About seven years ago, my wife and I visited England. We arrived at Heathrow airport near London and got a hire car to drive towards the south-west to Cornwall. We drove from the hire car depot out to the main road and onto a roundabout. But I couldn’t recognize the right turnoff, so we kept driving around the roundabout! It was overcast, so I couldn’t tell the direction from the position of the sun in the sky. And then it started to rain. So, we took an exit from the roundabout and stopped and got out a GPS and used it to find the way to go.
Since then, when we travel in a new area, we often follow Google maps. When we use it as a GPS it tells us the way to go, like “take the third exit at the roundabout”. Life is a journey with many junctions where decisions must be made. The decisions we make shape our lives. In some sense, every decision we have made – good and bad – has brought us to where we are today. We can look back on the good and bad choices we have made and can see how God has used them in our lives. Now we want to make good choices that are in line with God’s will.
In this post we are looking at why it’s important to know and understand God’s will. We will see that because God wants our will to comply with His will, nothing is as important to the life of the Christian as the will of God. That’s why God wants us to know His will.
But, what does the term “God’s will” mean? According to the dictionary, in this context, “will” means a wish, desire, choice, intention, or command. It’s what someone wants to happen. And it especially applies to someone with authority or power. For example, “It is the king’s will that the prisoner be spared”. And “A dictator imposes their will on others”.
Meaning of “will” in the Bible
The word “will” carries the idea of purpose and design. Purpose plus design equals the will of God. God has a purpose for our lives. So, “God’s will” means God’s purpose, plan or design.
The New Testament uses two main Greek nouns to describe “will” in the context of “God’s will”. The first, “boule” (Strongs #1012) often means God’s sovereign plan which is predetermined and inflexible and always comes to pass. Peter told the Jews, “This man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan (boule) and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross” (Acts 2:23NIV).
The other Greek word, “thelema” (Strongs #2307) often means God’s desire or wish. It’s God’s preferred will, which doesn’t always come to pass because it relies on human obedience.
The two wills of God
The will of God is used in two main senses in the Bible. These are “God’s sovereign will” and “God’s revealed will”.
God’s sovereign will comes from the fact that God not only created the universe, but He continues to rule over and sustain the universe. He is near, not distant. He’s not a God who created the universe and then took a holiday and left it to run on its own, while He is now remote. Instead, He has ultimate control of all that happens. He has a plan and purpose. God’s sovereign will always comes to pass. It’s hidden, and we only see it in hindsight by looking back after events have occurred, because we don’t know much about what the future holds like God does.
God’s revealed will comes from God’s commands and desires revealed in the Bible. It can be known. Because people have a free will, they can choose to either obey or disobey God’s revealed will. So, God’s revealed will doesn’t always come to pass.
The first aspect of God’s will is God’s sovereign will.
God’s sovereign will
To those who are tempted to worship idols, God said, “I am God, and there is none like me … My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please’ … What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that will I do” (Isa. 46:8-11). And King Nebuchadnezzar praised God, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34-35ESV). God plans the future and brings it to pass. God plans and governs everything.
Before Jesus was crucified He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mt. 26:39). And the early Christians prayed, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27-28). It was God’s will that Jesus die. That’s what God decided would happen. So, God has a grand cosmic plan, which is shown in the schematic diagram. It begins with the creation of time and everything else and progresses through the fall, our sinful world to which Christ came as Savior, to the restoration after Jesus returns and to the new heavens and the new earth. And He has a plan or purpose for each of us as well. This goes from our birth to our death and onto eternal life. Paul says, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Nothing can happen to us without God allowing it. In God’s providence He controls all events, all thoughts, and all plans for His own glory.
Paul reveals some of God’s sovereign will in Ephesians chapter 1. In the context of the early Jewish believers he says, that God “makes everything work out according to His plan” (Eph. 1:11NLT). God has a plan (which is His sovereign will) that is well thought out. It’s His purpose (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 3:11). It includes everything, nothing is left out of His plan. Everything that God planned will come to pass (Dan. 4:35; Rom. 11:36). And everything that happens results from God’s will in some way.
