When I became a Christian, I wanted to make a clean break from the life I had lived before. Faith was a new thing for me, and it seemed that it should be radically different. My idea was that a spiritual life should be, well, more spiritual–focused on things the eye couldn’t see.
However, no matter how much I wanted to stay focused on these spiritual things, I found it impossible to maintain a constant spiritual mindset. It was much easier to be influenced by the things I could touch, see, hear, and taste.
This push and pull of physical vs transcendent was exhausting. I was angry about my constant failure. This led me to dislike my very physical existence, seeing it as the cross I must bear.
Without realizing it, I had embodied the Platonic theory that physical was unimportant and spiritual was the true reality. I think it is precisely because of this philosophy that the church has struggled so very much with sin.
Sin is most often a physical act (we generally do not condemn people for thoughts though we recognize them as the source). It is when thought is given action that it gives birth to sin (James 1:15). There is a physicality to this–we steal, we lie, we cheat, we yell, we overeat, etc.
Perhaps there is a physicality to redemption also. We are physical beings, designed this way by God. Is it absurd to think that we can appropriate God’s grace and transforming work through physical acts?
When Israel entered the promised land, they came to a land that still needed to be conquered. There was work for them to do. No one would argue that God actually needed Israel’s help in this—Egypt proved that once and for all. For some reason though, Israel needed to participate in a physical way. Their actions infused with God’s power made a way that was only possible with Him coming alongside them. It wasn’t a matter of them being strong or cunning enough. It was simply a matter of partnering with God and the work He was calling them to do. But they had to do it.
Perhaps in our own battle against sin, we can take hope in the physical acts of redemption. I don’t necessarily think this side of the cross that warfare is our mindset. He has already beaten the enemy that threatens us daily. Instead, we look to a new partnership of uncovering the redemptive work He’s already accomplished.
It makes me consider the sacraments in a new light—the taking of communion, the corporate prayers, the songs of praise, the reading of the Word. Not that salvation is accomplished through these tasks (the church has long settled these issues) but that there is still something beautiful and necessary occurring when we practice our faith together as believers. These physical acts help our bodies and spirit come into sync.
It’s not just corporate acts that have power to transform. The daily tasks of living that take up so much of our lives are no accident. It is His plan. These acts slow us down, give us time to think.
One of the characteristics of physical activity is that it is impossible to rush, at least not without consequences. Anyone who has ever made a pie or worked on a car can attest to this. The physical way is the long slow way of careful movement. It’s also the way of the incarnation.
Jesus didn’t show up a fully grown man. He earned his humanity one day, one breath, one action at a time. He disdained no part of the process. We have no record of Jesus saying with frustration, “Can I get to the real reason I’m here already?” In contrast, we see Jesus patiently waiting for God’s timing, even rebuking His mother when she asks Him to act prematurely (John 2:4).
I find it mind-boggling to consider that the creator of the universe participated in the daily routines of life—eating, cleaning, sleeping, working. He took no shortcuts, had no exemption from the processes of a physical life. And, most telling, his sacrifice was intensely corporeal. He was not a figurative offering but laid his very lifeblood on the altar.
For us, who are no better than our master, we must be patient with the work he is doing in our lives in the way he chooses. This act of living our physical lives is part of the process needed to transform us. There is no speedy or easy way to get to the end.
Solomon confronts the pointlessness of life in Ecclesiastes. Though he cannot find meaning in the activities of life themselves, connected with God and His purpose, he found hope. Hannah Anderson explains in All That’s Good that
What Solomon realizes is that our life on earth, all the things we experience, all the work we do, all the good things we enjoy, aren’t simply hurdles to the next life. They are designed by God to lead us to the next life. They are designed to lead us to Him. Like the grooves on a record, God’s good gifts are designed to draw us closer and closer to the center, to draw us closer and closer to eternity and to Him.
The purpose of our redemption is to bring us near to Him. Our lives, as they are now, are the means by which we cast off the old man and put on the new man, making us into a new creation able to enjoy the presence of God.
So, today, be mindful of the physical act of living. Don’t be so quick to rush to virtual worlds to escape. Instead, as you participate in life through spiritual disciplines or daily tasks, consider the work God is doing within you, transforming you from glory to glory.