An Advent meditation: our bodies, our worth and our unworthiness

An Advent meditation: our bodies, our worth and our unworthiness

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Just before Christmas three years ago Sarah and I had the pleasure of being with our families over the holidays for the first time in–I honestly don’t remember–a decade or so?  We were so excited to enjoy a snowy Christmas with family in Montana.

Several days before Christmas I took my (then) 7-year-old twin daughters out for some last minute Christmas shopping.  Arriving at the local mall, we strolled down the mall, looking at the different shops, holding each of my daughters’ hands, one on each side.

We turned a corner, and before realizing it, to our right was a Victoria’s Secret shop.  Displayed in the front windows were larger-than-life-size pictures of models dressed (or undressed?) in lingerie.

“That’s not something worth looking at,” I said.  “Come on, let’s keep going.”

After a brief (if pregnant) silence, one of my daughters piped up:  “Dad, why would a woman dress in her underwear for everyone to see?”

“Ummm….” I said.  I had to think about it.

“Well, you know that God made everything, and everything that he made is really, really good, right?  For example, our bodies–they are pretty amazing, aren’t they?  Not only did God make them so that they can do all kinds of amazing things, but he also made them to be beautiful to look at.  For example, I think your mom is beautiful–every bit of her.  Does that make sense?”

“Sure, I guess so,” she replied.

“Yeah, mom is so pretty,” the other added.

“So…everything God made is really good, because God made it and because he says it’s good.  A thing is as special as He decides it is.  And, like I said, our bodies are especially good and beautiful.  But what if we decided that things weren’t made by God, or that what he says doesn’t really matter?  Then how special would our bodies be?  How would we go about figuring out how much they’re worth?”

“I don’t know–I have no idea.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem:  no one would really know.  We wouldn’t know if we were special anymore.  And part of who ‘we’ are is our bodies.  When we’re not sure how much our bodies are worth, we begin to wonder what others think they’re worth.  So we try to do things that will make others think our bodies are special.”

“Like wear underwear like that?” asked one.

“Yeah, I guess so.  There are other ways to do it, too.  But here’s the thing:  when we do that, something really strange happens:  at first, we feel more special, at least for a little while, but then afterwards we feel less special–less special than before we had done anything.  That’s what the Bible says [Rom. 1.24:  “…the degrading/dishonoring of our bodies…”], and I’ve seen it happen with people.”

“That’s sad.”

“It’s really sad.  Without God, people don’t know how much they’re worth.  Because we’re made by God, we all feel like we should be special, even if we don’t know God or think he’s real.  But even when we feel like we should be special, we doubt it, and we begin to treat both ourselves and others like none of us really matters.  What’s it feel like when others treat you like you don’t matter?”

“Terrible.”

“Yeah, and how do we feel after we have treated others like they don’t matter?”

“I usually feel pretty bad,” said one of them.

“Yeah, almost everyone feels bad after treating others like they don’t matter.  We start to feel unworthy, guilty.  But not everybody feels that way, though.”

“Why not everybody?”

“Well, I’m not sure all the reasons, but here are a few.  When we keep on treating people like they don’t matter, sadly we get used to it, and we don’t care as much; it becomes normal.  Or another reason is that, when we see other people treating someone like they don’t matter, it’s easier for us to do the same, too.  So the women whose pictures we saw in the storefront:  if some people think those women are special only because they’re bodies are beautiful, then it’s easy for others to think that as well:  they, too, will think, ‘Those women are only special because they have beautiful bodies.’  And what’s also really sad is that those women can actually start to think that’s true as well.”

The girls paused to think, the wheels turning in their heads.  Then one asked, “But what about when those women get old and they don’t look like that anymore?  People won’t think they’re special anymore, will they?”

“No, sweetheart, they won’t.  And, sadly, those women may actually agree.”

“I hope not,” the other responded.  “I hope they can become grandmas and have grandchildren who will treat them like they are really special–like how God thinks of them.”

“Yeah, I hope so, too.  You know,” I said, “there’s a name for treating people according to what God says they are worth.”

