In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the title character finds himself confronted with a mortal enemy who has had, for all intents and purposes, a conversion. The Daleks are mutants bred to wipe out all forms of life than themselves. The particular Dalek the Doctor encounters this time has discovered beauty and a respect for life. It is also damaged and the power source of its mechanized shell is leaking radiation. When the Doctor stops the radiation, the Dalek reverts to its usual murderous self and starts killing humans. The Doctor then tries to change the Dalek back by expanding its awareness of the universe, declaring that, having saved the Dalek's life, he will now save its soul. While it's obvious he wants to make the Dalek good again, what exactly he means by “soul” is left undefined.
Something similar happens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that universe, when one becomes a vampire, one loses one's soul and is possessed by a demon. Buffy falls in love with Angel, a vampire whose soul was restored by gypsies in order that he may be tormented by the evil he has done over the centuries. Angel joins Buffy in the fight against other vampires, monsters and demons to atone for his misdeeds. Though the soul in this context seems to function as a conscience, we nevertheless encounter a lot of humans in the Buffyverse that have souls but are very evil. We also meet demons who are good guys. So again, the precise nature of a soul is vague.
This may merely be a reflection of the fact that our usage of the word “soul” is similarly loosely defined. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it can mean the immaterial aspect of all living things, the spiritual principle in humans, a person's moral and emotional nature, or a person's passion. It can be used metaphorically to mean that someone or something exemplifies a quality (ie, “he is the soul of discretion”). It can also refer to African American culture such as food or music. To understand which meaning is intended when someone uses the word “soul” you have to look at the context.
The same is true of the use of the words translated “soul” in the Bible. So in order to answer this month's sermon suggestion question, “What is the difference between the soul and the ego?” we're going to have to look at definitions and contexts of both words.
The Hebrew word for “soul,” nephesh, occurs 755 times in the Old Testament. Its basic meaning, according to the New Bible Dictionary, is “possessing life” and thus refers even to animals. It also means, in certain contexts, the “seat of physical appetite” (Deuteronomy 12:15), “the seat of emotion” (Psalm 86:4), and even the “will and moral action.” (Psalm 119:129). The soul can at times mean the individual, the self. When God breathes life into the first man, the Hebrew says “he became a living soul.” Perhaps this is what prompted George Macdonald to say, "You are a soul. You have a body."
The Greek equivalent, psuche, is just as flexible as its Hebrew and English counterparts. It can mean life, the mind, the heart or the self. Again we figure out which meaning is intended by context.
The term “ego” also come from the Greek, where it basically means “I” or “me”. Later, Sigmund Freud used it to mean the part of the self that mediates between the urgings of our superego or conscience and our id or pure animal desires. But more often we use ego to mean “self-esteem,” or “conceit.” Someone who is egotistical is self-centered.
So what is the difference between the soul and the ego? Since they both can mean the “self”, it would seem as if there is no difference. But often in colloquial speech we use “soul” to mean the”higher or spiritual nature” and then there would be a difference. But biblically there is another word which tends to be used for that. It is the word “spirit.”
Spirit, ruah in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, means literally “wind or breath.” It is the word for a powerful, invisible force. It can be the life force, such as when it is part of the phrase “the breath of life.” Yet while it does in those instances overlap with the usage of the word “soul,” in the Bible 78% of the time the word refers to the spirit of a human being or the Spirit of God. So usually the word “soul” means the life or identity of a physical being; “spirit” usually means the part of the human being that comes from and is connected to God, if not God's Spirit himself.
Perhaps the clearest contrast between the two is when Paul is explaining the difference between our present body and the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our natural body, which he literally calls the “soulish body,” with our future body, which he calls the “spiritual body.” It is not a contrast of a physical body to an immaterial one but of a body ruled by its physical nature, of which the soul is the seat, as opposed to one ruled by the Spirit of God. The bodies we receive at our resurrection will have, as did Jesus', solidity and the ability to touch and be touched. They are spiritual in the sense that we will no longer be slaves to our appetites and weaknesses; we will be free to live in the Spirit without those hindrances.
There's a lot more I could go into about the body, soul and spirit but the problem is that such discussions not only seek sharp distinctions that aren't there in the Hebrew and Greek (they aren't technical languages but everyday tongues), but they also act as if these things were removable components or modules. But the Bible sees the human being as a unit. The soul or spirit is no more independent of the body than a heart and brain. Only after death can they be separated. But they belong together. And we all know that. Hence the universal horror of ghosts (spirits without bodies) and the undead (moving bodies without souls or spirits.)
