Soul vs. Spirit

I used to think of the kind of writing I am doing right here—writing about scripture and faith—as being spiritual work. I don’t think that anymore.

The Bible describes us as each consisting of three parts—spirit, soul, and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23, for example). Recently, as I described here, I have become more deliberate about giving attention to each of these aspects of the self during the course of every day.

But doing this requires an exercise in identification. In particular, just what is a work of the spirit? Can I even tell? We all tend to understand life through the prism of body and soul alone, and this is still my inclination. The ego, my soul, wants to rule. To that end, a work of the soul—a gratification of mind, pride, or feelings—will dress itself up as spiritual work.

That is the case with this writing. Though I write about spiritual things, this is still a work of the soul. The effort involves concentration, contemplation, and composition, all of which fit my nature and my gifts. Making paragraphs is the way I want to spend my time. It is the way I want to process the world and make use of what I find within it. Both before faith and after faith, I have always been writing. Well before faith, in fact, I was writing books that I hoped some publisher would approve and take on. (None did.)

Don’t misunderstand me. To say that something is a work of the soul is not to impugn it. Not at all! These three parts of who you are—well, they are parts of who you are. Body, soul, and spirit were made by God as part of a complete life. All three parts ought to be nourished, cultivated, and enjoyed. When I write, one of the joyful effects is the peace this work brings me. My soul’s agitation is stilled, sometimes quieting long enough for a softer voice to be heard. This is a good thing, perhaps even a holy thing. Yet there is still the matter of my spirit.

The spirit is our capacity to be connected to the Spirit of God. The spirit is our capacity to be subject to, and dependent upon, a God whose works we cannot predict, because this God is and has always been a Creator.

I asked earlier whether I can tell when I am doing spiritual work. Maybe I can’t. But I can tell when I am not giving attention or permission to the spirit. These are the times when I am comfortable, when I am on my game, when things are tidy and I am smoothly carrying out my list. The spiritual state is inherently a dependent state, a vulnerable state. The soul, by contrast, wants to keep things controlled. Within the soul, a work of the spirit is more likely to feel frightening than soothing. The work likely does not use the talents we comfortably and confidently employ, because the Spirit making use of us is sufficient.

In scripture, it is practically a universal theme that the people God calls out into a special mission (Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Paul are just the examples that quickly come to mind) have to do work and fulfill a role that their makeup and their mix of talents leave them ill-equipped to carry out. Considered in this light, my daytime profession looks more like spiritual work than this writing does, because my profession is where I am more likely to be called to attain some objective that feels just a little bigger and a little beyond what I imagine my capabilities to be.

Another way to think of the work of the spirit, or the work of the Spirit through me, is growth. God is Creator, and the way he continues his creation of me is by growing me. Several things can be said about growth. It is uncertain, because we can’t know what we are growing into until we get there. It is messy, because the old state is disrupted in favor of the new. It is also awkward, because we are off-balance during the change. Finally, growth is inherently straining. The soul would rather avoid all of this, and the soul is not always wrong in seeking to avoid uncertainty, messiness, awkwardness, and strain. However, feeding the spirit often means stepping into the uncomfortable thing. It often means stepping into the precarious thing, the rejectable thing, the taxing thing.

I used to think my spiritual work was this writing, but it’s not. I know how to do this. More recently, though, I have started doing something else: I have begun to put my own books out there when no one else will. Doing this is, among other things, embarrassing. My soul rebels against it. The undertaking is generally unrewarding because its successes are unpredictable and isolated, and yet I can’t deny that the effort and the exposure are stretching and growing me. My writing is a work of the soul, but perhaps I have found a work of the spirit in publishing.

Good Things

James, in the biblical letter that bears his name, wrote that “every good gift is from above,” from God (James 1:17). How, then, do we get more God? One way to experience more of him is implied in this statement. We can know more of God and have more of God by recognizing and appreciating more good things.

In seeking good gifts to recognize in this way, we are bound to consider the physical blessings first. We who are fortunate have food, shelter, family, health—the physical blessings alone are rich, and comprise a long list.

But then you move past the physical blessings. There is even more if you look further, seeking to recognize the abstract blessings that are little seen and aren’t often named. In recognizing these good things, you uncover even more of the desires of God’s nature, even more of the richness of his provision, and even more of the depth and nuance of the work that he is doing.

I look for good things to recognize, and I find that I am both blessed and astonished to realize that I have been given….

A soul

Autonomy

A history of experience that seems to be adding up to something

Uniqueness

This particular present moment

Awareness of him

Time

Finite time, with the promise of something beyond it

History, as a shared context for my connection to other people

Other people

This sense we all have that we are engaged in a story, even a common story

A role. A place in this thing God is doing (whatever it is!)

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[PS. The letter of James is quite likely the earliest New Testament text. The letter is, to use a theologically imprecise description, pretty cool. Explore that letter here.]

Admission

Kevin Kelly writes about technology. His book What Technology Wants is a sweeping look at technology as an entity. Our technology is bigger than we are, he argues. The entire sphere of human technology, taken as a whole and considered across history, is advancing along a trend line that existed before we did. Particularly in the book’s sixth chapter, he argues that matter has an inherent tendency toward the emergence of life, and that life has an inherent tendency toward the emergence of mind. These two tendencies together are part of one big ascending trend, he argues, and the ongoing advance of technology is now following this single great arrow in the same direction. Heady stuff.

Yet as I read these big ideas, I encounter a lack that circumscribes what they say and makes them unnecessarily small. A line of questioning is obvious to me that seemingly is not obvious to the author, because the book doesn’t consider it. That line of questioning goes something like this:

1. If we find big patterns in the world, patterns that are bigger than we are, then what is the source of those patterns? If the tendencies Mr. Kelly has seen are real, if they have waited within the world to exert their push, then how did those tendencies get there?

2. Everything made of matter is in decline. That is, everything decays or collapses, except when some being acts upon it to maintain or improve it. But the move from matter to life is a move to a higher-order state. Ditto, the move from life to mind is a move to a higher-order state. Since these advances are moving in the direction opposite from decline, don’t they suggest an action being taken? Don’t they suggest a choice being made?

3. Who, then, is making this choice?

4. And can we know this being?

The lack of attention to God within an inquiry that ought to point to God is not a willful omission. At least, it’s not necessarily so. I once would have ignored this line of questioning myself. I would have assumed that questions like these are pointless because the inquiry can only pixelate at the boundary of such questioning.

That’s not a logical assumption. God, in fact, can be sought. However, the mind is clouded. As the Bible describes it, and as perhaps you have experienced, part of the transformation of a calling into faith is a renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2). God is the one who does this unclouding, and indeed, God is the one who issues that very call (John 6:44). Since we can’t take credit for coming to see something more, I don’t see how we can fault anyone who doesn’t see the same way.

In my new book, I titled the first chapter, “We Admit That He Is There.” Though that admission is simple (or perhaps because it is so simple), I don’t believe we ever make it until the Spirit first draws our attention near enough to do so. He admits us first.

If I am right about that, then the moment of seeing is not our triumph and not even our choice, really, but instead his gift.

Until then, though the unrenewed mind might be brilliant, though the intelligence might range across all it sees, what it sees is nevertheless curtailed, because our human tendency is to avoid looking in the direction of the divine.