A crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Prov. 17:22)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Pet. 2:24)
Technology’s triumph over space, its power to entertain and distract, its promise of enabling us to construct not only our own virtual identities but our own realities—all this can seem to render our bodies problematic, even superfluous in the digital age. One legitimate response to such mythical thinking is that it’s patently false. After all, we must access these technologies with our eyes and ears and manipulate them with our fingers and voices. But here I want to explore together several deeper realities that give the lie to the myth of digital disembodiment and underscore both the importance and goodness of being flesh and bone.
Suffering and Embodiment
One inescapable reality that underscores our embodiment is suffering. It comes, as we do, in as many shapes and sizes. Some kinds of suffering are overtly physical: for example, cancer, COVID-19, toothaches, and broken bones. Others are more mental and emotional. But can we ever really separate any form of suffering from our bodies? Can you suffer cancer with no mental and emotional consequences? Even “immaterial” pains like guilt, shame, anxiety, grief, bitterness, and depression manifest themselves in physical ways. Anyone who has experienced mental and emotional anguish can testify to the very real and very bodily tears, loss of appetite, overeating, insomnia, or excessive fatigue. As Proverbs 17:22 says, “A crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Medical technology may provide healing or relief for many overtly physical pains. It may also provide some relief for mental and emotional pains. But no technology or technique can eliminate suffering from human experience, and many pains are so acute that technology can do little or nothing to ease their effects. Whether directly or indirectly—and especially when it is acute—suffering underscores the inescapable fact that we are physical beings. All suffering involves our bodies, but our bodies don’t explain all suffering. So suffering also drives us to the further truth that in the unity of every human person, the material and the immaterial are inextricably united and interrelated: the body and the soul or spirit.
Creation and Embodiment
This brings us back to the fundamental, historical reality of human nature as created by God. Genesis 1–2 is clear that our existence is not the result of random natural processes but of the specific, intentional actions of our all-wise Creator, who showed a special interest and involvement in creating human beings in his image. Adam’s creation included both forming his physical body and breathing life or spirit into him. Our physicality or embodiment is no more superfluous to who we are than our souls. This body and soul unity is the express plan of God himself, and therefore, most wise and good. From the beginning, we were designed to glorify and enjoy him in the setting of his “very good” material universe and equipped with bodies to enable us to fulfill his calling to be fruitful and exercise dominion.
Far from being the prison house of the soul (as Plato and others have suggested over the centuries), the human body is the soul’s proper and permanent home, the good gift of our all-wise Creator. But, of course, that inevitably raises the question of suffering’s existence or the problem of pain. Here again, the Scriptures have a clear and satisfying answer if we are willing to hear it: While suffering profoundly affects our bodies and our souls, they are not suffering’s true source or cause. For that, we must look to Satan’s deception, Adam’s fall, and God’s righteous curse.
Genesis 3 connects those dots for us as it records Satan’s use of the serpent to deceive Eve (Gen. 3:1–6, 13; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13), Adam’s willful disobedience in eating the fruit (Gen. 3:6–12; Rom. 5:12, 14), and the Lord’s consequent curse upon not just these three parties but the entire creation (Gen. 3:17–19; Rom. 8:20–22). In this brief passage, we find the word cursed twice, pain three times, and other suffering-related words—e.g., afraid (fear), naked (shame), and return to dust (death)—all underscoring sin’s sad effects upon formerly perfect creatures and creation. Yet amid those painful realities, the text (Gen. 3:15) also points us to another glorious confirmation of our embodiment: Christ’s redemption!
