There are some very significant problems with the ways our culture thinks about our human bodies. For some, our bodies are everything, and therefore our physical appearance is what we work hardest on. But for others, our bodies have nothing to do with our true selves. Our true self, we’re told, is who we feel we are. So our bodies may actually be a block to us expressing our real identity.
As Christians, how are we to think about our bodies? Having a body is not a mistake. But we won’t honour the Lord with and in our bodies properly until we understand his purposes for us. In this episode of the CCL podcast with Sam Allberry, we’re considering the significance of embodiment as God’s people.
Links referred to:
- Sam Allberry’s website
- Books by Sam:
- Articles by Sam on
- Single Minded (2022 conference)
- Sam Allberry’s Priscilla & Aquila Centre 1 Timothy 5 seminar (Monday 1 August 2022)
- Our next event: Commanding the heart: Deception
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 30:01 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: There are some very significant problems with the ways our culture thinks about human bodies. For some, our bodies are everything, and therefore our physical appearance is what we work hardest on. But for others, our bodies have nothing to do with our true selves. Our true self, we’re told, is who we feel we are. So our bodies may actually be a block, getting in the way of us expressing our real identities.
As Christians, how are we supposed to think about our bodies? Having a body is not a mistake. But we won’t honour the Lord with it and we won’t live in our bodies properly until we understand his purposes for us.
Today on the podcast, we’re considering the significance of embodiment as God’s people.
CK: Hello, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn. I am coming to you from Sydney, Australia, at Moore Theological College. My guest today is Sam Allberry, who is a pastor, an apologist and a speaker. He’s an author of many books and many, many helpful articles around places like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God.
Sam is actually joining us today from Singapore, where he’s preaching for a church there. I’m very glad to have you with us, Sam. Thanks for joining us!
Sam Allberry: G’day, I gather you say. It’s good to be with you. Thanks for having me!
CK: Sam, you’ve been a pastor for a long time in the UK and now I understand that you’re living in the holy land. Is that right?
SA: [Laughter] I am in the process of moving to Nashville, Tennessee.
CK: Yes, God’s country!
SA: God’s country! That’s right. Launch my country music career.
CK: That’s right! [Laughter] Everybody’s dream. Everybody there is trying to sing.
Why Sam wrote his book
CK: It’s great to have you doing ministry around the world, Sam, and it’s been appreciated by so many. Today we have you talking about a recent book that you’ve written: What God Has to Say About Our Bodies. I’m very glad to be commending this book to everyone listening today and hopefully opening up this topic a bit, talking about the significance of our bodies as human beings and especially as Christians, and as we live our Christian lives under the Lord Jesus. Sam, give us a little taste: why have you written a book about bodies—that is, about our actual physical bodies? Why a book about bodies and why now?
SA: Yeah, there’s two reasons: one comes out of being a pastor and one comes out of being an apologist. Pastorally, I was just encountering more and more issues within our own church family that were related to the body somehow—people wrestling with body image issues, health concerns, those sorts of things. Then as an apologist, I was seeing that, with so many of the issues we’re wrestling with culturally, upstream of so many of those issues is “Does the body mean anything?” So I realised this was a gap both inside the church and outside. It was a gap in my own thinking. For those two reasons, I wanted to think about it.
Our Catholic friends have thought about this a lot more than we have. So I really wanted to try to write something at a very basic level that would give people a brief introduction into how the gospel is good news for our bodies.
CK: That’s great. And I can tell you, having read your book, I really appreciate the way that you have a gift for bringing biblical truth to us and really threading together a lot of what we see across Scripture—weaving that through personal experience and very, very practical aims. I think you really help us to think about what it means to live in our bodies in a very helpful way.
Struggles with our bodies
CK: As we think about some of these tensions, I wonder if you could just help us. I mean, you’ve mentioned a few. But existentially, what are the kinds of common prominent struggles that you find people facing today about their bodies?
