Spiritual Growth Objective

Cultivate habits that direct our physical desires

and nurture our bodies toward health and holiness.

Introduction to the Body

The body is perhaps the most neglected topic and the one many people least expect to encounter in works on Christian spiritual formation. Why is it so important to pursue the health and transformation of our bodies as part of our spiritual growth?

The body images God. God created human beings with physical bodies (Genesis 1-2). Our bodies are an aspect of the image of God because through our bodies we interact with God and his creation, reflect God’s character in action, and participate in God’s loving rule over creation. Contrary to world-denying philosophies with negative views of the material world, the Christian faith has a sacramental view of reality that celebrates the goodness of the body. The body is a means of knowing God himself, for God interacts with us through physical means. The whole physical world declares and reveals the attributes of God (Psalm 19:1-4; Acts 14:16-17; Romans 1:19-20), and God’s dealings with human beings are mediated by physical things. The means through which we interact with God most directly are physical objects and actions, including the actions of worship (reading, teaching, hearing the word of God; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; prayer with music) and the environment of worship (e.g., the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple fulfilled in the person of Christ and the church). Furthermore, our bodily emotions and desires are gifts of God that he delights to fulfill with the abundance of his generosity in accordance with his good design and purpose. Our desires for food and drink, the warmth of human touch, sexual intimacy, work and rest, the beauty of artistic expression, all play a role in the ways we image and enjoy God and his good creation.

Sin affects the body. Human sin and its consequences affect every dimension of human life, including our bodies. Our bodies are means of committing sinful actions because our bodies express the sinful thoughts and intentions of the heart. Moreover, our bodies receive and bear the impact of sin and its curse. In a world suffering the curse of sin, we become subject to disease and decay. The habits we choose sometimes become enslaving physical addictions, and the wounds and trauma we experience at the hands of others leave their mark in the functioning of our body. Although God made us for immortality, the penalty of sin causes us to suffer death, which breaks down the very integrity of human persons in separating soul and body (Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10). Thus, the whole creation groans in its bondage to corruption awaiting the redemption of human beings in soul and body (Romans 8:21-23).

Salvation in Christ transforms and resurrects the body. Since our condition of sin and misery affects every dimension of human life, including our physical bodies, God heals us from the curse of sin by coming into this world as a fully human being. Our salvation comes through the body as the incarnate God was born of Mary to live a fully human life. He demonstrated God’s care for our physical life by healing broken human bodies (Luke 4:16-19), and ultimately by offering himself in a sacrificial death to bear fully in his human soul and body the destructive consequences of sin. By rising from the dead in victory over sin and death itself, Jesus’ resurrected body becomes the beginning and source of the resurrection of his people and the whole groaning creation (1 Corinthians 15:12-49). And even while we await our final resurrection and liberation from sin’s curse, God already dwells in us, making our bodies the temple of his Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) who produces healing transformation in us by the resurrection life of Christ, a transformation that will one day give immortal life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:9-11). Because God’s redeeming care for us extends to our body, spiritual growth in Christ naturally entails cultivating and caring for the health and flourishing of our bodies according to God’s design.

Resources for Study

The following resources not only provide biblical instruction about the role of the body in God’s plan for our spiritual formation but also focus on several kinds of bodily needs, desires, and brokenness that often prove to be difficult challenges in our pursuit of Christ-like health and holiness:

