• Ava Hoffman

integrated and embodied

CW// purity culture; internalized ableism; abusive relationship; sexual assault and coercion; homosexuality

TW// body image; chronic illness





There is a fundamental truth about us humans that is crucial to a healthy (and Biblical!) sex ethic.


It’s a truth that’s been hotly contested over the years, misunderstood to the detriment of those doing their best to live well. It’s a forgotten truth in the evangelical church that has resulted in generations of abused and traumatized men and women. And it’s a truth rooted in orthodox beliefs, that is, beliefs that have been traditionally accepted, established, approved, and shown as right and true.


It’s a structural truth we often dismiss; a meat-and-potatoes kind of belief that upholds all sex ethics conversations. It’s a crucial axiom for a stalwart position; an essential component of an unabridged conversation around sexuality.


Humans are integrated and embodied creatures.

About a year ago, I was introduced to a version of this graphic:

Perfect Integration.

It was used to acquaint us with the four movements of humanity based on what Jesus listed in Mark 12:29-30. All four elements are needed to love well. All four parts work together to nourish community. All four are necessary for thriving relationship with God and with others. Together, these four movements intertwine, weaving together the underpinnings of our humanity. Together, they establish a healthy, whole, unified base on which we grow and expand.


Mind, heart, soul, body. Mental, emotional, spiritual, physical. Learn, experience, make meaning, act.



Together. In one body. As one. In tandem. Combined. One.


In the Garden when Adam was created, he revealed these four movements. He was physically formed. He walked with God. He felt the other-ness and alone-ness that came with being the only creature without a companion. Adam named and remembered every creature in the Garden.


And Adam was named “very good.”


The four movements of humanity working together in perfect harmony, unified in one body. Creator God designed us this way and has upheld these connected threads of humanity since the beginning. He deemed them “very good.”


And with that same phrase, Creator God also deemed our sexuality “very good.”


See, we are also sexual beings.


In the exact same instant humanity took its first breath, sexuality was born. Sex-differences were written into the genetics of humanity. Gendered responses have existed since the beginning of Creation.


Each creation story from Biblical Creation to the theory of evolution to the creation myths of various Indigenous peoples have a common thread: Something from nothing. Order from chaos. Each story begins with formless and disorderly matter and/or space. There is no organization - only utter confusion.


Each creation story makes meaning of this nothingness. It involves ordering the chaos; it separates dark from light. Water becomes distinct from land, and the sky separates the earth from the heavens. There are plants, and there are animals.


And there is man, and there is woman.


The creation of gendered beings is part of the original ordering of chaos.


In the Biblical defining of these two new creatures, God blesses them, and them immediately tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply.” That’s Biblical speak for “Go and have sex!”


And then He looks at all He has made – including the sexually active man and woman! – and sees that it is “very good!”


Sexuality is very good!


And sexuality is intrinsically woven into our humanity. Those same four movements of humanity also apply to our sexuality.


Mind, heart, soul, body. Mental, emotional, spiritual, physical. Learn, experience, make meaning, act.


We cannot separate them. We cannot divorce ourselves from our sexuality. We cannot pretend body and soul are disconnected. We cannot act as if we are compartmentalized beings.


We are not.


We are one. Interwoven. All of these wrapped into one physical form.

 
Disintegration and Fragmentation.

There’s an ancient belief system known as “Gnosticism.” No one is really sure how old it is…we know it predates Christianity, and we know Plato is the first to have written explicitly about it.


The foundational belief of a gnostic is this: the body is evil, and it corrupts the soul.


It’s a system that seeks to separate the body from the soul. It says that the body is depraved, that our flesh must be despised. It also upholds the idea that whatever happens to our bodies does not matter for they are “just physical matter.” It thus divorces body from soul, body from heart, and body from mind.


From Apostle Paul to Saint Augustine to Pope John Paul II, Christian giants have been fighting this disintegration of the human person for centuries. Paul sent letters to Corinth, Colossae, and Galatia radically defending the truth of human personhood. Augustine said that viewing humanity this way “shows a failure to consider man’s nature carefully and in its entirety.” The former Pope spent 129 homilies (sermons) over a four-year period preaching about Biblical body theology.


Today, both our secular and Christian cultures have thoroughly embraced this heresy, and not just Biblically-educated theologians are fighting it anymore!


A non-religious source states that we need to “understand that sexual energy is not separate from being human.”


Secular therapist Emma Harper writes, “Integration happens when all the different parts of us start to co-ordinate rather than working in opposition to each other. Integration happens when we connect the dots between all the fragmented aspects of ourselves.”


Even the American Psychological Association writes that disintegration often creates serious negative effects on our health and well-being. They note that “significant mental health concerns and stress overload often accompany such fragmentation.”


There is no escaping it.


Biology reveals it. Psychology points to it. Theology explains it.


Humans are integrated and embodied creatures.
 

So why does all this matter?


