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No pain, no gain

The popular adage, "The body is a temple" has its roots in Holy Scripture and doesn't mean what most people think it means. Amelia explains how adoring the temple in the Christian sense has nothing to do with pleasure or pampering the self.
In the Orthodox Church, a great emphasis is placed on spiritual effort. While Christian faith is the gateway to salvation—in the Lord's own words: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6)—Orthodox believe that faith must be lived and not just proclaimed.

We also believe that there are things that can stand in the way of our living the faith. Worldly cares, especially those focused on the self, stand in the way of Christ-centered cares. Love for God is a holy thing. Love for our neighbors is a holy thing. Love for ourselves, however, isn't.

The body is a temple.

Yes. The body is a temple. People use this passage from Scripture to assert that we ought to take care of the body by indulging it: Never let it get hungry; lay it on the softest mattress; keep it laughing and entertained; if it's lustful, tease it a little more and then give it whatever it wants; if it's tired, pamper it; even if it's not, pamper it anyway. The body is a temple, and we should adore the temple—right?

Well, not exactly.

If we were to read the entire passage (1 Corinthians 6:19), we would learn that the body is a temple not of itself but of the Holy Spirit. The body is a dwelling place for the Lord. We absolutely must take care of this temple—care to keep it holy, pure, clean, and safe from attacks of the enemy. The way that many of us attempt to care for the body, by catering to its passions and whims, is precisely how we desecrate this temple of the Lord.

Now let's look at that same passage in the context of the entire sixth chapter of First Corinthians. Saint Paul says that just because all things are lawful doesn't mean they're good for us (verse 12). At the time this was written, many of the Corinthians believed what many of us today believe—that the desires of the flesh need to be fulfilled, and that this has nothing to do with one's spiritual life. In Saint Paul's epistle, however, he reminded them (as he reminds us, too) that everything that happens to the body is relevant to the soul. Giving in to the body's lusts, whether for food or for fornication or anything else, defiles the soul.

Thus, Saint Paul writes that food is made for the stomach, and that the stomach is made for food, but that God can and will destroy both (verse 13). Likewise, he explains that the body isn't made for fornication; the body is made for the Lord (verse 14). Specifically, he says: Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (verses 18-19, NKJV, emphasis added).

In other words, the body may wish for certain things—things that may indeed be lawful, but this doesn't mean all those wishes ought to be indulged. Our bodies don't belong to us. They belong to God, Who gave them to us. He gave them to us so we could live in His image and carry out His will. THIS is the proper context in which to interpret the passage that so many of us have never read but love to cite.

In order to serve God, we need to keep the desires of our bodies in check. If we're expected to keep in check such natural desires for things like eating and physical relationships, how much more must we keep in check things that are less a part of human nature!—these include our "needs" for entertainment, pleasure, relaxation, fun, and every other delight on the buffet of sensual treats that the world offers us.

So how do we take care of the body? We care for this temple of the Holy Spirit by keeping it away from situations that we know will tempt it. We safeguard it from too much luxury, just as a parent safeguards a child from too much candy or video games. We feed and nurture it with spiritually wholesome things, and we adorn it with virtue. We pray that we don't disgrace it in any way. When we see that we've failed to keep it clean and worthy of the Lord, we repent and confess, and we start again from the beginning. We care for it by doing as the Lord has said.

"A fat belly does not make for a refined mind."

Those aren't my words. Saint Gregory the Theologian said them. Saint John Chrysostom also said them. Many saints of more recent days have repeated them, too. What that quotation means, in essence, is that we aren't better off for indulging ourselves; in fact, we're worse off. Too much comfort really isn't a good thing.

More suited to contemporary minds, perhaps, is the expression "No pain, no gain." It's painted on the walls of locker rooms and weight rooms all over the country because it's meant to inspire athletes to work past the pain brought on by their training. Our muscles get damaged and repair themselves naturally (without strength training), but if we leave this process up to nature alone, the muscle tissue will only regrow to its original size, never past there. It takes a slow, progressive overload of the muscles' ability in order to make them grow bigger and stronger as they repair themselves. In other words, if we want to see improvements in our physique, we have to work hard to achieve them. Working hard hurts, but it pays off.

