It might seem that the body was never more idolised than now with all the obsession with appearance, fitness and body image. Yet running deep in our culture is the claim that the body can be treated as separate from our authentic self. It is the idea that it has no real connection with being a person. We see this mostly obviously in the gender confusion that denies biological fact if it conflicts with what is in the person’s mind. Homosexuality likewise denies what our bodies tell us about the natural and created design for intimacy. The prevailing promiscuity of our culture is also based on the idea that what we do with our bodies can be separated from our emotions and deepest psyche. Despite the undeniable existence of human life in the womb we are told that unborn children are not persons. This then extends to assisted suicide, on the basis that someone can be said to be alive but no longer have personhood. We live in a dehumanizing culture that hates and despises the body. No wonder the sad practice of self-harm is on the increase as well as body modification. We are living in conflict with the way God has created us because we are living in enmity to the Creator. Scripture points us to the right way to regard our body and there are other subtle ways in which we may be neglecting that.
The Bible tells us that no one ever hated their own body rather they feed and care for it (Ephesians 5:29). That is, not that it is impossible clearly but that it is so contrary to natural instinct that it is usually a symptom of someone not in their right mind, like the Gadarene demoniac. As William Gouge points out, people who are not in their right mind will injure themselves and even take their own lives rather than do good to themselves. Paul uses two words to summarise careful attention to the necessities of the body, nourish or feed and cherish or keep warm (1 Timothy 6:8).
Our bodies are affected by the fall and prone to death and disease but that does not affect a right view of them and natural affection towards them. There is a glorious future for them if we are in Christ, they will ultimately be made like His glorious body. Even in this life we are able to glorify God in our body, presenting it as a living sacrifice, because it belongs to God and has together with our soul, been bought with a price (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). William Gouge explains further in this updated extract.
1. What is true natural affection towards ourselves?
Natural affection is lawful and commendable, it is an affection that is consistent with a good conscience. God’s Word is so far from undermining it that it does in fact give support to it. Those who are without natural affection are directly condemned: and we are commanded to be so kindly affectioned to one another as we are to ourselves (Romans 12:10). The moral law gives the natural affection a person has towards themselves as a rule for the love of their neighbour (loving your neighbour as yourself, Matthew 22:39). The prophets, apostles, and Christ Himself often call on us to consider that affection which we bear to ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Isaiah 58:7; 1 Corinthians 12:26; James 2:8). Christ says that “this is the Law, and the Prophets” a brief summary of what they greatly urge and press (Matthew 7:12).
Natural affection was at first created by God and planted in us. Just as soul, body and all other parts of human nature are in their substance good things, this affection is also in itself good. There are similar motivations to love ourselves as with love to the brethren: we are made after God’s image, redeemed by Christ’s blood, members of the same spiritual body, keepers of ourselves, to give an account of the good or hurt we do to ourselves in the same way. In the law, we ourselves are included under this word neighbour and every commandment of the second table (half of the Ten Commandments) is to be applied to ourselves.
2. Is Self-Love Not Something the Bible Condemns?
Someone might object that those who love themselves are condemned in God’s word (2 Timothy 3:2; Philippians 2:21; 1 Corinthians 10:24; Romans 15:1). There are two ways in which we may love ourselves: one good and commendable and the other sinful and condemnable.
That which is natural is in everyone by the very instinct of nature. It was originally created and is still preserved in our nature is by God’s providence for the preservation of nature. If there were not such a natural love of ourselves in everyone we would be as careless of ourselves as we are of others, and as loathe to expend effort for ourselves as we are for others. So that everyone might care for at least one (themselves) and so that the world would be better preserved, God has kept in us this natural affection, despite corruption by sin.
3. How is Natural affection part of God’s design?
Also, because everyone is not able to look after themselves, at least when young, sick, old or disabled in any other way, God by His wise providence has extended this natural affection towards others closely joined to us by the bonds of nature. Children are (by blood and natural bond) next to a person’s own self. What parents do for their children due to natural affection in them towards their children is admirable. This affection arises from children towards their parents so that when parents grow old or in any way unable to help themselves, they might have support from their children. And because parents and children are not always together, or not able to help one another, or unnatural, God has yet further extended this natural affection to other wider family. And for a further extent He has instituted marriage between those not of the same blood, and by virtue of that bond raised a natural affection not only in husband and wife to one another, but also in all the wider family formed. This affection is also in neighbours, friends, fellows, and others bound together by similar bonds. Thus, the bow of God’s providence has many strings, so that if one breaks, another may hold. In all these kinds, the nearer a person comes to themselves, the more this affection shows itself. God has made this natural affection in its various kinds and since it has a good purpose and produces much good, it is not to be condemned.
