I teach a course entitled “Living Well” as a part of our foundational core (i.e., general education) at my Christian university. Often, I’ll poll my classes regarding who has heard sermons or engaged in Bible studies relating to a theology of the body, or more specifically, self-care. My unscientific data collection has yielded dismal results, with most classes having zero students reporting they have seriously engaged with these theological concepts. Unsurprisingly, with little to no shepherding of their understanding of the body, they are blown around by cultural doctrine, Instagram influencers, and fad diets that promise “This one hack will get you shredded—FAST!” Bad theology fills the theological vacuum.
The body as temple analogy (1 Cor. 6:19) is the lone hook on which the vast majority of students hang their Scriptural hats. Apart from the weak connection this verse affords to self-care practices and the lack of real engagement with Scripture, critical thinking, creation theology, and eschatology, I would argue it manifests itself partly in our students’ motivation to care for themselves holistically. I am not aware of a plethora of good data comparing Christian and secular college students’ self-care practices, but, in almost 20 years of teaching at a variety of institutions, I’m not convinced they are much different.
Pew Research Center data on religious Americans’ health practices seem to provide a bit of rationale for my suspicions. In addition, there is recent evidence that Christian student affairs practitioners seriously neglect teaching stewardship of the body.1
When I ask students if they believe self-care is an important aspect of their walks with Christ, virtually everyone agrees. Probing deeper into their responses as to why they believe self-care is important is illuminating: invariably students respond with something akin to “God has a plan for my life . . . and I need to be healthy to do it.” My students tend to see God’s will—as it is related to the physical body, anyway—as tasks to accomplish. They make connections to “the ministry” (e.g., evangelical work of missionaries) and vocational parallels (e.g., being a good nurse requires having sufficient physical strength and endurance). I heartily agree that this physical capability, in part, is a good rationale for why getting healthy movement, food, and rest is important. A mountain of evidence suggests that a balanced life in these areas substantially aids our physical capacities. Yet, I don’t believe that doing the will of God, at least in my students’ conception of His will, should form the theological bedrock as to why self-care is valuable.
Though the phrase “human flourishing” may be hackneyed at this point, I employ the concept here as it is difficult for me to conceive of our highest good, as incarnational beings, in the absence of God’s gift of physical health that is nurtured by caring for ourselves holistically (understanding that flourishing, corporeal reality, and the intersection of various disabilities and special needs is a topic that would merit another piece).
Having four young children, the imagery of God as our Father is most helpful for my understanding of why I think God cares deeply about our entire being, including our physical well-being. My formal training is in exercise physiology and my wife is a healthcare provider, so we are well aware of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle (as well as the deleterious effects of the opposite). As such, it is no surprise that we provide our children with lots of fruits, vegetables, and playtime outside as well as keeping a fairly regular sleep schedule for the family. And yet our underlying motive for these family dynamics is not merely utilitarian. That is to say, we don’t have our children in sports and musical pursuits because we are dreaming of college scholarships nor do we strive for healthy sleep patterns and regular sabbath with the primary goal being that they can perform better academically (although, the literature certainly suggests they will!) and spiral upward to greater professional success.
Academic performance and technical competence are important to our family, and yet if those aspects of our lives were not salient, we would still structure our children’s environments similarly. Why? Because the good life, of course, is so much more than playing varsity sports, sitting in the first chair of an orchestra, admission into the Ivy League, or making partner at a prestigious firm. As I am reminded often in these glorious fall days in my small Midwestern town, the good life entails the warmth of the sun on a cool morning, kicking an old soccer ball around with my kids in the backyard, biting into a Honeycrisp apple and eating homemade chili, and napping in a hammock on a Sunday afternoon.
I want my children and my students to understand that the provisions of the Father—spiritual, mental, emotional, physical—do provide us with useful tools to accomplish good works God prepared for us in advance. However, caring for our bodies that He intentionally created is not only utilitarian and practical—it is intimately relational. Perhaps, with that shift in perspective of why we might care for our whole selves, as physical beings, we all might find a bit more motivation to engage in those practices that push us a little closer to the good life.
- See Perry L. Glanzer and Austin Smith, eds., Stewardship our Bodies: A Vision for Christian Student Affairs (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2023) and Perry L. Glanzer, Theodore F. Cockle, Elijah G. Jeong, and Britney N. Graber, Christ Enlivened Student Affairs: A Guide to Christian Thinking and Practices in the Field (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2020).