I wrote this a long time ago in response to a discussion that was going on in a community of Christians I was walking with. It’s a response to a view of “spirit and soul” that is widely taught, and comes largely from the teachings of Watchman Nee, but is found often in other writings from the “deeper life” movement (or somewhat in the teachings of Andrew Wommack.) While I appreciate Watchman Nee’s contribution to the body of Christ through his teachings to a very large degree, I do think after having lived under his understanding of things for several years of my life and finding some of those teachings bearing some not-so-great fruit in my own being, that I needed to look deeper into some of the things I had been taught. As a result, I came to some different understandings on the topic of soul and spirit than what Nee and others teach.
To begin with, I took a look at the verse that seems to be mentioned most often in conversations on this topic, which is this one:
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. ” (Hebrews 4:12 NAS)
This verse is often thought of, and quoted as saying, that the Word divides BETWEEN soul and spirit. Those who hold to this type of interpretation often suggest that a person can be moved either by their “soul” or their “spirit,” and that the Word of God somehow sets a believer free from being “in his soul” (referred to in shorthand as “being soulish”), to instead be “in his spirit.” In this line of teaching, that which occurs or originates from within the “soul,” is thought to be insubstantial and unspiritual; and that which originates from or occurs within the “spirit” of a believer, is believed to be righteous and pure, of God, in concert with His true nature and will, and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I believe that if these ideas are taken as an entire package, that they amount to an erroneous and cumbersome teaching, because this teaching fails to recognize the essential and rightful role of the soul in our ability to experience and access what flows through our spirits, and it puts a yoke on believers’ necks to perform some imaginary feat of placing their soul on the back burner while their spirit takes dominion over it. In some cases too, this teaching also contributes to the belief among intellectual theological type people, that that which is emotional (again, “soulish”) is inconsequential and even dangerous to one’s spiritual walk with God. (I’m not saying anyone should base their spiritual life on emotions, either, but when you’re done reading about the spirit/soul topic and want to take it deeper, I’ve been writing about the role of emotions in our relationship with God over here.)
So how do I personally believe this verse (Hebrews 4:12) should be interpreted?
The first clue to me that perhaps the usual interpretation is not correct, is that in no other place in scripture do we find any apostle warning us that it is terribly important to “walk in the spirit, and not in the soul.” I mean, there’s just no emphasis on anything like this anywhere in any verse in all of the New Testament. Instead of drawing a dichotomy between being soulish and being spiritual, the epistles of Paul instead emphasize the difference between being “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit.”
The second clue for me is that in the line about the “division of soul and spirit,” there is usually no mention of the word “between.” This is important, because often the verse is quoted and interpreted as saying “piercing as far as the division BETWEEN soul and spirit,” but very few Bible translations actually use the word BETWEEN. For your perusal, here is a list of translations with the way they translate the phrase – and notice that while “between” and other synonyms are occasionally used, most translations don’t indicate such a word is in the verse.
First, versions that don’t say “between” –
New International Version
even to dividing soul and spirit
English Standard Version
to the division of soul and of spirit
Berean Study Bible
even to dividing soul and spirit
Berean Literal Bible
even as far as the division of soul and spirit
New American Standard Bible
as far as the division of soul and spirit
King James Bible
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
International Standard Version
until it divides soul and spirit
New American Standard 1977
and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit
Jubilee Bible 2000
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
King James 2000 Bible
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
American King James Version
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
Webster’s Bible Translation
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
World English Bible
even to the dividing of soul and spirit
Here are some Bible versions that do use “between” or some similar word.
New Living Translation
cutting between soul and spirit
even to the point of dividing soul from spirit
Holman Christian Standard Bible
as far as the separation of soul and spirit
Aramaic Bible in Plain English
it pierces to the separation of soul and spirit
GOD’S WORD® Translation
cuts as deep as the place where soul and spirit meet
Weymouth New Testament
even to the severance of soul from spirit, and penetrates between the joints and the marrow
Here are some versions that seem to subtly agree with what I’m going to argue in the next few paragraphs is more correctly indicated:
Young’s Literal Translation
piercing unto the dividing asunder both of soul and spirit, of joints also and marrow
American Standard Version
piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow
reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow
Darby Bible Translation
penetrating to [the] division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow
English Revised Version
even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow
Now, in and of itself this absence of “between” certainly doesn’t prove what the verse does or doesn’t mean, especially since some versions actually do translate “between” or some similar sense into the verse, but being infrequently used it did seem worth a better look; especially since my premise is that I don’t think it actually belongs there anyway (more on why, as we continue.)
So, the next question to explore is – what sort of word is sitting there in the Greek text that indicates what type of “division” soul and spirit are subjected to by the Word? It turns out that the word “division” here in the Greek is the word *merismos* (μερισμός).
