Can You Feel It? Sensing the Spiritual in Life

How to sense the spiritual aspects of life

Recently a team of inspectors visited our hospital. After the meeting, two team members, one older white woman and one middle aged African American woman, came into my office. They admired my models of the War of 1812 frigate USS Constitution and the 1990s US Space Shuttle Endeavor. We talked for a moment, but as they turned to leave, the older woman glimpsed a replica of the ancient Celtic worship and burial site Stonehenge on my table.

“Have you been there?” she inquired, with more than a little excitement in her voice.

“Yes, with my wife and our infant daughter in 1994. How about you?”

“Never, but I would love to go” she replied, both excited and plaintive. She took a deep breath, paused, and looked directly at me. Her face was earnest and anxious, like a novitiate approaching an Archbishop with a question of vital importance.

“Can you feel it? Can you feel the spirituality in that place?”

“Yes,” I replied, instantly knowing what she meant. “You can sense the spirituality at Stonehenge. But there are four things that you have to do in order to feel it.”

Her face lit up, waiting for what would come next.

***

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Encountering God

As we approach death, we realize that only an encounter with God is big enough to save us from despair. Too bad we don’t realize that earlier. And how do we encounter Him?

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

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Spiritual Warfare

Every event in the universe is the result of a chain of causes, some known and some not. Our forebears and third world contemporaries generally see spiritual forces as ultimate, though not proximate, causes, of happenings. Westerners generally do not. Who is right?

Our church recently sent a mission team to Eastern Europe to work with local churches in music, outreach, and Vacation Bible School. As they were returning to the airport, the driver nodded off and the van ran off the road, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Thankfully the injuries were limited to skin lacerations and concussions. As the story of the accident was recounted in church the following Sunday, everyone was shocked, many prayed, and others asked what else they could do to help.

Our family has a young woman from Iran living with us, our “adopted daughter (AD)”, who attends a class of international Christians with many Muslim background believers. On hearing the news, one of the women in that class announced that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare. AD, trained in science, was puzzled. This incident was clearly an accident, caused by a purely natural phenomenon, fatigue. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare, or was that interpretation an example of sincere but misguided faith? Driving home that day, AD asked me what I thought.

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Physical Beauty and the Christian

Physical beauty, whether in a lilac or in a lady, is a gift from God. We must enjoy it, develop it, protect it, value it, and ultimately give Him the glory. 

My recent travels led me to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a conversation with Felicity, a Boyce College undergraduate studying the Bible before she moves on to a degree in cosmetology. A beautiful and engaging young woman, Felicity believes that her call in ministry is to help others be beautiful and engaging. Helping other coeds with hair, makeup, and the like is a joy to her, and a source of some badly needed cash.

Yet there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Felicity has a wonderful Christian role model who works in the industry, and she has reported to Felicity that cosmetology is hard for people dedicated to Christ. Many people involved, both workers and clients, act as if physical appearance is all that matters. Youth and vanity, already lauded in much of American culture, become idolized in the walls of the salon. Should a committed Christ-follower even be in such an environment? If so, how can she keep her heart pure? Felicity asked me what I thought on this issue, and I have written some thoughts below.

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Third Date Sex?

Sex outside marriage devalues sex, harms men and women, splits families, reduces the number of children, and weakens society. Sex outside marriage feeds the illusion that sex is the only thing, or at least the most important thing, in life. 

“The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured.” C.S. Lewis, the Screwtape Letters

As family physician, minister, father, or friend, I am privileged to talk to a wide variety of people. I recently met a young woman, not long divorced, who is struggling with past abuse, present poverty, and future fear. We talked many times about the challenges she faced. Shortly after her divorce, she began dating another man. This young woman hoped for a future with him, but worried that he didn’t seem interested in her work and other key parts of her life.

In 2010, I was the team physician for the US military women’s soccer team at an international championship. One of the players came to me for a gynecological exam, concerned that she might have contracted something from her new boyfriend. We had long and personal discussions about her and about their relationship. She gave him her body, but dared not offer her thoughts, her hopes, her fears, and her heart. She was terrified of losing him.

In both cases intelligent, successful, and attractive young women went to bed with men within weeks of starting a new relationship. They freely offered themselves in the height of physical intimacy without intimacy in emotion, commitment, or trust. In my research for this article, I discovered the phrase, “third date sex.”

Ancient gnostics believed that matter is evil and the body is no more than a tent enclosing, and limiting, the human spirit. They felt that what one does with the body doesn’t matter. Some people believe that sex is only for pleasure, that no one should deny themselves pleasure, and that having sex without limits is good. Some women believe that since many men push for sex without commitment, they should have that right also. They may see no need for other forms of intimacy to coincide with physical intimacy. Yet none of the women with whom I have spoken wanted sex without love.  Physical intimacy, without any other intimacy, was a trap.