Let me tell you a story.


Once upon 23-or-so-years ago, there was a little girl named Ava. Her childhood was normal, and she embodied the origins of her name – mother of all. She named everything – animals, stuffed animals, vehicles, and Barbie dolls. She faithfully changed her six American Girl Dolls from pajamas to school clothes to play clothes back to pajamas most every day. Even her large collection of plastic farm animals were faithfully given attention so they didn’t feel left out.


Her experience of girlhood was very much shaped by the female protagonists in her library. Historical fiction taught her that girls were expert homemakers and baby-raisers. They kept the world spinning even as they were relatively unseen and underappreciated. Her love for dresses was born even as she dressed like Laura Ingells Wilder for a time.


Realistic fiction usually involved some sort of teen-appropriate romance which had our young girl dreaming of dancing with the man of her dreams, decked out in formal wear, surrounded by lights. She learned what romance was from these pages, dreaming of her first kiss, imagining the gentleman he would be, and expecting "falling in love" to look and feel a certain type of way.


But the music Ava listened to told her that only God should be her boyfriend. He was the only one who would hold her, stay beside her, and be always on her mind. Lyrics of “Christian” music told her to guard her heart and not give in to the voices pressuring her to date and fall in love. In youth group, she experienced conflicting messages telling her to both "be friends with boys" and "do not trust anything with a penis."


She walked away from church believing that her body was shameful. She had no idea how to handle sexual or romantic advances from guys, and relational boundaries were imaginary. She had been taught that intimacy required sex, and anything remotely sexual was bad.


Ava grew into a young woman who believed that she ought to hate sex for the simple reason that she was a woman. She had no idea what a vulva was. The existence of the clitoris was not a thing. Sex wasn’t meant for women. She had never been taught that God made sex for recreation, enjoyment, and sheer delight, so sexual pleasure was always accompanied by shame and guilt, even in marriage.


Mind, heart, soul, body. Mental, emotional, spiritual, physical. Learn, experience, make meaning, act.


We are integrated and embodied creatures.

It is all tied together. Humanity and sexuality. What we think, feel, believe, and experience. They cannot be parsed out.


For when they are, we often wind up where I found myself these last couple years.

 

I shared extensively how I have experienced life and marriage with a disintegrated sex ethic. It felt like I was trying to hold all those fragments together with silly string, and it wasn’t working.


My foray into deconstruction had me asking, “What am I carrying?” I began to understand that time does not always heal, and the past cannot be erased. I found myself looking at the messages I believed – the written and unwritten rules about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable in regards to my sexuality.


I was shocked at what I found, friend.


See, we all have stories that shape who we are and how we carry ourselves. Some stories are true…and many are not. False stories are incomplete at best and lies at worst. They have constructed and formed our reality, and we live out of them.


For example, I believe my body is bad. It is scarred, broken, missing pieces, housing dead organs, and just overall really defective. It has been touched, objectified, disrespected, and violated.


I know that God says, "I made you, inside and out. I formed you. Body and soul, you are marvelously made! I know you, inside and out. I know every bone and organ in your body. I know exactly how you are made!"


I cling to what God says and Paul writes about disability and chronic illness: "Our bodies have many parts, and I have placed each part exactly where I want it. In fact, the parts of the bodies that seem the weakest and least important are actually the most necessary! I clothe with greatest care the parts others regard as less honorable. I have put your body together and given extra honor and care to the parts of you that are considered 'less precious' by others."


So why do I continue to believe my body is bad?!


As a child, myriads of people prayed that God would heal me. That my diseases would be taken from me. That tomorrow I’d wake up and "be healed." I cannot count the number of times people asked God to "restore me to health."


I interpreted these prayers to mean that I was currently broken. That my diseases made me unhealthy, not worthy, incomplete. I began to internalize this story of “being healed means functioning like everyone else.”


As I teen, I learned that female thighs were sexual. Female butts should be disguised. Shoulders and chests could be viewed as promiscuous. Periods were about sex, too. My small cup size was applauded as it apparently made me less likely to be objectified.


I thought these ingrained parts of my body meant it was unsafe. That my physical body parts made me susceptible to sin, evil, and earthly desires. I began to internalize a story that said "your body wicked and must be covered."


I walked into my 20s with a sexuality shaped by this: I learned to consider my body destroyed and dangerous. I experienced shame when men looked at me. I decided that meant my body had to be hidden, from them and from me. I responded with hatred towards my body.


I was reading an article the other day, and an experience the writer shared struck me. "I was asked to imagine myself on my wedding day, in a pristine white dress – and then asked to picture a bright red handprint anywhere that a man has touched me. This image of a bloodied bride, of flesh corrupted by flesh, seared into my imagination a picture of the body, rather than the soul, as the source and site of sin.”


This is how I see myself. Today. I see myself like this today.


