In my (admittedly limited) experience spiritual is one of the most meaningless words in the contemporary Christian vocabulary. Anymore, the term is ubiquitous and much of its use leaves us with the nagging notion that we often don’t have a clear idea of what we mean when we use it. Perhaps more troubling, when pressed on its meaning, many of us use it in ways that are contradictory to some pretty major ideas in the New Testament.
(By the way, this includes me. I’m not picking on anyone here – and certainly not condemning. Just this last week, I went on about something being spiritual and wanted to kick myself after I caught it. As contemporary, Western Christians, it’s simply part of the cultural air we breathe.)
So, how can we talk about something or someone being spiritual in a healthier way? Let’s do a little digging.
You might be surprised to know that the word spiritual is relatively rare in the English New Testament. In the NRSV, spiritual appears 33 times in 28 verses that are almost exclusively found in four of Paul’s letters. In fact, 55% of occurrences are in 1 Corinthians alone. The primary Greek word translated spiritual is the adjective pneumatikos. It is related to the Greek word for spirit – pneuma – which may be why it is so easy to assume that spiritual is the opposite of physical. (More on that later.)
Here’s how the New Testament uses pneumatikos, with each instance of the word rendered like so:
- Romans 1:11 – “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you … “
- Romans 7:4 – “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”
- Romans 15:27 – “They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”
- 1 Corinthians 2:13 – “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
- 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
- 1 Corinthians 3:1 – “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”
- 1 Corinthians 9:11 – “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
- 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 – “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
- 1 Corinthians 12:1 – “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:1 – “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:47 – “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 – “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.”
- Ephesians 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …”
- Ephesians 5:19 – “… as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts …”
- Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
- Colossians 1:9 – “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding …”
- Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
- 1 Peter 2:4-5 – “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
First, let’s make some observations about how Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians, as spiritual is a relatively major topic of discussion in the epistle. In chapters two and three, Paul contrasts those who are “spiritual” with those who are “of the flesh.” Here, spiritual does not refer to something that is spirit, but something that comes from / originates from / or is rooted in the Spirit of God. Conversely, something is “of the flesh” not because it is physical but because it comes from / originates from / is rooted in that which is physical (read: not the Spirit).
By way of illustration, we might remember the way the Preacher talks of things being “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun” was an idiomatic way of talking about life without God. The Preacher had been seeking meaning apart from God and found his purposes thwarted by death at every turn, so he concludes that life “under the sun” is meaningless. In 1 Corinthians 2-3, Paul is working with a similar thought. The spiritual person is the person who’s way of life originates with God’s Spirit. The fleshly person is the person who seeks a way of life apart from the Spirit. Both sorts of life are physical – they are lived out in bodies. Both sorts of life will involve similar things – eat, sleep, drink, work, play, enjoy relationships, etc. – but will go about those things in very different ways, as they begin from very different starting points.
If we begin with this idea – spiritual is that which derives from (or is driven by) God’s Spirit – we will see it makes sense of the majority of the texts in our list – particularly for the discussion in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 10, Paul points back to the time when God miraculously provided food and water for Israel. Their food was spiritual in that it came to them by the power of God’s Spirit. Of course, he connects this to the Christian communion meal. While the bread and cup come from more “material” methods the meaning and power of the meal is driven by the Spirit. (Read 9:11 in this light – even that which is not expressly spiritual [i.e. from the Spirit like manna and water flowing from a rock were] is co-opted into the spiritual life as Paul has described it. For Paul, material things are not in opposition to spiritual things, but are to be used as a part of our life driven by the Spirit of God.) Later, the “spiritual” gifts are embodied abilities and practices that came from the Spirit. In Ephesians and Colossians, the church will sing “spiritual” songs – songs anchored in the life and power of the Spirit. (This is a mark of being “filled with the Spirit” [Ephesians 5:18].)
In our current context, it is important to note that the dominant context for spiritual is an embodied experience that is rooted or driven by the Spirit.
First, while there are physical things (as in 1 Corinthians 9:11) and purely spiritual entities (as in Ephesians 6:12), God created humans as physical beings meant to live life in a spiritual context. While our underlying Platonism may lead us to think that “material” things – like bodies with all their passions, emotions, and urges – are bad, this is not so in Scripture. God created us to be embodied spiritual creatures and called us “very good.” The problem of sin and death has less to do with the fact of our bodies than it does with the distorted ways we’ve used those bodies apart from God’s Spirit. (Augustine calls these our “disordered loves.”)
Second, this helps us understand the implications of saying things like, “Jesus has a spiritual kingdom.” To my knowledge, the New Testament never makes this claim and it can only be accurate if we understand spiritual as Paul does in 1 Corinthians. The kingdom is driven by God’s Spirit, but it is very much a physical experience that pertains to the ins, outs, ups, and downs of our earthly existence. When Jesus defines the kingdom, he doesn’t define it as a thing that is separate from “the cares of this world” (as we often refer to them in the Churches of Christ), but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). (This week’s readings from the Book of Common Prayer have included Psalm 72 and the language of the poem is striking in its revelation of what God is concerned with as Sovereign.) The spiritual nature of the kingdom is not a dismissal of the world, but a radical reorientation of the way we look at the world.
Third, as we’ve already hinted, Paul’s notion of spiritual doesn’t minimize all the “secular” things we do, but reorients them. Things like prayer or worship aren’t the only spiritual activities Christians are involved in. We are called to see everything as spiritual because the entirety of our life is being reshaped by God in Christ. Shopping is spiritual. Work is spiritual. Eating is spiritual. Rest is spiritual. Play is spiritual. Politics are spiritual. Our relationships are spiritual. Sex is spiritual. On and on this goes. These are all things established by God to be used for human flourishing within a proper relationship with him. Spiritual is not the rejection or diminishing of these things, but realizing their fullness when we place them in their proper context. (Augustine would talk about this in terms of properly reordering our loves.)
Last, and we’ll have to explore this more later, Paul gives shape to speak of our future hope. In the resurrection, we will be given spiritual bodies. This is not non-physical bodies (an oxymoron), but bodies that are fully plugged into their proper source of life – the Spirit. A common confession for Christians around the world is that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” Confessing this within the larger story of Scripture has some pretty profound implications – both for the future and now. We’ll pick those up in the future.