Lesson number one, overcome
Every fear of regret and confusion
It’s all illusion, delusion
Sent to disconnect the holy fusion
Of spirit and the flesh…
Josh Garrels, “The Resistance”
How many of you have popped onto Instagram or Facebook and seen that a friend has liked or shared a meme like the ones below?
The messages are seemingly positive, encouraging the individual to look beyond the external to the core of one’s being. I mean, it is true that part of the human essence is a soul and part of the human experience is spiritual. The danger lies in the half-truth of these anonymously-created sweeping declarations (not to mention the misattribution to C.S. Lewis).
What is a half-truth? And why exactly is it so dangerous?
The greatest half-truth in all of human history was recorded in Genesis 3. When confronted by the serpent Eve recounts God’s command to stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; even touching it carries the penalty of death (v. 3, NIV). In response, the serpent assures Eve, “You will not certainly die” (v. 4) and highlights the more seductive result of becoming like God.
The serpent was not lying. Adam and Eve did not cease living in the physical sense. They did not drop to the ground and instantaneously become reduced to a pile of ashes. The serpent, traditionally representing Satan and having knowledge of good and evil, played Eve on the basis of the hidden reality of the spiritual. And spiritual death did come.
Like the serpent’s half-truth resulting in the Fall the statements above are dangerously misleading, for they separate the realities of the physical and spiritual. Ancients like Plato and Aristotle based their entire philosophies on this separation. Human characteristics based on the physical were considered base, lowly, disconnected with the divine, and altogether evil. Aspects associated with the spiritual, inward life of the individual were considered good, worthy of attaining, and closer to true reality. This model is known as dualism and is directly counter to our creatureliness, or the way God created us and deemed as very good.
The whole truth is that God created us as unified bodies and souls (psychosomatic union). Take one from the other and we cease being human. I believe this concept is hard for even Christians to understand for a couple of reasons.
Number 1. The way in which the New Testament writers constructed their arguments for the Gospel was in response to the prevalent first-century philosophy of dualism.
For example, in John 8:15 Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ accusation that his testimony is invalid with the retort, “You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.” The Greek word for human standards is the same as the one used to describe flesh but here used to describe human nature apart from God. Likewise, Paul’s letter to the Romans warns them that “[t]hose who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). It is not that Paul is setting the spiritual apart from the physical, he is emphasizing the fact that sin has permeated our nature so completely we require God’s intervention via His Spirit to even begin a walk toward wholeness.
The term “flesh,” therefore, becomes an analogy for the whole of a person. Both body and spirit are tainted by the effects of sin with only one hope of redemption.
Number 2. With so much discussion of the “flesh” in the NT, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of the physical and material reality.
Do you believe that the reason why we gossip, get drunk, or engage in sexually immoral behavior is simply because we are broken in the flesh? Did you ever have a pastor talk about denying your fleshly desires in an attempt to dissuade you from having sex?
Again, we see half-truths. It is true that the power of the body is immediate, sensual (i.e., able to be sensed by all functions), and grounded in the present. It is incredibly difficult to overcome hormones and emotions in certain circumstances. And in those moments, the needs of the here-and-now seem to outweigh the desire to follow God and his will.
Yet the NT is also quite clear about the function of the body, individual and corporate, as the dwelling place of God (see 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20; Rom. 12:1). Therefore, it is our duty to value our bodies, treating them as holy and remaining vigilant of their importance in the process of being made holy (sanctification).
Once we are able to move past a dualistic view of humanity, it becomes clear that God has great use for and value in the entire human being. We have the potential to use body and soul for so many wonderful, God-glorifying actions. We are artists, dancers, writers, entrepreneurs, missionaries, healers, leaders, teachers, parents, and lovers. All require the proper spirit to do them well, and all require us to be the hands and feet of God in a very material and present way.
Treating the material aspect of God’s creation as somehow wrong or dirty establishes a culture of fear and shame. I know of no one who has struggled with sin particularly related to the body and has not wrestled with these feelings. Not only do these feelings cloud our understanding of our true value, they further separate us from God with notions of unworthiness. Another half-truth. In our sin, our full human nature is unworthy, but as followers of Christ we have been made worthy and live in the promise of future restoration of our humanity.
The union of body and soul is good. It is holy. It is to be guarded and rejoiced over. It is being made perfect through the work of the Spirit. And it must be fought for because it was died for.