We need to realize that being embodied means that we are designed to relate to one another physically. Ours is the generation perhaps most in danger of forgetting this. We are able to relate to one another in nonphysical ways. In the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had online face-to-face conference calls with people from three other countries. Some of the colleagues I work most closely with live on other continents. Two of my best friends live several time zones away. That we can maintain, let alone enjoy, such relationships and friendships shows how much we take today’s technology for granted. When some missionary friends of mine had a baby in Thailand, their parents back in the UK could see pictures of their new grandchild within minutes. An earlier generation of missionaries, who could only send pictures via unreliable and slow postal services, would be staggered by how much we can connect. Those living in another country far from you now don’t feel much farther away than if they simply lived in another town. We have resources and opportunities that are staggering when we stop and think about them. In some hugely significant ways, technology has triumphed over geography.
But not completely. Alongside these unprecedented opportunities come some very real dangers. Social media means we can be in contact with a huge number of people spread over a potentially huge geographical area. We can message one another and see each other very easily. It can feel like life is hugely relational—all that contact with all those people all the time. But in reality, it is a very incomplete way to relate to others. It gives an illusion of being highly connected but is in fact an insufficient means for cultivating healthy relationships. There is no substitute for physical presence. Hearing people’s voices on a call can be wonderful; seeing their faces on a screen even more so. But presence is uniquely meaningful.
Scripture shows us the importance of physical presence in numerous ways. Paul reflects on the time he spent with the Christians in Thessalonica:
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess. 2:8)
Christian ministry for Paul was much more than merely imparting gospel information. He and his colleagues shared their lives with the Thessalonians. His ministry required presence. This is made very plain from the way he continues:
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face. (1 Thess. 2:17)
Leaving them was a tearing. Separation was painful. Paul longed for a reunion. Presence with them mattered. Or consider what John says:
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12)
It’s not that there’s no joy to be had in online, virtual, or distant relationships, but the joy we can get from them is limited. We need more.
John’s letter is short not because he is lacking things to say to his friends, but because the medium of a letter is ultimately inadequate. “I would rather not use paper and ink.” He might say today, “I’d rather not have screen time or online chat.” What he wants is to be physically present. That is what will make his joy complete. It’s not that there’s no joy to be had in online, virtual, or distant relationships, but the joy we can get from them is limited. We need more.
There’s a lovely example in Acts of just what physical presence can mean. Paul is in the final stages of his long, arduous journey to Rome:
And so we came to Rome. And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. (Acts 28:14–15)
When the Christians in Rome hear that Paul is finally almost there, they travel out to meet him and accompany him on the final leg of his journey. That might not immediately mean much to us, but bear in mind that the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns are some thirty to forty miles or so from Rome. Traveling that distance without cars was no small gesture. As far as we know, they had no urgent business to conduct with Paul. It wasn’t a matter of completing some shared task. They just wanted to be with him. They wanted Paul to have their company when he finally arrived at Rome. They wanted to be present.
And what an impact their desire had on Paul. It had been a long and arduous journey to this point. Yet seeing that these believers had come all that way just to be with him made a big difference. He thanked God. It gave him courage. Just their presence spoke of a solidarity that strengthened Paul and gave him a much-needed boost. Presence really does matter. Sometimes we approach relationships far too functionally.
Sometimes we keep ourselves from others because we’re not sure we’ll be much use, especially when it comes to being with those in some kind of need. Maybe we’ve never been particularly good with words and feel sure we won’t know what to say. Or we’re not good with making meals or doing practical jobs. But passages like this remind us of the good that can be done through sheer physical presence. It probably wouldn’t occur to many of us that we could ever be a spiritual encouragement to someone of the stature of the apostle Paul. What could we say that he didn’t already know? But these ordinary believers were a genuine help to him just by making the effort to accompany him for the final day or so of his travel.
A friend of mine pastoring a very difficult congregation once pointed out a member quietly sitting in the front pew. “He has the spiritual gift of turning up.” This man was evidently very faithful in his attendance in a church that was hugely volatile. Just seeing him encouraged his pastor.
Nothing else can do what physical presence does. Other ways of relating to one another can wonderfully enhance our physical friendships, but they can never actually replace them. Physical presence matters because we are physical people.
This article is adapted from What God Has to Say about Our Bodies: How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves by Sam Allberry.
We might think it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies, but the Bible repeatedly and powerfully shows us this is not the case.
Unrealistic standards of beauty are being pushed on us almost constantly by the media, and the cumulative effect is that it can leave us thinking about our bodies in a seriously distorted way.
Why do I need the daily intervention of the body of Christ? The answer is as simple as it is humbling.
For the Christian, his or her body has been made a sacred location of God’s redemptive presence in the world.