Sam Allberry: What God Has to Say about Our Bodies
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Ever feel weird in your own skin? On Real Life Loading… Shelby Abbott talks with Author Sam Allberry chats openly about sex, identity, shame, and what God has to say about our bodies.
Sam Allberry: What God Has to Say about Our Bodies
Real Life Loading...
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Season 1, Episode 2: What God Has to Say About Our Bodies
Guest: Sam Allberry
Air Date: September 17, 2022
Shelby: Describe British culture in one word, if you can.
Sam: We love moderation. I thought you might
Shelby: I thought you might say, “No”; [Laughter] and then I'd be like, “Yes, that's actually a perfect answer. [Laughter]
Sam: Or you know, the other word would be “superior,” I guess.
Shelby: Oh, the hubris.
Shelby: Somewhat anxious—always authentic—this is Real Life Loading… I’m your host, Shelby Abbott. I’ve been working with college students for the last 20 years with a campus ministry called Cru®. I’ve spoken at universities all around the United States, and written books on things like wrestling with doubt, dating, cohabitation, and what it looks like to live under the unique pressures as a 20-something.
I love working with young people and the potential they have to change the world for the glory of Jesus, and that’s what this program is all about. Our desire, with Real Life Loading… is to come alongside the next generation and help them walk closely with God in the humor and hardship of life. So today I'm talking with my friend, pastor apologist, speaker and author, Sam Allberry.
I actually met Sam several years ago through social media. And then, through a series of events, we actually became friends in the real world. He is someone who I continually remind that the world is not worthy of him. He's a humble, kind, and generous man who, in his experiences with same-sex attraction, has openly communicated with others about its immense difficulties, of course, but also how he's seen God's graciousness in the struggle. I think you're going to love our conversation, partially because he's British, but mostly because he's just awesome.
First, I'll let you get to know Sam through some fun questions I'm going to ask him. And then we'll dive deeper into the interesting topics of things like sex, gender, and our physical bodies. I hope it's as challenging for you as it was for me.
Shelby: So I was thinking about you recently in preparation for having this conversation, Sam. I wondered if you've given any thought to the idea of who would play you in a movie one day—because I have an opinion; I have a specific actor that I think would do you justice—but I wanted to know: “Can you think of anyone who might play you well?”
Sam: Oh, gosh; I've never thought of that. That's a horrifying thought: anything of my life would be the subject of a movie. [Laughter] I'm dreading to think even what genre that would be, but that would be horror or comedy. [Pause] I have no idea.
Shelby: You want to know who I came up with? I think it's pretty good.
Sam: Yes, I'd love to know.
Shelby: Yes, I even did Google® searches to try to figure out maybe similarities in likeness of facial features. And my, I came up with Martin Freeman.
Sam: Yes, yes; I could see that. Yes, yes; I could do a lot worse than him.
Shelby: Yes, [played] Bilbo [Baggins]. He was on the original British [The] Office. He's even in the MCU, so I thought he was a pretty good selection. I patted myself on the back for that.
Sam: I mean, if Leo isn't available, I think we'd go with Martin; yes. [Laughter]
Shelby: I thought Martin Freeman is the obvious first choice and, maybe, Simon Pegg—maybe. I think Simon Pegg’s a little bit too emotional for you, like—
Shelby: —[too] expressive maybe. [Laughter]
Sam: You mean he's not wooden enough?
Shelby: He's not. [Laughter] I did not say that—you did.
Sam: Maybe, you meant it.
Shelby: But Martin Freeman, I thought, was a pretty good choice.
Alright; what is the most out-of-character thing you've ever done?—and why?
Sam: Yes; I once, not through choice, had to sing Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You to a group of Thai English teachers.
And if that wasn't already surreal enough, the video, with the lyrics on it for the karaoke thing—had the lyrics on with the little bouncy ball thing to show you which word you were on—but the footage accompanying the lyrics was just the most obscene—I don’t know where it came from—but it was just the most graphic, obscene thing you could imagine.
Shelby: Oh, really? Wow!
Sam: I was trying to not think about that whilst trying to say the lyrics and sing the song.
Shelby: Could you only see the background or was everybody able to see the background?