“Really?” said, looking surprised, “What is it?”

“Love.”

……….

(I’ve always been amazed at how much children can understand.  If you know their world, you can have some very sophisticated conversations.)

Our worth as humans does in fact turn on whether or not we were created.  And the unworthiness we so often feel comes from treating others like they have little worth–or, at least, less worth (it’s relative).  And so we humans live, ever questioning our own worth and “managing” our unworthiness.

Jesus’ incarnation speaks directly to both our worth and our unworthiness:  “…till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”  The Word became flesh.  Pleased as man with men to dwell / Jesus our Emmanuel.

God is with us.  God is among us.  God is us.

As I used to tell the junior high kids I mentored, Jesus is God in a bod.

But Jesus as God-with-us is precisely God-for-us:  “You will give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  Becoming incarnate, he befriended the carnal–even the most carnal, so that he might remove our unworthiness.

The cross always ennobles and insults.  Paul twice tells the believers in sex-saturated Corinth, “You were bought at a price.”  This statement dignifies even as it dismantles and devastates.  We had to be purchased, redeemed, rescued.  Why?  Because of our unworthiness.  And yet we were purchased, redeemed, rescued.  Why?  Because of our worth.

But not only did Jesus become human; he remains human.  The bodily resurrection and return of Jesus speak of one who is still a human, who still has a body:  “…since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him,” writes Paul, sounding very much like the author of Hebrews, who speaks of Jesus’ “indestructible life” as follows:

“…because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

Take that in:  he always lives to intercede for you and for me.  Though all the world accuse us, though our own hearts accuse us and cry out for our condemnation, Jesus our high priest draws near with an indignant love and retorts, “Over my dead body.”

But while both the incarnation, bodily resurrection and reign of Jesus dignify our bodies, the latter recognizes the brokenness of our bodies:  if we recognize–and grieve–that our bodies are not as they should be–if they lack the proper wonder and beauty (what Scripture calls “glory”), Jesus’ resurrection says that God agrees with us:  he doesn’t like what’s wrong with our bodies even more than we do (though he may disagree with us about what is wrong); he doesn’t merely dislike how they function (or dysfunction), he dislikes aspects of how they look (see 1 Cor. 15.43).

And he fully intends to do something about it:  they will be raised imperishable, glorious, empowered, Spirit-filled forever.

Until then, at times groaning, we wait eagerly for our adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies.  Convinced of how the Incarnation addresses both human worth and human unworthiness, we offer our bodies here and now, today, as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

5 thoughts on “An Advent meditation: our bodies, our worth and our unworthiness

  1. Lots of wonderful thoughts!

    I have one concern I would love to hear your thoughts on, though at first it might sound more radical than I intend. Hear me out: I worry about the shaming of “immodesty” from the pulpit, the linking of women wearing less clothing as being insecure and not valuing themselves, wishing to be a sexual object, because I think it is a much more complicated issue.

    The models themselves may go into the industry out of a desire to be artistic, to act, to express beauty. But then, it is made into a market. Sex sells to men, and men drive the market. Perhaps it also sells to women out of an insecurity and desire to be more beautiful, but I think it’s likely that this also is rooted in a desire to be found physically beautiful by men, which men perpetuate (re: driving the culture). This is the way our culture works, because women are seen as commodities to wife and bear children, not to respect in the workplace, etc. I do not mean that women can’t choose to be homemakers, only that they are not as respected for the choice to do otherwise.

    I return to what it feels like to be a woman in the church–you are told that your dress makes men stumble (this creates the feeling that we only dress for men, rather than for our own enjoyment and artistry/comfort/etc), that if you dress “immodestly” (by some nebulous standard) that you don’t realize your value otherwise (this creates the feeling that we must dress “modestly” to show we do know that we have value in Christ apart from appealing to men).

    I am not vouching for the use of lingerie models, quite the opposite. I am saying that a history of objectification and commodification of women might have led to such displays more primarily than a lack of knowledge of value. Perhaps it is best to fight both of these issues, holding men to the standard of respecting women to at the same time as encouraging women to respect themselves, rather than one or the other.