Merismos (μερισμός) is defined by Strongs as meaning, “a division, partition, or separation.” There is only one other scripture (quoted below) where this exact word is used, and in that particular verse, *merismos* or division, is demonstrated to be occuring WITHIN a spirit – within, in fact, the Holy Spirit – as opposed to division occuring between the Holy Spirit and some other thing:
Hebrews 2:4 reads:
“…God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts [and the word “gifts” in this verse is the word we are researching which is “merismos”, aka, “partitions/divisions”] of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
So why not then approach our original verse in question, from two chapters later in Hebrews, the same book of the Bible, in the same way? Since it is clear that a “spirit” can be divided, then maybe it is reasonable to consider that Hebrews 4:12 is not suggesting that the Word of God divides BETWEEN soul and spirit, but rather that it beneficially creates a division within the soul of a person in some way, and similarly also divides and provides distinctions or divisions within the spirit of a person?
If this is indeed what the Word does, could it not be described or worded by saying that what would then be occurring here is the “DIVISION OF SOUL AND SPIRIT,” just as most Bible translations word it?
But traditionally, because “soul and spirit” are listed as a pair, we normally have the default assumption that the sword is dividing up the pair, and separating the soul from the spirit in some sense. Remember however, that the word “between” isn’t found in there at all. But furthermore, this interpretation of division BETWEEN the soul and the spirit really doesn’t make sense when applied to the remainder of the verse.
Take for instance the next phrase in question, which reads: “of both joints and marrow.” For years I read over this verse and thought it was saying “bone and marrow” but actually it doesn’t say that; it says “joints” and marrow.
They are both parts of the skeletal system to be sure, but marrow and joints aren’t really a logical intertwined pair that could be divided, like one might think of dividing marrow from a bone. In fact, it would be much like saying that the Word of God divides the tree sap from the acorns…. sure, tree sap and acorns are somewhat connected, but they are not really a complimentary pair that could or would require separation, whereas in contrast, tree sap and a tree trunk would be a suitable example of a logical pair that could be “divided.”.
But the real explanation of this verse seems to be found in the final phrase,which contains one more “pair” of things that are divided, in the idea that the sharp sword “judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Here is where the type of “division” that I (and others) am proposing as what this verse describes seems to be revealed as the most reasonable – for why would we suppose that the division would occur BETWEEN the thoughts and intentions of the heart, as if the thoughts need to be somehow separated from the intentions. Does it not seem much more harmonious with the rest of scripture and even your own spiritual walk, to understand that this verse is saying the Word of God divides – aka, judges – both the thoughts AND the intentions of your heart?
And isn’t this what the Word of God does? It helps us understand which of our thoughts are of God, and which of our thoughts are not of God? And doesn’t it similarly help us discern …or judge…. or divide…. which of our intentions align with God, and which of our intentions are not aligned with God?
But aside from all this, there is more contained here in this verse I think to help us truly understand what the soul and spirit of a person are, and how they form what and who we are. I believe that the actual literary style of this verse is meant to draw a parallel between the three pairs I just explored, and that they correspond to and help explain one another. The three pairs are:
1) soul and spirit 2) joints and marrow 3) thoughts and intentions.
If you line them up like this, it is at least highly conceivable that these three are all somewhat congruent, things which are either all the same thing or at least which correspond to one another pair by pair, and as I’ll continue to discuss, they seem to match up quite nicely. So, if these three are taken as corresponding pairs, then we could conceptualize that in this verse, going across you get that “soul = joints = thoughts”, AND that “spirit = marrow = intentions.”
Now, what on earth does the author of Hebrews mean by corresponding the “soul” with the idea of a “joint?” Here are my thoughts on that. Adam was created from the Earth. He was a lifeless sculpture, a mere body, until in Genesis 2:7 reads that God breathed His breath (hebrew: neshamah, spirit) into Adam. When this happened, the rest of Gen 2:7 says that “Adam became a living SOUL.” From this we see that a body, plus a spirit, equals a soul.
The soul is essentially what forms as your physical being (your brain and your nervous system and hormones, which all affect how you think and who you are) come together and intersect with your living spirit (which comes from God and returns to God.) This then is the mystery as to why Hebrews 4:12 parallels the word “soul” with the word “joints,” because a joint is the result of the coming together of two things.
(For my scientifically inclined friends: It is important to note that this is not a truly biological description of how life works, but it is a metaphysical description of our physiology as beings which have both a physical and spiritual existence. And I might write a blog post to delve into that more at some point!)
