Friday, 12 October 2012

The difference between soul and spirit, ego and the true self


Hebrews 4:12-16

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

I want to work with just one verse today. The letter to the Hebrews is hugely rich and that means that sometimes you just want to look at one part of it and try and figure out what it means to us. The verse I’m thinking of is this one:

"Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

Sometimes scripture is really confusing. ‘Only sometimes?’ you might question with raised eyebrows. OK, point taken, but this section of the letter to the Hebrews is particularly confusing in the way that it starts by saying, ‘...the word of God is living and active....’ Which word of God are we actually thinking about here?
For example at the beginning of John’s Gospel, when he’s describing the pre-existing Son of God before Jesus was born as one of us, he describes him as the Word. Is it this word that the writer means? I don’t think it is. The context doesn’t seem correct because it is after this first section that the writer goes on to refer to Jesus as high priest, so it seems unlikely that this word is meant to be Jesus.

Another phrase we might be familiar with is that after a passage is read out of the Bible the reader will often conclude with, ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ So is that what the writer is referring to here, that the Bible is sharper than any two edged sword? Again I don’t think it is. The words that people have written about God are indeed able to make a huge impact on us under the influence of the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think that the writer is referring to holy scripture here.

Instead I think that this is more likely to be about God speaking directly into lives in ways that change us. Not everyone experiences this, although I am convinced we can if only we learn how to, but there is definitely a sense that when God speaks to us and we hear him speaking, not necessarily in words but in a sense of being conscious of something external to us speaking internally, then those ‘words’ can change us.

For me that voice of God can seem like a stillness descending, or more that by being quiet I become aware of an eternal stillness that has already settled around us. This is the voice with which, in the language of Genesis 1, God is able to speak into being whole new realities. The seven day creation story could easily be a metaphor for God speaking each of us into being.

Therefore when the writer refers to the word of God he’s not referring to Jesus, nor to holy scripture, but simply to the voice God uses when calling new realities into being within us. Incidentally my own experience of this is that God is indeed active and speaking and I find that it is almost as if from the moment God utters the first syllable of his intent, as if he’s taken just the in-breath and begun to speak, that all reality within me begins to shift. And when I say shift I don’t mean as in like an earthquake, but as if old ways of thinking, old ways of seeing, observing and understanding the universe simply become changed, renewed, created from nothing.

So that’s the first half of the verse and maybe we know what the word of God is in this context. Now let’s think about what it is that the word does. It’s described by the writer as being ultra-sharp, to the point where it can separate soul from spirit, two parts of ourselves that are so closely entwined that we tend to use the words interchangeably.

Clearly the writer to the Hebrews views them as being separate parts of the whole being that is you or I. So what does it mean to separate them? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I wonder if this is about receiving a revelation about what we’re truly like; it’s about separating who we think we are from who we truly are.  It’s about being given the grace to be able to stand back and observe ourselves in such a way that we can understand our motives. Eckhart Tolle has suggested that one of the greatest heresies of our time is the saying, ‘I think therefore I am.’ He suggests that it should be the other way around: ‘I am, therefore I think’. The reason it’s important to make that distinction is this, and this is vital: You are more than your thoughts.

Your thoughts are influenced hugely by your ego, that part of you which demands and demands like a baby bird calling out for food and which instantly starts crying out again the moment it’s swallowed what it’s just been given. The ego says, ‘More, more, more. Give me what I need to feel like I exist. Feed me, feed me, feed me.’

If we exist on the mantra, ‘I think therefore I am’, then we will be swept up by those desires and will assume that we actually need the things, the money, the sex, the power, that our egos tell us we need. If you like we could think of that as soul. But you are more than that. It is the you which can step back from those desires, observe them from a distance and recognise that you don’t need to have those things which is your true self, your spirit, that part of you which is in the image of the One who created you and is still creating you.

The issue is that it is very hard for us to do this. It usually doesn’t help having someone standing up in the pulpit (or writing an online blog) saying we all need to listen to the word of God who separates soul from spirit etc. The reality is that the most I can do from here is convince you of the need to actually spend time in God’s presence.  But let’s see if I can give you an example to illustrate what I mean, and also to show why it is that we need the word of God speaking to us to help us discern the truth. As a priest one of the most difficult things is to get used to being public property. Now some of you will know what I mean by this from your own roles.

So there are times when people thank me or praise me for a job well done, and naturally I feel good about that. But then I find myself questioning my motives for the next good act that I do. Have I done it because my soul, my ego, wants more of that lovely praise that it needs to justify its existence? Or have I done it for spiritual reasons because my spirit sees that someone has a need and responds to it? In the past I have preached about how we have to get used to having mixed motives for the good deeds that we do. Now I’m not so sure that we do have to get used to that. I think we can grow beyond it.

Instead I am beginning to learn within myself the difference between a soul action and a spirit action; between an ego action and a true-self action. And what I am finding is that it seems to be in terms of spontaneity. Now I have to be careful here and urge caution. Until we become more conscious of why we do things we must be careful of spontaneity because we tend naturally to do those things which serve our ego.

But gradually, as we allow the Spirit within to show us the difference between soul and spirit, so there is a gradual shift towards the things of the spirit. Then the actions of our spirit will tend to spring out naturally from us before the ego has had a chance to decide, ‘Is this going to make me look good?’ Our true spirit-self doesn’t calculate. However it is really only recently that I’ve begun to look for this so I may only have a part of the picture.

Nevertheless I think it’s vital to mention it simply to illustrate the point that there is a difference within us, the soul who wants good things for the ego, and the spirit of us which wants to be who it is and to selflessly help others to be who they are. It’s very difficult for us to get through the confusing tangled mesh of motives, but not so for the word of God speaking within us because God can see clearly our reasons for our actions and whether they are egocentric or spiritual.

The decision then lies with us. This is not an easy thing to ask of you. If you’re quite happy with your life and the struggles that go on in order that you get what you want done, then feel free to ignore what I’m saying. But if you’ve got to the point where you’re beginning to question why you act as you do, then acknowledge that as the word of God whispering truth to you, in effect saying, ‘You are more than your thoughts. You are more than your desires.’

The next step is up to you since I can speak only from my experiences. In order to find out for yourself you need to make time for your own experiences to take root.

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