A few days ago, I returned from a three-week outreach trip in a tropical island nation. I witnessed God at work in some very exciting ways, opportunities to pray with individuals, physical healings and transformed communities. It all filled me with renewed hope that He is very active in the world and His kingdom is here and expanding!
But, being just south of the equator, I also sweated more than I ever have in my life. In addition, I slept on some very hard floors. The combination of heat, high humidity, body odor that comes with such conditions as well as unmaintained outhouses and bathing in rivers smothered my Minnesota-trained senses. There were many less-than spiritual experiences. Without air conditioner, electric fan, running water or a soft mattress I found myself constantly focusing on my physical discomfort. It screamed at me for attention! And it took great effort to stay tuned-in to what God was doing and saying.
Oh how easy it is to dwell on surface-level feelings and perspectives as opposed to the eternal, non-perishable qualities of life. God was touching people’s lives around me, and I was day-dreaming about Coca Cola and ice cubes.
Slowly, I became aware of a quieter call deep within my spirit that I realize now is often ignored. It was gently but firmly pushing outward, telling me there was something more nourishing and life-giving pulsating under the surface: God’s never-slumbering love at work. It rarely raised its voice, but quietly encouraged me to decide what I truly wanted—surface-level comfort or a connection with real, satisfying life. Of course, this was not an “it.” The voice of the Spirit of God was urging me to open my spiritual senses so He could take me beyond my fleshly cravings.
Advice from Jesus
Jesus rebuked those who were following Him after He fed the crowd with the multiplied loaves and fishes (John 6:1-13). In essence He told them that they were so focused on their stomachs that they were missing the true nourishment that was right in front of them—Himself. He then went on to talk about His body being true bread and His blood being true drink (John 6:26-58). It’s a strange and uncomfortable metaphor for those focused on mere surface satisfaction. Yet we now can see that it was an allusion to what we know as holy communion and our need for spiritual nourishment as much as physical sustenance. Jesus was trying to connect His disciples’ familiarity with the physical world to the spiritual reality that would give them divine life. The two are meant to work together.
So what am I to do with my tendency to focus only on the physical sensations pounding on me? Rid myself of all physical desires? Perhaps if I can get to the place where I ignore the physical world, and it’s no longer my reality, then I can be who God meant me to be. A pure spiritual man, right?
The Christian Faith is unique in its ability to bridge two extremes common in religious thought. On one end are those who look for only practical benefits. They focus on how religion improves their personal here and now, that is the comforts of social, economic and physical life today. And if they cannot immediately see or feel how it’s making their lives any better then they’re ready to move on to something else.
On the other far end are those interested in the ethereal aspects of religion. They can spiritualize everything to the point that the idea of divine incarnation and physical resurrection are not necessary, and for some even offensive. Jesus’ historical reality typically doesn’t matter to them. It’s only the spiritual truths He represents that are important: love, tolerance and justice—lofty virtues and ideals. Christ’s physical reality and His commands that attempt to penetrate into their physical behavior disrupt a spiritual tranquility they have formed in their minds. Keep it all spiritual and private. A flesh and blood Jesus doing very physical things with specific standards and practical expectations doesn’t fit their idea of good religion.
He was both
Jesus walked the radical middle. He was a historical figure, born completely human. He performed miracles that enhanced physical life and comfort (John 2:1-11) and He identified with and honored the moral expectations of the Old Testament Law (Matthew 5:17-20). Yet He also taught that He was more than a man, the divine Son of God (John 14:9-11). He called His followers to look beyond the immediate legalism (as in the scripture in John 6) and to adjust their attitudes to match God’s overall spiritual expectations (Read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). He allowed Himself to suffer physically on a very real cross in order to make eternal spiritual gains for those He loved (all of us). He tenderly and tolerantly embraced the outcasts but then called them to change their sinful physical behavior (John 8:1-11). He then left us with the challenge to follow Him in His physical example and sufferings with supernatural glory promised for the future.
Ultimately, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan to join heaven and earth. The physical and the spiritual come together in Him as a preview of what God has in mind for all of His children as well as all He has created on the earth. After His very real death, He was resurrected with a recognizable but new physical body that could do things that defy physics as we understand it. He could suddenly appear specter-like in a locked room but then eat fish with His disciples to prove He wasn’t a ghost (Luke 24:35-43)—an imperishable physicality infused with and powered by divine Spirit. He is a picture of future resurrection hope for all His followers as well as the remaking of the physical earth and cosmos (1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21-22). It’s an image of what is to come that He’s calling His followers to.
What does this mean for us?
How are we preparing ourselves for this new way of living—fully physical yet unimaginably spiritual?
For the present, we are not to stop feeling the heat and humidity or get to the point where we don’t smell foul odors or feel any discomfort. But we are called to look for something else that is going on in the midst of it all. Who around us does He want to touch today? Into what circumstance does He want us to infuse His joy? There is something under the surface that is pushing into this world that will finally be complete when Jesus returns. Heaven is seeking to break into our everyday physical world—our work, our relationships, our daily choices. Jesus wants to show us how to live our earthly lives expecting His supernatural guidance, wisdom and power in the most mundane places. Can we stop and get a glimpse of it? Are our hearts prepared to receive it, cooperate with it, take even baby steps and act on it?
“But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval.” John 6:27 NLT
As humans we were made to intersect both the physical and spiritual realms—a foot in each territory— until they finally join together in the end. I remember being advised as a young man to not be so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good, which is actually sound advice. But it should be balanced with this: don’t be so earthly minded that you’re no heavenly good.
We’re called to be both, like Him.