4. How Do We Make Best Use of Natural Affection?
Let us strive to cherish this natural affection and direct it toward the best things, those things that are most excellent and the most necessary. These are the things that concern our souls and eternal life. We must pray to have our understandings enlightened (that we may discern the things that differ and approve what is excellent). We must also ask to have our wills and affections sanctified so that we embrace, pursue, and delight in that which we know to be the best. In this way, our natural affection can be turned into spiritual affection.
We can make nature our schoolteacher in this. Just as Christ directs us to learn from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, the apostle here points us to our own natural instinct. We cannot complain that we have no access to a schoolteacher, our selves are schoolteachers to ourselves. As the apostle teaches husbands to love their wives by this means, so let us all more generally learn to love one another. For we are all mutual members of one and the same body, and our brother or neighbour is our flesh.
5. Why is it Wrong to Harm Ourselves?
It is against the common instinct of nature for someone to hate themselves. It is evidence that devils were in the Gadarene, in that he cut himself with stones: had not the devils forced him, he would never have done it (Mark 5:5). Yet some may object that some harm their bodies with fasting from food and sleep, or constant labours and travelling and other things. There are others who tear and gash their flesh in penance etc. None of these things are done by the instinct of nature which God has set in man, but through the corruption of nature which the devil has caused. They think they do these things out of love to themselves; superstitious persons do these things (such as macerating their body) to merit salvation.
Others harm their body to free themselves from ignominy, destitution, slavery, torment, or similar evils. In this case there is an apparent good that makes them do so and not mere hatred of themselves. Those who do so may be blinded in their mind or bereaved of their sanity or overwhelmed with some passion so that they do not know what they are doing, therefore they are not doing it in hatred.
Others may object that holy and wise men deliberately and on good advice have beaten down their bodies, and yielded their lives to be taken away, not accepting deliverance. But this was far from hatred but rather in great love to themselves.
6. What Unnatural Practices Are Condemned?
This teaching condemns many unnatural and horrible practices.
(a) The idolatrous prophets of Baal in seeking to move their idol to hear them, cut themselves with knives till the blood gushed out. This is not much dissimilar to those monks and hermits who wear shirts of hair-cloth or mail next to their body, or go bare-foot, some daily whipping themselves till blood flows, or harming their bodies with lying on hard surfaces, superstitious fasting from food and sleep, going on pilgrimage, etc.
(b) Gluttons, drunkards, and immoral people who to satisfy their corrupt desires impair their health, contract diseases and shorten their days.
(c) Criminals who in fighting cause their flesh to be wounded and their lives taken away. Among them those who bring themselves into great danger in pursuing ill-gotten gain as well as those who by crime and evil deeds cast themselves on the sword of justice.
(d) Those who give themselves to uncontrolled grief, fear, anger and similar violent passions. By this they weaken their bodies and shorten their days.
(e) Those who commit suicide break the rule of love to themselves and end their days in a most horrible sin, depriving themselves of the time, place, and means of repentance. Religion, nature, sense, and all abhor this fearful act. Not only those who have been enlightened by God’s Word, but also the heathen, who had no other than the light of nature, have judged it to be a most desperate sin.
7. How Should We Show Natural Affection Towards Our Bodies?
Nature teaches everyone to provide their necessities: what is necessary for life, such as food and what is necessary for health and warmth, such as clothing. Nature is here a schoolteacher to Christians, teaching us our duty. It is emphasised by Solomon, who says: “that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
If someone is worse than an infidel for not providing for his own, what are those who do not provide for themselves? They are in fact worse than a beast, for nature has taught the brute beasts to nourish and cherish themselves. If anyone thinks that this is more fitting for beasts or unregenerate men than saints, let them tell me which of the saints at any time guided by God’s Spirit, has wholly neglected himself. Passing over all others we learn that Christ (as required) slept, ate, rested, and otherwise refreshed Himself. Some may object that once when He was hungry and food had been prepared for Him, He refused to eat. Yet forbearing one meal is no great hindrance of nurturing the body. Extraordinary and weighty reasons may lawfully make someone neglect themselves a little so as to show that they prefer God’s glory and the salvation of others before the outward nourishing of their body. Christ says that His food was to do the will of Him that sent Him. In other words He said He preferred that before His food. Paul says, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you”, for your souls (2 Corinthians 12:15).