SA: Yeah, I mentioned body image: that’s an obvious one. It’s interesting: I’ve been thinking through this issue for about five, six, seven, years now, and whenever it has come up in conversation, I lost count a long time ago of just how many men have opened up about body insecurity—that kind of thing. This is not just an issue for women; it’s for men. It’s younger people. It’s older people. And it’s getting worse: all the trends are in an unhealthy direction of people feeling very unhappy with some aspects of how they look. So that’s one obvious issue that seems to hit close to home for pretty much everyone in some way.
I suspect in the Western world, it’s at least in part because we’re given through media standards of beauty that are just unrealistic and, in some case, physically unsustainable. I read an article written by one of the guys playing a superhero, and he was saying that the dietary regimen and the exercise regimen that they were on, they could do for six months, but you just can’t live that way. And yet, that image of a body is being presented as “Hey, that’s what a man is meant to look like!” So the net effect of all of that over the years is that everyone now feels uglier [Laughter] than we used to feel.
CK: Yeah, it’s so true! So true!
SA: So that’s one big issue. Then obviously, the other issue is “Is my body me?” Does it tell me who I am? With all the discussion about gender identity, is the body merely the blank canvas on which we put our identity, or does it itself contain clues about our identity? So those are two quite obvious issues for us to think about.
CK: Yeah, and they are prominent. I’ve known both of those major struggles even in my church and in Christian circles that I’m involved with among many people, unfortunately. Even at Bible study dinners: you have a dinner and people start talking about how many carbohydrates you’re eating. I mean, it’s unreal just how prominent it is in what things we worry about.
Theological misconceptions about the body
CK: We’ve talked about existential problems. But now what are the kinds of theological misconceptions that you think are really facing us down as Christians?
SA: I think one of the big ones—and it’s related to the existential stuff we were talking about—is “Is our body theological significant?” Is God just interested in my soul? Does my physical life have any spiritual relevance or significance? That would be one issue.
I think there’s a sort of Gnosticism-type thing going on today where we’re quick to demean the physical. I think it’s still news for many Christians that our eternal future will be bodily. Paul talks in Romans 8 about the redemption of our bodies, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from much of popular Christian culture. I think the image a lot of people still have is we’ll float on a cloud in some kind of weird way for eternity, and that’s the future we have to look forward to.
To think that, “Actually, no: we’re going to be embodied in a new creation for eternity; this body will be redeemed and resurrected”—that’s a big issue. There’s so much that comes out of that pastorally that we need to dive into.
CK: That’s great. I think one of the things you helpfully draw out in your book as well is that Jesus is still human and will be human forever for us—like, for our salvation. So his resurrection is to a real body. Our resurrection will be to a real body, just as his is. How great that hope is for us! I think that pays dividends for us, just thinking pastorally and in our lives. So I think you’ve done that very well.
Underappreciating our bodies
CK: Just to begin to tease this out a little bit more, talk to us about some of the significance of embodiment. Let’s talk for a moment about underappreciating our bodies. I’m going to read you a quote here that you’ve written in your book: “We can all too easily dehumanize those who are not physically around us” (p. 33). You talk about the significance of bodily presence and being present with people, even physically, and what detachment from one another physically can do to us. Can you open that up a little bit more?
SA: Yeah, I started working on this pre-COVID. [Laughter] So I was already thinking about it just in terms of how much time we spend on social media and what that can do to our sense of being able to relate to others—of your friendship—all those sorts of things. Then obviously COVID brought home in an unmissable way just how much we need physical presence. We all hate Zoom, but thank God we have Zoom, because that was way better than nothing. But we hate Zoom because, actually, there’s something about being in a room with someone that is so much more significant than being on a screen with someone. So God made us embodied for a reason. It’s going to make a difference—the fact that we are embodied.
There’s a line in 2 John where he says, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 1:12). There’s joy in FaceTiming an old friend you don’t get to see much. But it’s incomplete joy when you’re not there physically face-to-face. I think we know that in our wiser moments—that physically being with people is important. Just living virtually—doing our relational life virtually—is not ultimately going to do it for us.