The word “soul” in Greek is the word “psuche,” from where we get the English words “psyche” and “psychology.” It pertains to your awareness, your consciousness – with all your thoughts and emotions and perceptions as a self-aware living being. In a word, your soul is basically “you.” The word soul in some verses can only legitimately be translated as your “life” – your existence.
As Descartes once famously described “the soul” when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” and similarly the writer of proverbs wrote, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” – the soul is Biblical term for the experience of being a person, of having thought, of having feelings, being aware of and participating in your own existence, of being a living being. The scripture in fact makes mention of God Himself having a “soul” – and since we know that nothing evil dwells in God, it therefore stands to reason that the soul is neither inherently unspiritual, (since God Himself IS Spirit) or even a merely fleshy thing.
It IS true that it is the faculty of a human’s spirit which is most directly in union with God’s Spirit; and it is true that it is the human spirit which most directly receives from and communes with the Holy Spirit. But it is the SOUL – your mind, your self awareness, your heart – where you and I become aware of what is occuring in our spirits. You cannot readily perceive anything of your own spirit without doing so through your soul, because your soul is your life, your self, your thoughts! And there is verse after verse which confirms this – take for example the verses in Romans which speak of the “mind” (which is an aspect of the soul) being either “on the spirit” or “on the flesh.”
The soul is the gatekeeper: this is why it is impossible to realistically speak about someone being “in their soul rather than in their spirit” – because the soul is simply the place where either the flesh or the spirit is being expressed. Either one takes place through the soul.
As long as we are alive in a body, our souls become a fulcrum, because they are able to focus on input coming from both the flesh (body), and from the spirit (which can also be joined to Christ’s spirit through believing in Him.) The more one focuses on what the flesh is experiencing and wants, the more the soul is flooded with feelings, thoughts, and emotions based on the flesh. And the more one focuses on what the spirit is experiencing and wants, the more the soul is flooded with feelings, thoughts, and emotions based on the spirit.
So then, if our soul is our mind and feelings and self-awareness, what then do we experience our spirit as? The Spirit, as the deepest God given life and breath within us, refers to the deepest part of our being, and this parallels marrow because marrow is the innermost part of the bone, and is then also corresponded to our intentions, which are the innermost part of the counsel of our hearts. Our intentions are the aspect of our hearts where, if we have received Christ into our innermost beings (hearts), God is at work to cause us then to “will and to do according to His good pleasure.”
In people who have not received Jesus into their spirits, input from the spirit is limited to earth-bound spiritual realities. Thus, people who are attuned to their spirits without Christ may still be acutely aware of their own life energy which God gave them in His breath, and they may use their spirits to connect to the general energy of life surrounding the creation, or in more spiritually developed individuals, they may be able to perceive other peoples’ souls and spirits, and encounter angels or in some cases demons. Everyone has some limited spiritual awareness even if they do not know what it is that they are perceiving.
In general, advanced spiritual abilities were not meant to be used apart from the safety and power of a vibrant spiritual connection to God afforded by imbibing Christ’s Spirit into our Spirits, and have been forbidden as witchcraft. When Christ is indwelling, spiritual abilities are meant to be developed almost exclusively as an outgrowth of intimacy with Him and His indwelling power within us.
One’s soul can be sensitized to spiritual input of the wrong type and care must be taken to cultivate sensitivity to God’s Spirit first and foremost – which tends to grow along with the soul growing in sensitivity to the love of God and the soul growing in its love for God. Love (and other emotions that are various shades of love) become a bond that connects our existential awareness to the Spirit of Christ and God in our own spirits, and which makes us more and more fixated on our spirits in the right way, thus subduing sinful inclinations coming from our flesh.
Intentions and emotions that originate in our spirit eventually make their way to our souls; and so our souls, if tuned to the Spirit, can be incredibly powerful instruments for the Lord’s use. On the flip side, our souls can be ensnared with input from the flesh, whether natural desires like hunger, or sinful desires like self-righteousness. The goal then is to see the spirit triumph over the flesh in the war for the soul’s attention – but once again, notice the issue isn’t soul vs. spirit, but rather flesh-oriented soul vs. spirit-oriented soul.
Now, it should be stated that the flesh in and of itself is not bad – we need to care for our flesh and “nourish and cherish it” as Paul says. But our flesh is not hooked up to God’s Spirit the way that our spirits are, so we need to make sure we learn to drink from His Spirit via our spirits so that our flesh’s needs and wants don’t dominate us more than His do. What’s best for our soul is best for our flesh as well – because as we learn to walk by and receive from the Spirit in our spirit, our flesh receives good things from the Spirit as well.
