The Body as a Blessing

The Body as a Blessing

Many outside our faith find it odd that we play as well as pray in our meetinghouses, that many of our churches include basketball standards and stages as well as pulpits and pews, that they accommodate kitchens as well as choirs, that they serve for social gatherings as well as sacred ordinances.

To Latter-day Saints, however, it seems natural that a meetinghouse should serve so many functions, rendering it serviceable on weekdays as well as on the Sabbath. For our religion links—in a sacramental union—heaven and earth, the eternal and the temporal. This fact is made abundantly clear in the Doctrine and Covenants.

I love that precious volume of scripture. It reminds me that God cares about our time and all time, about this world and the next, about the body and the spirit. Indeed, it teaches that the body is sacred and intimately intertwined with the spirit. It affirms that the physical body, like the earth itself, shall be redeemed and is meant to be a source of joy. (See D&C 88:15, 25–31.)

The Body and Joy

The Doctrine and Covenants declares that “spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy. And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” (D&C 93:33–34.) In these verses and others like them, modern revelation restores a truth known before the world was: namely, that the body is a blessing. Its creation was welcomed by heavenly rejoicing and pronounced “good,” even “very good,” by God himself. (Job 38:4–7; Gen. 1:31; Moses 2:31.) The physical body is a divine gift, a complement crucial to the spirit if we are to receive a fulness of heavenly joy and glory. As Joseph Smith taught: “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.” 1

This remarkable perspective affirms the intrinsic goodness of both the physical body and the physical world. Our spirits need bodies that can suffer pain and savor pleasures. Bodies advance us toward a higher order of being—for “the Father has a [glorified] body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” (D&C 130:22.) Likewise, resurrected beings have bodies of flesh and bones (D&C 129:1–2), while the dead look upon “the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (D&C 45:17; D&C 138:50). 2

These truths overturn entrenched tradition. They contradict traditional and conventional beliefs that regard the body as impure and as useful mainly to be resisted if not actively punished, philosophies that imagine God to be an unembodied spirit, unsullied by any taint of physicality, or dogmas that conceive birth as the imprisonment of the spirit.

The doctrines of the Restoration, by contrast, suggest that birth liberates the spirit, enabling it to experience the wonder of physical sensation. This is how infants seem to respond to the physical world—grabbing their feet, clutching another’s fingers, savoring milk, splashing in the bath—seemingly enthralled with the sheer miracle of themselves and the natural world, every day filled with new wonders. If their eternal spirits could speak, perhaps newborns would salute their bodies as an inestimable treasure, as Thomas Traherne imagines in a poem entitled “The Salutation”:

These little limbs [says the infant to its new body],
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been?
[I] did little think such joys as ear or tongue,
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies, on such a ground to meet. 3

Another seventeenth-century poet wisely wrote that without a body, the spirit like “a great prince in prison lies.” 4 If our spirits were to remain unembodied, we would not be free to progress eternally and would therefore be “shut out from the presence of our God.” (2 Ne. 9:8–9.)

We should therefore teach our children to love their bodies, to accept them as gifts. Not that they need much instruction from adults; it is generally we who could learn from them. My toddlers, for example, often taught me about the innocent joy of the body. They loved to cavort to a song that began “I like to feel my body move …” The music invited them to run and jump and skip and hop. They often pulled me into their pure celebration of physical activity.

Similarly, one of my favorite home movies records our toddler, speckled with mud, sitting in a rain puddle, kicking and splashing with sheer delight. It then shows on her first birthday, grabbing a fistful of cake, squeezing it in her hands, smearing it into her mouth, and grinning in utter ecstasy. A child’s world is full of sweet sensation: wiggling toes into soft mud, falling into fresh snow, kicking through fallen leaves. Children seem to know intuitively that the sensory world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” 5

My wife and I often feel a childlike joy when hiking. While climbing mountain trails, we enjoy a rich suffusion of sensory experiences. We feel our hearts pounding and muscles stretching. We touch the soft new growth on pine and fir trees and smell the spicy mountain sage and evergreen. We taste ice-cold water, tart plums, and sweet trail mix. We hear the birds and wind in the trees and gaze on glorious mountain vistas. We feel a spirit of rejoicing: “Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee, How great thou art! How great thou art!” (Hymns, 1985, no. 86.) Through such physical experiences, our spirits find peace and draw close to Heavenly Father and to each other.