We are not, as the ancient Greeks thought, spirits imprisoned in bodies or chained to corpses. We were created to be both physical and spiritual beings: amphibians, as C.S. Lewis put it. We were meant to bridge the two realms and be comfortable in either. But because we are fallen, God has sent his Son to do what we can't: reconcile the two.
Human efforts to deal with the two dimensions in which we live tend towards oversimplifying the situation. In the early church, the Gnostics painted all matter as evil and only the spirit as good. Their legacy still troubles the church.
The modern approach is to go to the opposite extreme. It is to overemphasize the physical world and to make the spiritual, at best, merely a psychological phenomenon and at worst, an illusion. Consequently most secular people neglect their spiritual nature and don't even investigate the claims of Christianity or any religion. And considering all the scientific findings about the physical and mental health benefits of religion, this is not wise. For instance, according to the Gallup organization, the more religious the country, the lower its suicide rate. Whereas 6 of the 10 least religious countries are among the 36 countries with double digit suicide rates, none of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of Christians are among them. And if you eliminate small anomalous countries like the Vatican City, and include countries with at least 10 million Christians, then only 2 of the 10 nations with the highest percentage of Christians (Poland and Romania) have double digit suicide rates. Hope is hard to maintain without the Spirit of Christ.
On the other hand, most modern spirituality is focused inward: on our personal peace, our personal happiness, our personal well-being. Its social ethics are not particularly robust. And its relationship with God is more concerned with what he can do for us than what we should do for him. Sadly some Christian churches do this, even proclaiming that God will make all the faithful wealthy. Which must be news to Jesus who counted the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the imprisoned and the immigrant among his brothers and sisters in the faith.
Because we are both spiritual and physical, our faith should be balanced between the two. It should not consist of trying to withdraw from the world, except for periods of prayer and reflection. It should not consist of denying normal healthy appetites, except for the occasional fast. It should not consist of harming or disfiguring the body. Our faith sees the body as a gift from God.
On the other hand, our faith should not value social approval over God's. It should not approve of any kind of overindulgence—in food, in sensation, even in exercise. Moderation in all these things—knowing what is enough and what is too much and observing that limit—is not only Christian virtue but also a lifesaver. Our faith however should not be afraid to push the body a bit beyond its comfort zone. Studies actually show that too much sitting can shorten your life. Don't let having a Lazyboy be an excuse for you to become one. Our gratitude for the gift of a body should motivate us to take care of it and to dedicate it to God's service.
Neither should we neglect the spiritual part of our makeup. Just as we should set aside time for physical exercise, we should set aside time for spiritual exercise—prayer, Bible study and meditation. Time spent speaking to, studying and thinking about God nourishes our spirits. And doing all of that with other people increases that sustenance. Numerous studies show a strong connection between regular church attendance and a host of physical and mental health benefits. This is a tremendous paradox to secular scientists, who have a hard time acknowledging that things of the spirit, which they think do not exist, should have measurable positive effects on our physical well-being. And yet the evidence says this is true. Even economists concede this, as demonstrated in a recent podcast of Freakonomics Radio entitled “Does Religion Make You Happy?”(here) (The answer, by the way, is "Yes.")
This only makes sense if we are in fact spiritual as well as physical beings. And since they are both part of us, what affects one can affect the other. An unhealthy or malnourished spirit can harm our physical health. And doing things that are unhealthy for our body can adversely impact our spiritual health.
This is not to say that the primary purpose of doing these things is for our own benefit. Recently Joel Olsteen's wife and co-pastor, Victoria, said, “When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy.” That's like saying, “when you love your spouse, you're not doing it for them; you're doing it for yourself. Because your spouse takes pleasure when you're happy.” The truth of the second part of the quote does not carry over to the first. Being happy for doing what we ought for God or someone else is a side effect, as is most happiness. Happiness is not something you can achieve by aiming for it. It's something that arises from doing other things—good work, helping others, entering an immersive experience, or appreciating others. They only make you happy if you lose yourself in them. If you constantly stop to take your emotional temperature, you will dissipate any real happiness.
We were created to love and to be loved by God. We can express that love physically—by doing good, by speaking, by singing, by writing, by making, by dancing, by storytelling, by doing a million things—even though that love itself is spiritual. Because the physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning. That's what we can do that neither the other animals nor the angels can. Because we were created as unions of body and spirit. Lest we lose either dimension and thus our connection to God, he sent his Son to become one of us. And through him, we can regain our balance. By keeping body and soul together, we can be whole again, as he always intended us to be. We were created in the image of God, and in Jesus we see that image clearly, expressed in terms of flesh and blood, spirit and soul, time and space and humanity. And not only do we see what God is like but in Jesus we also see what we can, and one day will, be.