What does it mean to be “spiritual”? If it means “ethereal,” “not of this earth,” “disembodied,” etc., I’m not very interested. The kind of spiritual I’m interested in is everything but disconnected from reality, disconnected from action or “floaty.” What I need is something that powers my life, not an escape from life.
The word “spirit” can cover a lot of ground. It includes what I like and what I don’t like, definitions that are all about power and integration and definitions that are very immaterial, and to me, weak:
spirit. 1. moral
or spiritual part of human beings, believed to be immortal and to separate from the body at death; soul. 2. animating, fundamental or vital principle. 3. religious, mental or emotional part of human nature: to be concerned with the things of the spirit . 4.a. supernatural, disembodied being, often thought to haunt the living; specter; ghost . 4.b. small, often mischievous supernatural being having magical powers; fairy; elf. 5. the Spirit. third person of the Trinity; Holy Ghost. 6. person considered to have a certain specified character or temperament: a noble spirit, a brave spirit. 7. pervading quality, mood or tendency. 8. essence, real meaning or intent. 9. liveliness; vivacity; animation. 10. enthusiasm, devotion and loyalty. 11. spirits. mental state or attitude; disposition: to be in high spirits.
This idea of “spirit” as motivating power or driving principle can be illustrated in a simple example: if my wife and I are having a fight, and I rip some flowers out of my neighbor’s yard and throw them at her, muttering death threats under my breadth, have I done anything positive to mend our relationship? Can I later claim, “Well, I gave her flowers”? Of course not. The “spirit” of my actions was not right. In this example, the weak or disconnected sense of “spirit” can also be illustrated: if I only “quietly forgive her in my heart” and give her no flowers; in fact, do nothing at all to communicate or demonstrate this “interior” reality, how much have I really done that will help us?
What is needed is both right actions and the right spirit, a kind of spirit that is the opposite of “mystical,” “idealistic,” “disembodied,” Platonic or “immaterial.” It may not, to be sure, be something that is physically seen, but it will be clearly felt. It is that thing that “haunts” our actions, driving their purpose.
This is the point, I think, that Jesus is getting at in John 6:63 when he says that “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless,” it is this life-giving, animating, not disembodied, sense of the word that I think he is referring to. Why? Look at what comes immediately before and immediately after this verse. Just before, in verse 62, Jesus talks about his physical ascension. This is a monumental event. Like his resurrection, Jesus’ ascension means that his life, spiritual and natural, are combined forever. Jesus doesn’t temporarily “inhabit” a human form. He became – and is today – “the Word made flesh.” And just after, in the second half of verse 63, Jesus says that the words he has spoken “are spirit and life,” not, “fine metaphysical ideals you should write a book about.” They are words to live by.
What am I arguing for? What do I think Jesus is arguing for? It is a vision of life lived like this:
“Real” life, the thing that is important, is the thing in the middle. It is physical action that is animated/ motivated/given life by a strength of heart, by new attitudes and commitments and by purposes and principles that only God can give. It is a life that is spiritual, not “super-spiritual.”