The word “intimacy” suggests closeness, attachment, affection, and confidence. In human life, there is no greater expression of physical intimacy than sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. This intimacy is unique because it alone can result in the ultimate human creative act, the creation of children. This intimacy is binding because with children comes responsibility, a responsibility that lasts until death.

There are many kinds of intimacy between people. To have mental intimacy is to share information but also to share and enjoy thoughts: scary thoughts, unique thoughts, crazy thoughts, and incorrect thoughts. To have social intimacy is to recognize each other as special, and you as a couple, in the presence of others. To have spiritual intimacy is to agree on the most profound questions in life, including the source, purpose, and end of life, to rejoice in the answers to those questions, and to understand and accept each other on lesser questions. To have emotional intimacy is to cry together, to laugh together, and even more to cry and laugh at the things that make your beloved cry and laugh. To have physical intimacy is to enjoy physical touch with your partner, first non-sexual and later sexual. Sex without non-sexual touch is not physical intimacy. All intimacy presupposes trust between the partners; that the bonds of love which create intimacy will not be broken, whether by the inevitable conflict, insensitivity, misunderstanding, or the intentional slight. Even betrayal, once repented, can be forgiven.

The love which supports intimacy, however, is not a feeling, fleeting as dry leaves in an autumn breeze. Rather it is a commitment, firm like a tree with deep roots planted by streams of water.

God brings all people together. His plan is that, at the proper time, a man and a woman will meet, and like the oak tree, their intimacy will grow. They will share thoughts and emotions, hopes and dreams, fears and trials, and innocent touch. The man and the woman will talk of ultimate things, such as purpose in life, and begin to see their role, together, in these things. They will become a couple in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Their feelings will grow as their commitment does, and they will decide to love. In the presence of the most important people in their lives, they will commit to one another for a lifetime. Finally, in the ultimate physical expression of their love, their intimacy, and their lifelong promise, they will share sex, the ultimate physical experience. If they are blessed in this way, children will come, and a new generation will be born.

How many people, in their heart of hearts, do not long for such a relationship? How many used to long for it, but in their disappointment at the vicissitudes of life, have given up in anger and despair? How many are bitter? How many are resigned, settling for far less than their best? Imperfect people cannot have a perfect relationship, but imperfect people can align their intimacies with their commitment and have a more wonderful marriage than they ever thought possible.

Ultimately, it is “not good that man (or woman) should be alone”, and a person’s relationship in marriage, as with their other relationships, reflects their relationship with God.

“Third date sex” may be the best Western culture in its current state can offer, but our Creator intends for us to have so much more. The fault lies with both men and women. So often in relationships, men demand more than the women they say they love are willing to give…and yet these women comply.

Society bears a large part of the blame. We discourage marriage, which we say oppresses women. We call on people to marry late, preferably after age 25, and tempt them ceaselessly with stories and images during their teen and early adult years. We tolerate or even encourage pre-marital sex. We eliminate men’s and women’s roles and rules for building relationships and are surprised when people don’t know what to do.  Anything that makes one partner uncomfortable is punishable by breaking the relationship, or worse. If the societal standard is sex on the third date, many couples will follow.

Perhaps one day we will understand that maturity, not age, is the key to marital success, help the young to be mature, and encourage couples to marry when they are ready. Perhaps families and friends will help each young couple put boundaries around their physical intimacy. Perhaps older people will teach the truth and exemplify it. Perhaps men, young and old, will treat women with the love and respect of a husband, not a chattel. On that day “Third date sex” will be a memory, like many ill-advised flings, which we try to forget.

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Worship, Foot Washing, and Spiritual Formation

God loves us as we are, but He loves us too much to let us stay there. He will make us like Christ, but we usually won’t like the process. 

Being a 20th (and now 21st) century, individualistic, “everyone is equal” American, I had long been uncomfortable with the idea of worship. Worship is derived from the English phrase “worth-ship” which bears the idea of acknowledging the worth of something. Expanded as it refers to God, worship includes acknowledging Him, adoring Him and serving Him. I knew that God was great and powerful and I had no trouble acknowledging His greatness and power just like I might acknowledge the power of the ocean or the greatness of a mountain. However, the idea of God sitting in heaven and demanding that His followers constantly worship Him, giving Him adoring praise and service forever, seemed vain and even insecure. Actually, it was my own vanity and insecurity which caused my discomfort.

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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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