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Worshipping God with our bodies

This week’s lesson begins a new quarter, whose theme is “Health and healing”. It was something of a surprise, then, to discover that the first lesson of this quarter was on praise to God! The lesson calls us to praise God as creator of the universe, as creator of human life, as Saviour and Redeemer of humanity, as a loving father of humankind, and as sustainer of life.

It is easy to agree that each and every one of these, much less all of them together, ought to evoke a response of praise and worship in us. But thus far, this wasn’t what I was expecting for the first five days of thirteen weeks on the health message!

Thursday and Friday’s lessons point us towards health at last, but in a subtle and thought-provoking way. What, after all, is worship and praise, but our reasonable response to God—and one that He asks of us? (See my article on worship, “Liturgical Adventism: towards a theology of worship”, in the print issue of Spectrum, Fall 2009, pp. 18-24.) In other words, it can rightly be described as “our reasonable service”. This of course is the language of Romans 12:1, though it occurs in a slightly different context: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (NKJV). The lesson quotes this familiar text but puts it in a new light.

Its argument is that if we love God and want to praise Him, we cannot do so with voice alone. “True praise for God involves the whole being”, suggests Thursday’s lesson, so that “presenting our bodies as living sacrifices” is an act of worship, not merely one of “service” which would normally take to mean a duty. There are two arguments the lesson presents.

First, is a biomechanical argument: that our brains are affected by regular usage of many drugs or indeed by habitual consumption of some foods and drinks, and by diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The consequence is that our ability to praise God really can be significantly debilitated by our physical condition.

Second, however, is a more fundamental and spiritual argument. It is a familiar Adventist argument, though often based on Paul’s first epistle to the church at Corinth, rather than that to the Christians in Rome:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20 NIV).

That familiar text (which is not used in this week’s lesson) acquired a new potency, at least for me, by being put in the context of praise and worship. Here the lesson’s argument could actually have strengthened by referring to 1 Cor. 6 and highlighting the meaning of “temple”—a place of worship.

A literal translation would be that my body is the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Young’s translation); and the text can be understood as meaning that our bodies are a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. But a sanctuary is more than a home—it is a sacred place, devoted (like a temple) to worship. And other translations bring this meaning home with their rendering of v. 20: “glorify God in your body and in your spirit” (KJV, Young’s, NASB, emphasis supplied). And indeed, we forget that a sacrifice could be an act of worship, not just of propitiation. Thus, “presenting our bodies as living sacrifices” does not have to be an attempt to atone (which is a negative action, trying to cancel something out); it can be an act of worship and praise—a positive action.

Furthermore, if we want to praise, honour, and glorify our Creator and Redeemer, surely we ought to start in the church or sanctuary of our own body? If we live to glorify God, rather than seeing worship as an action, then suddenly the Adventist health message can be seen in a rather different light.

Traditionally, Adventists have emphasised living healthfully either in purely physical terms or in legalistic spiritual terms. The physical side of the argument employs both carrot and stick. We have held out the hope of a longer than average lifespan as an inducement to fit in with Adventist codes—what would we do without those studies of SDAs in Loma Linda, which provide the empirical data we use so much! However, we have also shown films of cancerous lungs, heart surgery, and suffering drug addicts, using the negative argument of fear.

My problem with this is not that we are wrong in our facts: Adventists do tend to live longer; and we are well advised to avoid cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs (as I have always done myself). But with emphases such as these, we could effectively convert people to a lifestyle, not to life in Christ. Neither concern for health and healing nor actual physical fitness have ever been limited to those who are devoted to God. The psalmist regretted that not only were the wicked prosperous: “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills” (Ps. 73: 4-5 NIV). As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we ought to be stressing spirituality more than physicality.

Of course, we have done that as well, to some extent. When we have done so, though, the implicit messages have usually been negative.

As a boy, I was enjoined not to eat, drink, or otherwise ingest certain substances, in terms that made me feel that, if I did, I was committing an awful offence against divine law. My father was in the health work and so at home we weren’t only vegetarians; we also avoided pepper, mustard and other stimulants. I thought that to use them (and meat or alcohol even more so!) was a mortal sin. I can still remember my shock at a church fellowship lunch, when I was about 10, finding pepper on the table, and asking my father “Can they do that?!” He calmly and carefully explained that a lot of Adventists used pepper (and mustard!) and that some, who ate no meat, ate fish—and that all were “good Adventists”.

It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. For me, the health message had been just a set of rules, of laws—a further instance of the way God bound us about with regulations. They were for our own good, to be sure, but the image I had of God was as a celestial policeman, waiting for us to infringe, so I could be condemned and punished. This was a childlike view of God, of course. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11 NKJV) Part of growth towards spiritual maturity was realising, thanks to my parents’ wonderful influence, that Christian life is not about fear of divine consequences—which is a legalistic mindset—but rather about love for Christ, who we want to live in us, as our partner. Also important was the realisation that not everything Adventists reject is a “sin”—an awful contravention of eternal moral principles; but that this doesn’t mean that the lifestyle choices our church collectively encourages are therefore unimportant. We, whom God created, and died to redeem, ought to think about the consequences of our actions, for our own sakes.

Yet even more fundamentally, we ought to do so not out of fear (whether of illness later in life, or of damnation and loss of eternal life), but rather out of love for God. That is the message of this week’s lesson, and it is wonderful.

The lesson is telling us that the health message is actually even more important than we thought—but because the basis for it is neither legalistic, nor biological. The reason to live healthfully is spiritual: we love God and want to honour, praise and glorify Him who made us and saved us. In other words, the grounds for keeping to traditional Adventist health principles are positive, rather than negative. Different Adventists will embody those principles in different ways, but “whatever [we] do”, “whether [we] eat or drink”, we “do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

For God’s love poured out to us, and for the realisation that living healthfully is not an onerous burden but a joyous response to His love, praise indeed to our God “from whom all blessings flow.”

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