For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of
the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the
things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind
on the Spirit is life and peace (Rom. 8:5–6)
Last month I began a four part series on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in four interrelated dimensions of human experience. I noted that the Holy Spirit transforms our bodily experience by liberating us from the obsession with survival and satisfaction while, paradoxically, making us more fully alive to our bodily existence. This month the focus is on the psychological dimension, classically centered on the function of ego. Ego is a construction of the human spirit that functions to balance deep inner forces of the self with external demands that come from society. The ego governs our motivations and goal setting so that we adapt to our environment in realistic (not delusional) ways that benefit the self and society. This executive function is a sign of psychic health, giving us a true sense of our situation, impulse control, good judgment, balanced relationships, etc. When ego overdevelops, one is said to be egotistical. When ego underdevelops, one is said to be weak-willed. It is important to note here that the ego is a creation of the human spirit, the human ground of our creative capacities. Why?
The human spirit was never created to be held captive by one of its own creations. We are created in the image of God, to reflect God’s spiritual nature. The human ego as a creation of our spirit, therefore, distorts the human spirit’s true nature under the power of sin. In other words, normal ego development, even when socially healthy, is sub-normal from a theological perspective. What liberates the human spirit from its own sinful creation is the Holy Spirit. To understand why this liberation is necessary we have to note why and how the human spirit creates ego in the first place. Let’s consider the first 18 months of life. There is a four-staged sequence in normal human development in which the child’s center of reality changes.
1. Mouth: Initially, the center of the child’s world is the mouth, which is an impersonal organizer of the child’s existence
2. Face: About three months the child begins to focus on an interpersonal center, usually the face of the mother, who bestows upon the child a cosmic ordering, self-confirming place in the universe. The face can be considered a prototype for God.
3. Anxiety: After about six months the child realizes that the face can go away, and in response to this existential crisis a corresponding anxiety becomes central for the child, the presence of an absence at the center of life, a nothingness.
4. Ego: In response to this nothingness, the child creates a psychic mechanism that will substitute for the face and overcome the anxiety of absence. This is ego.
The significance here is that the ego is based on a sense of this cosmic absence. Everything the ego creates—its sense of what is real, its judgments, its relationships, etc., and ultimately society itself!—is in response to this absence, this negation at the center. Ego is a substitute for the face that was a prototype for God. Ego distorts the image of God in us by substituting itself, a creation of the human spirit, for the Spirit of God as our inner motivation and goal. Normal ego development has no interest in the Spirit. Ego trusts in her own autonomous power.
Therefore, human ego must itself be transformed (not eradicated!) by the Spirit of God. The Spirit liberates the human spirit to live in (i.e., in response to) the Holy Spirit. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God … it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:14, 16). Learning to live “in the Spirit” is the very espri de corps of congregational existence, pleasing to God and authentic in witness.