Man made in the image and likeness of God was made an inferior trinity of spirit, soul and body. But when man obeyed the body appetites, eating of this tree, man became inverted and he became body, soul and spirit.
-Pastor Chuck Smith, Word for Today
One of the most life-changing insights I got as a young believer had to do with our three-part construction. We are triune beings, made in the image of God as spirit, soul, and body. So we’re designed to know and commune with God in our spirits, feel and think with our souls, and exist in these bodies we express both soul and spirit with.
Paul noted this three-part design when he prayed for the Thessalonians that God would “preserve your spirit, soul and body blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thessalonians 5:23)
The chain of command, with spirit dictating to soul and soul dictating to body, worked pretty well until Adam blew it. Before the Fall, his and Eve’s spirits were ruled by God, and in turn, their spirits ruled their souls, which gave orders to their bodies. Smooth system; good working order.
Until sin, as one terrific Bible teacher once explained to me, caused a massive “flip-flop” in the human experience. This “flip-flop” is pretty much what Pastor Chuck described above. When man let his body usurp his spirit, everything got “inverted.”
Now, in our fallen state, the inmates have taken over the asylum, while the proper authorities are ignored. Today’s obscene display of people gorging their lusts, or demanding the endless pacifying of their feelings, is Exhibit A proving the doctrine of The Fall.
Our bodily appetites are prone to dictate our actions, and all too often, our emotions influence our decisions when our spirits should be in charge. It’s as though everything got turned upside down – body giving orders to soul; soul taking charge over spirit – leaving us slaves to our appetites, feelings, and lusts.
No wonder I was convinced, at age 16, that I could never take up my cross and follow Christ. I was hearing the gospel regularly by then, but the demands of Christianity seemed impossible. I knew I was bound, and the idea of abandoning the excesses of drugs and promiscuity seemed no more attainable to me than sprouting wings and flying. My appetites told me what to think and feel; my feelings demanded I ignore the needs of my wretched, dead spirit. That was the story and theme of my life.
That’s one of my favorite phrases in all of the Bible. The great Interrupter, the mind-blower who changes all our plans and defies all expectations, the God of “but God.” He gave me the faith I could never muster on my own (Ephesians 2:8), a fruit-of-the-Spirit faith (Galatians 5:22) both in His promises and in His ability to override my weakness and make me into the Child and Disciple I was meant to be.
At first that meant major housecleaning which, for this newly-saved teenager, meant abandoning cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, pornography, fornication, swearing, homosexuality, and – anything else? Oh yeah, no more cutting Algebra class.
So far, so good. But the internal pecking order still needed some work, a work which continues 46 years later. Back then, after checking off all items on the To Not Do List, I learned that God hadn’t saved me just to make me a good boy. A truly spiritual woman or man abstains from overt sin, for sure. But that person has also been renovated systemically, not just behaviorally. born again of the Spirit so the human spirit can commune with, and be led by, the Holy Spirit. The spirit will in turn dictate to the mind and emotions, and they, under spiritual governance, give orders to the body.
There’s the flip-flop Paul had in mind when he prayed for the Thessalonians. Through it, God continues to strengthen my spirit through prayer, the empowering and leading of His Holy Spirit, the Word, and the events He allows and works together for good. (Romans 8:28) The bodily sins I once gave myself to still occasionally beckon, but honestly, they’re not the big challenge these days. My real war zone is in the middle ground, my soul.
The spiritual Christian, whose spirit has both been born again and is now thriving under the authority of the Holy Spirit, allows neither the lust of the flesh nor the weakness of emotions to govern her or him. Lust of the flesh? Mild problem. Weakness of emotions? Those are the giants in my Canaan.
Since I’m prone to depression, I have to let my spirit, rather than my tired soul, decide what actions my body will take. Big challenge, because some days, given the choice, I’d retire for a nap which I’d never wake up from.
Since I’m prone to bitterness, I have to let my spirit tell my mouth to shut, rather than let my emotions command it to blast someone I’m mad at. Since I’m prone to self-pity, I have to let my spirit remind my mind that I’m not a victim, I have a darned good life, and I have few legitimate complaints against people, and no legitimate complaints against God.
I’ll never be a truly spiritual man just by having spiritual gifts or living a good, clean life. I can only be called “spiritual” when God’s Spirit is reigning over my spirit, which in turn reigns over my feelings, thoughts, and actions. The carnal believer lives under the authority of feelings and appetites. The spiritual one also has feelings and appetites, for sure. But they cooperate with, rather than rule over, the spirit.
God forbid we ever lose a hunger to see the system operate as it should. When it doesn’t, we become carnal, spiritually childish, ungoverned.
But when it does, it’s poetry in motion, something beautifully created pointing to its beautiful Creator. Triune, like Him, and in harmony, day to day, and glory to glory. Today, let the construction on the vessel begin and continue uninterrupted until the Artist says, “It is finished.”