Spiritual Formation and Our Body
Sometimes I feel like my spiritual life is going in circles? Every once in awhile I stop to take inventory
and find that my present spiritual surroundings look very familiar… I’ve been here before. The goal
of spiritual formation is that our ‘outer’ life will increasingly become a natural expression of Christ
reigning in our inner life. I’m practicing the disciplines, growing in the depth of my experience with
Christ but my outer world feels ‘stuck’. What is the problem?
Dallas Willard (Renovation of the Heart) says that the greatest obstacle to spiritual formation is our
physical body. Let’s examine two truths about our body that might support this idea and give us
some insight into how to get ‘unstuck’.
1) Sin dwells in our body (Romans 7:17). Notice that I said sin is IN our body not that sin IS our
body. Our physical body is not evil and does not need to be hated or punished. But sinful patterns
do settle down into our physical bodies. Wounds, fears, desires, shame, loss, ambition, jealousy, bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, inadequacy, etc., are part of our earthly lives. Our bodies develop physical ways of coping with these realities. Consider the following:
o I avoid physical touch because of past abuse.
o I refuse to engage in anything I’m not good at because of past failure
o I medicate my anxiety by eating ice cream
o I clench my teeth and have headaches because of anger and unforgiveness
o I cannot sleep at night because of jealousy and bitterness
All of these physical reactions are the embodiment of our struggle with sin and wounds. Even after we deal with the sin and wounds, the embodied pattern may persist and continue to hinder our spiritual formation.
2) Our body easily becomes the center of our universe. We live in a society where the goal is to feel good or to be happy. This quickly translates into satisfying our flesh. My life and schedule quickly become driven by what makes me feel good. I like watching the game with a cold beer, I like eating a bowl of ice cream before bed, I enjoy sleeping in on Sunday morning, I like to be the center of attention, I like the feeling of dressing up in a new outfit, etc., There is certainly nothing wrong with these behaviors but when they become the drivers of our time and schedule, you can see how they might short circuit our spiritual formation.
Of course, the answer to every deterrent to spiritual formation is the gospel and the gospel IS incarnational. The Word became flesh (John 1:14). He came in the flesh to bring redemption and deliverance to our physical bodies (Romans 8:11). He actually takes up residence in our physical bodies and becomes the new center of our universe. Our new life is lived through Him (Galatians 2:20) which automatically puts it in conflict with our body (Galatians 5:16). This conflict is often very apparent to us but sometimes, in the ways that sinful patterns have become embodied in us, we are not aware that our body is hindering the work of Christ in us. The good news is that with Christ in us, our wills are empowered to choose to deny our bodies and live out of Christ in us. As we become aware of our embodied sinful patterns and become aware of the spirit’s leading in another direction we can choose life; choose to do what reflects the life of Christ in us.
The desires of our flesh and the pull of the world around us make surrender of our bodies more difficult for us. Paul urged us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) and even said that at times he had to physically restrain his own body because of it’s urges and desires (I Corinthians 9:27). Jesus did tell us that if we wanted to really follow Him we would need to deny (say no to) ourselves first (Luke 9:23).
Let me illustrate. When I was young I experienced abuse in which I was held down and forced to do things I did not want to do. I could not react or the abuse would be worse. Because of this wound, I developed a physical desire to lash out whenever I felt hurt or backed into a corner (feels like being held down). Sometimes my actions or my ideas would be challenged by a person or group of people who would be trying to “strong arm” me into changing my position. My reaction would almost always be to react in anger, refuse to even listen to their input and prove that I could not be forced or backed into a corner. I can’t tell you how many times I have hit “send” on an email and later wished I could “unsend” J. This flesh reaction is an embodied result of my past abuse. I have dealt with the abuse, I have forgiven the abuser, I have moved on but this pattern remains in my flesh. Now I am aware of this pattern so when I feel backed into a corner the Spirit in me reminds me that my body (flesh) is indwelled by this sinful impulse but that my body is NOT the center of my universe, Jesus is. I have the power in me to choose NOT to react by surrendering my body to the will of the Spirit in me. The end result is that the number of regretted emails is decreasing and the strength of the Spirit in me is increasing. That is spiritual formation.