Spiritual Formation and the Nature of Man

“Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.” CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

“No single, essential difference separates human beings from other animals — but that hasn’t stopped the phrasemakers from trying to find one. They have described humans as the animals who make tools, or reason, or use fire, or laugh, or any one of a dozen other appealing oversimplifications.” Time Magazine, How Man Began, 14 March 1994

What is man? Is he merely an animal as our friends at Time Magazine would argue, or is he something more? The Bible teaches clearly that man is comprised both of a material and an immaterial part (Matthew 27:50, Mark 9:1-9, Luke 16:19-31, Luke 23:39-43, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Philippians 1:21-24, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12). The material part is the body and the immaterial part includes spirit and soul, but for simplicity’s sake we will use the term spirit. Animals and plants have some sort of animating force, but only man has a spirit which is created in the image of God.

The body is part of the physical universe and includes elements such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen combined into cells and organs. The body inhabits time, has a beginning and an end, and shares these characteristics with animals, plants, and other parts of the physical universe. After each body dies, it breaks down into its component elements until eventually it ceases to exist in the physical world. The component elements are used in other organisms, whether animals or plants. People living today are therefore composed of atoms that once formed the bodies of other men, plants or animals. Elements that we use will be used by others hundreds of years from now. Everything in the universe is accessible to evaluation by our five senses, often augmented by tools such as telescopes, microscopes and others, through the systematic process known as science. As a physician, I have had extensive experience in the fascinating study of the human body and have well seen the promise and the limitations of science in discovering reality.

The spirit is the part of man that many people, and perhaps Time Magazine, deny. It is the “breath of life” that God breathed into Adam after He made his body (Genesis 2:7) and it is the part that remains alive once the body is dead and gone (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). The human spirit had a beginning, for man is not eternally existent, but has no end. It is not composed of physical elements and is not a physical part of the universe. Therefore it is not accessible to evaluation by our senses and can neither be proved, disproved, nor explored by science. God has revealed to many cultures throughout history the presence of the spirit of man but the most accurate and reliable revelation is in His word, the Bible. It is spirit in the same sense that God the Father is Spirit (John 4:24).

The body has a normal pattern of development. Beginning at conception it develops and grows for nine months in utero. After birth it continues to mature and get larger, reaching its maximum physical strength in the third decade of extrauterine life. From that point, it gradually deteriorates until it is finally overcome by death. There are many things that people can do, including healthy eating, adequate exercise, and sufficient sleep, to help maintain health and form their bodies into the best they can be. All the same, while these efforts will probably prolong and will certainly enrich life on earth, they cannot prevent death (1 Timothy 4:8).

The spirit also has a normal pattern of development. When a man accepts Christ his spirit is no longer “dead” in the sense of being separated from God but alive in the sense of being united with God (Ephesians 2:1-7, Colossians 2:13). This moment is roughly analogous to human conception. For the rest of life on earth, the spirit of the Christian grows and develops into the best it can be…the image of Christ (Philippians 1:6, 2:12). Unlike the body, the spirit never weakens and dies (2 Corinthians 4:16) and therefore working to develop the spirit benefits believers in this life and in the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8). The things that Christians must do to develop the Spirit are similar to those necessary to develop the body, including healthy eating, adequate exercise, sufficient sleep, but are in the spiritual realm rather than the physical one. Healthy eating for the spirit might include the classic spiritual disciples of meditation, prayer and study. Adequate exercise for the spirit might include service, fasting and worship. Sufficient sleep for the spirit might include simplicity, solitude and celebration.

When a man seeks to develop his body, he begins with a goal. One goal might be to be able to run three miles, three days per week at a nine minute per mile pace. Another goal might be to bench press 200 lbs, two sets of ten repetitions each, twice per week. A more ambitious bodily goal might be to win an Olympic gold medal in running or weightlifting. When a man seeks to develop his spirit, he also begins with a goal. The goal for all Christians is to become like Christ. Jesus Himself clarified this goal when He summarized God’s commands in the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:30-31);

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

It is in love (ἀγαπάω agapaō – selfless, taking care of, affection), both for God and for others, that Christ-likeness is demonstrated. Spiritual formation is therefore the process by which our spirits grow into the image of Christ, manifest by developing in our love for God and our love for others. The Bible further explains that Christ-likeness is demonstrated by exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:23-24).

The foregoing discussion could suggest that one’s spirit develops independently of one’s body; that the material does not impact the physical. This Gnostic heresy could not be further from the truth. Pope John Paul XXIII observed “Let no one imagine there is any difference between perfection of the soul and the business of life. We are not to abandon the world in order to achieve perfection.” Spiritual development, therefore, does not occur independently of the physical world but through the physical world. The classic disciplines intended to develop the human spirit; meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration, must be done with the body as well as the spirit. Westerhof takes this so far as to say that all life is spiritual, with material and immaterial dimensions. He goes on to say that life is sacramental, (outward/visible and inward/invisible), communal (personal and social), and liturgical (ritual and routine). The Bible teaches that man is united, physical and spiritual, in all aspects of earthly life.

What then, is spiritual formation? It is the development of the spirit of man through the activities of the total of man, material and immaterial, for the purpose of becoming like Jesus Christ. It begins at salvation, continues during earthly life, and is perfected in glory with the Lord. It is manifest by agape love for God and for others, and the Fruits of the Spirit. It is facilitated by the classic spiritual disciplines. Finally, it is one of the main purposes of the Christian journey on earth.

Bibliography
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Lemonick, Michael D., and Dorfman, Andrea. “How Man Began.” Time (March 14, 1994). http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,980307,00.html (accessed March 26, 2011).

Lewis, Clives Staples. The Screwtape Letters. New York: Collier Books, 1961.

Westerhoff, John. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

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