Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Timeless Treasure, Temporal Clay

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

                        2 Corinthians 4.7

Body Battles

Walt and I live in Boystown, Chicago’s gay enclave. Walking within a mile’s radius of our place takes us past a dozen thriving gyms, many with big windows to ogle sweaty specimens running and climbing on state-of-the-art equipment. I sometimes slow down to observe them. Their bodies don’t intrigue me—they’re basically the same; I find their facial expressions far more interesting. They generally fall into three categories: anxiety, determination, or frustration. Rarely do I see any signs of pleasure or fun. Indeed, many of their grimaces and clenched jaws suggest a resemblance to soldiers under fire. They’re at war with their physiques, fighting onslaughts of time and gravity, beating back a barrage of mortal arrows riddling their frames and psyches.

Body battles are not unique to gay people, of course. One imagines straight gym junkies number considerably more, only because the straight-gay ratio is what it is. And though I confess I could do with a regularly scheduled skirmish myself, I find it disconcerting that so many seem obsessed with physical perfection while so few attend to total perfection. Jesus never told us to work on our bodies. But in Matthew 5.48, He did say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Paul does allude to physical fitness in 2 Corinthians 7.1, though it’s just half the story: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” Physical fitness plus spiritual fitness equals perfection. Zero body fat and six-pack abs don’t always reflect that. In fact, they often indicate inner turmoil, because many of us have been seduced into detesting how we’re made.

Talking Back to God

Keeping our bodies in shape is one thing. Reshaping them is another. Devoting hours to repetitive motion, depriving ourselves of nutrition, and mortgaging our futures for surgical sculpture convey an unhealthy desire to be someone other than who we are. We’ve turned from conforming to our God’s likeness to pursue manmade images. Whom are we trying to please? We say drastically altering our looks will make us happy. But the missing link—the part we won’t admit—is we’re searching for happiness in others’ eyes. We’ve succumbed to post-modern idolatry. Listen to Romans 1.24-25 and test the current craze for artificially enhanced attraction against it: “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Today, we carve idols from our bodies. And as we see far too often, we’re terrible idolmakers. We can’t stop tampering with our work, and before long, we’ve gone from beautiful to berserk.

Later on, Paul writes: “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9.20-21) Questioning why God shaped us as He did and allowing objectified ideals to destroy our self-image is tantamount to talking back to God. According to Psalm 139.14, each of us is “fearfully, wonderfully made.” We all fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces into a perfect reflection of God. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 12, God imbeds thorns in our flesh to increase our reliance on His grace. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties,” he says in verse 10. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Inner Treasure

Since beauty exists in the eye of the beholder, its value fluctuates and its reliability fails. That’s why we call those obsessed with their outer appearance “vain”—it’s a waste of time. Total perfection can only exist within. It surfaces in attitudes and actions, not proportions and features. Its beauty is absolute and immeasurable; it surpasses human perception to portray God’s splendor, magnificence, and power. When we inwardly conform to His image and likeness, His transcendent beauty shines through us. Its value is eternally priceless.

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4.7. We possess a timeless treasure in temporal clay. We can chip away at our clay until we die. But when that day comes, the beauty we’ve worked so insanely to shape dies with it. Our inner treasure lives on. God houses His perfection in our mortal jars to prove what’s in us comes from Him, not us. That defines your beauty. It defines mine. We don’t need to look like anyone. It’s unnecessary to model our appearance on human ideals. We just have to shine.

We’re terrible idolmakers. We can’t stop tampering with ourselves until we’ve gone from beautiful to berserk.

(Tomorrow: Mud in Your Eye)

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