Sam: No, it’s just me; I had the monitor in front of me. I was in Thailand; I was doing some English teaching at a high school. They said, “Hey, our Regional Department would like you to speak at our English teachers’ training day for the whole province.” I thought, “Okay, I'll do that.” And then that was like a Saturday. They said, “We begin our day by singing our provincial English teachers’ song; which is, I Just Called to Say I Love You. [Laughter] So we'd like you, as the native English speaker, to sing the song for us,”—which thinking about/as I say that, I'm thinking, “Was that just a stitch up? Did they even have a…”—you know, [if] that’s the kind of thing I’ll do. [Laughter]
Shelby: It’s a joke? Are they doing it just to see if I'll [Sam will] do it?
Sam: How much can they make the English guy do that/and tell him, “This is what we do here.”
Shelby: This was a while ago?—I'm assuming.
Sam: Yes, this was probably 15 years ago.
Shelby: Okay. So there's no footage of it anywhere.
Sam: No; mercifully, I would be in the FBI witness protection program by now, I think, if that've gone online anywhere. [Laughter]
Shelby: Because I would love to hunch over your phone, together, and watch that, and just laugh and laugh. [Laughter] That would be my favorite day; I'm sure.
Okay; that's a really good answer. I'm imagining that now; and how horrified, undoubtedly, you felt in that moment.
Sam: Yes, it was agony. I can't sing anyway; so that, already, I’m way out of my comfort zone, just having to sing in public.
Shelby: —and pushed even further.
You're working on a number of different things—all the time, it seems like—what feels important to you now more than ever?
Sam: This will sound like a cliche answer; but honestly, finding the greatest beauty is to be in Christ. The longer I am a Christian, the more I realize it doesn't get more complicated than loving Jesus before everything else. And the only way to love Jesus is to find Him more lovely than anything else. So perceiving and engaging on the beauty of Jesus, that matters more to me than it used to.
I've always been committed to getting truth right/being biblical; but I'm realizing that those things only matter because of who Jesus is. They’re lousy ends in themselves if they're not a means to just apprehending who Christ is.
Shelby: Yes, that's really good. I think that's what a lot of people miss, on a pretty consistent basis. When they think about their faith, they think about their head knowledge or behavior. They don't think about the heart, and they don't think about what it practically means to have the gospel transform your life: “What does that look like, on the inside, when nobody else is watching?”
You've written a book recently about our bodies. Obviously, that overflows into a lot of the issues that I think many of us are wrestling with, this day and age—certainly, the things that we're talking about on a pretty consistent basis, whether or not we're wrestling with them—but I wanted you to unpack for me the disharmony that many of us, including the younger generation, have with our bodies.
Sam: Yes; I mean, we do. I don't think there's anyone who has an entirely straightforward relationship with their body, whether that's because of health issues, or because of shame, or appearance, or body image, or whatever it might be. If there is someone, who's got no issues at all like that, I've not met them. I've been thinking about this and teaching on this for several years now. I always knew it was an issue—but I had never realized quite how pervasive, and near universal, it is—and not less with guys than with girls.
A friend of mine was on vacation in the summer. He messaged, saying, “I'm going to need your prayers.” He was heading to the beach, and he hated his body. He knew there was going to be an expectation that everyone would take off their tops and swim in the ocean or sunbathe. It was causing him significant distress and anxiety.
And he's not alone; most of us have a version of that somewhere. So for some of us, it might be the shape of our body; it might be our appearance; it might be debilitating health concerns that are constantly giving us physical pain; for some people, obviously. there is also feeling trapped in the wrong flesh, feeling as though your body doesn't match who you feel yourself to be, deep down inside. All of those are deeply painful and distressing things to experience. And we are feeling it more and more; this is becoming more prevalent, not less.
Shelby: That's a good kind of lead into what I wanted to ask next; because this is, obviously, being addressed in a number of different ways, both by the Christian community and the secular culture at large. How does the Bible address the disharmony that you spoke about in a way that is more satisfying than the “solutions” our culture puts forth?
Sam: Yes; I think one of the things that the Bible shows us—and this has not been, I think, something that Christians have been attentive to—is that the Bible accounts for these things. It shows us that the physical world in which we live in—including our bodies—the language in Romans 8 is: it's all being subjected to frustration. It doesn't work properly; it's out of joint.
The Bible shows us why it is we can feel so uneasy, even with our own flesh, which should make Christians the most compassionate people; because built into our very belief system is something that shows us how it is we’re in this kind of experience and way of feeling about things. It accounts for it, I think, in a way that's more sophisticated than not believing at all.
