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Spiritual Growth and Our Bodies

Have you ever noticed that how a thing grows depends on what type of thing it is? The flowers in my backyard flourish if they are planted one foot deep and watered daily. But if I did that to my dog–well, he would not flourish! His nature as a dog requires a different environment and practices, such as exercise and a diet including protein.

The same is true for us–we flourish only when we are in the environment and engaging in the practices that are helpful to the type of thing we are. But what are we? This is the first question we have to answer before we can understand how we grow (spiritually and physically). 

What Are We?

According to Scripture, we are essentially a unity of a material reality (our body) and an immaterial reality (our soul). Jesus refers to these two aspects when he warns his followers, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). 

The body refers to all parts of us that are physical. That’s pretty simple. The soul is a little more complex. Essentially, the soul is what I refer to as “me.” It is what I am referring to when I say “I” did something. It is what I’m aware of when I’m thinking about how I feel. I am referring to another’s soul when I say, “I talked to him today” or “We all agreed to meet tomorrow.” Simply put, I am a soul that has a body. And though it is natural for us to be united with our bodies (more on that below), we can live apart from our bodies. For instance, Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him that although both of their bodies will soon die and be buried, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, italics added).

The Bible uses several other terms to refer to this immaterial reality in addition to “soul,” such as “spirit,” “heart,” and “mind.” It is easy to think these are all separate things. They are not. As indicated above, there is only one immaterial dimension–the soul. These other terms are sometimes used as synonyms for the soul. At other times they focus on various aspects or abilities of the soul (such as “spirit,” referring to our ability to relate to God, as in Psalm 51:10). 

My soul has five types of abilities, or capacities. Intellectual capacities are my abilities to think and know. Emotional capacities are my abilities to feel. Volitional capacities are my abilities to choose. Sensory capacities are my abilities to be aware of my surroundings. And, as mentioned above, spiritual capacities are my abilities to relate to God.  

These capacities don’t just operate alone, but in relation to one another. For instance, if I believe (a function of my intellectual capacity) that my boss has my best interests in mind, it will be easier for me to choose (a function of my volitional capacity) to work hard. Similar examples can be given of two-way relations between all other types of capacities contained in our soul.

Furthermore, there is a two-way relation between the body and each capacity of the soul. For instance, if I choose to worry (a function of my emotional and volitional capacities), I may develop an ulcer. Or if I have a poor diet, I will find it harder to have right thoughts and emotions (functions of my intellectual and emotional capacities).

What This Has to Do with Spiritual Growth

By understanding that we are essentially a soul-body unity, we perceive that we can flourish spiritually only by engaging both our souls and bodies in the process of growth in Christ. Dallas Willard talks much about this in his writings. In fact, he devotes the first several chapters of his The Spirit of the Disciplines: How God Changes Lives to this topic, to help explain why certain disciplines are important to spiritual formation.

Contrary to the common belief that the body is the enemy of the soul, Willard correctly observes, “The spiritual and the bodily are by no means opposed in human life–they are complementary” (p. 75). Based on passages such as 1 Corinthians 6:13 (“the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body”) and 6:15 (our bodies are “members of Christ”), he argues that our bodies are important aids in the process of becoming Christ-like.

God created us as embodied souls, and we live most fully and authentically when both body and soul are working properly together. One part of that proper interaction is the involvement of the body in the process of spiritual maturity. 

Some Practical Implications

In practical terms, this leads to the practice of spiritual disciplines. A spiritual discipline is anything we discipline ourselves to do repeatedly, in order to grow spiritually. Disciplines include those of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, self-restraint, secrecy, sacrifice) and those of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission).1 

Each discipline involves using our bodies in certain ways. It may mean denying the body something natural (fasting), not opening our mouths to share something that builds us up (secrecy), going somewhere to worship or celebrate with others, or praying on our knees as a way to embody submissiveness to God. In all these instances, we engage our bodies, through the practice of the disciplines, in our spiritual formation. Of course, God is also at work in us to drive this process of spiritual development. As Paul said, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you” (Philippians 2:12).

Two Errors

Unfortunately, we can easily make one of two errors: we can forget the role of either the body or the soul. Both are reductionistic, leaving out an important aspect of who we are.

For the past several hundred years, we have tended to forget the importance of our bodies in matters of spiritual formation, assuming that the body is irrelevant to spiritual growth (at best). This goes back to Plato’s idea that the body is the prison of the soul. But as I’ve discussed above, this view is contrary to Scripture. As we rediscover the importance of integrating our bodies into our spiritual practices, we will grow in ways we never believed possible.

The other error, increasingly common in our day, is to forget the important role our souls play. It is becoming popular, even in Christian circles, to shift our focus away from activities of our souls by identifying these activities (believing, desiring, choosing, etc.) with activities of the brain. 

This second reductionistic error shows up in two popular books promoted by many believers, including many pastors: Renovated: God, Dallas Willard & the Church that Transforms by Jim Wilder and Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships by Curt Thompson. Both authors regularly confuse the mind and the brain, often going so far as to implicitly reduce the mind to the brain. (If you would like a detailed explanation of how Wilder does so, please contact me and I’ll be happy to send you a summary I prepared for a pastor friend who requested my evaluation of Wilder’s book.)

Conclusion

Only by understanding the nature, goodness and value of both our souls and bodies can we understand how both are integral to our spiritual formation. With this understanding, we are well on our way to flourishing in our walk with Christ.

For more see my What Are We? For a response to the “left-brain/right-brain” variety of the second reductionistic error, see my Succumbing to a Very Unchristian Idea

Until next week, grace and peace.

  1. This list comes from Dallas Willard The Spirit of the Disciplines, 158.

One Comment

  1. A Review of Jim Wilder’s Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church That Transforms – Dr. Stan W. Wallace
    A Review of Jim Wilder’s Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church That Transforms – Dr. Stan W. Wallace July 29, 2021

    […] **Reprinted on my site as “Spiritual Growth and our Bodies” […]

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