Resurrecting the Soul in a Secular Age

How do we nurture our souls in a secular world? Historically, Christians have responded in two very contrasting ways:

Nurturing the Soul Through Asceticism
The first approach, popular among some early Christians, was to retreat to the desert thinking they could escape temptation and find holiness through asceticism. By the fourth century CE many Christians were living as hermits and monks in monasteries out in the desert. A fifth century monk, Simeon, took this to extremes. To get away from the hordes of disciples and onlookers who came to visit him, attracted by his already extreme self-denying lifestyle, he climbed a pillar and lived there. He once survived 40 days without eating or drinking anything, which made him even more popular. He spent the rest of his life on a succession of ever higher pillars, to try and get away from the crowds who continued to visit him. Food and water were delivered by village boys climbing up his pillar. After he died, scores of others tried to imitate Simeon, and became known as Stylites from the Greek word for pillar, “style”. The problem is that we can never escape from temptation and sin, least of all retreating from the world into the desert. Jesus was himself tempted by Satan in the desert.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be temptedby the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:1-4)

To gain victory over Satan, Jesus relied on God’s Word.  Reviving the soul through asceticism alone does not work.

Nurturing the Soul Through Hedonism
The other, rather more popular approach to holiness, has been to embrace the material and secular rather than deny or retreat from it. Hedonism rather than asceticism. In its earliest forms this was known as Gnosticism, syncretism or dualism. Proponents argued Christians didn’t need to deny their bodily appetites. Rather than resist temptation, they could embrace it, because their soul could not be contaminated by what they did with their body. The Christians in Greece, for example, had happily embraced the prevailing immoral lifestyles and saw nothing incompatible. The Apostle Paul wrote to rebuke them,

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything… Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, 19-20)

Many Christians today are functionally dualists – worshipping God on Sundays and worshipping money Monday to Saturday, Christian in Church, pagan in the world. The scriptures insist what we do with our bodies does indeed impact our souls because what we believe affects how we behave. So, how do Christians avoid these two extremes – world denying and world embracing. Asceticism and hedonism? By recognising that the struggle for the soul is internal not external. It is not revived through asceticism or hedonism, denial or indulgence. This is because Jesus insists,

“Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them… What comes out of a person is what defiles them.For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder,adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”(Mark 7:14-15, 20-23)

If only our problem were the eyes leading us into temptation, we could gouge them out. If only our problem were our hands leading us to sin, we could cut them off. But the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. We need a new heart. Only God can give us a new heart.And here we begin to discover how our souls may be resurrected. It is not something we can do in and of ourselves. Only God can raise the dead.

 We Experience Resurrection through Following Jesus

Jesus addressed this in a prayer he prayed for His disciples on the night He was betrayed, recorded in John’s Gospel.

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.  Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.  For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:15-21)

In this prayer, Jesus explains his deep longings for his followers. Jesus did not ask God to take His followers out of the world.  In fact, Jesus commissioned them to go into the world as His ambassadors. “In” but not “of” the world. Jesus asked the Father to protect them from Satan and his schemes, to guard them from temptation, and to make them holy through the truth of His word, and above all, through a personal relationship with God, which Jesus describes as being in some way one with Him.

This is what makes Christianity unique. It is not a religion but a relationship. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin ‘religio’ for rules or works. Christianity is a relationship with God through Jesus. It is not simply a list of rules to be obeyed because we can never revive our souls through keeping rules. Our souls are renewed and revived as we grow in our relationship with God as He lives in and through us by His Spirit. The Scriptures put it in these graphic terms,

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)

“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whateveryou want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:16-25)

This is why Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with God through Jesus. This is a two-way relationship – through prayer we talk to God and in Scripture, God speaks to us. God’s spirit, indwelling us, helps us become more like Christ. Through the Church, in community, we encourage and strengthen one another as a spiritual family in our collective walk with God. So, what are some of the practical ways we can experience resurrection in this life? Let me suggest three ways from scripture.

We Experience Resurrection by Training in Godliness

After Christmas, many people make New Year Resolutions – taking up running, joining a gym, going on a diet. But for many the new resolutions are short lived. That is because we tend to over-estimate what we can achieve by trying in the short term and underestimate what we can achieve by training in the long term. The Christian scriptures use the analogy of the gym, or exercise, to become holy.

“train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come….  That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

It begins with our minds, our attitudes, what we think about, worry about or meditate on. The Scriptures it in these terms,

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

We Experience Resurrection by Daily Cleansing

Another analogy used for this process of transformation is something we do every day. We shower and put on clean clothes in the morning and take off our dirty clothes in the evening. The Scriptures use this analogy to explain spiritual transformation.

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:5-14)

Changing our clothes then is a vivid analogy for this process of transformation. The Apostle John says something similar in his first epistle.

 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Confessing and cleansing are both in the present tense. As we confess our sins we experience God’s continual forgiveness, like having a continuous shower that keeps us clean. What we think about and value most clearly affects our attitudes, our priorities and ultimately actions. We experience resurrection by training in godliness and by daily cleansing.

We Experience Resurrection by Feeding on Scripture

One way to train ourselves to be godly, is by being intentional about our spiritual diet. We are what we eat physically. The same is true spiritually. What should be our spiritual diet? We have already observed how Jesus resisted Satan by quoting scripture. Indeed Jesus emphasized,

“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

The Scriptures insist that we must cooperate with God,

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:12-16)

In another passage,

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:1-3)

As the Scriptures are read, spoken, memorized, applied, something supernatural happens, we grow up. Resurrection of our soul comes by following Jesus, by training in godliness and by feeding on scripture.

The Ultimate Victory in the Struggle for the Soul

Ultimately, the victory in the resurrection of the soul will not take place in this life. We must wait until the final resurrection when God will transform our earthly bodies into heavenly bodies.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplatethe Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:16-18)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

As we struggle between the now and the not yet, many Christians are encouraged and motivated by focussing on the future hope. This is described in the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian scriptures.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

From a Christian perspective, the resurrection of the soul is a process, it is about becoming more like Jesus, day by day, becoming holy as God is holy, following Jesus, led by His Spirit, looking forward to that day of resurrection when we shall at last be free from sin and suffering and enter eternity and be with him forever.

A presentation at the Gulf Cultural Club, Abrar House, 45 Crawford Place, London.