If God’s Spirit within our spirit is given dominion in the soul, then the soul will carry out the Spirit’s desires and enslave the flesh to its whims. But if you, or rather, your soul gives the flesh provision to dominate attention over the spirit, then the soul (you) will carry out the flesh’s desires and enslave the soul AND spirit to its whims, until the spirit is strengthened by the wooing of God’s Spirit within with grace, love, and power, to set the soul (you) free from the deception of sin to repent and choose agreement with the Spirit once again. When our hearts are single upon Christ, our flesh is “reckoned dead” by an attitude informed by the Word, we give no place to the enemy, and then all of our thoughts and emotions – whether in our souls or in our spirits – are in tune with and proceeding from cooperation with the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 4:12 then is basically saying that the Word of God goes deep within us and reveals everything, from the shallowest to even to the deepest parts of every faculty of our being. It divides up our soul, showing us whether the various aspects of our soul (our mind, our emotions) are loving our flesh or loving God. And it divides up our spirit, showing us at what points our spirit is moving in harmony with His spirit, or contrary to Him. This is why another verse talks about keeping our spirits blameless – our spirits have been joined to the Lord “as one spirit with Him,” sort of like a marriage. IF our souls – our minds and emotions – tune into the Lord’s spirit in our spirit, the fulcrum of our souls allows the presence and substance of Christ to flow across it as a bridge and flood even our flesh with His glory and love and power. But it works the other way – if we tune into the sinful inclinations of the flesh, those types of thoughts and desires flood across the fulcrom of our souls and quench, subdue, and inundate our spirits with opaque earthly input that blots out the light of Christ’s Spirit shining in our spirits, and taints our spirit with the dust of this realm.
So the point here is that it is not really all that important to know whether or not what you are “feeling” at any given time is occuring in your spirit or soul. We don’t need to go around doing some sort of internal gymnastics to figure out if we’re operating out of our soul or or spirit; but we do need to be pierced and divided by the Word of truth so that in every area of our being, whether spirit, soul, or body, that all three are blameless (aka, working in conjunction with God’s will and for His glory by functioning in cooperation with HIS Spirit. ) If you embrace and connect with an awareness of the Holy Spirit within you, your soul is latching onto the Spirit within your Spirit and things are heading in the right direction.
Via our souls, we can either walk with God’s Spirit (like a harmonious marriage) or start to turn our spirits away from Him (thus grieving Him – like a disharmonious marriage.) Our spirits are permanently joined with Him – but when we have allowed via our soul for our spirits to become tainted by our flesh, we may sense that defilement the more we then turn our attention to Christ in our Spirit. It is important to keep our spirit blameless before Him by receiving His Word into us which is able to separate, cleanse, and wash us from all unrighteousness as we receive and yield to it, and finding where to be agreeing with that Word as we confess our sins to Him.
So there you have it – my thoughts on this subject. It makes no sense to “stop being soulish” in our efforts to be spiritual, as everything spiritual about us only is accessible to us in our souls. But if we are truly spiritual, our souls will be places of His glory every bit as much as our spirits or our bodies, and there is no reason to disregard our souls as somehow unspiritual, for they work in complete cooperation with our spirits when we seek to walk in the Spirit.
Jesus never condemned the “soul” as being inferior to the Spirit, as many often teach. What He did teach is that if we seek to find our life (the Greek word is for life in this verse is also the word psuche / SOUL), we will lose it, but if we seek to lose our souls, we will find them. Somehow I think we get wrapped up in the part about losing our life (souls), but the reality is that as we give our life (souls) over to Christ, we FIND them. And this is a good thing! He WANTS us to find our life (souls) in Him! We are commanded to “love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Some of those areas are the domain of the Spirit; and some are the domain of the soul, and some pertain to your body: regardless, we are to LOVE the Lord with every facet of our being.
People thoroughout scripture are recorded as pouring out their “souls” before the Lord in prayer; they were not criticized for praying soulishly or emotionally. And many of us experience physical manifestations when we are praying; and many of us experience emotions and visions and ideas and all sorts of things that would normally be thought of as belonging to the body or the soul, rather than the Spirit. But the fact is that the Spirit of God tends to want ALL of us; His aim is to have every part of us for His use!
Many times people preach that the soul is the realm of emotions, and that the spirit is something else. The soul and the spirit both can have “feelings” of one sort or another. But the fact is, that scripture is FILLED with examples of people and even the Lord Himself having emotional type things in their spirit, although the emotions of the Spirit feel and are different than emotions that are the normal workings of the soul, even though they all flood into the soul in order to be perceived. Feelings are not inherently unspiritual or insignificant; neither are they necessarily spiritual or significant. A few verses about emotions in our spirit:
1 Sam 1:15:
And Hannah answered and said, “No, my lord, I am a woman of
sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink,
but have poured out my soul before the LORD.”
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish
of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”
And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has
rejoiced in God my Savior.