As You Start that Diet: 3 Truths About Body Image

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Goals related to health, fitness, and weight loss top New Year’s resolutions year after year. There’s something about the first week of January that convinces us: This’ll be the year I’ll fit back into my college jeans. Sales on gym memberships and workout clothes feed our new resolve, while options for wellness coaching are at our fingertips even on Facebook.

I’ve struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I hid under baggy T-shirts from the cruel boys at the swimming pool. At 12, I lost some weight and finally got the attention I craved, so I determined to do everything I could to keep it. The years that followed were marked by cycles of diets, exercise plans, and forced vomit, but it was never enough. I looked in the mirror and felt only shame and disgust.

Having a baby well before my peers exacerbated the problem as I compared their young, unmarked bodies to my stretched, worn one. And while the security of a new relationship with Jesus and a loving husband brought a confidence I hadn’t before experienced, they didn’t automatically undo years of a distorted body image. Two more babies and several years later, I still struggle to reconcile what I know to be true about my identity in Christ with the image I see in the mirror.

Some theologians call Romans 8 the most important chapter in the Bible. It’s filled with glorious indicatives that are foundational for the Christian identity. The theological riches found here are not abstract and disconnected; they have far-reaching implications, even for something like body image.

Here are three truths from Romans 8 that can guide us as we consider our health-related New Year’s resolutions.

1. God frees us from condemnation.

Beauty is culturally and arbitrarily defined. Some cultures want childbearing hips; ours wants legs the size of toothpicks. What’s the standard we’re trying to achieve? Scripture doesn’t give us an ideal body type, but rather a moral standard of which we all fall short.

The desire to like what we see in the mirror is the fruit of the soul’s longing to be okay. Extra weight, blown diets, missed workouts—these become yet more evidence indicting us. So we respond by trying to justify ourselves. We make a plan, start on Monday, and work to achieve that elusive standard of perfection.

Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is the reality of the gospel: Because of the blood of Christ, we are okay, even in our current physical state.

If we’re honest, it isn’t God we want to please by achieving a certain physical state (though I think that underlies all our efforts). We want to please others. We want people to think we’re beautiful, sexy, confident, and strong. We fear their judgment.

God’s love for us is unchanging because it’s based on him, not on us. But the love of people is fickle. Achieving some ideal body type or the approval of others will never give us the satisfaction we crave. It’ll never be enough. And while there may be heart and sin issues that need addressing when it comes to food and exercise, it’s in trusting we are accepted as God’s beloved children that we will find the freedom to peel back those layers and face what lies beneath the surface.

By definition, body image refers to how we see ourselves. We want to look in the mirror and like what we see. But Christ’s blood trumps every accusation, whether from outside or from within. When our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:2).

2. God is at work in all things.

Romans 8:28–30 declares that God is at work in all things for the good of those who love him. The good in view is the transformation of our character, that we would become more and more like Christ.

This points to God’s priority for our lives: our sanctification. Achieving a certain body type doesn’t make you more or less holy. “Train yourself for godliness,” Paul writes, “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” (1 Tim. 4:7–8). He doesn’t say physical training has no value, but he puts it in its proper place. The priority is Christlike character, not a culturally acceptable figure.

And since God is working to bring about our holiness, and since he’s at work in all things, it follows that our difficulties related to physical discipline bear spiritual fruit. Our struggles and successes in this area are means God will use to expose our idols, root out our pride, and challenge our selfishness. This offers hope in the struggle. When I blow my diet for the 354th time, I can have confidence God will use even this failure to continue shaping me into the image of his Son. He will finish what he started (Phil. 1:6).

3. Our bodies are for God’s glory.

Romans 8:23 describes our inward groaning alongside fallen creation. We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. For now, however, our bodies exist in a fallen state. 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 that are constantly aging and that will inevitably die.

When Paul told the Corinthian church, “Your body is a temple,” he wasn’t challenging them to pursue physical fitness; he was confronting the ease with which they used their bodies to sin. We are to use our bodies to honor God (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Do we do so primarily by exercising daily and eating organic, or primarily by laying down our lives for others?

Our bodies are tools God has given us to accomplish his purposes on earth, by his power and for his glory. We carry gospel treasure in jars of clay. Why does God leave us in this form? Why doesn’t he transform us now into beautiful china vases fit for 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 once said to me, “You gotta take care of your ‘earth suit.’ There are people who depend on you.” If we consider our bodies in terms of stewardship, we’re taking a giant step toward a healthier body image. Our bodies are fallen, but while we’re here, they can be more or less useful, depending on how we care for them. But the goal is less form than function. We offer our bodies as living sacrifices, ready for whatever God calls us to in service to him and others. He made each of us unique. We’re not meant to strive for an unattainable mold, but rather celebrate the Creator who didn’t use one.

Longing for Newness

Our bodies reveal issues in 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 worth wrestling with. Physical training is of some value. New Year’s resolutions may be useful in moving us toward better stewardship.

But even as we strive for health, our bodies will continue to groan. We long to be made new. So we anticipate the day when these perishable bodies will be raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42). We wait hopefully for the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we were saved (Rom. 8:24).

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