How we grow

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artwork and photography by Em

About 20 minutes into one of my favorite workout videos, the trainer asks, “Are you out of breath? Hurting? Remember, you started this video so you would get a good workout—and those things are part of it. You chose to do this. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s how you grow.”

I appreciate that reminder every single time I do that particular video, not so much for the purpose of the workout, but for life. The first time I did that workout, I was deep in thought about the struggles resulting from our recent move into the city: each of our kids needed close friendships, and all of us were dealing with the loss of our close-knit community in our old home in Chicago’s western suburbs. When the trainer said those words: “It’s supposed to be hard; this is how you grow,” my head snapped up. It was a Holy Spirit message, delivered through my Fit by Kit workout. Crazy!
It’s a message the kids and I often discuss. We knew this move wouldn’t be easy for them. “Easy/comfortable” would have been staying just where we were. But God was stirring our hearts, and in all my prayers for my children (some of them rather panicky pleas), God kept telling me, “I have them.” I knew God didn’t mean that all would be easy and smooth for them, but that God knows the very best for them, knows how to stretch each of them, how to nurture hidden gifts, how to draw them into his boundless, intimate love and fill them with a real, deep, practical love for all people—all people. He knows how to embolden them with his love so they can go anywhere, do anything, and work with anyone. This is far more important than their comfort, or even their “success.”
Yet sometimes it’s hard to remember this ultimate goal in the middle of all that’s new and unfamiliar, in the loneliness that is part of forming new friendships, in the feeling slightly out of place in many situations. In the middle of all that, there are times when a return to what is comfortable and known is quite tempting.
One of my children and I are also prone to another temptation related to this: we determine God’s plan by how much we feel we are accomplishing. “I just don’t feel like we’re making a real difference,” this child told me just a few days ago. “Other than the little neighbor boys coming over, what else do we do to help in our neighborhood?”
I’ve learned (through personal experience) this kind of thinking can be a trap. When we think God’s will is all about what we do; when we see the work as ours rather than God’s; when we need visible, quick, substantial results as validation that what we are doing is indeed God-sanctioned, then we are not thinking rightly.
So I told this child, “I’m not sure the primary goal was ever about us making a difference. Yes, we moved here to join the efforts already being done in this community, but we moved here knowing the greatest change would be in us. We moved here so God would open our eyes and ears and deepen our hearts. We’re assuming that as he does this, he is also preparing us for involvement, but the change in us is a huge part of His work. Have you grown since we’ve moved here? Have you learned anything?”
She nodded. She has grown. I have, too. We all have. We still are. And we’ve got a whole lot of growing left to do, a whole lot of learning still to learn.
And it’s hard. At times we’re breathing heavy. We’re a little sore and achy.
But, in the words of trainer Kit Rich, this is why we came.
As I thought about and wrote this post, the Spirit brought to my mind friends and family members who are going through truly difficult situations. Some of these cannot be avoided (grief, health issues); others were stepped into (caring for a relative, pursuing a distant child, continuing to fight an addiction). No matter how much or little choice was involved at the initial entry into the situation, each one requires continual choice as to how the situation will be faced. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it hurts. But if we keep pressing into Jesus through the situation, our relationship with him will grow fuller, deeper. This is why he came; this is why he called us to follow. And he was clear about the nature of this call; his description was clear: it was no quick stroll in the park but a hilly marathon on rough terrain. It was a call to self-sacrifice, to the way of the cross, to the way Jesus lived. We answered this call; we chose to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Let’s not grow weary in the middle of it. 
For this is how we grow.

Our bodies–declared GOOD

redeemedI think it was my sister who got me started on Popsugar/Fitsugar workouts, which are offered free on Youtube. (Don’t worry, this is not a commercial for Popsugar, nor is it a plug for exercise!)

The vast majority of the workouts feature Anna R, a fitness expert. One of the things I appreciate about Anna is that, though she looks exactly as our culture would expect a fitness expert to look, the other women in the videos with her do not, and she always treats them with the utmost respect. Her goal for them is fitness, not the “perfect” figure, and she doesn’t seem too terribly focused on the fact that she herself pretty much has the perfect figure.

The other day, though, I got a new perspective on Anna R. I pulled up Youtube in the early morning, typed in Popsugar fitness, and all the little squares came up, each a video choice. The human figures in the little squares were about an inch high. Intrigued by the caption on one—which promised a full-body workout in 20 minutes—I clicked on it.

When it popped up in full screen, I was surprised. When it had been limited to a tiny square, I had assumed the thin, athletic figure in the middle was Anna, and the figure to the left, who was still shapely but not quite as svelte—was one of the “other women,” the “normal” women, the ones I identify with when I follow the workouts.

But no. The woman in the middle was the very tall, very thin fitness expert Astrid M, and the woman to the left was Anna. Since Astrid’s thighs are probably the size of my upper arms, Anna didn’t look quite so thin next to her, particularly when their images were shrunk down.

And I suddenly wondered if “perfect figure” Anna plays the comparison game, too.

After all, most of us women do.

I do it, but I grow increasingly frustrated with myself for engaging in this body-comparison game. It’s a waste of my energy; it’s ridiculous; and I see clearly that no good comes from it. More and more I also understand that obsession with or subtle shame for the appearance of my body is connected to a twisted view of sexuality. Deep within I believe my worth is tied to my attractiveness, and this view is linked to the curse.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope when he made an almost offhand comment about one of his students hoping her resurrected body would have a different nose. I identified immediately (except I happen to like my nose; perhaps my ears, though? My thighs?)

But then I wondered, Why would she have a different nose? What is wrong with the one she has right now? I understand our resurrected bodies won’t bear the effects of sin and the curse (no heart failure, cancer, blindness, missing limbs, aching knees, etc.) but do we really believe that God looks at her nose—or my ears/thighs or your hips—and says, “No, that is not good”?

After all, our justification for calling parts (or the whole) of our bodies “not good” is generally in comparison with others’ parts/wholes. If my thighs are strong and get me places and can climb mountains and walk trails, why do I care that they might jiggle a little in the process? Why would that make them “not good”?

Answer: because they don’t look like Anna R’s or Astrid M’s thighs.

We have a terribly skewed version of “good.” It must mean “perfect,” we think, and we then imagine “perfect” to be uniformity, complete symmetry, fitting within a narrow definition of beauty and perfection.

But with this view, Eden becomes a very sterile garden. Did every piece of fruit have to look exactly the same? Were funky shaped pears forbidden? Did all the tree trunks have to be straight?

Or did it include lumpy fruit and gnarled branches, and were these considered GOOD because they showed in unique ways the beauty and creativity of God?

Did God rejoice in their distinct, individual beauty?

Does God do the same with that woman’s nose—and my ears—and my thighs—and your hips?

I’m reminded of the verse that often ends wedding ceremonies, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9)

I’m not trying to wrongly use that verse to speak to our body image (it’s clearly referring to marriage), but there is a principle here. God put my body together. I must stop denigrating it; stop ripping it apart with my words and attitudes and thoughts. And I certainly must never denigrate someone else’s body.

We should feel free to work out and eat well to allow our bodies to serve us better, to serve God better, to serve others better, but we must love them in the process. God loves our bodies; God made them. He will eventually restore the damage done to them by sin, but they are still his creation.

Who knows—my resurrected thighs may jiggle just as much as my current ones.

And my resurrected mind and spirit will fully agree with God’s assessment: they are good.