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-Exercise for the Soul

There’s a whole lot more that God has given and invested in life and in ourselves than just explicitly religious things like worshipping, prayer, Bible study, being touched by God.

Exercise for the Soul

Gregory Koukl

There’s a whole lot more that God has given and invested in life and in ourselves than just explicitly religious things like worshipping, prayer, Bible study, being touched by God.divider

I am beside myself with excitement, my friends. I just saw a copy of today’s L.A. Times. My roommate just asked me a question this morning, “What do you think is opening Friday night?” I said, “Let me guess, the new civil war movie.” Now, we hadn’t talked about this movie in over a year but I’ve been waiting for it since a year ago July when I was in Gettysburg and had a chance to visit that incredible battlefield. I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the battle itself and have been deeply moved by many of the personal accounts, the heroism, the greatness of that incredible battle in terms of human contribution and human carnage, greatness in terms of the impact of that battle on American history. I knew when I was there last year that they were in the process of making a film after the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. It was a wonderful novel to give you a real human look and a deep perspective on what happened in those three days at Gettysburg in July, 1863. I’d heard that the film was going to be well done. Now, here it is due out Friday.”Entitled ‘Gettysburg,’ a towering achievement it explodes on the screen in all its horror an heroism….Awesome, jaw-dropping, a major event.” It’s got great reviews. I was so excited that I thought I’d let you know this is coming up.

Some of you might be wondering what this has to do with standing to reason for the faith. Listen, a big part of what I do, if not explicitly, certainly implicitly, is to help Christians to lead a deeper life. It’s kind of ironic that I would even say that because it strikes me that Christians, of all people, ought to be the kind of people that have more depth than anyone else. And the irony and disappointment at the same time is that Christian people, who ought to have the richest perspective on the human experience, end up being among the shallowest in the way they reflect on the human experience. In other words, they seem to reject or minimize the human experience entirely. When I say the human experience, I don’t mean “experience” because Christians are almost too caught up in the “experience” to use their minds to assess the “experience.” I’m talking about the human experience, that is the fullest breadth of what it means to be human. To put it in biblical terms, it means to be made in the image of God and what ramifications that has for us, and how it is that we touch that aspect of ourselves that is kin to God in ways that are not overtly religious.

Now, we talk about the image of God in man, but a lot of times the human experience for a Christian is reduced to things that can be expressed in only religious terms–worshipping, prayer, Bible study, being touched by God. All those things are well and good. I don’t mean to minimize them at all. But my goodness, there’s a whole lot more that God has given and invested in life and in ourselves and in that image than just those things. As wonderful as those things are in themselves, they really represent a truncation, a shortening of the depth of human experience that is the expression of the image of God in man. That’s why I don’t just want to be touched by God; I want to be touched by other human beings. When we think of our lives in a broader fashion like that it really opens us up to a deeper experience of life, a deeper experience of our own humanity, and I think of that in the best sense and the kinship that we have in our nature with God in that we are made in His image. And I think that in the process we end up having a deeper experience directly with God because the notion of God in our life is broadened.

This is really true for me in the area of the Civil War. This is a particular way where some significant aspect of the human experience that relates to my understanding of God’s world and the image of God in man touches me. I’ve talked in the past about my interest in the Civil War in general and the specific things that studying that has done for me. One thing that you can’t miss when you study any of the records of the Civil War is the incredible commitment to a virtue that is almost completely lost on our culture. That is the virtue of honor and commitment. It almost sounds quaint to talk about that, doesn’t it? In fact, I think we would be hard pressed to provide a working definition of the notion anymore. It’s only as I read the writings of the men to whom honor was a principle virtue that I begin to get a taste for what that entails. I think that honor is a virtue and I think that it’s tied in with the nobility of man. The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer talks about the nobility of man and the cruelty of man. That’s really the full-fledged picture of man from the Scripture. The Scriptures give us a good answer to that mystery in man’s character where a lot of other philosophies don’t even address that particular problem.

But often times as Christians, when it comes to focusing on the issue of the human person, we focus on the fallen aspect of it so much so that we see the world “self” as almost another way of spelling flesh, which it is not because there is much of the self that is valuable and good and it is not in itself a fleshly thing. Flesh is part of what we’re about, but not all of what we’re about. Flesh is part of the self, not the sum total of the self.

There is an aspect of my humanness that is quite noble because God has made it that way and it expresses itself even in non-Christians. I see a lot of the nobility of man expressed in this whole occasion of the Civil War, even though much of the cruelty of man is expressed there as well. I get edified personally in studying that.

I hope that that stimulates some thinking in you about a more expansive way of thinking about the notion of the particular and peculiar imprint that God has left on man, an indelible imprint that we call theologically the “image of God in man.” And I hope that if you do see this movie, you will try to get in touch with the nobility of God in man and how that’s expressed in this unfortunate conflict. I will be looking for it. It does have a deep spiritual application. And I hope that as you listen to the radio show and as we talk on the weekends that there is another aspect of your mind that’s expanded, not just the intellect, but the aesthetic element and the depth of your personal experience.

