The word of the day is “whole.” We sometimes think of the person as divided into “soul” and “body.” But today we find that this familiar psychology is incomplete. In our reading of 1 Thessalonians 5:14-23, Paul teaches a more comprehensive scriptural psychology. The apostle writes the concluding prayer: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 23).
In other letters, Paul divides the person into two parts. These are “body and spirit,” never into “body and soul” (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Cor. 7:34). But in our reading, the apostle notes that human nature has three parts: body, soul, and spirit.
The Three Parts of the Self
The “spirit” (pneuma) is the highest part of the “soul,” the faculty that enables us to relate to God and to know unseen spiritual realities. By our spirits, we apprehend the nature of things directly without reasoning.
The “soul” (psyche)” is the lower part of the “soul.” It is the harbor of the passions, the organ of desires, and the seat of the will and intellect.
Note that the “soul” is distinguished but not divided from the “spirit.” The apostle teaches this clearly in Hebrews when he writes, “For the word of God…is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow” (OSB Hebrew 4:12).
The “body” is the physical temple where the soul and the spirit dwell. It is our corporeal nature which will be resurrected at the Last Day.”
The Sanctification of the Whole Self in Unity
Note that Paul prays that these three parts of the self be kept whole and “blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 23). Though body, soul, and spirit may be distinguished, in this life, they are not separated until death. Each is essential to the full human personality.
Thus, Paul’s concern in our reading is the unity of the person. Paul stresses that no part of us should be untouched by the work of the Holy Spirit to make us holy. Our whole selves should be “completely sanctified” (vs. 23) and so preserved “blameless” that is, safeguarded in its holiness (Strong’s #5083).
St. Theophan gives us an understanding of how sanctification works in the interplay between spirit, soul, and body. He first writes of the divisions of the person: “A man has three layers of life: that of the spirit, of the soul, and of the body. Each of these has its sum of needs, natural and proper to a man. These needs are not all of equal value, but some are higher and others lower, and the balanced satisfaction of them gives a man peace” (St. Theophan, the Recluse).
Of these three parts of the person, St. Theophan teaches that the spirit is the basis of our sanctification. He writes, “Spiritual needs are the highest of all, and when they are satisfied, then there is peace even if the others are not satisfied; but when spiritual needs are not satisfied, then even if the others are satisfied abundantly, there is no peace” (St. Theoophan).
The saint teaches that our whole selves enjoy harmony when our spiritual needs are met. When we make the life of the spirit our priority, then we can meet the needs of the body and soul in accord with the spirit. When the spirit takes control, our thoughts, feelings, desires, undertakings, relationships, and pleasures are unified. The saint says, “This is paradise!” (p. 65). (St. Theophan, the Recluse).