CK: Yeah. What do you think it boils down to? I think we do know that in our experience, and being international here as an American in Australia, I certainly feel that with my family. But what is it that you actually drill down to to help people recognise that truth if you’re trying to sum it up—not just about our gut reaction, but a principled reaction about that?
SA: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things where—and I feel this in myself: I’m slightly more introverted by temperament and so it’s just easier to do something virtually, rather than physically. But I also sense the lack of something if I’m doing too much of that. It takes more effort to go and be with someone physically. It just is much healthier and we feel that.
I’m on the road a bit with ministry things, so I’m often FaceTiming friends and catching up, and I cherish being able to do that. But even with that, I still feel that deep lack. There’s something about just seeing someone—being in the same room as someone—having a hug with someone—that this is what we’re made for. The other stuff is great. It’s a supplement. But it mustn’t be the main relational diet that we have.
CK: Yeah. I think even just using this as a test right now: you and I are talking virtually. It’s not the same as if you were in the room with me. Even though we’re seeing one another face to face, there is something about actually conversing just across the room in a chair with one another. I think it adds a different dimension to it altogether.
The danger of dehumanisation
CK: Before we move on, you mentioned just briefly the danger of dehumanising those who aren’t physically around us. What do you mean by that and in what ways does that feature now?
SA: Yeah, I mean that the most [Laughter]—the most obvious way this happens is Twitter: you’re just interacting with a profile picture that has an irritating opinion. [Laughter] So it’s easy just to rail against that avatar or whatever it is. We find ourselves saying things online that we would never say to someone if they were physically across the table from them. That’s a sign that we shouldn’t be saying what we’re saying online.
It’s dehumanising, because on some of these social media sites, it’s just vicious. They’re demeaning. People are snarky. People are just cruel. And many of them are doing it in the name of Jesus, thinking they’re somehow advancing the kingdom by owning whoever it is that they’re disagreeing with. James says in James 3 that “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (Jas 3:9). It may not be our tongues as much as our thumbs—that’s the real issue today. But it matters how we treat people. Just because they are on Twitter and are irritating us, doesn’t give us an excuse to treat them poorly.
There’s lots of other ways I think we do it as well. We’re just not as mindful of how someone might be feeling—what they might be going through—when we’re not physically around them to see a more rounded view of who they are. So one of the things I try and say—particularly teaching people on things like social media and use of online communication—is the Bible is full of teaching about just how powerful our words can be, positively and negatively.
Something we say online—the person we’re interacting with who we don’t know—they could be hanging by a thread. We don’t know whether they’re waking up that day, thinking this might be their last day on Planet Earth. Maybe our words could be the words that could give them enough life and hope to pull them back from the brink and think, “Okay, maybe not today.” Or we could just cut them down without thinking, because we’ve Rambo-ed up to go and crusade for Jesus on Twitter. So, again, James talks about this in James 3—that so much of our speech actually just comes from hell [Laughter]: it’s “set on fire by hell” (Jas 3:6). I think we see that online more than we see that anywhere else.
A significant part of our discipleship is learning how to use words to reflect our Saviour, to bring life and hope to people, and not just to bring destruction. We can burn down someone’s life with a single comment online if we’re not careful.
CK: Yes. We obviously know many people who have experienced this. We also get a lot of testimony about this as well in the media from celebrities, who are held out as these public images. They’re not really people; they’re just presences online or something. When they get ridiculed, picked about and spoken about, it is quite damaging for them. Many of them obviously have had significant struggles over this.
But that happens to pastors. That happens to Christian brothers and sisters. That happens to authors. That happens to all kinds of folks. You’re right: we have to be very careful with our words and use them wisely as a means of telling the truth in love.
SA: Part of the issue is if we’re around someone physically and we say something dumb, we have to pick up the pieces. When we’re around and we have to apologise, we see the effects it has, we have to deal with it. But if you’re doing a drive-by comment online, you’re not seeing the consequences of your words. So it’s so much easier to be oblivious to what those consequences might be.
