Are You Guilty of Misreading the Bible?

Are You Guilty of Misreading the Bible?

I received an email from someone in a quandary about Saint Paul saying we should “live by the Spirit” and “not by the flesh.” She, like many, seemed to think Saint Paul himself divorces flesh and spirit, saying the former is bad and the latter good. She asked specifically how to explain Catholic teaching on the relationship of spirit and flesh to non-Catholics who only believe in the Bible. I sent her the following excerpt from my book written specifically for Protestants, Our Bodies Tell God’s Story.

When it comes to present-day Christianity, people are used to an emphasis on “spiritual” things. In turn, many Christians are unfamiliar, and sometimes rather uncomfortable, with an emphasis on the physical realm, especially the human body. But this is a false and dangerous split. Spirit has priority over matter, since God, in himself, is pure Spirit. Yet God is the author of the physical world, and in his wisdom, he designed physical realities to convey spiritual mysteries. “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God,” as C.S. Lewis insisted. “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not … He likes matter. He invented it.”

We should like it, too. For we are not angels “trapped” in physical bodies. We are incarnate spirits; we are a marriage of body and soul, of the physical and the spiritual. Living a “spiritual life” as a Christian never means fleeing from or disparaging the physical world. Tragically, many Christians grow up thinking of the physical world (especially their own bodies and sexuality) as the main obstacle to the spiritual life, as if the physical world itself were “bad.” Much of this thinking, it seems, comes from a faulty reading of the distinction the Apostle Paul makes in his letters between Spirit and flesh (see Rom 8:1-17 and Gal 5:16-26, for example).

In Paul’s terminology “the flesh” refers to the whole person — body AND soul — cut off from God’s indwelling Spirit. It refers to a person dominated by vice. And, in this sense, as Christ himself asserted, “the flesh counts for nothing” (Jn 6:63). But the person who opens himself to life “according to the Spirit” does not reject his body; it’s his body that becomes the very dwelling place of the Spirit. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? …Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

We honor God with our bodies precisely by welcoming his Spirit into our entire body-soul personality and allowing the Spirit to guide what we do with our bodies. In this way, even our bodies “passover” from death to life: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Rom 8:11).

Question: Why do you think we find it so hard to hold spiritual and physical realities together? Please share on this article’s Facebook post.

Article revised on 8-10-20 to reflect release of Our Bodies Tell God’s Story book.

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