But God never does evil and the Bible never blames God for evil or sin (Job. 1:21-22; Rom. 1:12). We have seen that it was the sovereign will of God that Jesus die. But this included the sins of Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, and the Jewish leaders. This part of God’s sovereign will is also called God’s permissive will because it involves an indirect fulfillment of God’s desire. God allows ungodly behavior and uses it to fulfil His plan. At Easter we are reminded of “When God uses evil for good”. God allows the activities of Satan. He allows people to have a free will. And He allows sin and its consequences. These happen because of human choice and God’s allowance (permission). And God allows suffering and can use it for His purposes.
That’s all we will look at about God’s sovereign will. It’s good to understand God’s plan from the old creation in Genesis to the new creation in Revelation because we make our best decisions when we understand God’s ultimate plan for us and the world. This requires an understanding of the Bible.
The other aspect of God’s will is God’s revealed will.
God’s revealed will
God’s revealed will is what God commands us to do in the Bible. It can be obeyed or disobeyed. Here’s a schematic diagram to show how this will comes to us. It was God’s idea, which was revealed to the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles by the Holy Spirit. They taught about it and wrote it down and we now have it in the Bible. We can know and understand it by reading the Bible. And then we have the choice of obeying of disobeying it.
After 11 chapters of doctrine in the letter of Romans, Paul gives the practical applications for Christians. The first two verses say what’s necessary for living the Christian life. “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2NLT).
The revealed will of God is what God has revealed about Himself in the Bible. Knowing the will of God takes effort and study. It’s impossible to do the will of God without knowing it. Knowing comes before doing. But if we ignore and disobey God’s revealed will then we will be a worldly Christian with an ungodly secular lifestyle.
Paul says that the revealed will of God is good, pleasing and perfect:
– It’s intrinsically good because it’s like God’s divine nature. In fact, God’s character controls His revealed will. It’s beneficial because knowing and doing the revealed will of God brings spiritual and moral growth. If we apply the Bible in our lives, it changes and empowers us (1 Th. 2:13).
– It’s pleasing to God (1 Th. 2:4). Every Christian will ultimately be conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). This process begins on earth and is completed in heaven.
– It’s perfect (or complete). It can’t be improved (being the best). And mature believers know and apply the will of God to their lives.
God answers prayers that are in accordance with His will (Jn. 14:13-14; 1 Jn. 5:14-15). The better we know God’s will, the better our prayer life will be and the more He will answer our prayers.
Sometimes God allows things to occur which are not according to His desire. For example, God can allow us to disobey the revealed will of God or choose a sinful course of action. By choosing not to intervene to prevent the act, God is willing that it take place. So, the will of God can permit sin, but it doesn’t cause the sin. And the person is responsible for the sin, and not God. This is called God’s permissive will.
The revealed will of God also includes suffering. The Bible says to expect suffering and that suffering can mould our character (1 Pt. 5:12-17).
What’s God’s primary will for humanity?
God’s primary will for humanity
God created people with a free will to make decisions. But many reject God’s revealed will in the Bible. God’s primary will for humanity is that they turn to Christ and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness (2 Pt. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:3-4).
The message to scoffers who doubt that God is going to judge the world in a coming day is that “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). The delay is not because God doesn’t keep His promises, but because he is patient in giving people more time to be saved from this judgement. That’s the major desire of God’s revealed will.
Paul said that a reason to pray for all people is that God, “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4). Here he uses the title “God our Savior” because God wants everyone to be saved from their sin. There are two parts to this salvation: divine and human. “To be saved” is passive. We can’t save ourselves, but must be saved by God. And to be saved, we must “come to a knowledge of the truth”. God doesn’t save people against their will. He doesn’t populate heaven with rebellious subjects. Then Paul summarizes the gospel message “There is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave His life to purchase freedom for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:5-6).
