How do we exist as persons? Are we free individuals? Are we limited cogs in a broad social mechanism? Are we elements of a larger organism? Or perhaps something else? Are we able to define our own place and meaning in life, or is it somehow defined for us?
The Bible is happy to answer such questions, but many people are not likely to be happy with the answers the Bible offers. Yet it tells the truth and that truth promises unending joy—if we receive it.
First we need to recognize the blinders we all wear from birth. Just as in the pre-Copernican era—when people held the earth to be the center of the universe—our personal perception of reality makes us the center of every event we experience. From infancy onward each of us is pivotal to our own reality—not that it’s necessarily wrong to start with our own viewpoint in viewing life but it can form some misleading impressions.
We can, for instance, presume a certain autonomy for our inward reflections: as if we rule our place in life by our personal processing skills. In this view personhood is the ongoing product of a three-step progression: we start with a) private inward reflections that b) engage whatever the world offers and c) we then make choices about how to navigate the world we experience.
The progression seems so obvious that for most people any suggestion of an alternative truth seems bizarre. And with that we’re reminded of the opponents Copernicus faced when he proposed a sun-centered solar system: they trust immediate perceptions and resist the sound alternative.
What is the Biblical alternative? It presumes that we exist as relational persons. So our basis for personhood—as in God’s triune oneness—is in our collective bonds. We recall, for instance, the dramatic starting point of humanity: “Let us make man in our image . . . male and female he created them.” The reality is that we live as members of a spiritual communion—so that our own ‘spirit’ exists and operates within that communion.
This, for Christians, is where the role of the Spirit is so important. Views of the Spirit range in a spectrum between the extremes of unbiblical overstatement and unbiblical denial. Some, for instance, promote his independent activity, as if he is now the defining figure of the Godhead who now ignores the Bible he once inspired. And there are those who acknowledge his title as God but then ignore his personality and presence in believers.
Extremes aside, we can be sure of at least three ambitions of the Spirit. One is to “bear witness” to the Son (John 15:26-27). In other words, he’s all about sharing Jesus with us as the Spirit of Christ. He is also the Spirit of God and he binds us to the Father in a Spirit-to-spirit communion that is only available to those who are spiritually alive (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). Finally, he is the communicator of God’s love within the Godhead and he pours that love out in our hearts as we have a relationship with God (Romans 5:5).
And here is the implication of these truths: God designed us to be bonded to him by the Spirit in the same ways the Spirit bonds the Father and the Son in love. So we, like the Son, can speak to the Father as our “Abba”, and can be certain of our standing as family members, “children” or as Christ’s “bride”—all by the bonding presence of the Spirit who indwells every believer.
That, in turn, means that we exist as spirit-beings in communion with other spirit-beings. Our personhood is ultimately rooted in our core—in our spirit or heart—where our motivations are birthed. And as those designed as “I-and-others” persons—and not as individuals—we are actually responders and lovers. And, as lovers, we love God in response to his prior love for us.
Or, on the other hand, people reject God’s love. And given that the Bible tells us that only two spiritual communities exist—God’s and Satan’s—everyone is responding either to God or to his arch foe in their forming a distinct personhood. To be more accurate, we live either in, and by, the life-giving community of the Body of Christ—with all who share his Holy Spirit—or in a life-ending enslavement of the “spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2).
It’s a binary opposition—one of just two ultimate loves defines us—and Jesus set it out on many occasions. In John 8, for instance, he told some erstwhile “believers” that, “If God were your Father you would love me”; but that group proved, instead, to be of “your father, the devil” and his desires had enslaved them (vs. 42 & 44).
So are we free? No. Are we mere social cogs—as marketers presume us to be—to be tracked and manipulated? Not as Christians. Are we, as Spirit-birthed members of Christ’s body, members of a vast communion, with each of us gifted for a unique role in building up others in love? Yes!
So let’s enjoy what we were made for. How? By loving Christ and others. The Spirit is happy to make it happen, and our unending joy is the fruit.