Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
Last month on his Ask Pastor John podcast, John Piper answered a question from a young woman dealing with crippling insecurities and self-loathing.
Her letter read, in part:
Ever since puberty I have hated my body. I constantly feel uncomfortable in my own skin and obsess about what other people might be thinking about it. In the last eight years of my life, I’m not sure I’ve gone a full minute without having intrusive, destructive, and negative thoughts about my physical appearance.
Piper begins his response with a sort of disclaimer, stating that he is perhaps unable to answer this question as well as he should because he doesn’t know this woman’s specific situation. He offers an answer anyway, and he does so in three parts. Frankly, I see significant problems with each of the parts, but it is the first that I find the most harmful. Piper suggests to this young woman that “there is a good hatred of the body.” If she would only shift her bad hatred to the “good” one, hating her body because it is what makes her sin against God, Piper offers that the result would be “significant liberation.”
You can read his full answer here, but I would ask that you do not read it unless you also read Hillary McBride’s open letter response published in Relevant Magazine here. Her firm and loving words offer an essential counterbalance to Piper’s seemingly “Biblical” but insensitive advice.
“Your body is not bad,” she writes, addressing this young woman and the countless others who are overwhelmed with the same discomfort in their own bodies. “It is good, and beautiful, and loved.” To Piper she expresses frustration and sadness towards his words, but not without graciousness: “I am inclined to think that you were not intending to be harmful, but were, in fact, trying to help a young woman struggling with body shame.”
I am also inclined to think that Piper is not deliberately trying to keep this young woman trapped in cycles of self-loathing and potentially harmful behaviors towards her own body. Unfortunately, it is for this same reason that his words are so dangerous.
This rhetoric in the church, particularly the Evangelical church, is not new. Many Christians are taught that they are inherently sinful, that their bodies are inherently bad, and that they must constantly be on guard against the evil that lives in their flesh. In this view, your body may be your greatest enemy.
Piper quotes 1 Corinthians 9:27 in which Paul speaks of disciplining or pummeling his body. “You don’t beat up on your friend,” Piper recaps. “You beat up on your enemies.”
Do we beat up on our enemies? I’m not a Biblical scholar, but I’ve read and studied enough of the Bible to know that this is not how scripture demands that we treat our enemies. Luke 6:27-28: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those you hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” When we love our enemies, we often find that they are not really enemies at all, but hurting humans not unlike us.
Now, are both of our statements Biblical? We both quote New Testament verses. We both love and respect and follow scripture. Piper stresses his desire to give a Biblical perspective to this young woman’s situation. The problem is you can say a lot of things that are technically “Biblical” and still miss the point.
When I read this woman’s plea to Piper, I could feel the depth of her pain and I was greatly affected by her words. When I read his response, I was filled with despair, and anger, and great sadness.
We are taught to hate the parts of our bodies that don’t measure up to what society deems as beautiful. We are taught to hate the parts of our bodies that are deemed too attractive or distracting for the opposite sex. We are taught to hate our natural sexual urges and inclinations. And we are taught these things both in and outside of the church. I’ve felt doses of that hatred, and let me tell you, it’s enough to take your own breath away. It’s a terrible feeling, walking on eggshells in your own skin. It’s even worse when you truly believe that that’s what God wants you to feel.
This woman, seeking out Biblical counsel, begging a man of the church for a reason to love herself, received instead a “Biblical” reason to keep hating her body. It breaks my heart.
This isn’t just a self-image problem (although that is serious enough on its own). It is a fundamental issue in the ways that we look at the world around us. This line of thinking leads also to negative views about other people and their bodies (think of the “love the sinner hate the sin” refrains), granting Christians the permission—and sometimes the responsibility—to manifest hatred towards parts of their neighbors’ identities or lifestyles. When your own body is subject to hatred, why wouldn’t that ideology transfer to those around you?
The problem is, hatred never delivers; it only ensnares.
This is what believe with my whole heart: if God is love, there is no room for hatred in his kingdom. Hate is the problem. It is never the solution.
If God is love, then love. Love with everything you have and with everything you are lacking. Your body is not your enemy. And if you think it is, then treat it like an enemy: love it. Do good to it. Bless it. Pray for it.
I recognize that this is not easy. Indeed, it is often so much easier to hate than to love. I don’t want this to come off as flippant, or trite, or insincere. Those who choose to love are delving into the hard stuff. Sometimes love looks like seeking counseling from a mental health professional, or starting treatment for an eating disorder. Sometimes it means allowing yourself to feel sexy, or refusing to believe the lies that other people tell you about your body’s worth.
This is what it comes down to: you are good. You are worthy of love and acceptance. Your body is good, and it, too, is worthy of love and acceptance. You were created with the spark of God in you, and that goodness can never be smothered or tainted or erased. And I believe that to be Biblical.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.