“I am not my body!”  Compassion, peace and hope when we feel alienated from our bodies

May God deepen our compassion for those who live in this tension and bring us wholeness and peace

Whether because of aging, illness, gender dysphoria, injury, anorexia, or even weight gain, many of us feel that who we are on the outside is not who we really are on the inside. When I first encountered the transgender community rallying cry, “I am not my body,” I was shocked. “I am not my body” had been my heart cry for years.

I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 29.

I could empathize with the trans who felt like the male on the inside didn’t really align with her biologically female body. Or the gay guy feeling like his inner longings for connection did not align with his body’s ability to connect. I too felt like: This body betrays me. It’s not who I really am in my heart of hearts.

With the onset of RA I began to fight terrible pain and loss of mobility. The joint pain that had settled into my feet moved steadily up my body—knees, hips, hands, elbows, shoulders. Ten weeks after it began I remember lying in bed the night my jaw joint started to ache. My inner snark thought, Well, at least it can’t spread any further. No joints in my brain.

Fatigue was a constant companion, but I dreaded going to bed. The weight of the bed sheet on my toes felt like the dentist’s lead X-ray vest. I would want to turn on my side for relief, but to push on my swollen joints to make it happen was like choosing a brief flogging.

Ten weeks earlier I had been snow skiing in Colorado. Playing my guitar leading worship. I had been active, energetic, a people person on steroids, always going and doing. Suddenly, all that was gone. My body felt swollen, crippled and old.

Many of you know too well that as we age, the pain in our feet and knees eats away at our quickness and stamina. (My walking slowed to a shuffle. I couldn’t stand up from a chair without Jack’s help.)

While others take off for the fun park or kayaking we stay behind with a book. Or scroll their pictures on Facebook. We can’t wear strappy little sandals or high heels. Or dance. Or get on the floor with our children or grandchildren. When all our energy is zapped taking care of our own family, it’s hard to serve others with meals, cleaning, or childcare. We can’t always eat what we want, especially if our anti-inflammatants are corroding our stomachs.

We can feel like our bodies are the enemy—chaining us to a chair or a bed, when our souls long to hike mountains or ride horses. Or simply cook a big meal or work in the garden.

Increasing Alienation

For almost forty years I have felt an increasing alienation from my body. A deep fracture between my body and soul. I’ve grieved over the great pain of not feeling whole. So I’ve had a small glimpse of the pain of others who feel the same betrayal. The same deep fracturing.

With the ache of empathy I’ve watched this video of a trans girl struggling with her feelings of being a boy inside.

She is taking hormone therapy. Watching her face lengthen and her shoulders muscle up. Feeling more strength and stamina. Growing stubble. And then gradually feeling the excitement give way to more alienation. She looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize herself. Who is this person looking back? What is this person? She began to feel totally inauthentic. She stopped taking the hormones and is struggling to embrace living as a strange hybrid.

“You are not your body”

I once heard a Christian seminary professor teach that, as a human being made in God’s image, “You are not your body.” The real you, the deepest truest you is not your body. You are a living soul.

This idea seems to agree with reality and Scripture. When we die, our souls leave our bodies behind. We look at a dead body and realize that the person we love is no longer there. If they are in Christ their soul is “absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). While our bodies are wasting away, our souls are being renewed day by day. They are eternal while our bodies are temporal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)

In the light of the professor’s teaching I began to interpret this Scripture to mean that indeed, “I am not my body.” He gave me words to wrap around my fractured experience. It seemed to be a spiritually mature perspective. I even wrote a blog post about “we are not our bodies.” The real me is so different from my body. And yet…

Love Thy Body

When I read Nancy Pearcey’s book, Love Thy Body, I gained a deeper understanding of God’s truth about bodies and souls…

She wrote, “Christianity holds the body and soul together form an integrated unity– that the human being is an embodied soul.”(An “organic unity” C.S. Lewis called it.) Pearcey again: “Scripture treats body and soul as two sides of the same coin. The inner life of the soul is expressed through the outer life of the body…In one sense our bodies even have primacy over our spirits. The body is the only avenue we have for expressing our inner life or for knowing another person’s inner life. The body is the means by which the invisible is made visible.”

The Bible speaks of the inestimable value of the material realm. God created it and fashioned it and called it “good.” When it was corrupted by sin, Jesus still entered his creation in a material body, the incarnation giving proof to how much he loves and values our material world and bodies.

His resurrection shows even more clearly his determination to redeem this material world and our bodies from the ashes of the fall and the destruction of death and restore them to Eden’s glory. He makes all things (including all material things) new. Jesus died to save us—save our eternal souls and resurrect our bodies, transform them to be immortal and incorruptible.

Pearcey concludes, “we are made in God’s image and reflect God’s character, both in our minds and in our bodily actions. There is no division, no alienation. We are embodied beings.”

Finding healing and wholeness

Whether through aging, sickness, injury, anorexia, weight gain or the feeling we’re in the wrong body, sin corrupts everything, including our bodies. As I read Pearcey’s book I realized that the heart cry of “I am not my body” was not truth in its fullness. Yes we are body and soul, two different kinds of stuff.  But God’s intention is not for us to live with a deep sense of fracture or alienation between them.

God wants to heal and restore the alienation we may feel between our souls and our bodies. For many of us, like me, complete healing may not come in this life. Over these almost 40 years of RA we have prayed for God’s healing. Once, after a difficult knee replacement, my church leaders prayed for me and I experienced a significant measure of lasting healing. Not just in my knees but systemically. I can walk so much better and have much less pain than I felt in my thirties and forties. I often thank God for such a significant measure of healing. But I’m still on a gradual, degenerative, downhill slope.