I have some more thoughts on spiritual formation. As I mentioned yesterday, last Tuesday was my twentieth birthday as a Christian and it gave me opportunity to reflect a little bit more on my development since I’ve become a Christian. I thought this weekend would be a good occasion to make a few observations about the notion of spiritual formation and development. I’ve made some observations over the years and entailed in those observations is the conviction that there’s much that’s misunderstood about Christianity and many of our confusions, our doubts, our frustrations are related to the misconceptions about what it means to be a Christian and what it is that God is meant to do on our behalf. Sometimes there’s confusion about how we are to see ourselves. My comments a few moments ago on the Civil War and about the notion of the image of God in man and the development of our minds, not only in the area of our intellect, but also in our personal depth and emotions, the aesthetic elements–there are lots of different aspects of our minds that we are to develop. Hopefully those comments are helping you to think of yourself in a little different fashion.

Let me flesh this notion out a little bit more. Let me give you a concept that you’ll be able to sink your teeth into if you reflect on it a moment. I had a wonderful call last Sunday, as a matter of fact it was my first call, from one of my favorite people, my ten-year-old niece Lauren Miyumi Koukl. She asked a question that I thought was rather profound. She said, “My understanding is that when a person dies they go to be with the Lord, but the Scripture says also that when Jesus returns we will be raised and go to meet with Him in the air. How is it that we can be with Him and then go to be with Him in the air at the same time.” This gave me an opportunity to explain to her the notion that philosophers call the mind/body problem and the solution that is biblical and that most Christians hold to which is a concept called “substance dualism.” Fancy words aside, it simply means that we are made of two different things. We are principally a living soul, an immaterial entity that has a body. So we have physical self and a non-physical self, if you will. I mentioned that and I explained to her, though in other terminology, that when we lose part of our physical body it doesn’t seem to us that what we’re losing is part of ourselves. If we had an unfortunate accident, God forbid, in which we lost both of our arms and both of our legs we are not then half a person because half of our body is missing. We have a sense that we are somehow identified with our body but are something other than strictly our body. We are identified more than anything else with our soul, our spiritual self which is an unseen entirely. It is not here in the physical realm. It is not a physical kind of thing but it manifests itself in these dimensions.

The whole point of this is if we are a being that has a body and a soul and we are principally a soul, that’s really where the seat of our identity is, that’s what lives on to go to be with the Lord according to Lauren’s question, it’s the body that is resurrected and joined with our souls at the resurrection, but our selves are soulish and immaterial. It raises the question about personal and spiritual development because it seems like much in our culture consists of an emphasis on the physical things so we do aerobics and work out. We go to the spa and run ten miles. We do all these kinds of things to make the obeyed look good which has some profit. I think in many cases it’s over done, but there is some profit for that. But Paul makes the point that physical exercise profits little by comparison to spiritual growth because spiritual growth holds a promise not only for this world but the world to come. So the question can be raised What is it that we;’re doing that will strengthen the inner man. If we are indeed body and spirit or body and soul, material and immaterial, and our principle self is really the immaterial self, then what are the exercises that we’re doing to develop our souls? What attention has been given to that? That’s the basic concept. I want you to understand about human beings being a bi-part type of creature. Not three–body, souls and spirit–I don’t think that really works. The main point is simply that you have a body and you have a soul and the soul has a spiritual aspect to it obviously, just as it has an intellectual and an aesthetic and an emotional aspect, but the soul is something separate. And what is being given to the development of the soul? Not just to the spiritual aspects of the soul, but all aspects of the soul. God has created it with different aspects. What can we do for soulish exercise?

I have a friend who is actually flirting right now with the homosexual lifestyle, but as far as I understand he’s remained celibate up until now which I’m glad for. He made a comment that really reflects a notion that I’ve heard from other Christians in other circumstances. He said this in light of his personal struggle to do what’s right. He said, “I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do for the last fifteen years. It hasn’t worked.” So this is why he’s on the verge of making a decision to depart from celibacy.

This is very similar to the question, Does Christ work? I’ve spoken about this before and the answer to that question has to do principally with what it is you expect Him to do. Or in the case of my friend, what it is he expects Christianity to do for him. Does Christ work? Or, This lifestyle hasn’t worked for me. The comment betrays a particular notion of what it means for Christianity to “work.”

Christianity is, among other things, an accurate guide on how to live. And it also incorporates an enablement that comes from the Holy Spirit because a Christian has been born anew to be able to live the life that is defined and described in the Scriptures. What Christianity is not however, is a source of magic that removes the struggle of life. It is not some kind of incantation or some kind of magical potion that somehow removes us from reality and takes the struggle away. I suspect that many people as my friend, have tried to approach Christianity with the mental presupposition that if they just do as they’re told and seek to do what’s honoring to God then somehow the difficult things will be removed. The hard issues will be removed from their life over time. The desires to do things that are wrong will somehow be alleviated and the struggle will be gone. Therefore, if the struggle is not gone even after fifteen or twenty years, like myself, there are things that we have to fight with then that’s somehow a reflection on the inadequacy of Christianity.