Not to Excess, Neither by Extortion

If the body is intrinsically good, why then do the scriptures speak of the evil of being carnally minded and of the hostility between flesh and spirit? (See, for example, 2 Ne. 9:39; Rom. 8:5–7.) To understand this, we need to attend to what the prophets mean by such terms as carnal, natural man, and the flesh. As scripture uses the term, man’s carnal nature is not the same as his physical nature, nor are sins of the flesh only those relating to our physical bodies. Paul lists among the “works of the flesh” many sins that have little to do with the body and much to do with the spirit—for example, idolatry, hatred, heresies, and envyings. (Gal. 5:19–21.) He seems to equate flesh with what King Mosiah calls “the natural man”—that lower, fallen part of our natures which tends to take us away from God. (Mosiah 3:19.) Likewise, to be in a “carnal state” is not simply to have a physical body but to be “carnally minded”—or full of evil desires. We become “carnal” not by acquiring bodies (if so, children would be sinful!) but by loving evil. (Moses 5:13.) The body itself is not evil, though having a body introduces the potential for doing evil. Evil rises out of how we use the body—or rather abuse it. One of the challenges of mortality is for the spirit to learn to appropriately control the body.

The Doctrine and Covenants has much to teach us here, much that helps correct the false dualism fostered by a variety of mistaken religious and philosophical traditions about the body. 6 Consider, for example, section 59. [D&C 59] In it, the Lord encourages us to receive his gifts of physicality with gladness and gratitude:

“Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;

“Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;

“Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;

“Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.” (D&C 59:16–19.)

In these verses, the Doctrine and Covenants reiterates the lessons of Genesis, when God rejoiced in his handiwork seven times over. We are invited to receive the world as did Adam and Eve on the morning of creation: “The fulness of the earth is yours”—beasts, fowls, herbs, and every good thing. (See Gen. 1:26–29.) We are also informed of something implied but not spelled out in Genesis: namely, that the Lord ordained this rich plenty not merely to serve the utilitarian purpose of sustaining life but specifically to give pleasure: “to please the eye and to gladden the heart.” The world is beautiful by divine design.

Then the Lord adds a caution: “And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.” (D&C 59:20; emphasis added.) The intense physical pleasure the earth affords is deliberate; God intends food to taste good, landscapes to please the eye, smells to gladden the heart. Such great gifts, however, can be abused. This is the connotation of the telling word extortion—which literally means to “twist out.” Our use of the physical world and the body must not be twisted out of the divinely ordained purposes for which they were given. Physical pleasure is good in its proper time and place, but even then it must not become our god.

These verses from section 59 frame the way I taught the law of chastity to my children and, as a campus bishop, to the young people in my ward. Sexual pleasure—like taste, smell, and other sensations—is among the good gifts a kind Father in Heaven has given us. Sex is not evil, nor is it shameful. Properly expressed, human intimacy gladdens the heart and enlivens the soul. Happily married couples know that physical intimacy is a source of sweet solace and great joy. But this divine gift, like all other physical pleasures, must not be used “by extortion.” Within the bounds the Lord has set, it will bring joy; twisted against its divine purposes, it will bring misery and remorse.

The Soul of Man

This balanced appreciation of the body found in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ stands in sharp contrast to the accent on human depravity so common in the Prophet Joseph’s day. In contrast to rigid dualism between body and spirit, the Doctrine and Covenants affirms the integration and continuity of spirit and matter, heaven and earth. Consider the following remarkable representative verses:

“The spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (D&C 88:15.)

“All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure.” (D&C 131:7.)

“All things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” (D&C 29:34.)

“That which is spiritual [is] in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual.” (D&C 77:2.)

The emphasis in these verses falls on continuity rather than on contrast.