Although God wants everyone to be saved, yet not everyone will be saved. God wanted the Israelites to travel from Egypt to Canaan, but most of them didn’t get there. Instead they wandered in the wilderness for 38 years where most of them died. They missed out of the promised blessing.
What’s God’s will for believers?
God’s will for believers
Once we’re saved, God has a further will for our lives. Forgiveness of sins is an entree to a life dedicated to the fulfilment of the will of God. God’s will is something for us to do, not just to believe or affirm. Because God loves us, His will for us is in our best interests.
Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12:50; Mk .3:35; Lk. 8:21). So, obeying God’s revealed will is evidence of membership in His spiritual family.
Paul says, “do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 1:17). We need to know and understand what the will of the Lord is before we can do it.
Paul prayed for the Colossians, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way” (Col. 1:9-10). God wants us to fill our minds with His will so that we can “live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way”. Isn’t that what we want to do?
John says, “The (sinful) world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn. 2:17). And Peter says, “they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Pt. 4:2). The will of God is opposite to the sinful desires of this world. One is eternal and the other is temporary. God’s will for our lives is the most important standard for Christian living. It’s the true purpose for the life of the believer. It should characterize Christians.
It’s like moving to a new job. We learn all about the business, its goals, vision and mission. We want to be accepted. Similarly, when we become Christians, we should find out God’s will for our lives and do it. We don’t want to displease our Boss.
There are certain things God wants us to do and not do. God’s will includes our growth to be like Christ and to glorify Him in all things. And there are good works for us to do: “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).
Because God has given us His revealed will, He is interested in our lives. But who do we live for?
Who do we live for?
When defending himself against false teachers Paul reveals the motive for his behavior: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:14-15NIV). The key point is that Paul was driven by Christ’s love – “Christ’s love compels us”. This love was revealed when “one (Jesus) died for all (everyone)”. And the reason He died was so that His followers “should no longer live for themselves but for Him (Jesus) who died for them and was raised again”. We should stop living for ourselves, and start living for Jesus, the Son of God. God wants us to be godly, not selfish. That’s a challenge to us. Who do we live for? Ourselves? Our family? Our church? God? You may say, “all of the above”. But in what priority? Jesus teaches that our top priority should be to follow Him (Mt. 10:37; 13:44-46; Lk. 14:26).
In this chapter of the Bible Paul also gives another motivation for his behavior. In the context of our death and resurrection, he says, “We make it our goal to please Him (Christ) … For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9-10). We will give an account to Jesus about what we have done with our lives. Jesus will judge our lives. And then we will be rewarded accounting to what we have done. This is about rewards, not salvation. We are saved by faith, but we are rewarded according to our obedience to His will. Is our goal to please God? Or is it to please ourselves? Let’s be like Paul who wanted to please Christ.
When the Corinthians disputed about what leader they followed, Paul said “they (each leader) will each be rewarded according to their own labor” (1 Cor. 3:8). Likewise, each believer will be rewarded according to how much they have lived for God compared to how much they lived without considering what God would want them to do. Then he says, “their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day (of judgment) will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:13-15). This is a metaphor saying that in future our behavior will be judged by Jesus Christ. As a fire reveals what’s combustible and what’s not combustible, Jesus will reveal what’s done in accordance with His will and what’s not done in accordance with His will. So, there are eternal consequences for how we live our lives.
It’s best to live for God because He created our world and He continues to sustain it. It’s always best to follow the maker’s instructions. Job said, “the life of every living thing is in His (God’s) hand, and the breath of every human being” (Job. 12:10). And Paul said, “Everything was created through Him and for Him (Col. 1:16NLT). This includes us. God is the source of our life.
What are the consequences of living outside God’s will?
Consequences of living outside God’s will
The Bible teaches that there are consequences to how we live our lives. The Israelites died in the wilderness. Saul and Solomon lost their kingdoms. When the Galatians were living outside God’s will by following sinful ways Paul listed the consequences. They lost the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23NLT). Instead, they practiced: “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). So, they lapsed into sinful habits. Those who make their decisions without seeking God’s guidance will be vulnerable to Satan’s attacks.