We must here therefore take heed of extremes on both sides: (a) of undue neglect of our bodies which results in having our body’s strength wasted and health impaired; (b) of caring too much for it, so that on no occasion will we lose a meal or a night’s rest. Fasting and watching, as occasion requires, are duties we are obliged to perform.
God has provided food, clothing and all things necessary for our weak bodies so that they should be nourished and cherished and not to use them, therefore, is to refuse God’s providence. By well nourishing and cherishing our bodies, they are the better enabled to do the work and service which God appoints to be done. But by neglecting them, we cannot do this – this should be a motive and aim in nourishing and cherishing our bodies.
8. What Ways Do People Harm Their Bodies?
Many offend against this good instinct of nature in the following ways.
(a) Covetous people
Those who are so obsessed with their wealth and storing up abundance of goods that they do not allow themselves to have the things necessary to nourish and cherish their bodies. Solomon rebukes such who keep riches for themselves yet to their own hurt (Ecclesiastes 5:13). Daily experience proves this such people make their riches snares and hindrances to keep them from eternal life. They also make this present life to be very irksome by filling their heads with much anxiety and keeping them from quiet rest. Many such may have abundance, but scarcely give themselves a good meal or appropriate clothing, medicine, heating and other necessities.
Those who are so intent on their work and lawful calling may go to excess even in such good things. Many students, preachers, lawyers, tradesmen, farmers, labourers and others offend in this way when they do not allow themselves appropriate times for refreshing and resting their bodies. Instead, they skip proper food and sleep to labour too much in their calling. Those who by such means harm themselves make themselves guilty of the neglect of the great good they might have done, if they had nourished and cherished their bodies.
Some are so eager about their business, that they think all the time for nourishing and cherishing their bodies misspent. They wish that their bodies needed no food, sleep, or other means of refreshment. These thoughts and desires are foolish and sinful in many respects:
- They manifest a secret discontent and grudging against God’s providence, who has ordered our condition in such a way to manifest clearly our weakness and God’s care for us
- They take away reasons for calling on God and giving praise to Him. If we did not have such need of God’s providence would we pray so often to Him for His blessing? Would we be so thankful to Him if we did not feel the sweetness and comfort of His providence by the means He provides?
- They take away means of showing mutual love because if we did not need help from one another, what ways would there be of proving our love?
(c) Those who make feeding and clothing a hindrance to each other.
Some nourish their bodies so much that they cannot cherish them. That is, they spend so much in eating and drinking that they have nothing left to spend on properly clothing themselves. Others spend so much on excessive clothing that they fail to feed themselves properly. These fall into two contrary extremes: excess in one thing and deficiency in another.
9. How Should Natural Affection for Our Body Point Us to Contentment?
The apostle Paul says we should be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8; see also Proverbs 30:8). Does this mean we are obliged to limit ourselves to doing no more than providing food and clothing? This provision should be appropriate to the condition in which God has placed us, the responsibilities He has given to us and to the calling which He has appointed to us, we ought not to be concerned for more. Let us therefore beware of the excess which arises from the corruption of nature and content ourselves with that proportion which nature requires. [John Calvin comments: “Not that to use them more largely ought to be condemned on its own account, but lusting after them is always sinful”].
We we need to live as salt and light in a culture that degrades the body. This means we should be on our guard against subtle ways that we too may harm our bodies. The Larger Catechism speaks of how the sixth commandment requires us to care appropriately for our bodies (Q135-136). It needs to be nourished and cherished. We can also harm it by not having the right spirit and attitude or not being careful about our emotional state (as far as we can control it). We can display proportional true natural affection rather than distorted and excessive self-love and by this point people to the Creator who has placed this instinct within us.
N.B. some of the observations in the opening paragraph were helped by the book Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey.
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