And then the other thing that the Bible says—and this is simplifying a glorious and complex reality—is that the ultimate answer to all of that is not going to be in what we can or can't do with our own bodies. It's actually in what Jesus does with His; because in dying for us, He goes through ultimate bodily brokenness. And that means, as a Christian, our bodies become defined—not by what we've done with them, or even by what other people have done to them or said about them—but what Jesus has done for us in His own death.
Shelby: Yes, that's so good. I don't think the typical Christian, walking through life, day in and day out, is thinking that—How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves—that's the subtitle of your book, even.
Sam: Yes; and I think partly that's because I don't think we've taught on this, as a Christian community. I think we've neglected this whole area of thought and teaching; it's always been there in the Bible. Other Christian traditions have been more attentive to what the body means, theologically. I think the rest of us have neglected it.
Shelby: And that's, clearly, snuck up behind us now, and bitten us, because that's what people are talking about all the time now.
Sam: It is. There's a lot of confusion; there's a lot of pain; there's a lot of angst about this in our culture, for very understandable reasons. And it's one of the ways the Lord shows us where some of the gaps have been in our own thinking is by bringing these issues to us, externally—it's good for us—it's challenging; it's stretching. Culture is raising some very, very complex and difficult questions about the body, and gender, and identity, and all of those kinds of things. But it is good for us to have to think through: “Okay, what resources does Christianity give us to help understand these things and respond?”
Shelby: And now, it’s time for “Three dots…three thoughts” on Real Life Load… This is where I share three simple ideas that could potentially change your life—they probably won’t—but they could.
Thought 1: “Never brush your teeth in the shower.” I have a friend who does this. I stayed over at his house one night; got up the next morning; used the shower. And I saw his toothbrush sitting there, right next to his shampoo, and body wash, and razor, and shaving cream. I was like, “Eww, you should never place the utensils you use to clean the outside of your body in close proximity to the utensil you use to clean the inside of your mouth, especially in a context of like a humid and mold-friendly environment, like a shower.”
I was like, “Bro, why do you brush your teeth in the shower?” And here is his answer; ready? “It saves time.” It saves time?—I don't know; maybe I'm crazy on this one—do you all do this? If so, hit me up and give me a better reason than: “It saves time.”
Thought 2: “If you like sneakers, as much as I do, one of the best investments you can make to keep your shoes looking crispy is a shoe-cleaning kit,”—obviously; right? You could find them anywhere online. And they usually include like a specific kind of soap, along with a few different kinds of brushes to use, depending on the material your shoes are made from. Spend the $15 on a shoe-cleaning kit, and you'll extend the life of your Jordan® 1’s.
Thought 3: “Read a chapter in Proverbs every day.” I've been doing this for several years now. It's one of the best ways to absorb truth and grow in wisdom from God's Word. In the Bible, the book of Proverbs has 31 chapters; so basically, whatever day of the month it is, I just read that chapter in Proverbs. If it's like January 17, I read Proverbs 17; and in general, I can read the entire book every single month. And now, you can too.
This has been “Three dots…three thoughts” on Real Life Loading… Now, back to my conversation with Sam Allberry.
Shelby: Sam, my friend, what do you think it would look like for young people today to model a sexual counterculture? And talk about why that biblical counterculture perspective is actually good news and not bad news; because I think you handle this really, really well.
Sam: Yes; it would be easy to think that Christianity's bad news when it comes to sexuality; because we immediately think of the prohibitions, what we're told not to be doing. But the fact is: anytime the Bible gives us a prohibition it's because there's something good that's being protected for us.
And one of the things we see, particularly Jesus—in His own teaching—doing is: He’s being mindful of and protective of our sexual dignity. So He, in the very place that He says that: “If you look at someone lustfully, you've broken God's command,”—by implication—He's saying, not just that we shouldn't be doing that; but actually, He's saying we have a sexual dignity that means that other people shouldn't be looking at us in a certain way.
Jesus is simultaneously very, very challenging for every single one of us; but also, uniquely dignifying. We have a sexual dignity that is so precious to Him; He doesn't even want it to be violated, even in the privacy of someone else's mind. That's good news for us; and in a MeToo culture, we/actually, we need that message today.
Shelby: That’s just, actually, what I was going to say—like there's something specific about how culture can pinpoint certain things, and go: “This is wrong,” “This is bad.” Even [talking] about consent—and that's what I typically hear the most—it’s like: “Things are okay as long as there's consent when it comes to sex. If it's good for me, and it's good for them, why can't it be good in general? Why do you have to put boundaries on something here?” Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sam: Yes, and it's a really good question. It helps to remember that all of us put boundaries on sexual behavior somewhere. It's easy to say that secular culture is about sexual freedom and Christianity is about sexual constraint; but the fact is, all of us draw the line somewhere; otherwise, we're kind of monstrous. All of us think certain things should not be allowed, so all of us have boundaries. The question is: “Where do we place those boundaries?” and “Do we have a coherent way of accounting for where we put those boundaries?”