    1. Really good comments and questions.

      I very much agree that both within our culture and within the American church one can quite readily find a male-oriented (or androcentric) conceptualization of female beauty, dress, etc. This conceptualization is deeply unjust. It points to (male) “unworthiness” in failing to assign women the worth that God does.

      Standing only on anecdotal evidence alone, I’m inclined to agree with your statement that women go into the industry primarily for its aesthetic focus and the opportunity for artistic expression. This is so very commendable. In my conversation with my daughters above (and many times since), I wanted to celebrate with them the breathtaking goodness and beauty of God’s creation, especially our bodies. As uncomfortable as it might be for some in various corners of the religious and/or conservative communities, I very much want my daughters to be able to enjoy the beauty and splendor of both the male and female body. It is this ability to recognize and appreciate this beauty and splendor that probably attracts some (most?) women into this industry. Sadly, this celebration of the human body is often not found in the church.

      “Sex sells to men, and men drive the market.” Surely, there is truth to this, but I would wonder how much of the broader fashion industry today is also driven by women competing with other women. Are women driven to dress for men? Yes. But are women driven to dress for other women?

      “I do not mean that women can’t choose to be homemakers, only that they are not as respected for the choice to do otherwise.” I’m certain that there are corners of our culture and church today where this is true, but I also think that there are many places where choosing to be a homemaker would be an act of courage. To keep it local: I know female Duke and UNC grads who are very hesitant to NOT be in the workplace, because it would be so out of line with the expectations set for them in college; to be “just a wife and mom” would be risky, a disappointment. According to Cecilia Ridgeway (Framed by Gender), “housewives” are “perceived to be in the lower half of all social groups in social status, below blue-collar workers and women in general and well below men in general. Housewives…[are] seen as similar in competence to the elderly and disabled” (5).

      I so agree with your comments about modesty in the church: women (or men) are not to dress primarily for the opposite sex. There is so much more that should go into our choice of clothing and appearance.

      I want to think more about what you’ve said. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any further thoughts you have!!

      1. I’m saddened, but not surprised by Ridgeway’s findings. At the same time, I think it enhances my point rather than competes with it. I stand by that women are not as respected in professional jobs as men, as evidenced by, for example, under-representation in the workplace, the pay gap, nonexistent or short paid maternity leave (these are things I should and can cite, so if something seems amiss let me know and I will). This sucks, but doesn’t mean women are respected for the choice to be mothers/homemakers, either. Seems to me a lose-lose situation, and one I certainly feel the effects of.

        Re: modesty, my further thoughts are that we are too concerned about modesty being reflected in dress at all, and in women’s dress in particular. The church has become so obsessed with women dressing modestly that it’s transformed the idea “modesty” as meaning expressing your human subjectivity (Aquinas said, “in so far as outward movements are signs of our inward disposition, their moderation belongs to the virtue of truthfulness whereby a man, by word and deed, shows himself to be such as he is inwardly”), to “modesty” as a way women dress to appeal to christian men and not cause them to sin (check out http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2013/06/modest-is-not-hottest.html).

        My concern with the way the church treats women and sexuality continues on to sexual purity in women. When we hear “if you have sex, you’ve given away everything”, it insinuates that our entire value is in our sexual actions. This of course leads to confusion in instances where sexual assault is involved (which isn’t minimal, I will add), but also affects women generally as it enforces women in the role of giver and men in the role of taker, when it should be equal; and, it diminishes the emotional/interpersonal value of women apart from sex. Before I get too distracted on this spiel: my point is that this relates back to my comments on conversations about modesty because women are, again, held responsible for being the modest/pure/homemaker/worker (all good things in their own way, as I hope I’ve conveyed) without holding men to the same standard or taking men’s role in this into account.

        A check: I know sometimes men are encouraged to be responsible/respectful, but as a whole I’m simply saying I think it is imbalanced, not nonexistent.

