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.