This phenomenon isn't just physical. Mental growth hurts, too. Learning to read is difficult. Maybe we don't remember this process happening in ourselves, but anyone who's ever taught a child to read is well aware of the struggle involved. If we just give him the enjoyment of having stories read to him (or of a TV telling him stories), he's never going to learn how to read on his own. Studying is difficult, too. If we don't put maximum effort into it, which is mentally tiresome and painful, we don't learn as much. Learning to draw, learning to play an instrument, learning an athletic skill—these all require practice, and practice is difficult. Without it, though, nothing much is accomplished.

Let's also think about what we do when we're sick. Medicine is bitter, but we take it anyway. Even when it's flavored, it doesn't taste the way we think candy or sweet drinks should taste. As we grimace at the taste of it in our mouths, however, we know that once it breaks down and enters our bloodstream, good things are going to start happening. That knowledge helps us deal with the unpleasant taste, just like the knowledge of what our weight-lifting, our studying, and our violin practice will bring. Surgery is also unpleasant—so much so that we usually can't bear it without heavy medication or anesthesia—but we know that the hurt is only temporary and that it's for our own good.

Mental health therapy hurts, too, as it helps us to heal or grow. Psychotherapists know that the person who blubbers on and on about the same problems is never going to get rid of them. Admitting a problem is the first step toward correcting it, but actually correcting it is also necessary, and it's quite painful. It requires going into mental and emotional territories that we often don't care to visit. Physical therapy hurts just as much, but in a different way. It requires pushing the body past its comfort zone, past its current ability in order to gain or regain functionality. Unless patients are willing to exert themselves to this extent, even if it means exhausting themselves, they don't progress at all.

And such is the case with spiritual progress. No pain, no gain.

If we want to grow spiritually, we have to work hard at it. Sometimes working at it hurts. But this kind of hurt isn't a destructive hurt; it's a healing hurt. Working muscles in the gym causes pain, but it's not the same kind of pain as bludgeoning them with a hammer would cause, which is destructive pain. The same is true for our spiritual "muscles." Pushing them to their limits with disciplined prayer, fasting, hard work, humility, meekness and servitude is sometimes a struggle, but it's not nearly as painful as the struggles we would face if we didn't bother at all.

Our best defense and best weapon: Humility.

Saint Macarius of Optina says: Our life is a spiritual warfare of unseen evil spirits. They arouse us through our passions and urge us to disobey the commandments of God. When we look and investigate carefully, we will find that for every passion there is a cure, a commandment opposing it; and therefore the enemies try to keep us from this saving cure.

The worst of all passions is pride. Pride tells us, among other things, that our own desires and feelings are most important. Pride tells us to disregard what God says, what the holy fathers have written about what God says, and what the Church teaches us about what God says and the holy fathers have written. Pride tells us that whatever we think or want is more important and that we deserve to think and want those things.

What God says, however, is that it's important to have faith and to live a holy life—driven by faith, fueled by His grace, guided by prayer, and strengthened by holy discipline. What our pride tells us, then, is wrong. If we believe we know better than God what's best for us, how can we call ourselves Christians?

Humility is the only antidote to pride. Pride tells us that if we want a certain thing or to feel a certain way, then we should seize every possible opportunity—and right now. Humility reminds us, however, that we're not as important as we think we are—not to ourselves and not in the whole rest of the universe. If we're humble, we can't put making ourselves happy and comfortable at the top of our priority lists; in fact, we shouldn't give them any place at all. Instead, we should be content with whatever God gives us and life brings us. And when we're humble, paradoxically, we find that the things God gives us and life brings us are often quite good.

The humble person doesn't live to fulfill his or her own will—only God's. The humble person lives only for Christ and is willing to make whatever earthly sacrifices are necessary in order to live for Him to the fullest. This includes avoiding temptations from the devil and the world around us. Saint Macarius notes that the nets of the enemy are very fine and not easily perceived; only humility can escape them.

Avoiding nets.

When we have full bellies, soft pillows, fat wallets, abundant laughter, on-demand entertainment, satisfied cravings, every lust fulfilled, and every urge indulged whenever we feel like it, we tend not to be very aware of our need for God. When the physical life feels so great at the moment, what reason do we have to care for our spiritual life?—and by spiritual life, I mean according to traditional Christian teachings. A Christian spiritual life isn't guided by new age philosophies, Godless "spiritual" practices, atheist insights, or any other heresy or hokum that goes against the wisdom and ways of the early Church.

However, when we have calluses on our hands, sweat running down our backs, aches from our labors, fatigue from our struggles, and hunger from our fasting, we're infinitely more aware of how much we need the Lord's mercy. Everyone needs it, but not everyone realizes so. It's hard to recognize it when we're pampered, but it's impossible to miss when we're struggling for His sake.