Many of us, in the kind of secular West, would say, “Well, we put the boundary at consenting adults.” But even those boundaries—I mean, I'm not questioning them for a moment—but we need to work out: “Why do we put them there?" And actually, historically, the reason we put them there is because of Christianity.
One professor of classics, Kyle Harper, said, basically, that Christianity invented consent; because it it's not been intuitive or self-evident in the vast majority of human civilizations. It certainly wasn't in the Roman world, when Christianity first arrived on the scene. So even the kind of sexual values that the Western world has, haven't come out of a native secularism; they've come out of Christianity.
I think the Me Too movement has actually shown a light on this; because it’s shown us: “We're not as good at consent as we think we are. We give lip service to it; but actually, we don't truly honor it.” It's not been as adhered to as we thought it was; it's more complex than that.
And in terms of thinking—“Well, if it feels good to me/if it feels good to another person, it can't be wrong,”—sometimes, the harm of something isn't always immediate; and it's not always direct. We're not always well-placed to know, in the long run, what's going to be best for us. And our feelings are sometimes a helpful guide and, sometimes, not.
I think most of us sense—particularly, when it comes to sexual feelings—that there's a measure of self-control we need. If we try to indulge every sexual feeling we have, every moment we feel it, all of us know that's probably not a good idea. All of us sense there's probably some feelings we're going to have to say, “No,” to.
The thing I keep coming back to is: in the Bible, we see that God is love. That doesn't mean that everything I think is love, God must immediately approve of. It means God knows far more about how to love well than I do; and so I need His wisdom because love is meant to look different in different contexts: loving your friend, loving your pet dog, loving lasagna, loving your wife—those are all very different loves—and we need to have our loves rightly ordered.
God is the One who's going to show us how to love each other well. So anytime God is saying, “No,” to something, I've got to assume that's because it will be more loving in the end—not to be doing that certain thing—than it would be to be doing it.
Shelby: Right. And that's not the perspective that people typically have with this subject. In general, we find it so difficult to allow ourselves to believe that God's definition of the term, “love,” and how that manifests itself in our lives, is better than what I'm thinking and feeling; because, sometimes, there's conflict there.
Shelby: —“often”; yes; yes [Laughter]
Shelby: —“always.” [Laughter]
Sam: And I think part of the reason for that hesitation is very understandable, which is that Christians have not always done a good job of advertising the loveliness of God's love. Sometimes, the Christian church has actually addressed this issue in a way that would not commend it to anyone: there's been judgmentalism; there's been hypocrisy; there's been cruelty and bullying.
I was spending time with someone, just recently, who was in his church youth group, that he was marked for being gay. And you sort of think—“Well, if that's what Christians are like,”—that's not going to commend the Christian belief to you. We always have to judge Christians by Jesus, not judge Jesus by Christians. Jesus is always going to be safe and good for us, even if His people aren't.
Shelby: Yes, that's fantastic. Great stuff.
You once quoted, in an interview, a Catholic theologian named Christopher West, who said, “Intimacy is like hunger.” Can you finish that quote for me? And then, explain what it means; because I think it's implications, in our society, are extremely important.
Sam: Yes, it's great insights of Christopher West's. Intimacies, like hunger—in the sense that, if you're hungry, then you've got to eat—and if the only thing available to eat is bad for you, you'll still eat it; because bad food is better than no food. Hunger has to be met. And the point, when it comes to intimacy, it’s the same.
We are made for intimacy; we need intimacy. And if the only intimacy available to us is unhealthy intimacy, we'll still have it. And so part of our responsibility, within the church, is to think: “Well, if certain kinds of intimacy are prohibited by God,” “If certain kinds of intimacy are not going to be healthy for us, we've got to make sure there's healthy intimacy available.”
In too many churches, the choice seems to be: “Either crushing loneliness or some kind of relationship that the Bible prohibits.” And if those are the only choices, you'll go for the latter.