  2. I absolutely agree that it is a “lose-lose situation” for women. Ridgeway’s work is especially interesting in that her book is premised on the following question: given what she (correctly I think) describes as “the profound social and economic reorganization that accompanied the transition of the United States from an agrarian to an industrialized society”–a reorganization that “brought substantial changes in social expectations about how men and women should live their lives”, why hasn’t “the ordinal hierarchy that advantages men over women…never entirely faded or been reversed”?

    That’s an extremely important question. Notice how much the question concedes: “never ENTIRELY faded.” So, according to Ridgeway (one of the leading sociologists in the world on gender, a prof at Stanford Uni), “the ordinal hierarchy that advantages men over women” has significantly but not “entirely” faded. But she rightly asks the very important question of how/why “gender inequality persists in the contemporary United States in the face of potentially leveling economic and political changes, such as men’s and women’s increasingly similar labor market experience, antidiscrimination legislation,” etc.

    She then goes on to provide statistical evidence of the persistence of gender inequality. I am sympathetic to her conclusions (as you say, it’s a lose-lose situation), but I must confess I’m somewhat suspicious of more than a few the statistics. In short, I’m sympathetic to her conclusions, but I would probably arrive at them by a different path. To give just one example: since 1990 women’s labor force participation rates, which had been steadily climbing, leveled off at 74% in 2000, while men’s participation rates is about 86%. But what should be concluded from this disparity in participation rates? Must we conclude that this disparity is necessarily the result of discrimination? that inequality of labor figures betrays an inequality of labor fates? What if not as many women desire to be in the labor force as men? How should this lack of desire be interpreted?

    Books like Wrong by David Freedman, and more to the matter at hand, Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell (along with its companion volume Intellectuals and Race) provide meta-critiques of much modern scholarship in both the (so-called) hard and soft sciences. An internationally acclaimed economist, Sowell’s work on race and racism is especially jaw-dropping–and discouraging in a very surprising sort of way.

    Fwiw, framing one’s analysis of the workplace (and social life in general) in terms of gender is undoubtedly an essential way to conceptualize social dynamics. But is it the primary or even the most helpful? To me, it risks polarizing and making binary what is actually far more complicated (e.g., if it’s a lose-lose situation for women, this could imply that it’s, therefore, a win-win situation for men; I don’t think you were implying that, but I think many would). Power dynamics even in 1-on-1 relationships (like marriage) are mind-bogglingly complicated–how much more so in the workplace. While having some great strengths, Marxist models that conceptualize “advantage” and “privilege” in terms of access to economic and political resources can be remarkably reductionistic, not to mention disempowering: if I’m in the oppressed class, what can I do but see myself as the victim that I am? Will we all be happier (or “equal”) when these resources are evenly distributed? Or, more to the topic at hand, will gender equality be felt in the workplace when labor participation rates are identical (and all other statistical disparities are leveled)?

    Wow, your lament of the reductionistic definition of “modesty” is thought-provoking, and disturbing. Thanks for the link. I want to think more about your comment re women’s sexual purity in the church. I think there’s some real truth there but wonder if there be some genderfrication (a word I just created!) of the matter…

    1. “Will we all be happier (or “equal”) when these resources are evenly distributed?”
      “Must we conclude that this disparity is necessarily the result of discrimination?”

      I think whether or not discrimination is the cause of the disparate labor force participate rates, it certainly is worth addressing in its own right, and might be the easiest way to answer that question (two birds, one stone!). Perhaps well-being and feelings of equality will come more from being treated with respect (i.e. rather than harassment, wage equality) and understanding (i.e. paid maternity leave). The UN recently did an investigative report on women in the workplace that’s worth checking into (the “economic and social life” section, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16872&LangID=E).

      Perhaps if these issues were addressed, either a) participation rates would level out or b) participation rates wouldn’t be an issue. I rather doubt a bunch of women who were happy with the way they were treated would picket regarding there being fewer women in the labor force than men.

      Happy to hear your thoughts on modesty when you have them!

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