CK: Yeah. Just the quip headline—you know, you read the headline and you reply without reading an article, for example. If you’re sitting across from someone, they can say, “Oh, that’s not what I mean. Actually, thisis what I really meant or what I really said.” That’s a very different experience to just dropping a bomb and moving on.
CK: As we’ve been discussing the significance of our bodies, I want to commend to you my guest Sam Allberry’s recent book, What God Has to Say About Our Bodies: How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves , published by Crossway in 2021.
In addition to reading Sam’s book, you might like to hear him speak on “Being a Body” at the Single Minded Conferencebeing held later on this year. You can join in person in Sydney on 30 July or in Brisbane on 6 August. If you can’t make it in person to either of those, the conference will also be available for livestreaming. You can find out all the details and register at singleminded.community.
Finally, the Centre for Christian Living is continuing our series of live events on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5. Our next live event will be on the theme of deception and will be held on 24 August. I’m very pleased that Dr Tony Payne will be returning to help us think about the significance of our words as Christian men and women. Please plan to join us. You can go online to ccl.moore.edu.au to register.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Over-appreciating our bodies
CK: Let’s talk, then, on the other side of that. There is a tendency not just to underappreciate our bodies but to over-appreciate our bodies and to think too highly about them. You’ve said in your book elsewhere that
Your body, in all of its glory and limitations, is you. But it’s not the totality of you. Realizing this will help you have a healthy view of yourself. It will also help you have a healthy view of others. Looking only at the physical gives us a very limited and incomplete picture of someone. (p. 49)
Can you open that up for us a little bit more and maybe outline some of the danger of over-appreciating our bodies or thinking that our bodies are everything?
SA: Yeah, we have this very inconsistent relationship with our body culturally, because at the very same time in which we’re saying, “The real me is who I feel myself to be inside. My body must be conformed to that”—at the very same time, we’re way more self-conscious than we used to be. One slightly trivial metric of that is men’s grooming products: 15 years ago—20 years ago—there’s a couple of brands of aftershave, some deodorant and that’s about it. Now there’s whole aisles of stuff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; maybe we were not [Laughter] paying enough attention to how we smelled and all the rest of it. But we’re far more self-conscious now, culturally.
So we can’t completely make our bodies incidental to how we see ourselves. We think they are in terms of our deepest sense of identity. But we still feel the need to physically project a given image to the world around us and we base a lot of how we feel about ourselves on that image and how well we feel we’re conveying it. So we’re very physically self-conscious. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on the well-known verse in 1 Samuel where the Lord says to Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7) and just thinking about what that really means.
I’ve seen this in myself so many times: I’ll meet someone and form a really inaccurate first impression of them. Just based on what they look like, I’ll assume certain things about them. I may even assume the type person they are. I’ll even write them off in my heart, thinking, “I don’t like that person”, and then get to know them and realise I’ve got friends who are very dear to me who I did not think I would like the very first time I met them. Because, again, I’m just looking at outward appearances and doing so with a very superficial, judgemental attitude. There’s a depth to our humanity that you don’t get just by what you can see externally in someone.
CK: Yeah. There is also a real trapping in popular Christian culture for upfront kind of leadership to present a certain way—to be fashion-forward, to be body image-forward. I can remember visiting a church that was promoting a fitness program for months, the whole church was getting at it, and the whole pastoral staff was on together in very tight clothing, showing how much they’d been exercising. And I thought, “Wow, this is a very big push in a bad direction”. But it’s what we think we should care about.
SA: “Slim for him”. [Laughter]
The problem with the idea of the “authentic” self
CK: Let me get to another quote from your book that I think is getting back to what you’ve said about this kind of inner self and truth that is very problematic today. You said,
defining ourselves by an inner sense of who we are then becomes the basis for our ethical thinking. Whatever this true self wants and desires is self-justifying. We have to be authentic, and this quest legitimizes virtually any kind of behavior. The longings and yearnings we find deep within ourselves have to be granted in order for us to be true to who we are. (p. 51)
You continue in saying that,
In our culture, the hero today is not the person who risks his body for the sake of others, but the person who lays aside anything and anyone for the sake of being authentic. We most esteem not self-sacrifice, but self-expression. (p. 51)
I thought that was one of the more profound moments of application in your book—that there is this way that we think that this sort of “becoming our true self”—this authenticity—is really the driver. Many people have written about this—Charles Taylor, in particular—about the ethics of authenticity. But please open this up for us about some of the dangers of thinking that there’s somebody underneath my body who needs to come out or shine through.
