1 Cor, I Sing the Body Electric

Things I Don’t Like About Paul, Part 103

(thinking about 1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only
one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to
receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the
air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to
others I myself should not be disqualified.

Yeah. That's one of them. The athletic reference is a metaphor, encouraging us to press on toward the victory of an imperishable wreath (yes, I'm quoting Philippians, which happens to be a favorite metaphorical passage).

But is the body stuff a metaphor for his spiritual discipline? It may well be, but for some reason people hear the metaphor in the first two verses, but make the end of this passage a literal one.

Maybe it's not Paul's fault, except in the sense that he forgot people tend to be bloody literal-minded. Maybe it's us, or not you and me, but other people too inclined to make his word unimaginative and anti-literary.

The body stuff bothers me because for so many centuries we've extended it to include the earth and earth's creatures, enslaving them, using them for whatever might forward our agenda, whether spiritual or military or material. It's a usage mentality, a beating myself or you or whoever into submission sort of dominant-over-matter mindset.

And there are still people putting forward an anti-body agenda, or perhaps a better word would be unembodied or postembodied, asking us to focus like mad on the apocalyptic arrival of Jesus. I guess there have always been pockets of those people, people enamored with the idea of leaving these bodies behind for something celestial. 

But I am becoming convinced that living into these bodies is part of the experience to which God calls us. Why else embody us in the first place? And I don't buy the enslaving image, for body or spirit. Jesus came to set us free from those bonds, not to command us to cinch them tighter.

So whether it's our interpretation or Paul's personal neuroses at fault here, I reject the idea of enslaving the body as a path to the imperishable wreath.


12 thoughts on “Things I Don’t Like About Paul, Part 103”

  1. I’m with you. I wish I could find evidence of a tradition, somewhere in the mishmash of our heritage, that honored the blessing of OUR incarnation, not just the incarnation of Jesus. At one time, I actually considered becoming a Shaker because I loved their vision of community, their egalitarian structure, and their commitment to shared creativity. The sticking point was always the denial of physical life as a gift of God, not a sinful state to be overcome. But it is THROUGH my body, through my senses, that I experience God’s presence. There must be a way to honor one’s physicality without being labeled an hedonist, a Pagan, a self-indulgent sinner.

  2. Well said, Songbird AND Mainecelt!
    I don’t think God would have given us such fearful and wonderful bodies if we were supposed to punish them all the time. That sounds sick and wrong to me.
    Of course my own issues instantly pop into mind with this…I have learned over many years that fasting from food for longer than one meal is not a smart or reasonable thing for me to do. I have low blood sugar and fasting always ends in tears or illness; so far that hasn’t gotten me any closer to that wreath!
    Yet there is a day of fasting for Darfur coming up. I so want to participate. But I will have to do it another way.
    Look forward to other comments here.

  3. I am right there with you as well. Every once in a while I “force” myself to preach Paul, just because. This will not be one of those weeks.

  4. I see the running metaphor as an invitation to perseverence, and the enslaving the body part as an invitiation to discipline as a way to persevere. Athletes must discipline their bodies if they want to compete, and do things that normal people would not do (Michael Phelps can eat 4,000 calories a day; I can’t.) But as I pursue the learning curve that is the Christian life, I’ve adopted disciplines to help me keep going. I’m more grounded when I practice those disciplines, and more likely to stay on course even when things become difficult.

  5. The ‘punishing the body’ comment doesn’t bother me. Athletes do punish their bodies, in a sense, as a part of their training regimen. Paul’s language was sometimes extreme and hyperbolic, as Jesus’ language was. Perhaps good preaching on this text would be to highlight its abuses, but also to lift out the principle at the heart of it. Self-discipline is critical in life.

  6. Even if punishing and enslaving the body are taken metaphorically, I don’t believe that this is what God intended us to do with our bodies. I am a social worker and work with plenty of folks who’s mental health or even just their joy in life has been compromised by the effects that punishing and enslaving the body has on the spirit. Although it’s seen as a “new” discovery of the past couple of years, I think God’s known all along that mind, body, and spirit all work together as one and that what you do to one affects the others. Like you said, why would God give us bodies if he wanted us to hurt them?

  7. You and Mainecelt said it so well.
    Maybe there’s a different translation of the word that’s read now as “punishment.” I would rather interpret it more as the joy that comes from practicing discipline with physical practices.
    Seems to me, like y’all have said, that we cannot express the gifts of the spirit fully unless we have a healthy and realized corporal body.

  8. Perhaps we have learned something, after all, in order to move away from the dualistic, mind/body spirit folks who sya the spirit is of good report and the body evil. I think it’s healthy to rebel against Paul on this one.
    No Paul for me this week…

  9. Everyone has already said most of what I’m thinking.
    I like the metaphor of discipline and striving, but the idea of punishing . . . no. I had a bout of near-anorexia in my twenties, and I still struggle with some of the emotional after effects. That kind of attitude can mess up your head in a way that it’s not easy to overcome.

  10. How every interesting that you brought this up. My fundamentalist upbringing always had the tone that enjoying anything physically was shortsighted at best and sinful at worst. We should have been focused on the hereafter rather than on the pleasures of the moment. This definitely got tied into issues with my size and food. Along with other issues of size and personal value, I was asking, even as a kid, can a fat person be a good Christian?

  11. I have two problems with this passage – as an athlete myself (well, if you can call a really hopelessly bad, still slightly overweight, middle-aged ice-dancer an athlete), I do totally see the point of all that training, all that getting up at 5:45 am to skate before work, and so on…. but after twenty-something years as an Evangelical I am so un-body-aware it’s not true, much to the despair of my skating coach and my husband (who is still Evangelical, but somehow doesn’t have the body-awareness issues I have. Not so much, anyway. Maybe because he really was an athlete when he was younger).

  12. This left me breathless. What you wrote, what Mainecelt wrote …
    My religious call to Christianity has been both spiritual and physical. But I’ve had the hardest time with it because the message of Christianity has always been to deny the body and the senses. I was raised pagan; I believe in honouring my physical incarnation. And the message I have been getting “from God” has been the same.
    To see that Christians feel the same way as I do … to see another doesn’t like Paul … wow, maybe I can be Christian after all.
    So thank you. 🙂

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