This is an updated version of a Bible study I did in 2006 on the role of the body in spiritual formation in Christ. It is inspired by Dallas Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart. This article on the body is part of a series from my class for counselors on “How People Change.” (See my other articles on the heart, thoughts, feelings, social, and soul.)
In his Greatest Commandment Jesus teaches us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Strength refers to our physical being, our body.
Understanding Your Body as God’s Temple
The body is the visible and outer person living in the world, but it’s also tied to the inner spiritual person. Your body is physical and spiritual. It offers you a mobile energy pack for using our natural, God-created abilities to engage with God’s presence and power as we do what we’re doing. It’s our lower and mortal nature. God created our bodies as good (in his image), but they have been corrupted by Adam’s sin and our sin – which actually comes to live in our body parts.
The Bible is fully of body talk and we need to take it quite literally. Dallas Willard says, “a person is his or her body.” Meaning, “Human personality is not separable in our consciousness from the human body. And that fact is expressed by asserting the IDENTITY of the person as his or her body.” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, pp. 76, 82). This is why we speak of “body language” to indicate that our bodies communicate the reliable message about us. What we do with the parts of our bodies is very important for our holiness and wholeness.
Our body is created by God to be a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). The Holy Spirit actually comes to live inside the Christian’s body and our spiritual formation in Christ occurs as we worship, pray, and practice spiritual disciplines in our bodies. The more that we have heart-engaging bodily habits (built into our brains and physicality like grooves) for connecting with God’s grace the better!
Over the course of our lives on earth our bodies wear out and die but spiritually, if we are disciples of Jesus, we can be increasing in spiritual substance, taking on the weight of God’s glory that’s eternal. (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:16) When we go through the transition of “death” trusting in Christ Jesus, then in heaven we will receive glorious new bodies, like the resurrected body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:35-58) Jesus said we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father! (Matthew 13:43) The research on Near Death Experiences validates the teaching of the Bible.
In the Church we haven’t done a good job of understanding the role of “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) in spiritual formation. In Dallas Willard’s Doctor of Ministry class on “Spirituality and Ministry” he said, “The body operates largely on the basis of habits. To play Bethoven it has to be in your body. Even beliefs become habits. We couldn’t function in life without our body knowing what to do.”
A great challenge in our spiritual growth is that we find that our bodies are “at the ready” to particular forms of sin, as well as mistrust in God. We have sinful patterns of thoughts and feelings imbedded in our brain cells, biochemistry, and bodily habits. We must die to the sinful tendencies of our “flesh” (all of our natural abilities) and train ourselves to give the “members of our body” to God as “instruments of righteousness.”
Habits are what got Peter into trouble when he denied Jesus. In class Dallas said, “Peter wasn’t paying attention to his body when he said, ‘No. I won’t deny Jesus.’ But Jesus knew Peter would deny him. Peter tried to be faithful to Jesus and he cut off the soldier’s ear! Later a little girl confronted him and the denial just rolled off his tongue!” Peter wanted to do what was right, but was prepared to do wrong. “Your spirit is willing, but your flesh is weak,” Jesus said to Peter (Matthew 26:41). The problem wasn’t in his heart – it was in his body.
Bible Verses on the Body’s Role in Spiritual Formation
“I have set the LORD always before me… Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure” (Psalm 16:8-9).
“My body longs for you” (Psalm 63:1).
“I praise you [Lord] because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
“[God’s words] are life to those who find them and health to all their body” (Proverbs 4:22, NASB).
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30).
“A soothing tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4, NASB).
“Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light” (Luke 11:34).
“Offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13).
“But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you… If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:10-11, 13).
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:2).
“Make your body a showplace of God’s greatness” (1 Corinthians 6:20, DW Paraphrase).
“Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
“No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29).
“If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check” (James 3:2).
(For more guidance on caring for our bodies see “Bible Verses on Food and Fitness.”)