If we've ever known weeping and gnashing of teeth on earth, then we know for sure that that's not how we want things to be in eternity, and so we do everything we can to nurture our Christian faith so that nothing endangers it or jeopardizes our salvation. If all we nurture are the desires of our temporal mind and body, however, we end up enjoying this present life so much that we forget there's another one waiting for us on the other side of the grave. We forget, too, that there are some requirements for getting in. Faith is foremost, of course, but let's remember that trees are known by the fruits they produce (Matthew 12:33). Faith isn't worth anything if it doesn't bear fruit. Our faith needs to have something to show for itself.

When it comes to the salvation of our souls, our favorite worldly comforts don't do anything to help us. They do, however, have the potential to ruin us completely. Chasing after our desires for pleasure and happiness stands in the way of our chasing after holiness. The soul can only be attached to so many things. If it's chained to vices, fancies, or delights, what exactly is connecting it to God? The soul's connection to God has to be voluntary; God doesn't chain us to Himself. Everything that ties us down to earth, to this temporary life, keeps us separated from Him, keeps Him out of our reach.

This is why Saint Leo of Optina writes: Beware of passionate attachments to the world. Although they deceive you with peace and comfort, they are so fleeting that you do not notice how you are deprived of them, and in their place come sorrow, longing, despondency, and no comfort whatsoever. When we turn to the Lord for comfort, however, He doesn't disappoint us. It's simply a different kind of comfort that He gives, a lasting and far better kind.

During these hot, sticky summer days, as we're outside racing to our cars (as we leave the bank after cashing our paychecks, or the expensive restaurant after filling our stomachs, or the spa after enjoying those gone-too-fast moments of ecstasy), when all we're thinking about is how we have to get back into the air conditioning before our antiperspirant stops working, let us keep in mind one thing: It's an awful lot hotter in hell.

Let's work hard, pray harder, and remember that we're going to be judged someday based on whether we believed in holiness and whether we lived according to it. Life isn't about how good we feel. It's about how much good we do, and we're not the ones who get to define what's meant by the word "good;" God is. Good isn't necessarily what's fashionable at the moment or what's been pleasurable since the beginning of time. Good means holy, and God gives us a thorough explication of what holiness is and how to achieve it.

Holy progress, like any other kind of progress, doesn't come easily. Our Lord said His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30), but let's think about what that means. His yoke—yoking ourselves to Him, which means choosing to serve Him and perform His will—is easy; it's a matter of making the decision to follow Him. The burden, then, lies in actually following Him. He promises us that it's a light burden, one that He'll help us to bear, but it's still our responsibility to bear it. We can't eat it away, or drink it away, or meditate it away, or shop it away, or relax it away, or laugh it away, or enjoy it away. We have to endure to the end. He who endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).

If we only focus on what we want and what feels good, we can't move forward. We can only stay where we are or move backward. If we're truly humble and truly Christian, where we are right now simply isn't good enough; we know that there's a whole lot of room to improve. As for going backwards, whether it happens by accident, by weakness, or by disobedience, it's not something we're proud of. It's something we repent for, something we take to Holy Confession, and something we try never to do again.

In his book, Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios has plenty to say on the subject of bodily deprivation. Whenever we're tempted to indulge the body, we should reflect on his advice for spiritual progress:

You don't become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love—the adoration of Christ which cannot be expressed … And such a person attempts to undertake ascetic exercises and to do things to cause himself to suffer for the love of God.

… What is important is not the prostrations we will make or the prayers, but the act of self-giving, the passionate love for Christ and for spiritual things. There are many people who do these things, not for God, but for the sake of exercise, in order to reap physical benefit. But spiritual people do them in order to reap spiritual benefit; they do them for God. At the same time, however, the body is greatly benefited and doesn't fall ill. Many good things flow from them.

Among the various ascetic practices, prostrations, vigils and other deprivations, is fasting. "A fat belly does not make for a refined mind," as I know the Fathers like to say … The Fathers speak about fasting and condemn overeating and the pleasure one feels when one eats rich foods. Let our food be more simple, and [let us not] occupy ourselves so much with it.

It is not food or good conditions of life which secure good health. It is a saintly life, the life of Christ.

Once again: It is not food or good conditions of life which secure good health. It is a saintly life, the life of Christ. God help us to remember this and to fortify us in our struggle toward holiness.