SA: Yeah. It’s the anthropology that we have in our culture today. We see it everywhere: people who have to watch more Disney movies than I do tell me that’s the message of every Disney movie: you’ve got to be true to yourself. That’s the air we’re breathing all around us all the time. Yet it’s not a biblical understanding of who we truly are.
I keep coming back to God creating Adam: God forms Adam out of the ground and then breathes life into him. God doesn’t make a soul called Adam and then looks for something physical to put that into. So we mustn’t see ourselves as imprisoned souls—as though there’s a “me” that is prior to and independent of my body, and then that’s the real me and the body has to catch up with that. The body is part of who I am. It’s a gift. It’s a calling.
I can’t come up with my own identity. I’m just not qualified. I don’t know myself well enough. It’s only really as we come into relationship with our creator that we begin to understand who we truly are.
The other thing is Jesus says that it’s what comes out of us that defiles us (Mark 7:20-21), and therefore if I look deep into my heart, I’m not going to find the solution to my angst; I’m going to find the cause of it. That is not going to be the solution. That’s not going to be where I find who I truly am in a healthy sense.
So it’s interesting that the culture is saying, “Express yourself. Fulfil yourself. Actualise yourself” at the very point where Jesus is saying, “Deny yourself”, because Jesus has a better accounting of who we are than we do.
CK: That’s very, very helpful. I think we often are trusting whatever is inside of us and driving us, and not recognising how misguided some of our desires can actually be. It’s always a hearkening to the voice of Christ that is what we really need to be doing to become a better “us”, if you will.
The problem with the idea of self-actualisation
CK: I find this to be a particular danger among evangelical churches now as I listen to messages more widely. I feel like there could be a temptation towards self-actualisation. Do you see this featuring anywhere, and if so, how?
SA: Yeah, I think what we so often do in the church is we lightly Christianise the thinking of the culture around us. That is the thinking of the culture around us: you’ve got to self-actualise. I think sometimes we turn the gospel into a means of doing that. So Jesus becomes the chaplain to my own journey of self-discovery.
I’ve seen that pastorally in lots of ways. I’ve seen that in my own heart in certain ways as well. But I’ve seen people, for example, entering into a biblically prohibitive form of relationship, because Jesus didn’t come through for them in fulfilling the relational dreams that they had, and it’s the relational dream that takes the priority. So if Jesus can’t deliver on that front in the way that he’s supposed to, then they’ll go outside of Jesus to fulfil themselves instead.
Some of our gospel preaching gives the impression that Jesus is there to fulfil us—to provide self-actualisation. It’s not wholly wrong, because we find a deeper sense of fulfilment in Jesus. But it’s the wrong end of the stick if we think, “Well, I’m going to come to Jesus in order to fulfil myself”. We won’t find that self being fulfilled, because that self Jesus calls us to deny.
CK: Yes. It’s using Jesus as the means to the end, rather than seeing him as the end itself.
SA: Exactly! This is the thing: it took me shamefully long to see this in my own Christian life—that Jesus is the prize. He’s the treasure that we’re going for. He’s never the means to something else, because whatever the something else is is then an idol. So we just need to cherish him more and more.
CK: Amen. Thank you, Sam. I really appreciate that and I appreciate you sharing, even, some of your own journey to that and being willing to say, “Yeah, I’ve had to learn this”. I agree: I’ve had to learn the same thing. It is an ongoing challenge to see Christ as the prize.
CK: As we conclude our conversation, I just have some rapid-fire practical questions for you that you open at much greater length in your book. But I thought I’d just get you to give us 30 seconds or less on each of these questions, if you would.
