Nee’s Circles

The Bible says that each of us has three parts: body, soul, and spirit. What are they?

A book by Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit, offers a useful picture of these three parts of human life. Nee sees body, soul, and spirit as concentric circles, one inside another. Think of them as nesting spheres.

The outermost sphere is the body. This is not just your anatomy, but everything physical about you. It is also your riches, home, possessions, job, and status.

The middle sphere is the soul. This is the part of you most fittingly described as “self.” Your will, intellect, consciousness, and feelings are here. So is your pride.

The innermost sphere is the spirit. This is the deep part of you, the mysterious part, the part you are most inclined to neglect. Your spirit is the incompleteness prepared to be completed by God. Your spirit is where you receive God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, so that Spirit and spirit mix—hopefully and ultimately becoming indistinguishable.

Yet Nee’s book gets its title from one dramatic fact: The Spirit-filled spirit will not be contained. It will not stay stuck in a sphere. The spirit that grows by the Spirit will break through, reaching and affecting the outer life and the world we see.

The spirit breaks out to the body, and what gets broken is the soul.

That is, what gets broken is the self. The spirit is released through the breaking of identity and pride. This breaking might play out as forgiving, confessing, losing, being humbled, being rejected, giving up, letting go, or turning away. Or repenting. The way forward involves all of this stuff.

Moreover, it goes on. The breaking is a process rather than an event.

But here is the paradoxical glory: In being broken, the soul is repaired.

In the natural life, the soul clings to the body, finding its pursuits and purpose in the physical world. In the supernatural life, however, the soul’s broken fragments instead adhere to the spirit. Those fragments build upon the spirit to find a freer and more expansive shape. The self is remade.

You Have a Spirit

I didn’t become a person of faith because I discovered God. I had already heard of God. I became a believer because I discovered that I have a spirit.

Our conception of the existential components of the self frequently fits the picture offered by Warner Brothers cartoons. Sylvester the cat gets hit by a mallet large enough that the physical Sylvester falls, while an ethereal likeness of Sylvester ascends up out of his body like a helium balloon. That duality—the physical form and the immaterial consciousness—is all that I once looked for in the experience of selfhood, and all that I expected the experience to be.

The Bible calls these two components of self the body and the soul. But scripture also says there is a third component—the spirit. The spirit is, among other things, the incompleteness deep within each of us that is ready to be completed by God.

The deception to which human beings fall victim is the premise that the soul is sufficient. Under the spell of this deception, I find the limits of possibility at the limits of my own identity. The spirit within me that could stretch much farther—vastly farther—is allowed to wither from neglect, allowed to starve.

The way of Jesus is found in the truth of the spirit’s value, and in the life that arises from that spirit being found and filled by the Spirit of God.

Significantly, more than just the spirit is renewed by this redemption. The rebirth radiates outward, transforming the entire woman or man. Paul wrote: May the God of peace sanctify you completely. May your spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless and sound....