True love and freedom only exists in the will of God (Jn. 8:32). The freedom outside of God’s ways is only a freedom to do more sin. A sin is anything that isn’t pleasing to God. It may be something we do or say, or an evil thought or selfish motive — but whatever it is, it isn’t God’s will. Sin is anything outside God’s will. It hinders and entangles us (Heb. 12:1). And God hates sin.
God told Adam and Eve not to eat from one particular tree because He wanted to protect them. That’s the beauty of obedience. It protects like a boundary fence. In Australia, schools have boundary fences. It’s safe inside them. And parents teach children not to cross the street when a car is coming. These are protective boundaries.
The Australian cricket captain Steve Smith knows that there are consequences for disobeying the laws of cricket (he has been banned from playing for 12 months). Likewise, there are consequences if we disobey God’s revealed will.
Knowing and doing
But knowing God’s revealed will is not enough. It’s like an App on your smartphone which is no good unless you activate it. The App is comprised of coded instructions. Just having it sitting in your phone and not using it is no better than not having it at all. But when you press the icon the program is activated, and you see the results on the screen. When we obey God’s revealed will it is activated, and we will see the results in our lives and in those around us.
Epaphras prayed that the Colossians “may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12ESV, NET). This means that they understand and apply the principles of Bible to their situations in life. There is nothing better for us than doing “all the will of God”. But the will of God may hurt; it may be an uphill battle.
Do you know that suffering comes by the will of God?
Suffering comes by the will of God
God created humanity with the freedom to make choices. This includes choosing between good and bad, right and wrong. We aren’t robots that only respond to instructions and we aren’t driven only by instinct. Because we can make choices, we will experience the consequences of these choices.
Peter said, “it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Pt. 3:17). It is God’s will to do what is right, even if suffering is the result. And undeserved suffering makes us partners in Christ’s suffering.
Peter also said, “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pt. 4:19). We are to continue trusting the God who made us (as part of the original creation) and who saved us (as part of the new creation) because He is faithful. We should hand over the control of our lives to Him.
Why is it important to know God’s will?
We have seen that the Bible gives at least 13 reasons why it’s important to know God’s will. Knowing and living for God’s will for us:
Shows us the only way to heaven. By faith in Christ.
Shows us how to live.
Gives meaning to our lives. This motivates us and gives us a passion.
Helps us make decisions. How do we spend our time and resources? These are limited. We can’t do everything we want to do. Instead if we know God’s will, we can focus on what’s important.
Develops our character and values. We adopt godly thinking and a godly lifestyle. We “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). We become more Christ-like. We reap the fruit of the Spirit.
Enables growth towards spiritual maturity.
Prepares us for heaven. When Jesus asks, “What did you do with the life I gave you?”, it will it be obvious if we lived for ourselves or for God’s plan for us. This life is preparation for the next. And we aren’t reincarnated on earth.
Brings assurance and contentment.
Improves our prayer life.
Is evidence of membership in God’s spiritual family.
Protects us from losing the fruit of the Spirit.
Protects us from sinful habits.
Because God wants our will to comply with His will, nothing is as important to the life of the Christian as the will of God. That’s why God wants us to know His will (Acts 22:14), to understand His will (Eph. 5:17), and to do His will (Mt. 7:21).
But whose will is dominant in our lives? Ours or God’s? Let’s make knowing and understanding God’s will for us a way of life. A part of our character. A regular commitment. Then it will guide and influence our mind and conscience and emotions and all the things we do.
Written, April 2018
Also see: How to find God’s will
There are many choices in life and difficult decisions to make. The Bible tells us how to experience God’s guidance at these times. Proverbs 3:5-6NIV was written by King Solomon to the Israelites about 3,000 years ago and is still true for us today. It says:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
This passage on God’s guidance mentions our part, which is to trust and submit to God; and God’s part, which is to guide us through life.
