Flesh and Spirit

What is the relationship between bodily health and spirituality? Traditionally, Christendom has taught a sort of mind/body duality. The spirit or mind is the provenance of the church, and the body of the physicians. But is this scriptural? Is that dichotomy good for us? I contend that it is neither scriptural nor healthy.

Most of Christendom teaches that humans are composed of two natures, the mortal body and the immortal soul. It is believed that the soul is the the essence of a person, and the body is only a corruptible vessel which will be left behind at death. This belief is problematic for several reasons, the most important of which is that it is unscriptural. Bible writers have been very clear about the nature of the human soul.

Humans are souls:

And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.

Genesis 2:3 (NWT 1984 edition)

Animals are souls:

Now Jehovah God was forming from the ground every wild beast of the field and every flying creature of the heavens, and he began bringing them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man would call it, each living soul, that was its name.

Genesis 2:19 (NWT 1984 edition)

The soul can die:

Look! All the souls—to me they belong. As the soul of the father so also the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul who sins is the one who will die.

Ezekiel 18:4 (NWT)

We do not have souls, we are souls, body and mind. The soul is not separate from our bodies. The belief that the body is just a corruptible vessel for the soul has led many to the idea that mind and body work separately. There is the idea that what one thinks and feels cannot matter to the health of the body, and that the health of the body cannot affect one’s mind or heart. On some level, I think many people would acknowledge that that is false. But we often seem to behave as if it is true.

On a spiritual level, the fact that we are souls has deep significance. The inextricable intertwining of mind and body means that everything we think, everything we do, and everything we put in our bodies has not only physical, but also spiritual significance. The Bible writers understood that deeply. That is why Paul wrote what is quoted above in the opening image:

…let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

2 Corinthians 7:1

As the word “defilement” is not one that gets used very often nowadays, let’s define it. Websters dictionary lists several meanings. These are the ones that we are concerned with: “to corrupt the purity or perfection of, to make physically unclean especially with something unpleasant or contaminating, and to violate the sanctity of.” So defilements of flesh and spirit are practices that make our bodies and/or our minds dirty, impure.

Defilement of the flesh and spirit is condemned in the Bible because, as the apostle Paul said, the body is a sort of temple. It houses the holy spirit which we receive from God:

Do you not know that your body is the temple of the holy spirit within you, which you have from God? Also, you do not belong to yourselves, for you were bought with a price. By all means, glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 6:19, 20

Obviously, then, what we do with our bodies matters to God. It also matters to our own physical and spiritual well-being. This is why the scriptures specifically prohibit practices such as gluttony and drunkenness that pollute the mind and body.

For a drunkard and a glutton will come to poverty.

Proverbs 23:21

drunkards…will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

1 Corinthians 6:10
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What is it about the excessive consumption of food and alcohol that would defile not only the flesh, but also the spirit? Most of us understand that gluttony can lead to dangerous health problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. We also understand that alcoholism can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and health problems related to malnutrition. But what do these things do to our minds?

First of all, the health problems caused by gluttony and alcoholism certainly affect the brain, the seat of the mind. The blood sugar swings caused by diabetes, for example, affect mood. The father of one of my childhood friends had diabetes, and his mood swings affected his whole family. During a blood sugar crash, he would scream and lash out at everyone around him. This was devastating not only to his family members, but to himself as well. He was not at heart an aggressive man. But his health problem affected his mind in a way, much to his own dismay, that would cause him to violate the Bible principles of love, mildness, kindness, and peace. This man could not have prevented his diabetes, as it was type 1 and began in childhood. But type 2 diabetes, the type caused by, among other things, gluttony, can be prevented and causes many of the same distressing symptoms.

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Alcoholism and other types of substance abuse can cause similar problems with blood sugar swings. In advanced cases, it also causes severe nutrient deficiencies. These nutrient deficiencies adversely affect the mind and emotions. Anxiety and depression are often a consequence. And along with those at times comes aggression. Addiction to alcohol changes personalities. When the acquisition and consumption of alcohol or drugs becomes the number one passion, all other concerns take a back seat including God, family, and sometimes even work. Selfishness begins to reign, even in those whose nature was otherwise before the addiction set in. It’s tragic.

So far I’ve described two very common practices which defile mind and body and which are summarily condemned in the Bible. Almost no one would dispute that these practices are harmful. But are there other practices that could have similar effects and which we might overlook?

As anyone who has read much of this blog knows, I was harmed by benzodiazepines. I think it may be that some are still under the impression that prescription drugs can only harm people if they are abused. This is absolutely not true. Most of the people who have been harmed by prescription psychiatric drugs were taking them as prescribed. I have met very few who had actually been abusing. If you read my story, you will see that the horrors I survived as a result of proper benzodiazepine use were extreme. They defiled my body and mind in ways that can’t even be imagined by those who have never had my experience. I completely lost my ability to care for others because I had no mental or physical energy for anything other than survival. Worst of all, I lost my connection to my God.

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So the question is, was it scripturally wrong for me to follow my doctor’s advice and take those pills? I don’t know. I didn’t know then what I know now. But I would never put another psychiatric medication in my mouth again after all I have experienced and learned. It defiled me, and we as Christians are instructed to cleanse ourselves from such influences. For that reason, it is excruciating for me to see so many of my Christian brothers and sisters fall into the same trap. I don’t judge them. How could I? They are probably as ignorant as I was when I took my first pill. But that is why I write.

Having Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), another subject on which I have written extensively, has also changed the way I view the counsel at 2 Corinthians 7:1. MCS is not allergies, as some seem to assume. It is the inability of the body to deal with toxic chemicals, even at what many people would consider very low concentrations. For many, MCS begins with one big toxic exposure, such as having to live in a moldy or otherwise sick building. For others, the symptoms of MCS build gradually from lower level exposures. People with MCS tend to get sick from exposures to things like new building materials, plastics, formaldehyde, vehicle exhaust, pesticides, and the chemicals and artificial fragrances found in nearly all cleaning and personal care products. As you might imagine, this can feel like living in a minefield.

As I described in Behind the Mask, my reactions to toxic chemicals have affected me in ways that were not only distressing, but extremely damaging physically and mentally. I developed chronic inflammation in my lungs and sinuses which eventually led to pneumonia. It also affected my mood, causing anxiety, depression, and anger. The exposures affected my mind to the degree that I would sometimes be unable to think or hardly even to speak. That is profound. It is much more difficult to display the “fruitage of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22) when the mind is being bombarded by mood and cognition altering toxic chemicals.

We live in an increasingly toxic world and for that reason it is impossible to avoid all toxic exposures. But in spite of that, there is much we can do to make our own persons, homes, and vehicles safer for ourselves and others. Indeed, I believe that, based on 2 Corinthians 7:1, it may be our Christian responsibility to do so. And yet, this is a subject that rarely if ever is discussed at religious services or in religious publications, and because of that, again, I do not judge those Christians who live in ignorance of these problems or who simply feel overwhelmed with their scale. But I hope that by bringing these things to light, more people will wake up to the dangers of practices such as excessive use of toxic yard, household, and personal care products which can defile flesh and spirit.

I have given four examples of common practices that can hurt and defile us both physically and spiritually. What are the larger implications? How many more common practices might fall into the same category? What does this tell us about the corporations and institutions that promote and sell such defiling products? What does it tell us about our own bodily health and spirituality? And how might God feel about these practices? Those are questions I will discuss in future posts.