Incarnation and Embodiment
By pointing us to our need for Christ and his salvation, suffering further underscores our embodiment in profound and powerful ways. The Bible teaches that in order to be our covenant head and atone for our sins, Christ had to become like us in every way, except for sin (Heb. 2:14; John 1:14); and in that likeness, he had to live a sinless human life and bear our sins “in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Christian theology describes this as the eternal Son assuming or joining to his person our complete human nature. He became incarnate—enfleshed in a real human body together with a “reasonable soul” (as the Definition of Chalcedon puts it). When the Son of God came into this world to redeem us, he did not come in his divine glory or even as a disembodied spirit, but as the Word made flesh (John 1:14). In that flesh, he suffered—supremely on the cross, but also throughout his life. Having come in “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), Jesus was subject to the same bodily trials that we face. He was hungry and thirsty (Matt. 4:2; John 4:7; 19:28), he was tired to the point of exhaustion (John 4:37–38), and he was subject to physical agony and death (Mark 15:37, 42–45). His body was conceived by the Spirit in Mary’s womb (Matt. 1:20–23; Luke 1:34–5); his newborn body was laid in a manger in Bethlehem (Luke 2:12, 16); his body sweated in a carpenter shop in Nazareth (Mark 6:3); his body walked the hills of Galilee and Judea (Mark 7:9–10); his body bled under Pilate’s scourge (Matt. 27:26); his body died upon Calvary’s cross (Mark 15:37, 42–45); his body was laid in the garden tomb (Matt. 27:57–60); his body was raised in glory on the third day (Luke 24:1–12); his resurrected body was seen and touched by a host of witnesses (Luke 24:14–43; 1 Cor. 15:4–8); and his glorified body now sits at the Father’s right hand in glory (Luke 24:51; Heb. 1:3; 10:12; 12:2). As my former professor Dr. Robert Reymond loved to say, “The reins of the universe are in the hands of a man—the nail-scarred hands of the God-man, Jesus Christ.” Ruling from heaven, he sympathizes with his suffering people on earth as he builds his church before he returns in the same glorified body in which he ascended (Acts 1:9–11; Rev. 19:11–16). Until that return, we feast at the table with elements, at his command, that underscore his embodiment: “This is my body. . . . This is my blood” (1 Cor. 11:23–25).
Jesus’ incarnation was no mere theophany in which he simply appeared to have a body; it is his actual and permanent embodiment, because having a body is an essential aspect of our human nature, the nature Christ fully assumed in order to redeem us. To say that Jesus accomplished all these things in his body is to say in the most profound way that he accomplished them.
Resurrection and Embodiment
Reflecting on the gracious work of redemption our Savior accomplished in the body leads to another classic Christian affirmation of our embodiment that we often lose today: the stress that Scripture places on our glorious hope, which is not to be set free from our bodies but to be glorified in our bodies. The separation of body and soul that occurs at death is not regarded in Scripture as a blessing, but as an unusual, temporary state (2 Cor. 5:4–8). While Paul says that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and that it is “far better” than life in this present fallen age (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), he also comforts and encourages believers by assuring us that at the resurrection our redeemed souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies (1 Cor. 15). Paul’s ultimate hope, as well as ours, is not to be “unclothed” or disembodied but “further clothed” (2 Cor. 5:4). This isn’t just the hope of each individual Christian, but the hope of the cosmos. We will enjoy many “withouts” in the new heavens and new earth, which will be without sin, without death, without pain, without mourning, and without tears—but not without bodies!
Embodiment and Ministry to Sufferers
As we await this glorious hope, the present reality of suffering also calls us to minister to the hurting, and all the various aspects of such ministry further underscore our embodiment. As mentioned above, given the unity of our persons, even nonphysical suffering manifests itself in our bodies. Whether or not suffering stems from our bodies, it involves our bodies. Jesus experienced this himself. In Gethsemane, as our Lord agonized at the prospect of the cross, he acknowledged his profound spiritual and emotional suffering accompanied by sweat like drops of blood: “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38a). As we contemplate this fearful mystery, we must not miss how in the midst of this experience Jesus sought comfort from his disciples in a physical way: “Remain here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:38b).
This is an example of what has been called by some “the ministry of presence”: the simple physical presence of a loved one can have a powerful soothing effect upon both physical and emotional sufferers. For all that they got wrong, Job’s three friends ministered well to him when they traveled to his home and sat with him in silent sympathy for a week (Job 2:11–13). Paul also alludes to the ministry of presence when recounting an episode from his missionary journeys: “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Cor. 7:5–6). Simply “being there” can be a tremendous comfort and blessing to sufferers, and that blessing—the reality that I am here and I am with you—must be imparted and received in the body.
Sadly, Job’s friends discredited their ministry once they opened their mouths, but that need not always be the case. The blessing of bodily presence can be greatly enhanced by well-spoken words, as was the case with Titus and Paul in the rest of the episode recounted above:
God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. (2 Cor. 7:7)
Unlike Job’s friends, Titus’s words were an additional source of comfort to Paul as he brought a good report concerning the Corinthians’ repentance and their love for Paul. This reminds me of the Book of Common Prayer’s description of the verses to be read in the assurance of pardon: these gospel promises are “comfortable words.” Whether read, quoted, or sung, “comfortable words” embodying God’s wise and gracious word out loud are a rich source of blessing to sufferers.