The first thing: does physical fitness matter? 1 Timothy 4:6-10: “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things” (v. 8). How do we think about physical fitness?
SA: Yeah, that verse is really helpful because it means I can’t make it ultimate, because it’s of some value. But godliness is of value for all things. So it’s not ultimate itself.
I also can’t write it off either, because it is still of some value. That means I do need to be attentive to physical health—physical training, that kind of thing. But I mustn’t obsess over it. Nor can I just completely ignore it.
CK: Yep. Very helpful.
CK: Should we care about how we look? If so, in what ways?
SA: Yes, but not in the ways that we think we should. So we should care about how we look not in the sense of “I want to be impressive. I want to be trendy. I want to be attractive to other people”. There is teaching in the Bible about how to present ourselves—how to carry ourselves. I don’t want to be, on the one hand, a stumbling block to someone. Nor do I want to be unpleasant to be around: if I’m completely dishevelled the whole time or haven’t washed in days or whatever it might be, that’s just not being a good neighbour. So there’s a sense in which we want to give thought to how we present ourselves, but not in a narcissistic way, nor so that we can be a good neighbour to others, rather than the centre of attention.
CK: Very helpful.
CK: Does it matter what we eat?
SA: It clearly does, because if I have Macca’s [Ed: McDonald’s] three times a day, my life expectancy will not increase because of that. [Laughter] It does matter! We’re to steward our physical bodies. The Bible has a surprising amount to say about eating—about when we eat; when it’s godly not to eat; who to eat with; who to not eat with—all those sorts of things. So that’s not being unspiritual to give thought to that.
Again, we shouldn’t obsess about it. The Bible does talk about there being times when we should feast: there are times when it’s good to eat food that might not be healthy to eat every day, but it’s a feast occasion, so we go for it. We’re not to be—I always get these words muddled up. It’s “ascetic”, isn’t it, where we deny the material good things around us. But we’re not to be gluttons either. We’re to be people of self-control. There’s a time to feast and there’s a time to fast, and it’s good to think through how we steward these bodies.
These bodies belong to Jesus. I’m looking after his property here. So I ought to think about what I’m eating.
CK: Very helpful.
CK: How important is rest?
SA: Yes! It’s commanded. So it’s that important. It gets billing in the Ten Commandments. Again, I think particularly in our ministry circles, we’re really bad at this, because if you say to anyone in ministry, “How are you doing?”, if they don’t say, “Oh, I’m really tired and busy”, basically that means they’re not pulling their weight. We’ve made a virtue of being overworked. Too many of our mentors and leaders are bad models on this. It means we don’t trust God. We think it’s a measure of how committed we are to Kingdom ministry, but it just means we don’t believe in the sovereignty of God.
I love the parable of the growing seed in Mark 4, because there are two things that show that you actually believe in the power of the Word to do the work. The first is that you sow the seed of God’s word and the second is you sleep! [Laughter] “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mark 4:27). If you’re not able to get rest as a minister, you don’t believe the power is in the word of God by the Spirit of God. You think it’s down to you, which is a sign of lack of faith.
CK: That’s such a helpful word. Thank you.
Hope for our bodies
CK: As we conclude, then, just in the last 20 seconds, what would be your word of hope that you would leave with people about their bodies?
SA: Yeah, the resurrection. You were sharing with me just before we were recording that you’ve had some back issues?
CK: I have!
SA: You’re officially no longer young. I’m in my mid-40s and the most pain I’ve caused myself in the last few years has been sleeping. So sleeping is now an extreme sport [Laughter] when you’re in your 40s.
But for all of us, the resurrection means our best physical days are ahead of us, not behind us, whatever age we’re at. Even if we’re at our mid-20s peak, for all of us, our best physical days are ahead of us.
CK: That’s a very, very, very good word. I think every day it goes on, it becomes a better word, just like you said before, Sam, thank you! [Laughter]
CK: Sam, I really thank you for giving us the time today and we pray God’s blessing on your ministry.
SA: Thank you. It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
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