The first part of this article stated the dangerous (albeit tempting) tennets of Gnosticism and how they lead to the separation of the spiritual and the physical; and in this part of the article, I will continue to discuss how our physical states should demonstrate our inner spirituality.
Our external actions in the physical world communicate the internal reality of where we are spiritually. James makes it clear that being mere hearers of the word, and not doers, does not show us to have received “with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save [our] souls” (James 1:21). As Jesus himself said, “Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5) Christ’s physical presence, miracles, and service pointed to a spiritual reality, and as we are called to follow him in caring for others, we must not be blind to either sphere.
Unfortunately, our actions often betray us. We pendulum-swing back and forth between unwise action based on not praying enough and praying without action, embracing a lie which claims that God is limited to an impotent spiritual existence and that he doesn’t care about his creation. When we settle for this empty Gnosticism, we are actually furthering division between what God has joined together (and will consummate in the New Heavens and the New Earth): the Lord Jesus and his people, the groom and his bride. When we make this false dichotomy between body and spirit, we are limiting our ability to do the good work that the Lord has for us. And when we hamstring ourselves in mission, is it any surprise that people are uninterested in this truncated gospel we end up preaching, one which operates only in the clouds? If we only address and celebrate spiritual realities, we will also miss out on the opportunity to praise God for what he is doing in the visible world.
But when we acknowledge his power and presence, we praise him as being sovereign over all creation. Only then can we follow his lead in humble servanthood. Embodied life and anti-Gnosticism requires getting our hands dirty; it requires blood, sweat, and tears. It requires picking up our cross daily, which can be a metaphor, but also sometimes leads to actual physical blisters and aching backs. But it also means finding holistic healing from God. The two-fold “old person” still clings to us, but little by little, even as our minds and bodies may grow frail and then eventually stop (or surrender to the beautiful reality of the Second Coming), we live into the reality that we are being continually renewed in Christ.
If we allow this gnostic “great divorce,”1 we also lose sight of an important segment of ministry. Siblings among us who fight a daily struggle with chronic illness, pervasive injuries, and even mental health issues, are ignored, similar to the Hellenistic widows. Proclaiming the word is of utmost importance, but it comes in more than one form. Both word and deed matter, and if we are to care truly well for others, we must push back against that which would honor those whose labor is primarily spiritual above those whose labor is very much physical. So, too, those who are in poverty and in prison may find refuge in things of the mind, but they don’t separate their bodies from reality; they cannot. Being both an academic and a daydreamer, I am tempted to absolve myself from action. I tend to design castles in the sky, but the hefty reality of Christ brings me back to earth to remember that Gnosticism begets death, not life. Christ knew physical want, Christ was unjustly imprisoned, and Christ knew the suffering that comes upon the vulnerable when God’s people are allowed to segregate the spiritual and the physical.
As with all secret idols, eventually the light shines in and destroys what grows in the dark. Admitting the reality of our gnostic tendencies destroys much of the power they have over us. When we are willing to face our problems, we can then engage in holistic spiritual disciplines, which bring us back to truth, showcasing the current reality and pointing us ahead to the New Heavens and the New Earth. Rather than being trapped in a cycle of rash decisions and lip-service, we can enter a healthy rhythm of prayer, begetting action, begetting more prayer. When we advocate for those among us who are the most physically vulnerable—the poor, children and the elderly, those in prison, we see better how to advocate for and meet the spiritual, physical, and mental needs of all of those around us. We also learn how to rely more fully on the advocacy of the Son as we rest, feeling secure in our status as beloved heirs.
Being graciously ushered into communion with the glorious Trinity by our union with Christ, our bodies do not fade away, or become irrelevant! Rather, they have hope for new life in the here and now, as well as eternal, embodied life in the age to come. The Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus does not merely hover in the sky. He inhabits his people. He condescends to tabernacle with us, and this is no mere allegory or ethereal suggestion. He makes his dwelling in and among us, and we with him.
See C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for a winsome and quirky allegory about the super reality of the spiritual realm imposed on the physical. ↩