God’s Good Gifts from the Garden

Stewardship and care of the body

by Susan Martins Miller

“In the beginning when God created,” Genesis begins. The earth was formless, dark, nothingness, and God set to work.
“Then God said.”
“So God made.”
“And God saw.”
“And God called.”
“And there was.”
“And it was so.”
“And it was good.”

Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, the very beginning of the story of God’s love for us, this is the rhythm of the action of a creative God bringing forth beauty and abundance from nothingness. Day and night, waters and sky, vegetation bearing fruit, great lights of the sky, swarms of multiplying living creatures of every kind. And then, in the midst of this ingenious bounty from the imagination of God came the idea of us: “So God created humankind in his image … God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food … and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:27–31).

Genesis 2 describes a lush garden as the place God prepared for humans, the place where God formed the first person out of dust and gave him a body and then breathed into his nostrils. He gave him spirit, making him a living being who was both body and spirit (Genesis 2:7), in the place that surrounded the first pair with what they needed to live healthy lives connected to God.

These pictures tell us that God took great care and delight in creation, both of the world and of us. In appointing people as stewards of creation, God invites us into that care and delight in the way we experience the world and our place in it. This includes our care and delight for our own health in body and spirit.

The Gift of Bodily Existence

Honoring God with our bodies expresses gratitude for the wonder of creation expressed in our bodily experience. Care of our health—body and spirit—is vital to living in communion with God. While we all have aspects of health that may be beyond our control, such as genes, exposure to damaging substances, or injury, many aspects are within our control to do our best to maintain our bodies in acknowledgement of bearing the image of God as whole persons God delights in.

Garden imagery, and the specific mention in Genesis of “every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” and “I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29–30), brings foremost to mind the question of what we put into our bodies and the ways we sustain or sabotage health through food choices. But many other ways that we relate to our bodies matter as well. Do we receive the gift of our bodily existence with gratitude that leads to wonderment of exercise? To practice sexual health in ways that connect spirit and body? To stop talking about being tired all the time and make intentional changes to get enough rest? To integrate work with whole-life health so we can genuinely delight in life? To positively manage how we behave and treat others when we’re anxious or angry?
All of these and more are bodily experiences to be stewarded so that we honor God, support wellness, and prevent disease as we receive the gift of our bodily existence.

Even Jesus withdrew periodically for quiet rest and spiritual refreshment. He stepped away from the crowds and even sent his closest circle of friends on ahead at times so he could have solitary time (John 6:16). He spent time in prayer to feed his spirit (Luke 5:16). He walked to Bethany, where his good friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived and he knew he would be welcome for a meal (Luke 10:38). He needed sleep like anyone else (Mark 4:38).

The Life of Grace-filled Health

Genesis begins with perfection, but in the third chapter rebellion and brokenness enters the story. From there the Bible is about putting perfection back together. By the time the Bible ends, with the close of the book of Revelation, we see the fullness of redemption. Yet we are caught in the time of imperfection, longing for wholeness.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians who lived in Galatia, we read the familiar words of the fruit of the Spirit. First comes a list of behaviors that are “works of the flesh,” and it’s easy to see the ill-health in them. They are rooted in self-centeredness and ambition, dissension and disregard for consequence. Against this backdrop we read of the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22–23). This is God’s work in us. When we open ourselves to the gift of care and delight of creation, we also open ourselves to the gift of the fruit of the Spirit—including self-control.

As we consider how self-control applies to behaviors and choices affecting our health, our minds go quickly to behaviors we wish we would stop doing. We want to control the impulse to indulge the undesirable behaviors we know are not good for our waistlines, blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol. We do not as easily think of self-control in positive terms of pursuing choices of care and stewardship of the body that share in God’s delight of creation.

We are conditioned to think of self-control as refraining from bad habits that harm us. And yes, bad habits do harm our health and we are not at our best in honoring the image of God when we mindlessly engage in them despite knowing the risks and consequences. But it is possible to flip our fundamental understanding of self-control to a fuller understanding of positive behaviors set in contrast to the “works of the flesh” and which come to us by God’s grace, not by the virtue of sheer human will power. As we embrace the stewardship of the body as a spiritual practice meant to enrich our communion with God, we seek the same delight in caring for ourselves as God has in loving us. Out of this framework we daily receive afresh the fruit of the Spirit, given by God, that allows us to regard ourselves as the beloved image-bearers who rejoice in our body and spirit experience of God’s creation.

We honor God when we are stewards of our bodies for our health. These everyday choices, made by help of the Spirit of God, lead us to experience the redemptive nature of the kingdom of God, putting right what went wrong in the choices of Genesis 3, embracing the grace that comes to us in Christ, and living the story God means for us to live in a foretaste of the fulfillment of redemption.

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