Being a guy, I tend to understand things better when they are right in front of me – tangible, concrete things that I can observe. Some people may say this has less to do with being a guy and more to do with being child-like, but I stick my tongue out at those people. Anyway, because I like the concrete over the abstract, I tend to prefer to think of myself in a physical manner instead of in a non-physical manner, and I think much more about my physical body than my non-physical being. Of course, God has a way of pulling me out of my comfort zone, and something I’ve been thinking about more lately is that I am much more than just a physical body – there are parts of me that are immaterial, and are just as important (actually, much more important) than my physical body. This post is a result of what I have read and some of the thoughts I have had about this topic.
The easiest of our 3 parts to conceptualize is our bodies. We see them, feel them, and use them for making observations, among other things. Physical life on this planet requires a body, and we obsess over our bodies – the sheer number of infomercials on TV selling exercise routines or equipment, or the size of the weight-loss section at my local bookstore tells me that. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was God’s intention when He created us – I think there are a lot more scriptures that discuss the other parts of our created being – the soul and the spirit. Our bodies are nothing more than housing units – they house the immaterial things that are truly of importance, and when we are saved, they become “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Because of this, we should respect the body and treat it as if it were special (in other words, don’t use it for sinful acts or in an unhealthy manner), but we should not obsess over it.
Our souls are also part of our created being, and it is our souls that make us truly alive. Genesis 2:7 says “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (KJV). The Hebrew word used for soul here is naphesh, which means “living being” or “that which breathes.” So, we can think of anything that lives and breathes as having a soul. The soul houses our consciousness and subconsciousness, our emotions, our will, and our personality. Though two people may be identical in body, no two people are the same at the soul level – it is who we are, our individually created personage given to us by our creator God. And beyond being who we are while living, our souls are made to live on after our physical bodies die. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus tells his followers “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Our spirits are the other immaterial portions of ourselves, and are closely related to our souls, though they are most definitely not one in the same. Hebrews 4:12 says “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit…”, which my chemistry background tells me that, if something can be separated into two or more substance, it was not one substance to begin with. I’m not sure I can verbally differentiate between the soul and the spirit, other than to say that we relate to God with our spirits. All people have spirits – without spirits, we couldn’t be alive (James 2:26: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”), but we can be alive physically and dead spiritually. Colossians 2:13 says “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ…,” which tells me that we are dead spiritually until we come to believe and trust in Jesus. Also, our spirits tend to be controlled by forces outside ourselves – think of the stories in the gospels of people possessed by demons, and I like the thought of how now that I am saved, I am possessed by the Holy Spirit, and no other spirit can possess me.
This whole idea becomes easier to understand if you consider the kingdoms of living things on earth. Humans are made up of all 3 parts – body, soul, and spirit. We can relate to God, each other, and ourselves. Animals only have 2 of the 3 – a body and a soul. This seems weird to say that an animal has a soul, because the soul lives on after death, but I know that animals have consciousness, emotions, their own free will, and a personality. My dog gets jealous and even upset sometimes, he definitely has a free will when he won’t do what I say, and he has the most timid personality I’ve seen in a dog. So I believe that he definitely has a soul in this sense, though I’m not ready to argue that animals’ souls live on after their physical death. A plant, on the other hand, has no consciousness – it is just a mass of cells that work together for a common function, which is staying alive. The same goes for bacteria and fungi. They are nothing more than bodies. So there is a kind of hierarchy of creation if you think about it, and humans are by far at the top of that hierarchy. We have the ability to relate to God with our spirits, and the free will to choose whether or not to do this (thanks to our souls). And Jesus said to love God with our “hearts, souls, minds, and strength” – which is a collaboration of all of us.