized profusely my dad said, “The car is just a tool. We’re glad you’re okay.”

Romans 8:23 says that we are groaning alongside the fallen creation, eagerly awaiting our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. Our bodies exist in a fallen state. Death, decay, sickness–these things are all the result of the Fall, and we experience them in these bodies we inhabit. Why do we work so hard to preserve a fallen body that will inevitably die? We have the promise of future glory, of a resurrected body that will never experience sickness or death. But until then, we live in the “not yet” with bodies which might not cooperate.

It is a lie of our culture that the most important thing is our health. An article at Desiring God this week debunked this myth:

God clearly states, “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). When you are sick, Paul is there to remind you that your “outer nature is wasting away,” while your “inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Is it really most important, given this brief mist of a life, to maintain pristine health? God thinks not. He is committed to the display of his glory (Isaiah 43:7) and invites you to embrace that mission as one of utmost importance (1 Corinthians 10:31). God did not think the most important thing about his incarnate Son was his health.

You may have heard the language, “Your body is a temple” applied to the pursuit of physical health and wellness. The verse is from 1 Corinthians: “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” (6:19-20). I have not studied this passage in detail, but even just a quick glance makes me think the application to physical fitness is a stretch. The context appears to be the way we use our bodies to engage in sin. Instead, we are to honor God with our bodies. Do we do that by exercising daily and eating organic? Or do we do that by laying down our lives for others? Paul uses similar language in Phil. 1:20 as he faces the very real possibility that he will lose his life for the sake of the Gospel.

Our bodies are tools that God has given us to accomplish his purposes on earth, by His power and for His glory. 2 Corinthians 4 says we carry the treasure of the gospel in jars of clay. We are cracked, clay pots. Why does God leave us in this form? Why doesn’t he transform us now into beautiful china vases that he displays on a shelf? Because as weak vessels, we “show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7)

A friend said to me once, “You gotta take care of your Earth Suit. There are people who depend on you.” Just like a car needs oil changes and regular maintenance, we ought to steward our bodies as the tools God has given us. Thinking in this way is a giant step towards a healthier body image. Our bodies are fallen, but while we are here, they can be more or less useful if we take care of them. But the goal is not form, it’s function. We want our bodies to be ready for whatever God would call us to in service to Him and others. But He intentionally made each of us unique. We are not meant to strive for an unattainable mold but rather to celebrate the Creator who didn’t use one.

The New Mirror

The reality is our physical bodies can serve to reveal the issues of our heart. Our relationship to food, our desire for the approval and recognition of others, the lie that achieving a certain weight or size will bring satisfaction–all of these are things worth wrestling with. Physical training is of some value. Clean, organic food might be better for you. I should probably not eat so much pizza. But the reality is, our bodies are groaning alongside creation. We are longing to be made new. That is our hope. One day, there will no longer be a fun house mirror. One day, these perishable bodies will be raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42). One day, our body image will no longer be distorted, because when Christ appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).

One Response

  1. Hooray! Alleluia, and thank you Jesus. Amen!