Some experiences enlighten us, others confound us. Life can surprise us with its generosity and its cruelty. Reality is richer that the simple stories we often construct. But it is here in the seeming contrasts, in the pleasant and the painful, in the promise of what could still be and in the devastating ends, in the movement between the known and the unknown, that the vibrancy and meaning of life is found.
There is a surprisingly beautiful unity that exists between these opposites. The inscrutable complexity gives birth to a profound simplicity. To find this unity of being within your own complexity brings about a peace that transforms every experience.
It’s been a while since I heard this, but last week an acquaintance quoted this familiar phrase: “I am a spirit; I have a soul and I live in a body.” I do not find this formulation convincing any more, but there was a time when I did… and so I began to wonder why I ever found it appealing. Following is an exploration on where this concept came from, and why many have found it appealing. Thereafter I want to show the unintended consequences of this concept, both from a theological and experiential perspective. Lastly, an alternative understanding of what makes us human will be proposed.
The first occurrence of this exact phrase I could find, is in Kenneth Hagin’s book, The Human Spirit. But the idea is older and he probably inherited it from E.W. Kenyon. The word-of-faith movement made it popular and today it is a common doctrine in many evangelical churches. Yet the whole idea has been built on a couple of proof-texts, which we’ll examine later.
“I am a spirit; I have a soul and I live in a body.”
None of the proponents of this idea have made much effort in comprehensively defining what is meant by spirit, soul or body. However the rudimentary descriptions that are given usually define the spirit as the source of joy, peace, love etc. This is also the part that can commune with God most directly. The soul is defined as the intellect, emotions and desires. As such, the soul is often seen as a battleground. And lastly the body is the physical encasement of the spirit and soul. Yet the body is not completely neutral, but subject to animalistic drives and is perceived as most vulnerable to evil. I’ll adopt these basic definitions for the purpose of this critique, but we’ll revisted the meaning of these words at a later stage.
“I’ve come to know I’m a spirit being who has a soul and lives in a body. But the real me is my spiritual person.” Andrew Wommack (http://www.awmi.net/reading/teaching-articles/spirit-soul-and-body/)
The statement is uncompromising in affirming the priority of the spirit: I am a spirit – not a soul, neither a body. The soul is something I have and the body is a temporal dwelling, but neither defines me.
Why was this formulation appealing?
I was young – maybe 9 years old – when I first heard this description from a word-of-faith preacher. Why was it appealing then and why is it still appealing to so many today?
It is a simple description that affirms that I am more than what is seen – more than my body. I am also more than the sometimes confusing and conflicting emotions and desires (ascribed to the soul) that I experience. It affirms that the true me is a mysterious, eternal … spirit.
As such it helps to form a sense of identity detached from the body and detached from conflicting emotional and mental experiences.
Based on this, an elaborate system can be built to categorize experiences into these three realms and then prioritize what is spiritual above the rest. A great many formulas can be developed to ensure that you become a spiritual person rather than a soulish or worse – a fleshly person.
Finding such clear and simple formulas was also part of the appeal for me at that stage.
So in conclusion, in our search for identity the formulation promises clarity and in our search for God it lays the foundation for becoming more spiritual and consequently, closer to God.
But there are some unintended consequences as well.
This formulation does not simply affirm that I am more than my body, my intellect, my desires and emotions, it emphatically states that I am not any of these. And in that lies the seed for much internal conflict. The hierarchy created by this trichotomy makes it clear that only ‘spirit’ should be in control. Soul and body should always be in subjection to spirit. As a result, suspicion towards one’s own intellect, emotions, desires and bodily existence is cultivated as something positively spiritual.
Copeland uses this reasoning to justify an order of domination: “To be a powerful Christian, your spirit, trained in the Word, must be in command of your mind and body. The chain of command is spirit (heart), soul (mind), body (flesh).” (Copeland, Force of Faith , p.6)
Every thought should be judged and spiritual revelation is obviously superior to intellectual diligence. The obvious problem is that there is no measurement with which ‘spiritual revelation’ can be verified.
Consequently, the human experience becomes fractured. The imaginary separation between these three parts become very real when every experience and thought is judged and subjected to its proper place. Little room remains for gratefully enjoying life… and much room remains for guilt and pride.
If one attempts to live according to this formulation, it is likely that the suppression of intellect, emotions, and desires will increase. Consequently, guilt and pride are the most obvious outcomes depending on how successful these attempts at suppression are.