First it says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart”. Who do we trust in? It’s dangerous to trust in someone who is unreliable and foolish. Here the Israelites were told to trust in their God who made the universe and who had led them from slavery in Egypt to Solomon’s mighty kingdom. Solomon’s father, King David, said “In You our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and You delivered them” (Ps. 22:3). So they knew that God had answered their prayers for help and had kept His promise to make them into a great nation. We now know that God also provided a Savior for us in Jesus Christ, so today we can trust the Lord for both our eternal destiny and our daily lives.
How should we trust God? It says with all our heart or wholeheartedly like Caleb – five verses of the Old Testament say he followed the Lord wholeheartedly (Num. 14:24; Dt. 1:36; Josh. 14:6-14).
Second it says, “lean not on your own understanding”. It’s also dangerous to trust in no one except ourselves and act alone when making important decisions. Instead it’s better to consult with others. This applies even more with God because we don’t know what is best for us and others don’t have God’s insight and wisdom. If we make decisions without consulting the Lord, then we don’t allow Him to guide us.
Third it says, “in all your ways submit to Him”. We should not leave God out of our lives, but remember Him, acknowledge Him, seek His will and do it, and serve Him faithfully. This applies “in all your ways”, which is every area of our lives. Every day of the week, not just Sunday!
Summarizing, our part is to trust and submit to God and not rely on ourselves. It’s to be a commitment like marriage.
God’s part is a conditional promise; if the Israelites did their part, God promised to do His part. Likewise; if we do our part, God will do His part.
The promise is given as a metaphor: “He will make your paths straight”. As paths lead to a destination, it means we will have direction and a sense of purpose as we progress towards His goals for us. There’s no doubt about it, “He will make your paths straight”. This promise is repeated in, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans” (Prov. 16:3).
There are many options and paths in life. Have you ever followed a GPS that guided you along a long route rather than the most direct one? This is a promise that God will guide us past the detours, the side tracks and the obstacles on the pathway of life and bring us to our goal and destination. If we don’t trust Him, we add obstacles and side tracks to our daily path, which hinder us from achieving God’s will.
How does God guide us through life? He can use principles in the Bible (Acts 17:11), answered prayer (Jas. 1:5), advice from godly Christians, circumstances coming together, and an inward peace (Phil. 4:6-7, Col. 3:15) along the pathway.
Let’s do our part by trusting and submitting to God, so He can do His by guiding us through life. Let’s realize that we can’t live for the Lord in our own strength.
Written, May 2013
We are often unaware of the unseen invisible component to our world. I sometimes picture this as being like an extra dimension. For example, if we lived in a flat 2-dimensional world and someone visited us from a 3-dimensional world, then we would only see their footprints.
According to the Bible the unseen world is made up of various personalities: the divine God comprised of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God’s angels who help believers; Satan who opposes God; and Satan’s demons who are rebellious angels. We are only partially aware of these personalities; like the footprints of a 3-dimensional being in a 2-dimensional world. Let’s look at the human spirit and soul which is another part of the unseen world that can be influenced by these divine and satanic personalities.
The Bible describes human beings as being comprised of spirit, soul and body: “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:23NIV). The meanings of these Greek words are given below and their relationship is shown in the schematic diagram.
‘Pneuma’, which means ‘wind’, something which is invisible, is used to describe the spirit. The human spirit enables our conscience, intuition, God consciousness and communication with God (Mk. 2:8; Jn. 4:24; Rom. 8:16; 9:1). It is the spirit which distinguishes us from animals; they do not have such an eternal spirit. It is a way in which people are “made in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27; Jn. 4:24). We can view the human spirit as our innermost world.
‘Psuche’ (the origin of the English word ‘psyche’), which means ‘breath’, something which is invisible, is used to describe the soul. It is our self consciousness, personality and ego. It includes the mind (our intellect, Acts 14:2, 22), the will (our desires, decisions and morals, Mt. 22:37) and the emotions (our feelings). We can view this as being between our spirit and our body. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between the spirit and the soul (Heb. 4:12).