Each disease and bodily affliction is a bloody handprint. Each scar a bloody smear. What I experienced growing up with chronic diseases was a separation of soul and body. Each unwanted butt slap is also a bloody handprint. My abusive relationship and subsequent sexual assault left a multitude of bright red handprints. The parts of my personhood were unraveled.


I learned at an incredibly young age that my body was separate from my heart. No one seemed to think that my emotions were intertwined with a health diagnosis. My body was separate from my mind. Coping was an expectation, not something I learned to do well. And my body was separate from my soul. I have no memories of being encouraged in my faith while being in the midst of suffering.


I was a physical entity only, and I was a defunct one at that. The world said I was less for being disabled. The Church said I was less for being "defiled."


And so I hated my body. My sexuality became something I resented. I hated that by simply existing, I was failing. I remember being incredibly frustrated that I couldn't change how my body functioned or looked. I was completely disconnected from myself, fragmented in every sense.

Reintegration. Healing.

Here’s the thing about integration, though. It’s healing.


And the Bible is an invitation into that healing. Jesus invites us to reinterpret what we believe according to His view of us. It allows us to gather up the fragments and walk into an actually true reality. Jesus invites us to hear what He has to say and find our identity in the One who created us.


So I walked to Jesus with this: I learned good and pure bodies aren’t sick and haven't been touched. I experience confusion and shame in this body. I decided this meant I wasn't good enough for anyone, much less God. I’ve responded by reducing myself to the labels and boxes I'd been assigned by other people.


It was the first time I had wrapped my whole self – mind, heart, soul, and body – together. It was the first time I realized the separation of myself due to illness was the foundation for the dissociation I was experiencing with my sexuality. It’s where I had learned to parse myself into fragments.


Emma Harper wrote, “When we integrate an aspect of our sexuality and the body lets go of its need to hold and protect us against the perceived perils of our aliveness…we also release the tension and effort our body and minds have put in place to hold split-off parts of us away in our unconscious holding patterns.”


In other words, integrating our sexuality allows us to experience freedom! And friend, all I can say is YES AND AMEN.


As Jesus redeemed my false stories, giving me true ones, the way I saw myself began to shift. I began to open up physically. I felt more able to freely live life and express joy physically. Dancing became an unconscious response. I was no longer stifled by the false stories I had manufactured, and I began to experience a new kind of wholeness.


This was the integrated story Jesus gave me: I have put my Word in your mind, and I am writing it on your heart. I am your God, and I call you "Mine." I have given you a gift – peace of mind and heart. So do not be troubled. I am the Spirit, dwelling within you, and wherever I am, there is freedom. Give your body to Me as a living and holy sacrifice, for this is acceptable in My sight and truly the way I long to be worshipped.


Information is not neutral, friend, and truth has the power to radically change the landscape of our lives.


I began to unlearn.


Having a disease doesn't make me "diseased." A broken body reflects Jesus. Sexuality is more than orientation, modesty, and sexual activity. Periods aren't sexual. Boobs are secondary sex characteristics, meaning their primary function is not sexual. The primary function of a penis is not sexual in nature. Erections aren't always an indication of arousal.


By inviting sexuality into the picture of myself, I unknowingly began the process of reconnecting mind, heart, soul, and body.


A whole view of sexuality changes things, friend. It allows us to walk forward as a harmonious whole; learning well, experiencing fully, interpreting wisely, and responding better. It lets us honor our minds, gently hold our hearts, attend to our soul, and celebrate our physical forms.

My body has been violated, and it is scarred and broken and disabled…but it is REALLY beautiful, and it is doing a GOOD job.

 

Sexuality is rooted in our humanity.


Mind, heart, soul, body. Mental, emotional, spiritual, physical. Learn, experience, make meaning, act.


We are not meant to engage with one sphere at a time, friend. If we desire to experience wholeness, we must embrace this truth. We must have a consistent and uncompromising personal body theology here, friends. It’s vital.


Bodies are GOOD.

Humans are multi-dimentional.

Sexuality is a blessing to steward well.


And it’s foundational for any conversation revolving around sexuality.


We can’t talk about homosexuality unless we have an understanding that it is a complex blend of biology, psychology, theology, and sociology. We can’t talk about why increased casual sexual encounters are related to increased cases of anxiety and depression until we understand that sex (physical) has emotional, mental, and spiritual effects, too.


We are not compartmentalized beings, friend.


Mind, heart, soul, and body. We are all made of these. Integrated. Embodied.

So what are you carrying?


Who do you believe you are?

What does God say about you, and what are you doing with that?


Integration is an ongoing process, friend. We live in a broken world, so finding the balance of mind, heart, soul, and body is a life-long endeavor. Often, each revelation leads to another and another. This is a cradle to grave kind of growth.


Be encouraged, though - perfection is not the goal! Wholeness. Freedom. Contentedness. Pure and unadulterated joy. Those are the goal. And they can be found and received with cracks and dents and questions.


Start today, friend. Where have you separated yourself from yourself?

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