“For 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.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Look at that list of descriptors about the “Word of God” here. It is alive. It is active. It is sword-sharp. It is penetrative, divisive. It judges the secrets buried deep within a person, “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Clearly, this needs a little unpacking.
The Bible invariably speaks of the heart as the central driving mechanism of our motives and hopes. And the “Word of God” weighs up from whence those motivations spring. It has the ability to decipher what springs from your soul and what springs from your spirit. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Your spirit and soul are two different entities, but only God’s Word can separate the two.
We are spirit beings, but the Bible also teaches that we each possess a soul and we live in a body: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole SPIRIT and SOUL and BODY be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. (1 Thess 5:23)
It’s easy to distinguish our body from our spirit or even from our soul, because the body is the part of us that’s visible and contacts the physical, tangible realm. With the body, we contact the physical realm. With our spirit, (or “heart”), we contact the spiritual realm. And with our soul—including our mind, will, and emotions—we contact the intellectual and emotional realms.
If I am a Christian, then the Word of God has a central role in shaping my behaviour and my responses. As I begin “renewing my mind” with God’s Word, I am positioning myself to follow God’s lead.
My question here is: How do I learn to listen? How do I respond to the scripture that says:” For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:14) How do I process all the stray bits of information that come to my spirit, soul and body? How do I learn to distinguish between the voice of the “soul” and the voice of the “Spirit”?
Of course, it’s true that at times, my physical senses provide urgent warning messages. “Fire hot!” (I learned that quite young). But I’m talking about listening to my spirit, in situations for which there may be no physical explanation. My physical senses might say, “Run from this problem!” Or my mind might say, “There’s no way out!”
But in those kinds of situations, I need to receive the Holy Spirit’s direction and stand on God’s Word without wavering. Successfully following God’s plan for my life depends on what I choose to listen to—my physical senses or the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit. If I only listened to my physical senses or to my mind, I’d eventually lose the peace and joy that God intends for me. I would also forfeit the victories God intended for me to have.
It’s easy, for example, to become discouraged by focusing unduly on what the TV announces, or what a “well-meaning” neighbour tells you about your shortcomings (!) or even a medical prognosis. You start to think: “Will I make it through? What’s to become of us?” But it doesn’t matter what your mind or your physical senses tell you! It doesn’t matter what the news media says! Regardless of what the circumstances look like, the Word of God is still true.
And if I can just get quiet on the inside and begin listening to what my spirit is saying, the Holy Spirit will minister the truth of God’s Word to me.
But what about distinguishing our spirit from our soul? It’s much more difficult to distinguish between our spirit and our soul, because they are intangible, unseen parts of our being. Yet it is vitally important that we learn how to correctly distinguish between the two. If we don’t, we won’t be able to successfully listen and be led by the Holy Spirit in the circumstances of life.
Hebrews 4:12 shows that the spirit and soul are separate entities, and they can be divided or distinguished. The Word of God “divides asunder” or separates the soul and spirit of man because they are two separate and distinct entities. There would be no need to divide them if they were the same. For instance, if you tried to separate water from water, you would find it is impossible. You cannot separate something from itself.
But two distinct entities can be separated. If water and dirt are mixed together in a container, the muddy water is still basically made up of two different elements: water and dirt. If left undisturbed, the mud would settle to the bottom of the container. The mud could be separated from the water, because dirt and water are two separate entities.
Similarly, although the spirit and soul are intertwined within the nature of each of person, they can be separated from each other because they are two separate entities. But they can only be separated and distinguished by the Word of God.
The truth is, you can only follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in your spirit, or heart, if you are continually renewing your mind with the Word of God (Rom. 12:2). You become more sensitive to God and the things of God when your mind is being renewed with the Word.
If you continually fill your mind with God’s Word by reading, meditating on, and speaking the Word, you will begin responding to circumstances in line with the Word rather than from your physical senses or from your emotions—according to the way you used to think.
So just stay faithful to daily receive the Word into your heart and mind (James 1:21), and it will become easier to listen to your spirit with confidence, following the Holy Spirit’s leading in all the situations of life.