We are going to be spending this week and the next two on the subject of the spiritual disciplines. I am putting them together as three imperatives—breathe, eat, work. When God put Adam into this world, He gave him the breath of life, He gave him food to eat, and He gave him work to do. This is the pattern we should receive from Him as we seek to order our lives rightly.
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7).
Summary of the Text
Although we were created and fashioned in the image of God, it remains a fact that we are utterly dependent creatures. The Lord God shaped and fashioned man out of the dust of the ground. When He was done “sculpting,” He had a very fine statue, but still lifeless. God then breathed the breath of life into His work. At that moment Adam became a living soul. And ever since that first breath, if God ever takes His breath away, all creatures, man and animal alike, return necessarily to the dust of the ground (Ps. 104:29-30).
The Meaning of Death
Our physical life is a spiritual reality, but we all recognize that there is more to our spiritual lives than just physical breathing. But we know that non-Christians have souls, for example. What do we have that they do not?
In the Bible, death refers to separation more than it refers to simple cessation. In the Garden, God told Adam that the day they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would die (Gen. 2:17). But what happened when they did? They were exiled from the garden, separated from the communion with God that they had enjoyed before (Gen. 3:24). And when Adam died physically, 70 years shy of a millennium later, what happened was that his soul and his body were then separated (Gen. 5:5). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), which means that because we are sinners, we are separated from God, estranged from Him (Col. 1:21).
This is why is says in Ephesians that when we were non-Christians we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), in which trespasses we used to walk (Eph. 2:2). That is the biblical picture—dead but walking around. So the death cannot refer to a condition of being like stone, or like nothing. It refers to separation.
And when we are quickened in regeneration, we are made alive spiritually. Now the soul and spirit can be very hard to distinguish (Heb. 4:12), but there is a difference. Someone who is truly regenerate is quickened in the inner man (2 Cor. 4:16). “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Col. 2:13).
The Word for Spirit
The word for spirit in Greek is pneuma. Interestingly, that is also the word for wind, and it is also the word for breath.
“The wind [pneuma] bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit [pneuma]” (John 3:8).
The Lord’s whole point here is designed to make us aware of how utterly sovereign the Holy Spirit is. We cannot whistle Him up. On a windy day, you cannot capture some in a paper bag to take home and show everybody. We cannot manufacture aerosol cans that will spray someone with the breath of life. This is outside of our control.
Gotta Be Alive
The spiritual disciplines all work within an assumed context of life.
But an entire religious industry has sprung up trying to make food attractive to corpses, and trying to get dead bodies to contribute more than they do.
One of the most remarkable things about life is that it incorporates, naturally and readily, the things around it that are conducive to its well-being.
But think for a moment about this. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). Healthy babies are born hungry—you don’t have to teach them to be hungry. Their hunger is a sign of life. They have been given the breath of life. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, ESV). There it is again—born hungry.
Impressive Activity, But . . .
People who are separated from God, who are not in fellowship with Him, can do an impressive number of things that have a religious nature. They can give their bodies to be burned, and they can help the poor (1 Cor. 13:3). They can speak with the tongues of men and angels (1 Cor. 13:1). But, despite all of this activity, the whole enterprise amounts to a bunch of nothing.
In fact, climbing the highest mountain and swimming the deepest sea is what the unregenerate (but religious) man wants to do. It is an impulse that makes good sense to him, and doing anything else doesn’t make sense to him. When Naaman came to Elisha to be healed, the simplicity of the assigned task infuriated him. But his servants wisely observed that if he had been told to do some great thing, he would have done it (2 Kings 5:13). And why? Because great deeds flatter us. Receiving grace as beggar supplicants does not flatter us.
Where It Begins
There are no spiritual disciplines for creating life. Only the gospel creates life. Once given, life incorporates nutrients. Life seeks out nutrients. Life bends its entire nature toward that end.
So the first spiritual discipline is checking for a pulse. The first spiritual discipline is making sure you are alive. Breathe.
And to be alive, the God of Heaven must breathe His Holy Spirit into you.