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Body, soul and spirit
Dear Father Paul: I am a Christian. The Bible talks about our body, soul and spirit. I understand the “body.” But what is the “soul” and the “spirit?” They seem like the same thing. Is there a difference? And if there is, what is it? — C.N.?
Dear C.N.: Yes, there is indeed a difference between our “soul” and our “spirit,” but, you are right. They are difficult to distinguish. This is probably because, in our everyday usage, we have wrongly come, over time, to use “soul” and “spirit” almost interchangeably.
The Bible teaches that, just like God, man is also a triune being … a trinity. What I mean by that is just this: According to Genesis 1:26, God created man “in his own image,” similar to, but not quite identical to himself. So just as God is triune, a trinity, with three distinct identities, i.e. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, so also God created man to have three different and distinct identities as well. They are body, soul and spirit.
This is such an important concept that the Christian doctrine of immortality (everlasting life) cannot be received or even understood apart from a correct conception of this three part nature of man. The notion that man has an eternal, immortal spirit is one of the fundamental differences between Christian believers and atheists, as well as a number of cults. Sadly, though, many people don’t have a clue of their real identity regarding their God given three part nature.
The Bible makes hundreds of references to our Bodies: “Flesh and blood … weak ... prone to sinful / fleshly desires … perishable … and rebellious to God,” it says.
But there are also numerous references to man’s soul and spirit in the Bible. Two of the easiest to understand are in I Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12.
In I Thessalonians 5:23 the Apostle Paul says: “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Later, the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is quick, (alive) and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow (body), and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language then translated over the centuries into today’s modern languages.
In the verses quoted above, the Greek word which we translate as “spirit” is the Greek word, “pneuma,” which means breath or breathe in English. From “pneuma” we get modern English words like pneumonia and pneumatic, both having to do with breath or air. The Bible tells us that at creation God actually “breathed” into the nostrils of Adam his own “pneuma” or spiritual breath, thus making Adam (and all mankind) immortal. So our spirits are what I like to call “the real us,” or our “core being.” Again, our spirits are immortal/eternal. They have a soul, and both live in a our body which eventually dies. The main question for each of us is where our immortal spirit will live for eternity after its earthly body dies.
Further, in both the I Thessalonians and the Hebrews verses, the Greek word translated into English as soul is “psuche.” From “psuche” we get modern English words like psychology and psychiatrist … having to do with the mind. Thus, our soul has to do with our mind, our intellect, our personality, our thinking processes, our emotions, our affections. The soul of a person is not naturally drawn toward God until after its spirit has become re-born through faith and trust in Christ. And the body is almost never drawn toward God. This is the reason why we often still sin, even after we become Christians. Our (new) reborn spirit draws us to God, but our (old nature) bodies and souls resist.
For this reason, if we who are Christians do not discipline and nourish our bodies and souls toward godly righteousness through an ever closer relationship with God and through church attendance, prayer and study of the Bible, we will find ourselves ruled by our flesh, that is, by our bodies, and by our souls. We will keep on doing the same things that displease God. We will become Christians who are backslidden, “slaves to sin,” the same as we were before we received Christ. Sadly, that is exactly where all too many Christians are today.
The clear advice the Bible gives us is pretty plain and simple: Get our spirits reborn through Christ. Renew (feed, nourish and train) our souls in the ways of God, and kill (crucify) the desires of the flesh … our bodies. This is the way to a victorious Christian life here on earth and to eternal life with God.
Do you have a question? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to answer your question in the paper.
[Father Paul Massey is Pastor Emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross in Fayetteville, Georgia. Visit www.holy crosschurch.wordpress.com for information, directions, service times and downloads of Sunday messages.]