So how can those of us with that feeling of alienation from our bodies find more peace, wholeness and integrity while we wait for our ultimate healing?

Again I found inspiration in Nancy Pearcey’s book Love Thy Body.

Accepting the Truth: We are embodied souls

In a previous post I summarized her explanation of how today’s culture rejects the view that all truth is God’s truth. Instead, we find truth fragmented into two realms: Facts (the material world/truth that is true for everyone) and Values (moral preferences/religious beliefs/feelings) that must be held privately.

This fragmentation can be clearly seen in today’s view of human beings. The body (material fact) is severed from personhood (value). You may kill a baby’s body as long as it is still in the womb and has not yet become a person. Likewise, your body’s biological sex no longer determines the gender of your person.

I realized that “I am not my body” aligns with the fact/value divide and the corresponding division between bodies and persons. Bodies and “the real me in my head.” I began to put together how fragmenting it is. And connected the dots to the terrible consequences that have rolled down from this idea.

I realized that to live according to God’s truth that we are embodied souls means to value the deep unity between my body and my soul. To claim my integrity as a whole person. To “Love thy body,” as Nancy encourages us. To reject the idea that “I am not my body.”

Pearcey also relates the stories of gays, lesbians and trans people who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria but still move towards God. One story in particular further challenged my beliefs and grabbed my heart:

“Sean Doherty is sexually attracted to other men. He is also a Christian ethics teacher, is happily married to a woman and has three children. How do these things fit together?” Pearcey asks. Doherty’s story is compelling, but what really gripped me was his reckoning that feelings are not sufficient grounds for claims of identity: “A better strategy was to receive or acknowledge what I already had (a male body) as a good gift from God.” (His words reminded me of Romans 1:18-28 which traces the roots of gay and lesbian desire back to not honoring God as God or giving thanks to him.”)

I had long ago thanked God for his good purposes in allowing me to suffer from RA. I could clearly see so many good ways he had transformed me (and Jack) through years of pain and limitation.  But I had not thanked God for my body as a gift from him. There is a difference.

I had not embraced the “organic unity” of an embodied soul. I thought of the real me as my soul and my body as something other. Inferior. Broken. A thorn in my soul.

I had let my pain and frustration with my body settle into alienation and even resentment. It was quite a jolt to consider the possibility of thanking God for my body and receiving it as a good gift from him. Even though it was broken.

To acknowledge that even with my hyper immune system that attacks my joints, I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Instead of focusing on this great and terrible thing that is wrong with my body I’ve begun to focus on all the things I’m thankful for about my body:

I can still walk. Even around the block or the mall.

I can stand and teach lessons in Kidzone and lectures at universities.

I can type this blog and create power point slides and a website that enables me to connect with many.

I can drive so much faster than I can move while I’m getting ready to drive.

I can prepare meals for friends and strangers.

As Nancy reminds us, I’m so thankful for having a body that makes our inner worlds visible.

I can receive the physical touch and love of others. Especially Jack.

I’ve been able to bear a child in this body–to receive one of the greatest gifts of God.

Thanking God for this good gift in sincerity and faith changes my outlook. Melts my resentment. Eases my alienation. Gives me peace. I feel a palpable sense of relief and the lifting of a burden of loss and frustration. I feel whole.

I still struggled today to cook a meal and take it to a friend. And about 50 other things besides. Unless God decides to heal me I will probably struggle with a measure of pain and limitation until I die. But thanking God for this broken body has brought me closer to the Lord Jesus. And enlarged my contentment and joy.

My hope and prayer in writing this post is that God would deepen our compassion for those who feel alienated from their bodies. And if that if you share my experience that you will not settle for that kind of separation. No matter how deeply fractured you feel, turning to God in simple thanksgiving for your body and honoring his purpose in how he has made you will open the door to healing and wholeness. You are an embodied soul. “What God has joined together let no man put asunder.”


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12 thoughts on ““I am not my body!”  Compassion, peace and hope when we feel alienated from our bodies

  1. This is fantastic Leo! God has given you such a gift of being able to express yourself. Now I want to share it with my women friends at the University. May God continue to give you Joy in using the gifts he has given you.

    • Thank you, Jeanne. I hope it is a blessing to them.

      And thanks for the subsequent comment about misspelling my name. Anytime I use voice recognition capability it misspells my name exactly the same way. I thought I could correct your comment, but can’t. Sorry.

  2. Lael,

    Your transparency is something to behold. I appreciate it so much. The greater viewpoint of thanking God for a particular physical circumstance (as well as other things) is, at times, a complete role reversal of what can typically go on in my head where my own self image is concerned……I needed to hear this and love you for sharing it!

  3. This is very good: theologically, practically, and mindfully. Bless you!

    (Check out my friend’s website, The Choosing, which is about her non-verbal autistic son and her/his cries for people to look into his eyes and see the soul inside.)

  4. This post really resonates with me!
    As I told you somewhere along the way Lael, I too have RA.
    I love how you incorporated honesty and came full circle to embrace and acknowledge your body as a gift from God. And by the way, you have a lovely exterior:).

    • Thank you, Pat. I feel the need to add some disclaimers and deprecating humor. Hard to remotely accept your words. But I will simply receive them with thanks to God.

  5. I need to think on this. I need to come into acceptance in agreement with how my body has betrayed me for the past 20+ years. I understand what you’re saying. Thank you.

    • I’m sorry you’ve been dealing with this for 20 years. I pray that God will open the eyes of your heart to see your body as he sees it. I know it can be a process. Thanks for commenting, Mary.

    • Thank you, Kim. Sadly, the body image struggle that today’s culture induces in healthy young women has much in common with the alienation felt by those of us afflicted by sickness, injury and aging. Not to mention the LGBT experience. I’m thinking that in your FCA role you see it frequently.