A man approaches Jesus seeking clarification on how to best live the life of faith. He asks Jesus to comment on the “greatest commandment” thereby inquiring as to what God values most in the spiritual life. Those familiar with the story know Christ’s answer. Jesus calls the man to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength” (Luke 10:27). What is interesting about this response is how the call to love relates to the various components of human life. Three of these terms are easy to locate within our anthropology. But what, and where, exactly is the soul? What is the difference between a soul and spirit?
Complicating matters is the fact that we often confuse the terms soul and spirit. We assume that our soul is the same as our spirit. Biblically speaking, however, the two are different. Hebrews 4:12, for example, speaks to how the Word of God “divides soul and spirit, bones and marrow.” Similarly, Paul concludes his letter to the Thessalonians by praying that their “whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of the Savior” (5:23). While the soul and the spirit relate to one another, they are clearly not the same thing. Scripture uses different terminology when describing each component.
So, what exactly are the spirit and the soul of a person?
What Does the Bible Say the Soul Is?
The Hebrew word for soul is “nephesh.” Like most of Hebrew terminology, much is lost in translation. Depending on the context of the passage it may take on various nuances. The word can be used to describe a person’s “soul,” “life,” “mind,” “will,” even “body.” The point is, nephesh does just mean one thing. Instead, nephesh refers to the whole of the person in the deepest level of their creation. When the psalmist questions “Why are you downcast O my soul?” (43:5), the psalmist is addressing the most personal part of his or her existence. For the Hebrew people, the “soul” is that which is most uniquely you, the “you” God created you to be.
This same understanding is found in the New Testament. The Greek language uses the word “psyche” when describing the soul. For example, when responding to a question about the greatest commandment, Jesus calls us to “love the Lord with all your heart, and all your psyche….” This may seem strange today. We often associate this word with the activity of the mind. Psyche becomes synonymous with psychological structures and processes. Some may even attribute one’s psyche to nothing more than the neural activity of the brain.
Jesus, however, clearly means something beyond the psychological processes or thought life of an individual. In Mark 8:36, Jesus states “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit their soul.” Again, the word used is psyche. It makes little sense to believe that Jesus speaks of forfeiting one’s neural pathways or brain-activity. Rather, in this passage (as in Luke 10), the soul refers to the fundamental component of the human self.
In biblical anthropology, the soul encompasses the intellect, the affections, even the social context of one’s life. Rather than referring to one specific thing, the soul holds a unitive capacity. The soul integrates the various components of one’s life into one complex, unique, “self.” In effect, the soul refers to the whole of a person; a whole that can never be reduced to one isolated thing. Biblically, one’s soul is the deepest part of a person - your “you-ness.”
What Is the Difference between a Soul and Spirit?
If the word “soul” refers to the deep, personal, unity of a person’s self, to what does “spirit” refer? The history of Christian thought includes much debate over this. How are we to understand the relation between body and spirit? Are we spiritual beings encased in physical bodies? Or, are we bodily beings with a spiritual dimension to us?
Scripture refers in length to the spiritual side of our existence. Furthermore, the Bible employs many different words to describe this dimension of human life. One image that is frequently used is the image of breath. The Hebrew word used is “ruach.”’ This word, however, has a dual meaning; “breath” can also mean “spirit.” Scripture constantly plays with this image. God breathes life into humanity at the start of creation. In Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, the bones do not possess life until the spirit is breathed within them. After his resurrection, Jesus breathed on the disciples, saying “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Greek, the word used is pneuma, again conveying a fundamental connection between spirit, breath, and life.
“Spirit” refers to the essence of life that is breathed into us by our creator/redeemer. It is in our spirits that we have the capacity to interact with our Lord; We pray by our spirits and in our spirits. This creates a certain confusion when speaking about our interaction with the Holy Spirit. Yet, this conflation articulates the basic reality of our spirits. Our spirits are that part of our lives that are to remain in active participation with the Spirit of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul states that the Holy Spirit “testifies to our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). Our spirits are that which calls out for divine relationships.
Another image Scripture uses to describe the human spirit is through the term, “heart” (kardia). Interestingly, although the word is used over 800 times in Scripture, it rarely refers to the pulmonary muscle. Instead, the word is used to describe the non-physical essence of a person’s life. Returning to the first and great command, Jesus calls us to love our God with all our “heart.” The heart is the center of passion, desire, and choice. The heart (or the spirit) is the part of the human person that either turns to or rejects, the Holy Spirit.
How Do You Nurture Your Soul and Spirit?
While we may talk about the various dimensions of human life - soul, body, spirit, mind - we must recognize that we are talking about an integrated reality. Each “part” of the person influences, and is formed by, the activity of another. We know this instinctively. When our spirits are negative and dour, or when we are filled with stress or judgment, our own bodies reflect this inward state. Our bodies tense up and our muscles contract. The same is true on the positive side. Reduction of activity in our external environment often breaths a sense of inward peace or stillness. In fact, Jesus expresses this when he speaks of how each person “speaks out of the abundance of their heart” (Luke 6:45). What occurs in a person’s spirit and soul directly affects how they live their bodily lives,
There is a connection between our bodily life and our spiritual life. This means we are not just a bodily being with a spirit; nor are we spiritual beings in a body. We are created as bodily spiritual people. The two are held in harmony. Thus, the nurture of our spirits and souls must involve how we live in the world. To fully nurture our souls and spirits, we must involve the body. Spiritual disciplines are the way we go about this. Through spiritual disciplines, we nurture and sustain the spiritual/soulful part of our lives. Disciplines are not simply the “how to” of the Christian faith, they are the means through which we direct our inward self toward the presence of the Lord. Spiritual disciplines are activities we do (or abstain from doing) to place ourselves within the flow of the Spirit’s activity. The very point of discipline is to open our lives to the presence of the Lord in a deeper way.
The discipline of fasting is a great example of this. In the discipline of fasting, one abstains from bodily delights for a set period. Fasting makes little sense if done in a non-bodily way. The intention, however, is not simply the act of abstaining. Simply going without food for two days does not constitute a fast. The purpose of fasting is to direct one’s spirit and soul to the Lord. One goes without food, for example, so that he or she may feast inwardly on Christ’s presence. The bodily activity nurtures the spirit deep within us.
The postures of prayer are another great example. The physical posture of kneeling in repentance, opening hands in supplication, or raising our hands in adoration conveys something beyond just physical movement. The physical movement speaks to a deeper activity.
In his book “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life” William Law writes: “It is certain that if we would arrive at habits of devotion, or delight in God, we must not only meditate and exercise our souls, but we must practice and exercise our bodies to all such outward actions as are conformable to these inward tempers. . .outward actions are necessary to support inward tempers.” (Chapter 15)
This is the crux of the matter. Identifying the biblical understanding of spirit and soul does us little good if it does not inform how we live. We are created with an internal capacity to connect with, and delight in, the magnificent presence of God. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are blessed to live in an interactive relationship with the creator of our lives, and the lover of our souls. Because of this, the activity of our spirits, and the direction of our souls, is not a matter for mere idle speculation or philosophical discussion. It is a matter pertaining to who we are created to be, and whom we are created for.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.
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