Friday, March 15, 2013

Mind, Body, and Spirit: a Single Offering


       The common division of the human person into  “mind, body, and spirit” has one of its roots in the prayer offered by St. Paul in 1 Thess. 5:23: “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Despite the fact that Paul was not analyzing the composition of human beings but simply praying for them, systematic theologians of later ages have jumped upon this brief prayer and waxed eloquent about the tri-partite nature of man, often arm-wrestling with other systematic theologians who waxed eloquent about the bi-partite nature of man. Did the human person, they ask, consist of two parts—body and soul—or three parts—body, soul and spirit? Reading their works and arguments, it is difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that they all simply had too much time on their hands.
       Paul's approach (more like that of a front-line soldier than an ivory-tower academic) was more practical. In this prayer, he was praying fervently for his spiritual children—new converts and babes in Christ whom he had left in Thessalonica to face the opposition which had run him out of town. (Read all about it in Acts 17:1-10.) These new Christians were under constant fire from forces in a militantly secular and pagan world, and it was in this hostile environment that they had to learn a lifestyle foreign to anything they had known before. As they faced these new temptations, Paul encouraged them, insisting that they live differently than the world around them lived. “This is the will of God,” he wrote in 1 Thess. 4:3, “your sanctification”. God willed that every nook and cranny of their lives become holy, every facet of their existence be dedicated to Him. They must seek to please God in their bodies, fleeing fornication and the sexual immorality that filled their culture, avoiding gluttony with food and drink. They must seek to please Him in their souls, their personalities, striving to be kind, and forgiving, and hardworking. They must even seek to please Him in their innermost spirits, their secret motivations, not only doing the right thing, but also striving to do it for the right reason. In short, they must struggle to bring every part of their life under obedience to their new-found faith, for that was what their baptism was all about. This was a tall order for them, living in such hostile circumstances in the first century. It is not much easier for us living in North America today.
       The Enemy tempts us to compartmentalize the various aspects of our existence. That is, we are tempted to think that it is acceptable to confine our dedication to Jesus to one or more parts of our life, hermetically sealing them off from the other parts. For example, we might go the Liturgy on Sunday morning and dedicate that part of our life to God, and yet still sleep (i.e. fornicate) with our girlfriend/ boyfriend on Friday night, thereby separating the religious part of our life from the sexual one. Or we might work hard at our church's food festival during the day, and yet treat the members of our family abusively in the evening, thereby separating our public life from our private one. In this way, we offer God one part of our totality, but refuse to offer Him other parts. It is as if we are trying to make a deal with the Most High, and say to Him, “You can have my mind, but my body remains my own. You can have my worship on Sunday morning at Liturgy, but what I do at a party Saturday night is my own business.”
       We sometimes see this ability to compartmentalize in our politicians.  In the Canadian scene (with which I am more familiar than the American one), Christian politicians are sometimes asked by journalists their views on abortion. Some have been known to respond, when they cannot dodge the question entirely as they would prefer, “Privately, I am against it”, despite the fact that publicly they refuse to oppose it. This dichotomizing reflects an advanced ability to keep things in separate, water-tight compartments. In the compartment they label, “My Private Religious Beliefs” they are pro-life. In the compartment labelled, “My Public Political Pronouncements”, they are pro-choice.  Some would label this ability to compartmentalize a kind of spiritual schizophrenia.  The Scriptures have a much simpler label:  there the ability is called “hypocrisy”.  We easily detect such hypocrisy in our politicians, and rightly detest it.  It is less easy to detect in ourselves.
       The task given us (or "the will of God" as St. Paul called it in his epistle) is to unify our life, and offer all the parts of it to God. We must strive to offer all our desires to God (whether it be the desire for sex or for food) just as we offer our liturgical worship to God, to be as holy at home, or the marketplace, or the mall as we are at church. The term "sanctification" sounds like it applies only to A-list Saints, the people whose images we see on our iconostas. In fact all those who have been baptized are called to sanctification, and all who call themselves Christians are obligated to strive for holiness in all things. It's relatively easy to be holy when we are in church; it's easy to offer one part of our life to God. The challenge comes in offering all the various parts of our life to God.
       Of course we have help in this task, for the saints pray for us, and as Paul said, it is "the God of peace" who "sanctifies us entirely". God is the One who ultimately does the sanctifying and provides the transforming power; our responsibility is to take up each separate piece of our life and offer it up to Him, placing all the varied aspects of our existence upon the altar of sacrifice so that the sanctifying fire of the Spirit may come down upon them. St. Paul wrote that we must make ourselves "living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God" (Rom. 12:1). As one wag responded, the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep climbing down off the altar. The solution is for us to remain on the altar while we await the descent of the Spirit's consuming fire, to unify our life so that no part of our daily existence is kept safe from God. In this way, as the apostle prayed, our "spirit and soul and body will be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ".

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