Shelby: I've seen that happen in a number of different people, who I thought/I knew wrestled with same-sex attraction in college; and now, they're fully embedded in the lifestyle and antagonistic towards Christians, who they used to claim to be. In my process of thinking about that—of kind of, mentally, pointing the finger at them and saying, “They've chosen to do something,”—some of your teaching and your writing has helped me to see that, maybe, the problem is more with me or, at least, shared—the problem should be shared by me that—“What kind of intimacy did I show them, as a friend?”
Is the church environment/is the Christian environment good for singles?—people who—there's a buddy of mine, who just recently said, “I am never going to be attracted to a woman. And so if I want to experience walking with God, I'm going to be doing it as a single in the context of the church,”—is that good news for me? How have you experienced that, knowing that God is calling you to singleness?
Sam: Yes; it's been a mixed experience, as you would imagine. There have been times that's felt really difficult; other times, it's been wonderful. And my experience of church has varied as well.
It's very easy in church life for everything to revolve around the family/the individual family; and therefore, that seems, in many churches, to be the basic units of life and of church life. And then the singles/those who don't quite fit into that—and so we've got to try and figure out what to do with them—and “Do we put them in a group on their own?” “Do we—
Shelby: —"lump them together?”—so maybe they'll pair off, kind of a deal.
Sam: Yes, yes; “Pairs and spares” as I heard someone call it. [Laughter]
I think that can obviously make singleness harder than it needs to be if that's the sort of prevailing sense; but I've also seen churches, where there's been very deep and rich community, across the board. Families need this too; married people need this too—where the church has esteemed friendship—and where the idea of the church being a family hasn't just been a nice bit of PR speak, because it makes us look good; but actually, it's been a felt reality for those who are there.
I'm in the process of moving to Nashville. The church I'm already a part of here, I'm seeing that more and more—I'm very thankful for it—we've got more work to do on that, but feeling a level of community I've not had before to this extent. That's been wonderful/enriching, and that's how it should be. When the Bible talks about us being brothers and sisters, that's meant to express something real. In Jesus, we really are family to each other. And when you see that being expressed, it's so beautiful.
Shelby: And it's exciting to know that it is possible/that you have experienced something like that. Because I think, a lot of times, when people do say—“This is not good news for me; like I'm never going to be able to experience the kind of intimacy that I want,”—they're making that statement or assumption based on their history/based on the fact that: “The church will never provide that for me.”
We've got work to do, as a Christian community; because when you're in college, it's kind of easy to be involved in Christian community—if you're in college—because there's like a million campus ministries you can be involved in. But once you graduate, that's really when the rubber meets the road and you have to decide, intentionally, to go after the kind of Christian community and fellowship that you're desiring. It's not going to present itself to you on a silver platter the way it did in college.
Sam: And post-college, it's just harder to make friends.
Shelby: It is; yes.
Sam: People are busier; you've got more responsibilities/less free time. I think part of the issue—I've seen this in myself—is: “Here I am; please come and find me, everyone” kind of mentality.
Shelby: Right; yes.
Sam: “Why am I not being more noticed?” and “…more sought after?” and “…more invited and reached out to?”—and that kind of thing. But part of it is: “Well, who am I looking out for?”—and noticing—and that kind of thing.
A friend of mine says there there's two ways to walk into a room. One way is to walk in with the mindset of: “Here I am. So please notice me and attend to me.” The other mindset is to walk into a room, thinking, “There you are. I'm going to make this about you, and taking an interest in you, and being attentive to you.” We can kind of go through life with either of those mindsets. And by far, more Christ-like one is to be thinking: “Who am I looking out for?” Who can I be building relationship with?” And that sounds corny, putting it this way; but to try to be something of the community we want to see.
Shelby: I feel like everything that Sam says is just gold, especially for a younger audience, wrestling to walk with God in this cultural moment. Now, you might be thinking, “I’ve never heard this kind of stuff before. Is this really one of the main topics of conversation with the next generation?”
Well, the answer is: “Yes!” We sincerely need voices, like Sam’s, who are not afraid to talk about this and provide a biblical framework on how to graciously engage in the conversations that are already happening, and simultaneously, stay true to the Christian sexual ethic. I so appreciate him.
Actually, there's more of this conversation that's going to happen in our next program as well. So make sure that you tune in for that.
If this conversation with Sam has been helpful for you, or you think it would be helpful for a younger person in your life, I'd love for you to tell them to find, us wherever they get their podcasts, or on social media. Just have them search for Real Life Loading...
I want to thank my producers, Josh Batson and Bruce Goff. I'm Shelby Abbott. I’ll see you back next time on Real Life Loading...
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