Notes for a group: Dividing between soul and spirit

These are notes from a young person's group I led. The group was a bunch of young Christian lads ranging in age from 9 to 16.

Today we're going to unveil some of the mysteries of the spirit and adventure more into understanding spirituality. So it will mostly be listening I'm afraid. We'll also be talking again about desires, so to sharpen your listening I've brought more sweets to sit in the middle until the end. You'll have to exercise your will power to not touch them until the end, and you'll see in a bit why this is important to what I have to say.

The very deepest mystery of Christianity is the trinity. This is something that is “implicit” in all of the bible but not spelled out directly. Who knows what the trinity is?

Here's an example of somewhere the trinity is strongly implicit in the bible, in this prayer of Jesus.

John 17:20-21
20“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

So according to Jesus, one of the best ways to show the world that he's real is for us to “be one” (to love each other) in the same way that he and the father are one! Loving your brothers is one of the best ways to evangelise! (This is how we in the church are called to be “one body” and “one spirit” – in the same way that Jesus and the father are one.)

There's another “trinity” implicit in the bible, and that's you! I mentioned before that your spirit is who you are. You area living spirit and, if you're in Jesus, an eternal living spirit! But that's not the whole story. Your spirit comes with accessories – a body and a soul. Your spirit is expressed through your soul. They're like “layers”; your spirit wears your soul like clothing, and your soul wears your body. They're not separate but more like a “spectrum” with the spirit being your innermost part and the body the outermost.

Your spirit is the innermost part, the part that is “you”. Your soul is all the parts of your being (your heart and mind) that aren't “you” but make up part of who you are. Like your memories, your habits, your thoughts, emotions and feelings. Your emotions aren't “you”, nor are your memories “you”, but they are in you and affect you.

It's very important to realise that your memories aren't you, that you aren't defined by the things that have happened to you (no matter how much it feels like it at times).

It's very easy to be ruled by your desires and your memories. The challenge of becoming a mature, strong and free Christian is to learn to master them rather than letting them master you. This is difficult and something that many people never learn – they're ruled by their emotions and are unstable, sentimental people. It's easy to mistake sentiment for love. Love is not always fluffy and nice. Love is fierce and strong, and sometimes it's not very nice (having to tell people difficult truths for example). Christians are often weak, and this can be because they live by sentiment and not real love.

Who wants to be a strong person?

We call this “dividing between soul and spirit”. Learning what are the things of your spirit and what are the desires of your soul, “soulish” things.

Hebrews 4:12
12For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.

(This is the sword of the spirit in a different guise – one of its jobs is to divide between soul and spirit.)

One of the reasons that dividing is so necessary is that our motives are so mixed. Some things are clear; wanting to have sex with a girl you fancy is clearly a desire of the soul and not the spirit. Wanting to spend time with God and worship, or spend time with brothers, are more clearly of the spirit. But most of the time our motives and desires are mixed. Like if you want to be someone's friend – partly out of love for them and partly because you want to be popular. Or when you do something good because you want someone to think you're a good person. Part of your motives are good (pure) and part of them are selfish. And that's much harder for God to use, your “self” (selfishness) makes it harder for you to love people.

There's nothing more satisfying that loving people, so as you discover that you start to want to get rid of your selfishness. That “dying to self” is the work of the cross, but that's a topic for another day.

This is the reason we learn to divide by soul and spirit, to better be able to recognise when our motives are mixed and to put away the selfish and be free to choose to love with a purer and stronger love. This is the work of refining that grows us.

The best way to learn to divide by soul and spirit is to train your will. When you can choose to deny yourself desires you know are from the soul then you won't be ruled by them and you'll be able to see more clearly which of your desires are good and which are selfish (soulish really just means selfish). You'll feel stronger as well.

Even scientists have been looking at the will recently. They've done studies showing that practising exercising your will, like a muscle, makes it stronger. So if there's something big you want to achieve but don't feel strong enough for it, practising on smaller things you can achieve (go without cake for a week, fast for a day, etc) will help you get there.

Your will is the strongest part of you. It isn't really a separate part of you, your will is the ability of your spirit to do things. The part of you that has “agency” and is able to act. The will directs the spirit, like the rudder of a ship. It's how you make things happen. When you're a free person it is your will that is free. A completely free will is a powerful thing, capable of great love (or doing great damage). This is how a strong will makes you a strong person.

It's interesting that the verse from Hebrews says that it's the word of God that divides between soul and spirit. There are two types of “word” in the bible (and two Greek words used to tell the difference between them – we only have one word in English). The “written word” and the “living word”. The living word, is the spirit of Jesus. The living word is hopefully what we bring to each other, both in church meetings and in friendship and brotherhood.

John 1:1-2
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning

So Jesus is the word of God – the living word is the spirit of Jesus.

Matthew 4:1-4
1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

The living word is the life of God, it's what feeds our soul. It doesn't just feed and sustain us though, it can reveal our own motives to us – divide between soul and spirit and make us stronger. The stronger our will, the more clearly we can see, and the more able we are to bring the living word of God to people. Receiving the living word from other people, as well as training our will, can help us to get there.

And speaking of feeding our soul, who wants to eat...

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