Part of my reflection on these issues is that the sense of defeat that many people experience is a result of an unrealistic expectation of what God was meant to do through Christianity and Jesus Christ. The fact is that God has never promised a kind of, what I call, spiritual pixie dust which He uses to cast this magical stuff onto our life and we’re transformed such that the struggles end the hardship is gone. In fact, what we find from those who have walked closely and, after a fashion, successfully with God for a period of time is that Christianity, even after many years and for me, is confusing. My spiritual life is confusing, I can’t figure God out. There are things that I still don’t understand, not just theologically but about how God is dealing with me. It’s not only confusing, it’s painful. It takes time. There is an element of dissatisfaction that always seems to be present.

Now these things are four things that the Bible identifies that are okay for a Christian, they are part of the package. But we don’t expect it to me that way, so when we run into difficulties in the process of our spiritual formation, even pressing and overwhelming difficulties that have to do with our sexual desires, if we don’t get relief from the desire or the compulsion we feel somehow like Christianity hasn’t worked. I don don’t know that it was meant to give us relief from all of those things. That’s not the point, it seems to me. Now, there are times when it seems to do so, when God seems to act in a way to relieve us, but many times the victory doesn’t come by relief but by endurance. I heard one person say that Jesus isn’t the bridge over troubled waters, but he’s the bridge through troubled water if you can stand the tow.

When I reflect on this comment that my friend made it strikes me like this remark, “I’ve been faithful to my wife for twenty years and I still feel an attraction to other women. Therefore, Christianity doesn’t work. I give in.” Of course, that sounds a bit ludicrous because I think it might occur to you that it’s been working for twenty years. In other words, God’s power has been powerful to do what’s right and that is to be faithful to his vows. What it hasn’t worked to do is to remove all of the struggle, but I’m suggesting that it wasn’t meant to do this. I think that there are some people struggling with homosexuality and trying to embrace Christ and expecting that Jesus will change their desires. He might. But He may not. Changing your desires isn’t the point. Changing you and the way you respond is the point.

For me it’s been over seventeen years since I’ve slept with a woman. I want to tell you something, seventeen years of sexual celibacy, twenty years of waling with Christ, almost all of that time in some form of Christian ministry–that hunger hasn’t abated hardly one whit in all of that time. I don’t expect it to very much, and I frankly don’t what it to. Victory for me is not entailed in ceasing to feel these things. Victory for me is entailed in Christ living with me through this and helping me to do what is right.

This brings us to the issue of spiritual formation that I brought up, the exercising of the soul. Here’s what it comes to. J.P. Moreland made a statement last week in class and it was very profound. I’ve heard the concept before. Let me reiterate what he said. He said, “You’ll never amount to anything and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance unless you learn to habitually do the things you don’t like to do.” Let me say that again. “You’ll never amount to anything and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance unless you learn to habitually do the things you don’t like to do.” Gosh, that sounds so hard. Unfun. Right? No, what it sounds like is so adult. And to the degree that you chafe against this notion it’s to that degree that you’re still clinging to your adolescence. Kids have fun. They do whatever they want unless they’re forced differently. Adults choose to do the tough things. The hard things. The right things for the right reasons, even when they don’t like it. And to those that can do that most consistently and most effectively those are the people that leave a mark. People who cling to their freedom don’t leave any footprints in this world. It’s the people who surrender freedoms to do what’s good and right and true who make the biggest mark. One might suggest that the freest man in our society is a bum, no obligation. But how much impact does a bum have? None. One might suggest that the President has the least amount of freedom. This man’s life is not his own. But precisely because of that he’s in the position to influence more people in the world than anyone else.

Now being a Christian involves doing things that are unpleasant. Saying no to that which is destructive and unpleasing to God. That is an exercise of the soul. As we exercise our souls in that way by making decisions out of a sense of duty that please God, once we do that we begin to develop inside of ourselves our soul gains muscle. And we develop what are called virtues.

I have two friends that I’ve talked to in the last week who have been facing an assault in one away or another on their marriage. One is just clinging in a very difficult situation completely committed to doing what’s right, all the way to the end if the end is what’s entailed. Another one is not having trouble in the marriage per se, but has been distracted from outside and is completely committed to doing what’s right. These are people who are in the process of deep spiritual struggle, deep soulish calisthenics, if you will, that are exercising their wills to do not what they like but what is right. And they have done so consistently in the past to build up their strength in the small things so when the big things hit they have the capability to press on.

That would be my encouragement to you in terms of your own spiritual formation that you would continue to press on. That you develop those virtues. Humble yourself as a duty to develop the virtue of humility. You give and develop the virtue of generosity. You persevere and develop the virtue of endurance. You are faithful as these friends are and you develop the virtue of integrity. These virtues are things that belong to you. They aren’t just things that you do. they are what you are becoming because as you do this exercise of faithfulness you strengthen the soul. There are some tings that may be satisfying to obey. And there may be some things so deep and so powerful, like our sexuality for example, that taking them under control will always be a struggle. That’s soul work. That’s aerobic for the inner man.

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