This continuity between the physical and the spiritual is evident in countless ways in daily living. A favorite family anecdote illustrates the liaison between body and spirit. One day my mother-in-law, who is very sensitive to the Spirit, baked some wonderful homemade sweet rolls. Everyone enjoyed them, but the rolls were so large that even her teenage boys could eat no more than one and a half. That night as the family gathered around the bed for family prayer, my father-in-law called on his wife to pray.


“Dear,” he repeated after a few awkward moments, “would you like to pray tonight?”

Another pause, her head still buried in the bedspread. Then in a mournful, muffled voice, she said, “I don’t feel very spiritual—I ate three sweet rolls!”

I suspect that all of us have eaten too many sweet rolls now and then. From such experience, we know the subtle but real connection between the physical and the spiritual. Fortunately, our spirits are affected not just negatively but positively by what we do to our bodies. I know a young boy, for example, who was overweight, depressed, and failing school. He started exercising, joined the swim team, and began working out regularly. His grades went up, his confidence increased, and his spirits soared.

Similarly, I knew an alcoholic whose addiction enslaved him and broke up his family. At heart, he was a kind, good, and mechanically gifted man. But these gifts were mostly hidden because of his alcoholism. Then, in the last six years of his life, with great effort, he overcame his addiction. He became a new man. He held a steady job and used his considerable mechanical savvy to fix things for people. But above all, he repaired a broken relationship with his family. At his funeral, I wondered if in his last years he had discovered some of the “hidden treasures” promised to those who observe the Word of Wisdom. (D&C 89:19.) We who loved him certainly discovered treasures that had been hidden in him until he mastered the Lord’s law of health.

The Word of Wisdom is but one of many ways the Doctrine and Covenants establishes the intimate link between body and spirit. Commending tasting and smelling (D&C 59:19), singing and dancing (D&C 136:28; D&C 25:12), loving and grieving (D&C 42:45; D&C 130:2), the Doctrine and Covenants is truly a book for our entire being. It reveals a God who cares for the wholeness of our souls—body and spirit—and intends to redeem them so that his children may receive a fulness of joy. (D&C 88:15–16.) Of the dead it is written: “Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.” (D&C 138:17.)

Religions of mankind have sometimes been contemptuous of the body and deaf to what one poet called the carol of the creation. 7 Not so the restored gospel, as revealed in the Doctrine and Covenants. In this book of scripture, the carol sounds again, clear and joyous: “Let the earth break forth into singing. …

“Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy!” (D&C 128:22–23.)

Modern revelation celebrates elemental life, for “the elements are the tabernacle of God; yea, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples.” (D&C 93:35.) The Prophet Joseph remarked: “No person can have this salvation except through a tabernacle.” 8 The body is a temple. No wonder our temples of stone serve our temples of flesh. Both are sacred sanctuaries of the Spirit.

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond

[photo] Photo by Index Stock Photography

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond

John S. Tanner is associate academic vice president of Brigham Young University.

Show References


  1.   1.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 181.

  2.   2.

    Commenting on this scripture, Elder Melvin J. Ballard remarked: “I grant you that the righteous dead will be at peace, but I tell you that when we go out of this life, leave this body, we will desire to do many things that we cannot do at all without the body. We will be seriously handicapped, and we will long for the body; we then will pray for the early reunion with our bodies. We will know then what advantage it is to have a body.” ( “The Three Degrees of Glory,” in Melvin J. Ballard … Crusader for Righteousness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 213.)

  3.   3.

    In Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Alan Bradford (London and New York: Penguin, 1991), p. 3.

  4.   4.

    John Donne, “The Ecstasy,” in John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (London and New York: Penguin, 1971), p. 55.

  5.   5.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in The Oxford Authors: Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 128.

  6.   6.

    For a recent explanation of how the early Church fathers introduced world-hating, body-hating dualism into Christianity, see Elaine H. Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988).

  7.   7.

    See Gerard Manley Hopkins, “To R.B.,” in The Oxford Authors: Gerard Manley Hopkins, p. 184.

  8.   8.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 297.