Isn’t it also fascinating that though Jesus could heal with only a thought or a word, he also frequently touched those he was healing? Physical touch—a hug, a kiss, an arm around the shoulder, shared tears—can be a vital encouragement in the midst of suffering. Note how Paul and the Ephesian elders mutually comforted one another at the painful thought that this was the last time they would be together in person:
When [Paul] had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:36–8)
These wonderful and important ways to minister to sufferers—and many others I haven’t mentioned—have one thing in common: embodiment. Even ministry through recorded words or music or a written letter must be made and received by means of the eyes, ears, and hands. Not just the nature of suffering, but the nature of ministry to sufferers underscores the reality and significance of embodiment. Comfort is simply impossible for human beings to give or to receive apart from our bodies.
Technology and Embodiment
I previously mentioned the Bible’s seminal book of beginnings, Genesis 1–2, in connection with humanity’s creation as an “enfleshed soul.” In its revelation of the image of God and the dominion mandate, Genesis also reveals the origin of technology.
My favorite basic definition of technology is Merriam-Webster’s: “applied science,” or “the application of knowledge to practical purposes.” Given our creation in the Creator’s image, and his mandate to “rule” or “subdue” the earth, humanity also received what might be called the “technology mandate,” which Genesis reveals as being fulfilled very early in human history. Beginning with Cain, we read in quick succession of the development of agriculture, animal husbandry, architecture, and construction or “city-building,” musical instruments, and metalworking (Gen. 2:15; 4:2, 17, 20–22).
Yet Cain’s involvement gives us a hint at the mixed nature of this technological progress: technology, like everything else, is affected by man’s fall and God’s curse and simultaneously expresses our dignity and our depravity. So throughout human history, technology has been used for good and evil, and this too is inseparable from the reality of our embodiment. Like everything related to fallen humanity, technology is the proverbial two-edged sword. It has been used to inflict great suffering but also to alleviate pain and promote healing. Besides its medical and other wonderful achievements, when we cannot be with needy sufferers in person, or touch them, or cook for them, modern technology enables us to see, hear, and share words of comfort and encouragement with them from halfway around the world.
Nevertheless, to the extent that technologies isolate us from other people and deceive us into imagining we can create our own identities and realities (including denying or diminishing our embodiment), they are harmful. Let me put a sharper point on this as it applies to suffering: If any technology shapes us to be so isolated, self-centered, or numbed that we fail to minister to those who are hurting, then it is destructive and idolatrous. This failure also includes minimizing our ministry to sufferers: we must not substitute a text, a tweet, a photo, or even a phone call when we should visit, talk, touch, and take a meal.
Embodiment and Technology Glorified
Someday, in that glorious new world in which righteousness dwells, technology will no longer be a double-edged sword. In that perfect environment, sinless men and women in deathless bodies will use human insight in practical ways to glorify God fully and bless neighbors perfectly. But we will not use our bodies or our technology to bless sufferers: that ministry will be fulfilled because pain will have been banished forever, along with mourning, crying, and death.
Our bodies will be glorified because the one who fashioned our bodies took a body to himself, and in that body he lived and worked, using technology with perfect wisdom and righteousness in a humble carpenter’s shop. In ministering to other sufferers, he suffered greatly to “abolish death and bring life and immortality to light” (2 Tim. 1:10) by bearing our sins “in his body on the cross” (1 Tim. 2:24).
Until that eternal Day breaks, may we be properly grateful for our redemption through his body, and may our own bodies, who are “members of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15), glorify him as living sacrifices and holy temples (1 Cor. 6:19–20; Rom. 12:2). And as members of his “body,” the church, we are his hands and feet, obliged and privileged to minister in his name to fellow sufferers. As we do, may we steward the double-edged gift of technology wisely, never letting it distract us or undermine our physical ministry of grace and comfort to other embodied souls.
2. There is a lot of data to show that physical touch is absolutely essential for healthy human development in the first place: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/infant-touch/.
3. Merriam-Webster.com. Britannica.com offers a somewhat fuller definition along the same lines: “Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life or, as it is sometimes phrased, to the change and manipulation of the human environment” (my italics).