If you live according to the limits of the natural body, your thoughts will conform to a physical mindset. If you live according to the spirit, your mindset will be spiritual. Paul says that a spiritual mindset is life and harmony, while the mindset of human nature alone is death.
What does Paul mean, that our mindset by nature is death? Paul is a thinker — a philosopher and a theologian — so he expresses his thought in terms of the ultimate end or purpose of our lives. The end of our physical existence is death, decay, and dissolution. The natural mind can't get beyond that; it does not have the power. If our physical end defines the whole of our purpose in living, then we have a mindset which is unable to please God — indeed, it is hostile toward God, who is spirit and truth, not dissolution and decay.
The natural mindset is twisted in on itself. Our minds on their own can't find a straight path beyond ourselves but keep curving back to what we can know through our own senses and experiences.
Now this curvedness is natural, Martin Luther
said while lecturing on Romans 8;
it is a natural
defect and a natural evil. Hence, man gets no help
from the powers of his nature, but he is in need of
some more effective help from the outside.
So we have Jacob on the road, running away. Why is Jacob running? The backstory is that Jacob cheated his brother by deceiving his father at the urging of his mother. Jacob is on his way to his maternal uncle, an escape that his mother orchestrated by tricking his father again. Down the road, Jacob's uncle will cheat him and then Jacob will cheat and steal from his uncle.
(Jacob has recently been a popular name. The peak was 36,007 Jacobs born in 1998. I hope that is not because parents want their little boys to grow up to be thieves and cheats like Jacob the Patriarch. Perhaps they hope their sons will grow up loved by God, who showed Isaac's son a truth beyond his merely human nature.)
Jacob goes to sleep out in the field, his head on a
stone, and he dreams his dream of Jacob's Ladder.
When he wakes up — terrified — Jacob says,
God is here, and I didn't know it! This is
surely true. There or anywhere, Jacob's cheating life
shows that he did not know God was present. His mind
(like ours) was twisted in on itself. His mindset
was limited to personal advantage, economic power,
wives and lambs and getting away. He had the mindset
of human nature.
A spiritual mindset is life and harmony.
God stepped into Jacob's story to show him (and us) that there is more to life than what his physical senses let him see. God is there, there is a stair connecting earth with heaven, and the power of God moves between, down and up.
Paul says, shouldn't we kill off what is dead anyway — this mindset based on transiency — and breathe in the beautiful life? The true life?
Look at the flower in full bloom — I have a hibiscus plant that blooms with rich orange blossoms. It was given to my mother when my father died. In the spring of the following year my mother was the one approaching death and this hibiscus started to bloom again. My mother made us move the flower with her from assisted living to hospital to nursing home and it kept right on blooming until after she died.
One year later, it bloomed again. Then it stopped.
Ten years later, on the anniversary of my mother's death (which is also my father's birthday), the hibiscus plant bloomed its bright orange blossom once again.
Each time the plant bloomed, I wanted to hold onto the flower forever. But hibiscus blossoms only last a few days and then they wither and die. Whenever I see the flower in full bloom, I see the end of it. The physical body withers and wastes away; the end of the natural body is death.
Paul doesn't mean we ought to kill off the hibiscus. Paul means that we should kill off the mindset that is focused on flowers that do not last. The most beautiful flower is transient and already dying. Jacob's economic advantage, his wives and his lambs, are transient and already dying.
A spiritual mindset is life and harmony.
Our experience tells us that everything wastes away
and anything we have is subject to being lost. Our
lives, our natural human lives, become dominated by
the fear of loss. Some of us spend our days averse to
losing what we love (or who we love) and obsessively
try to protect them from danger. Or we invest our
time storing up reserves of money, or supplies, or
friends against some looming catastrophe. Luther said,
who is prudent in the flesh has a horrible
fear of death, stupidity, sin, etc.
On the first of July, Fluffy Angel Kitty disappeared. She's my third cat, so I've become somewhat accustomed to cats vanishing, each in their own unique manner. Of all my cats, Fluffy is the most adept at dematerializing. I am not certain precisely what Fluffy's breeding might be; I'm inclined to guess that she is part Cheshire.
Even so, I worried. I was pretty sure that Fluffy was inside the house, but I searched the yard. Fluffy will seldom come when she is called, but I called her. I asked Wheatley Cat and Buddy Dog if they had any ideas where Fluffy could be. I started remembering how the police humane officer works, in case someone had found her bedraggled in the rain. Stories about hawks and eagles rose in my memory as I failed in my attempts to sleep.
It turns out that even Fluffy's appearance for a snack at 2:00 a.m. was not enough to quell my fears that she was gone forever.
Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert give us a
Unlike other animals, they
human beings spend a lot of time thinking
about what is not going on around them, contemplating
events that happened in the past, might happen in the
future, or will never happen at all.
Fear of things that will never happen, nostalgia for things which have never been, hope for the entirely impossible — it is what defines us, what makes us human beings and not, for example, cats. If you own a cat, you worry. If you have a social conscience, you must worry. If you have a child, you fear all of the dangers which lurk in the world while you hope for a wonderful but often implausible future.
It is an exercise in futility, but it is our nature.
To live in God is to hope for more than that. Or not just to hope, but to expect, to live expectantly, to look eagerly for something we are sure of. Look with your eyes; you see no stairway to heaven. Listen with your ears; you hear no angel footsteps climbing up and down. But that stairway is what defines us, what makes us people of God and not, for example, cats.
Paul doesn't tell us to kill off the hibiscus or get
rid of the cats. This is not an either/or proposition,
human nature or spiritual nature.
For created things are good in themselves,
Martin Luther said,
and those who know God know
also the things of nature not as something vain but
as they are in truth; and they use them but do not
take advantage of them.
The spiritual mindset is life and harmony. Life in its fullness is all of creation coming together in harmony.
The angels on Jacob's Ladder ascended and descended.
The Good News is that God became a human being and
that our human nature became united with the divine.
We don't need to escape from our human nature, but
we need to know our human lives
as they are in
truth: limited, confused, and twisted in on
And we need to expect something more than that. Not just a physical life that comes to an end. Not only a human mind deceived by the limits on our senses and rationality. Not just a flower which blooms for a moment in exquisite beauty and in the memory of loved ones lost. All of that, and also a path to heaven, with the power of God coming and going between what we know by nature and what we hope by grace.