  • Physical fitness
  • Rest and sleep
  • Sexuality
  • Trauma from emotional and physical suffering
The Role of the Body in Spiritual Formation God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body This five-part study examines important biblical texts about the high value of our bodies in God’s purposes for us, which God reveals in our creation as God’s image as well our redemption by Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. Being Known Podcast Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson explains the relationships between interpersonal neurobiology and spiritual formation. Understanding the intertwining of soul and body helps us know ourselves and others better and equips us to be better stewards of our emotions, our stories, and our relationships with God and others. Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Tyndale, 2010). Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson examines the relationships between interpersonal neurobiology and spiritual formation. Thompson explains the biological dimensions of emotions, attachment, and relationships and describes ways that spiritual practices in relationship with God (interaction with Scripture, prayer, etc.) and finding connection with others affect both soul and body and help us address pursue transformation and healing with greater wisdom. For tastes of the book, see these talks: Spirituality, Neuroplasticity, and Personal Growth Anatomy of the Soul (part 1) Anatomy of the Soul (part 2) Anatomy of the Soul (part 3) Sam Allberry, What God Has to Say about Our Bodies: How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves (Crossway, 2021). This book shows that the Bible has a lot to say about the body and shows how the practical significance of Scripture’s teaching on this topic impacts how Christians should think and behave. It is organized around three categories―what God intended for the body (creation), the impact of sin on the body (fall), and how God will redeem the body (redemption)―and provides believers with a balanced and accessible theology of the body as we seek to glorify God in everything we do. Physical Fitness Body Matters This three-part study examines our body’s worth in God’s design and love for us and consequently our calling to glorify God in our bodies. It concludes with a session on setting clear, realistic, and goals for physical health. Rest and Sleep The Spiritual Benefits of a Good Night's Sleep This three-part study examines the priority, necessity, and purpose of sleep as well as the many emotional and cultural pressures that make sleep difficult. God sanctifies and establishes a pattern for human rest by his own Sabbath rest, and thus our sleep becomes an opportunity and a challenge to image God by trusting his provision for needs. Martin Sweeney, Thank God for Bedtime: What God Says about Our Sleep and Why It Matters More Than You Think (Matthias Media, 2020). The Bible has a surprising amount of teaching about sleep, and this short book examines the key passages to show how sleep is a gift of God and opportunity to trust God with our lives. A. J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Brazos, 2018). Swoboda combines academic research with powerful storytelling to push back against patterns of unceasing busyness by explaining the blessing of regular rest. Keeping Sabbath is a way of life that results in restoration and healing of people and communities and leads to fuller, more joyful lives when we trust God enough to take care of our bodies, our souls, and our work by resting. Sexuality Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality (Zondervan, 2017). An outstanding overview of the positive Christian vision of the meaning of being created male and female and the purpose of God’s good gift of sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage. Wilson also helpfully explains how marriage and sex are not ultimate; rather, we also find fulfillment of maleness and femaleness in deep friendships within the context of the family of God. Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With? (Good Book, 2020). This short book examines God’s good design for the expression of human sexuality, showing that God himself is love and that only he can satisfy our deepest desires. And the fullness of joy in God’s gift of sexuality can only be known in the marital context for which God designed sexual intimacy. For a taste of the book, see the following podcast and talk: Paul Tripp, Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts (P & R, 2018). Christian counselor Paul Tripp shows various ways common cultural beliefs, images, stories, and practices regarding sex distort God’s good gift into something destructive, dehumanizing, and ultimately unsatisfying. Tripp examines how the grace of Christ redeems what is broken about our sexuality in way that gives us the true joy God designed when we embrace his good purposes for us. At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry This video series provides a detailed study of the spiritual dynamics that lead us into sexual sin and the way that God heals and leads us out of sexual sin by his grace in Christ. It covers biblical teaching about sin, temptation, spiritual warfare, confession, humble repentance, the grace of God, the slow process of spiritual growth, and grace-based spiritual disciplines leading us to greater holiness. To gain free access to RightNow Media, sign up for an account HERE. 20 Truths That Helped Me in My Battle with Porn Addiction After years of addiction to pornography and illicit sex had left him defeated and without hope, God liberated Steve Gallagher from his addictions and helped him find healing and restoration in Christ. In these twenty very short videos (7-11 minutes each), Gallagher relates 20 vital biblical truths that he learned in the process of gaining freedom. To gain free access to RightNow Media, sign up for an account HERE. The Samson Society A Christian ministry that helps men find freedom from addiction to pornography and learn how to form supportive friendships to be companions in spiritual growth. There are a wealth of resources here including articles, free books, videos, and podcasts (on learning to walk with Christ as an addict in recovery and on positive sobriety). Fight the New Drug This organization offers a vast amount of current research and personal stories about the extensive mental, emotional, and relational damage caused by pornography. Physical roots of emotions and trauma Matthew LaPine, “The Logic of the Body” This article outlines a Christian view of the relationship between emotions and our body. It rightly rejects the ideas that emotions are completely under the control of our mind and will and also that emotions are only bodily reactions completely out of our control. Rather, the interaction between mind/will and body is a two-way interaction, and this helps us understand more clearly our responsibilities as stewards of our emotions, the limits of what we can control, and the empathy we must show to others in their emotional struggles. Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves (IVP, 2015). Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson examines how experiences of rejection, failure, and trauma lead us not only to wrong beliefs about God and ourselves but also neurological changes that make healing difficult. But the good news is that the ordinary experience of being known, accepted, and loved by God and others not only heals the stories we believe but also rewires our neurobiology to make us healthier and more free from the shame that cripples our soul and body. For a 40-minute taste of the book, see this talk: Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Penguin, 2015). One of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, explains recent scientific advances to show how trauma reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity, and he shows the tremendous power of our relationships both to hurt and to heal and offers new hope for reclaiming lives.

Action Steps

1. Check your understanding.

  • Why is it important to attend to our body for our spiritual growth?
  • What are some different ways that our bodies have an impact on our souls, on our relationships with God and others, and on our work?
2. Study one or more of the recommended resources on the body.
  • How do you understand the significance of your body and physical self before God?
  • Are some of your physical desires out of control? Are you experiencing addictions to physical habits?
3. Make a plan for your general physical fitness.
  • Make a commitment to have regular checkups with a primary care physician.
  • What are your current patterns of rest (time not working), sleep, eating, and exercise? Set some concrete goals for sleeping, eating, and exercising to cultivate physical fitness.
4. Make a plan for cultivating healthy sexuality.
  • If you are married, talk with your spouse about your sexual intimacy.Are there problems that you need to address together? How can you take steps toward a more fulfilling sexual relationship?
  • In what situations do you feel strong temptation toward sexual sin? Make a concrete plan for avoiding those situations as much as possible.
  • If viewing pornography has become a habit, talk with a trusted friend or pastor; this sin thrives in isolation. Put structures in place for blocking pornography and sharing online sites someone else for accountability. Seek counseling and/or a support group for help in breaking the stranglehold of sinful habits and cultivating humility, transparency, and support.
5. Evaluate the impact of your body on your emotional life.
  • Are you experiencing emotional struggles?
  • Have you considered possible physical dimensions of these problems in consultation with a physician, counselor, or psychiatrist?
  • Consider some physical practices that can have an impact on your mental and emotional state (the works of Curt Thompson above can be a helpful introduction)?