Teacher and writer Marilyn Chandler McEntyre reminds the reader of a simple yet sacred command in this article. The care of creation is a prominent theme throughout the Bible—and that duty encompasses all of creation. Nurturing and respecting our bodies is part of that holy task, McEntyre asserts. She opens by citing a passage from Toni Morrison’s well-known work, Beloved, in which a main character, Baby Suggs, an old woman who has cared for scores of escaped slaves, encourages those who have suffered to join her in a ritual of recovery and gratitude.
Her words to this beloved community go right to the heart of their pain: she calls them to take a long, close look at their bodies—abused and despised as they have been—and to love them.
As I often do when I read, pen or pencil in hand, I write notes or references in the margins. I prefer the feel of a book in my hands over a glowing tablet. (Although I confess, I still spend far too much time with my neck and shoulders curved downward gazing at a device.) As I was reading McEntyre’s article about the care of the body being a primary spiritual focus, I drew a triangle in the left margin and wrote “Maslow.” Her words about the work of the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) and other organizations do in rescuing victims of systemic abuse and human slavery, made me recall Maslow’s human development theory, “Hierarchy of Needs.” McEntyre notes,
About 27 million people worldwide live in slavery. They suffer a wide range of physical abuses: excessive cold, inadequate shelter and clothing, beatings, water boarding, malnourishment, and rape. They bear in their bodies the wages of collective sin that many of us find it hard to acknowledge, even as we wear, eat, and profit from the fruits of exploited labor. . . . [These ministries come alongside victims and] recognize violation of bodies as assaults on souls and begin the work of healing with touch, food, and safe shelter(emphasis added).
Jesus, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. certainly demonstrated that practicing the care of the body and uplifting the dignity of others is the foundational way of showing God’s love.
McEntyre goes on to illustrate how important the care of the physical body is in other contexts as well. To touch a homeless persons hand, hold a wheezing baby born into poverty, etc. are ways we can undo depriving the “unclean” of physical contact. Care for the body is a sacred task. Those in the medical sphere have documented that physical healing can have a profound transformation in attitude and sense of self-worth. Even patients who have impaired bodies can retrain them and renew their lives in profound ways that compensate and reframe their condition. Those who are dying are touched bodily by hospital staff and hospice workers in ways that validate their body and communicate tenderness.
As in sickness, so in health, attention to the body can ground and foster the life of the spirit. As Baby Suggs preaches, “If we are to use our bodies—our hands, our voices, our eyes, our feet—as instruments of love, we must love them first.”
McIntyre’s words here ring so loudly in my ears as I find myself dancing around the impossible standards of physical appearances placed on me as a middle-aged woman, mothering a “tween” daughter.
[We are conditioned] to focus obsessively on our bodies—not always, however, with the loving-kindness they deserve. Even articles that urge us to lower our sugar intake, exercise for heart health, and practice deep breathing may neglect to inspire us with the life-giving reassurance that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
When we slip back into the chasm of dualism as this entire issue on “Spirituality and the Body” speaks about, it’s easy to get sidetracked and forget that we are eternal beings. True beauty isn’t fleeting! What better incentive is there to lovingly care for our bodies than to recognize them as instruments in God’s hands, as McEntyre reminds us. The closing lines in this essay are worth repeating here:
The life of the body is paradoxical—vulnerable and resilient, fragile and sturdy, reliable and most surprising. We get the strength we need for this moment, not the next. , , , We wake into the day equipped by the sleep that restores strength for that one day. . . . With every prayer uttered, breathed, remembered, we receive just the grace we need. Know that your body is animated by a force you cannot control, that even as you sleep, your cells do their intricate, quiet work, and you who have been fearfully and wonderfully made are rooted, grounded, and sustained in a love made visible in bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made, marvelous among God’s works, and worthy of thoughtful care and faithful stewardship.”
02. Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever thought about the intricacies of your body, and how the different parts, functioning together, testify to a Creator? Are you aware of your body as you pray? How is awareness of our physical body helpful as we commune with God?
- Spend some time reflecting on the care of the body being a sacred task that is inseparable from the care of the soul. Is there an area that you are curious about integrating this concept into your view of self? How might that change “mundane” moments into holy invitations?
- In her book, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Chandler Calhoun writes: “As we practice self-care we intentionally receive ourselves as God’s own beloved. Receiving this love into our bodies births the ability to give love and forgiveness to ourselves and others.”Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, “Self-Care” (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Formatio; Revised, 2015), 72. Talk to God about what it is like to receive yourself as he receives you.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Breath slowly and notice any tightness in your body. What is your body saying to you right now? Listen to it. Don’t scold it. How would Jesus want you to care for yourself right now?
03. Additional Resources
Thompson, Adam, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Refresh, 2020).
Young, Adam, “Why Listening to Your Body Leads to Healing, Part 1,” November 26, 2023, in The Place We Find Ourselves podcast, 33:31,