Christian Freedom and the Body

Here are a couple of notions that do not go over very well in contemporary culture: 1) There are some things which we should not do with our bodies; and, 2) we should not act on every desire we have for not every desire is good. “But,” the protest will run, “no one has the right to tell me what to do with my body;” and “what do you mean that I should resist my desires? Isn’t that what freedom means – to be able to do whatever I want to do?”

Yes, the popular idea of freedom is that of life without limits; and yes, it is true that our media saturates us with messages such as “If it feels good, do it” and “You can have it your way” (the attentive reader will know that these are advertising slogans which are meant not to give the individual more freedom but instead to manipulate an individual into a very specific action – that of the purchase!)

The Christian understandings of freedom, the body, and desire are vastly different from our contemporary cultural understandings, however. The Christian knows that the idea of liberty from all limits is actually a pernicious and destructive myth; for the Christian knows that “freedom” from limits – the limits of God’s commands – is actually slavery to sin (rebellion against God and a narcissistic addiction to the self); and the Christian also knows that “slavery to God’s righteousness” – obedience to God’s commands – is actually the glorious freedom of living to serve God and others and thus of becoming what we were in fact created to be.

So, because the Christian understands freedom in this way the Christian also recognizes that some desires are perverse and must be resisted and that desire itself must be reordered toward God. The Christian also recognizes that the body must be trained and disciplined for its proper “use” which is the service of God and others. So, consider these words of the early church father St. John Chrysostom from one of his sermons on Romans 6:

“For it is not honor to concede to it (i. e. to the body) all things at will, nay, it is slavery in the extreme, and the height of dishonor… The body then is indifferent between vice and virtue…”

How strange these thoughts are to us! It is “slavery in the extreme” to concede to the body “all things at will”! The body is not meant to be “indifferent between vice and virtue” but is rather to be ordered toward and used for what is virtuous. In fact, as Chrysostom says later, we are to “bridle” our bodies and control them, not let them run wild doing whatever our desires suggest. This indeed is the strange and discomforting and challenging Christian tradition which is rooted in the strange and discomforting and challenging words of Scripture: Romans 6:12, 19 [REB]: “Therefore sin must no longer reign in your mortal body, exacting obedience to the body’s desires… As you once yielded your bodies to the service of impurity and lawlessness, making for moral anarchy, so now you must yield them to the service of righteousness, making for a holy life.”

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