‘Soma”, which means the body. It is sense consciousness, which relates to the physical world. We can view the spirit and soul as living within the body.
The processes of death and resurrection reveal important aspects of the components of human beings. The Bible describes these aspects as the body (which is visible) and the spirit and soul (which are invisible). At death, the visible and invisible aspects are separated: the spirit and soul leave the body and go to Hades or paradise, while the body decays to dust (Eccl. 12:7; Lk. 23: 43,46; Acts 7:59; 2 Cor. 5;8; Jas. 2:26). After death the spirit and the soul are fully conscious with feelings memories and emotions (Lk. 16:23-31). Also, Paul was fully conscious when he was translated to paradise (2 Cor. 12:2,3). So death is not the end of a human being. The Bible teaches that all the dead will be resurrected back to life. Resurrection is the opposite of death, being the reunion of the spirit and soul with a new body (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Rev. 20:5,6,13).
The first people, Adam and Eve were each created as a body in union with a soul and spirit. All these parts interrelate and depend on each other; this is essential for healthy physical life. For example, the brain (part of the body) is like computer hardware and the mind (part of the soul) in like computer software that programs the brain. People need both. You only have one without the other in death.
Adam and Eve’s soul and spirit were in union with God. They freely spoke with God in the Garden of Eden. They were in paradise on earth where there was safety and security (all their needs were catered for); significance (they ruled over the creation); and authority (Adam named the creatures). They had a sense of belonging, with fulfilling relationships with God and with each other.
The fall into sin
Adam and Eve’s rebellion and disobedience began in their mind (Gen. 3:5-6). Satan sowed doubt in their mind and they desired more knowledge and wisdom. This led to a radical change in our world (Gen. 3:8-4:9). Some of the consequences in our unseen world are described below.
Their spirit was dead to God. They lost their close relationship with God and came under Satan’s influence. They died spiritually when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Consequently, they were banished from the Garden and lost their safety and security and their sense of belonging (Gen. 3: 23,24). Just as we have inherited physical life from our first parents, we have also inherited this spiritual death from them (Eph. 2:1-3). Today the unbeliever is without God and separate from Christ (Eph. 2:12; 4:18).
Their mind lost knowledge of God. They thought they could hide from God (Gen. 3:8). They were the first example of the ungodly who “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Eph. 4:18).
Their will made a wrong choice. They failed the first test of obedience (Gen. 2:17). They refused the rule of the spirit and became the slave of the body (Gal. 5:16-17). All choices have consequences. The choices made by the ungodly affect all areas of their lives.
Their emotions were characterised by negative feelings. Adam hid because he was afraid (Gen. 3:10). They felt shame and guilt and Cain was angry and depressed when his offering was not accepted by God (Gen. 3:7; 4:5). The ungodly are characterised by “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (Gal. 5:19-21).
The Bible describes unbelievers as being “psuchikos”, which means “governed by the soul” (1 Cor. 2:14; Jude 19). As there is no adjective for “soul” in English that is equivalent to this Greek word, some have suggested we call it “soulish”. This means that that they are largely driven by their minds and emotions. But what influences their minds and emotions? As they are spiritually dead, it is not God. The only other active personalities in the unseen world are Satan and his demons. This results in “soulish” behaviour such as jealousy and selfish ambition (Jas. 3:14-16).
“Psuchikos” is also used to describe our bodies (1 Cor. 15:44,46). This means that we were born with a body that is governed by the soul and not by a spirit that is alive to God.
The spiritual believer
God’s plan of salvation is to restore His relationship with people that was destroyed by their fall into sin. This begins at conversion when the human spirit changes to become united with God’s Spirit. This is like a new creation, which changes the soul (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). It leads to the following changes within a believer, who is described as being spiritual, not soulish (1 Cor. 2:15).
