Body Image, Health Care, and the Incarnation

A Body You Have Prepared for Me

When God chose to come to the world embodied in Jesus Christ, he accepted life with all of its limitations, from his dependence on his mother Mary as an infant, to the ups and downs of adolescence, the need for food and sleep, the susceptibility to sickness, the inevitability of suffering, and the experience of death. Apart from these more obvious realities of life in a body, at the heart of the biblical vision of the incarnation is that the time, place, family, and particular body that Jesus inhabited were not a random accident but designed for the sake of his specific destiny. Jesus knew that everything about his earthly life, including the body he inhabited, was to fulfill God’s intended purpose. In the following passage we gain a glimpse of Jesus’s self-understanding of his mission:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. . . . Then I said, “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.” (Hebrews 10:5, 7)

In that statement, destiny and the body are melded together in an inseparable unity in Jesus Christ, linking the concrete form of his life with the work he was sent to do. Accepting that this applies to the great and glorious mission of the Son of God, who is the Savior of the world, is a big thought; it becomes even bigger and much more personal when we extend it to every one of us as fellow embodied creatures. Let’s look at three consequences of seeing the body as gift and intimately connected to our destiny.

First, despite all our efforts to escape the body and seek salvation apart from it, the enduring fact is that God’s plan of redemption for us will not be apart from the body but in, through, and for the body. Second, the particular form of our body, including the measure of health we have and the place and time in which we live, is not accidental but filled with potential purpose. Finally, the frailty and finitude of our body represents not extraneous limitation but an intentional part of the gift that is our body.

...the frailty and finitude of our body represents not extraneous limitation but an intentional part of the gift that is our body.

To illustrate some of what this means, let’s look at a fictional story, a living example, and a common scenario.

A Fictional Story

In Robertson Davies’s novel The Rebel Angels, Ozy Froats, a renowned but unpretentious scientist, is having a discussion about body types with Simon Darcourt, a priest. Simon has been hoping that by diet and exercise he would be able to moderate his tendency toward a round, chunky body. When he asks his scientist friend if he thinks it is possible, Ozy speaks more soberly:

To some extent. Not without more trouble than it would probably be worth. That’s what’s wrong with all these diets and bodybuilding courses and so forth. . . . The body is the inescapable factor, you see. You can keep in good shape for what you are, but radical change is impossible. Health isn’t making everybody into a Greek ideal; it’s living out the destiny of your body. . . . But it isn’t simple, being yourself. . . . They get some mental picture of themselves and then they devil the poor old body, trying to make it like the picture. When it won’t obey—can’t obey, of course—they are mad at it and live in it as if it were an unsatisfactory house they were hoping to move out of. A lot of illness comes from that.1

If our bodies are an inescapable fact, then trying to change them beyond what they are meant to be is likely to make us sick rather than healthy. This in no way dismisses or discredits a thoughtful care of the body that includes healthy diet, good exercise, and proper rest. But if the form of our body is not incidental but essential, the sooner we embrace our body, the sooner we embrace our destiny—as someone like Randy does every day.

A Living Example

Randy, a man in his fifties, was born with cerebral palsy and has been confined to a wheelchair all his life. A patient at the health center for over twenty years, on one of his recent visits he was thanking us profusely for our help in getting him a new chair. He was overjoyed and infectiously shared with childlike wonder how the new turn signals and backup lights improved his confidence as he traversed the sidewalks and streets of the city. Though Randy often has needs, he is never needy. Intelligent and thoughtful, yet able to move only his upper body with any control, he has never seen his limitations as disabling. He is engaged in life, a leader in his church, and a manager in the apartment building where he lives in community with others having similar challenges. Above all, Randy doesn’t see his life as limited by function, but controlled by purpose; he is always excited about the next new thing that he can do to aid his neighbor or serve his God. Without any plan to do so, he inspires almost everyone he meets.

Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age

Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age

Bob Cutillo, MD

Uncovering the ways our society has made an idol out of controlling our health, Dr. Cutillo teaches us to think biblically about the limitations of our bodies and see wellness as a gift from God.

A Common Scenario

Lastly, we face the increasingly pertinent question, “What do we do with all the choices we have to change our body?” Cosmetically, we can alter ourselves to be more culturally beautiful or socially acceptable. Physically, we can gain strength by increasing our muscle mass with steroids, change the oxygen-carrying capacity of our blood for greater endurance with erythropoietin, or juice ourselves with stimulants for more energy—all so that we can perform at higher levels and achieve greater accomplishments. More radically, we can even change our gender with hormones and sex-reassignment surgery.

Perhaps you easily dismiss as extreme most of these measures to change your looks or how you perform; but what if altering the body could reduce the risk of disease? Many organs harbor a future risk of cancer, and some have chosen to remove those organs—a breast or a colon, for example—to remove that risk. Depending on the risk, the organ, and the age, this may be wise in limited cases. But what about my young friend who has Lynch syndrome, an inherited genetic variant that increases the risk of several cancers over her lifetime? Highest is an 80 percent risk of colon cancer, but she also has a significantly increased risk of stomach cancer, liver cancer, endometrial cancer, and ovarian cancer. How many body parts should she remove? Some have advised her to have her colon, uterus, and ovaries removed before it’s too late, though she is only in her twenties, unmarried, and with no children.

If our bodies are little more than two-legged bundles of potential disease, then that is exactly what she should do. But if a life embodied is always a risk, and the destiny of our lives is connected to the body we have been given, embracing our purpose becomes more important than escaping risk. Such perceptions bring new possibilities for life in the body and the purpose of health care. If meaning and purpose are deeply tied to the very form and fit of our body, then our task and the task of medicine must advance beyond the blunt power to free ourselves from the limitations of our body to learning to live in and through the bodies we have been given.

This article is adapted from Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Bob Cutillo, MD.

Notes:
1. Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels (New York: Penguin, 1981), 249–50.
This story first appeared in Robert Cutillo, “A Life Embodied Is a Life at Risk,” The Gospel Coalition, May 14, 2015, accessed April 11, 2016, https:// www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/life-embodied-is-life-at-risk.



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