Lets now look at each one of these categories specifically.
To describe the body as something I currently live in, but not something that has any lasting effect on who I am, devalues the body and ignores the obvious: Your body is inseparably part of what makes you, you. Your very growth as a person and the formation of your sense of self developed within the context of your body.
There is no simple way of separating your fleshly existence from your mind or spirit. The spiritual forces of joy or love are influenced by the way we think and feel (soul) and thoughts are influenced by chemicals in the brain (flesh). These processes and experiences might not be identical, but they are inseparable. There are many case-studies in neoroscience that shows how physical changes in the brain, such as a brain injury, can change the personality of a person including their moral and ethical decisions.
In the light of contemporary neuroscience a hard dichotomy between soul and body and a classification of separate faculties of the soul are no longer tenable.
(F. LeRon Shults. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Kindle Locations 1957-1958). Kindle Edition. )
The scripture does not envision existence without a body. Not even death is imagined as a disembodied spiritual experience. When Paul speaks about the body as a tent/covering, he also makes it clear that we should not desire to be unclothed, but rather further clothed. (2 Cor 5:4) Again in 1 Cor 15 Paul speaks about our future state after death not in terms of disembodied spirits, but rather in terms of resurrected spiritual bodies.
The body remains an integral part of what makes you, you both now and in the future. It does not have to be a limitation. It is meant to be a point of contact, a space where relationship is most tangibly experienced.
The incarnation – the event of God becoming flesh – should make a huge impact on how we view the flesh. And indeed there are many positive aspects of flesh expounded in the scriptures. See the article Fleshly Thoughts for more insight into these positive aspects.
To love the Lord with all your mind (Mark 12:30), as Jesus instructed, becomes so much easier when the intellect is not longer viewed with suspicion. Rather it can be a beautiful part of how we encounter God!
Proponents of the Spirit, Soul, Body trichotomy argue that since God is spirit, He deals with us exclusively in this spirit realm. The realm of thoughts, emotions and physical experiences are therefore reduced to at best an inferior space in which to encounter God.
The result is that we often miss the beauty and meaning that is right in front of us. Jesus saw the Father in the ordinary – in birds and grass. The God we meet in the incarnation does not call us to ascend to some higher spiritual realm, but rather, we meet the God who descends into our humanity, into our ordinary, into our flesh and unveils its divinity.
I think we have all met hyper spiritual people – those who are so spiritual they seem completely unconnected to reality. This can easily become a consequence for those who sincerely seek to implement the Spirit, Soul, Body framework into their way of thinking.
Because the spiritual is absolute authority and the intellect is viewed with suspicion, not many good intellectual questions are asked or allowed to be asked of whatever revelations they receive. This place of spiritual joy, which is unrelated to the emotions they experience in real life, becomes an addictive way of escape. They have found a new kind of wisdom which does not have to conform to any natural logic. Real experiences can now be legitimately ignored for they do not fall within the realm of the spirit. It’s not difficult to see how this can quickly become an unhealthy situation. This kind of spiritual wisdom is in reality nothing more than spooky bullshit with which the real world can be avoided.
Do the scriptures support a separation of spirit, soul and body? The one and only scripture that uses all three these words is found in 1 Thes. 5:23: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless…”
You could read any number of biblical commentaries and they will all support the idea that Paul is speaking about the whole human person. The words spirit, soul and body refer to different aspects of our humanity, but nothing in this verse or in the rest of scripture for that matter would support an actual separation of the human nature into three distinct parts. There is also nothing in this verse that suggests a hierarchy of domination, or implies that spirit alone is what is truly you. If anything, it affirms that all these aspects are what make us wholly human.
One other proof text often used to argue for a clear separation of spirit and soul is Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Again, just about any scholarly commentary can be consulted to see that the focus is on the way the word penetrates to the depth of our humanity. The logic that says it is proof that soul and spirit are separate parts of the human nature, would make just as much sense as saying joints and marrow are separate parts of human nature. A much more convincing observation would be that these are different aspects of our humanity.
I’m sure E.W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin and many others who followed in their footsteps had the best of intentions when formulating the Spirit, Soul and Body doctrines. Many have benefitted from their ideas, including myself. Yet there have been some unintended consequences to these concepts – many of them harmful.
In the next article I’ll explore some alternative ways of understanding our humanity.