Their spirit is alive to God. Their spirit has been made alive by the Holy Spirit, the Lord is with their spirit and they live according to God in regard to the spirit (Jn. 3:6; 2 Tim. 4:22; 1 Pt. 4:6). They are “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:18). This is associated with forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38), safety, significance and belonging because they are accepted as children of God (Rom. 8:16; 15:7).
Their mind is renewed and transformed. They should be transformed by the renewing of their mind (Rom. 12:2). They have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and should be single-minded thinking of things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8).
Their will chooses to live by the Spirit. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Now we face many choices each day: whether to pray or not, read the Bible or not, go to church or not, talk to another or not, and follow God or not.
Their emotions are the fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).
The spiritual believer is the ideal, the model of maturity to which we should be growing. Of course, Satan opposes the believer’s growth to maturity. Some Scriptures use the words “soul” and “spirit” in similar senses, which can be confusing. Maybe this is because in the mature Christian the spirit should be ruling and leading the soul. So in a sense they are similar.
The soulish believer
Unfortunately this is not always the case in practice because when we become a Christian the “clear” button in our brain is not always pressed: our mind is not completely renewed. We have ingrained “soulish” habits and patterns of behaviour that still appeal to our mind to operate independently of God. This is because Satan and sin are still around in our world. As shown below, this can affect all the parts of our being.
Their spirit is alive to God, but quenched. The Holy Spirit indwells all believers, but He can be quenched. Paul wrote “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th. 5:19).
Their mind is double-minded and selfish. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (Jas. 1:5-8). We can be caught between God’s plans and our plans when we are not following God’s Spirit. Our plans can be influenced by sinful habits and Satan.
Their will chooses sinful behavior. They will not always be walking after the Spirit but choosing to be involved in sinful activity.
Their emotions are unstable and they rely on their feelings. They are plagued with negative feelings of guilt, worry, doubt, inferiority, insecurity and inadequacy. If fear is controlling our life, then faith is not.
In this case, their life is not being controlled by the indwelling Spirit of God. Instead, as shown below, the soul is governing the life through the mind, will and emotions. It is self-centred. We can only tell which is controlling their lives by its fruits (Mt. 7:16-17).
The soulish mind, will and emotions
The mind. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual (‘psuchikos’ or ‘soulish’), demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (Jas. 3:13-16). In this case the human mind is being influenced by Satan. It is characterised by selfish ambition and rivalry and leads to disorder and evil. It is a great contrast to the spiritual believer who is peace-loving, considerate and impartial (Jas. 3:17-18).
The will. “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings” (1 Cor. 3:3-4)? They are described as being “sarkikos” (v.3), which means “of the flesh” (or body) rather than being spiritual. Here we see that people were following other people rather than the Holy Spirit within them. Those with strong wills and strong personalities can dominate others. This can lead to jealousy, quarrelling and factions within the church (Jude 19).
The emotions. We should live by faith, not by feelings. Emotions should not dominate our life. We should follow the Holy Spirit and not attempt to lead the Holy Spirit by our emotions. Are we always seeking spiritual experiences? Do we always need to feel the presence of God with us?
Our mind and our emotions are important parts of our being. We need to use them for God. Who ever influences our mind, influences our whole person. The Bible is the best influence as “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Here the word “heart” means the “seat of thoughts” (Vine), which is the mind.
Lessons for us
Each of us is a spirit who has a soul and lives in a body. Let’s not fall into Satan’s traps, but let God direct our ways so that we can be strengthened with power through His Spirit in our inner being and renewed inwardly day by day (2 Cor 4:16; Eph. 3:16). Finally, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:23).
1 In Scripture, the Greek word ‘pneuma’ (spirit) is also used for evil spirits or demons (Mk. 6:7; Acts 19:16). Words convey a variety of meanings; the context determines a word’s meaning.
2 In Scripture, the Greek word ‘psuche’ (soul) is also used for ‘life’ (Mt. 16:26) and the will (Mt. 22:37).