The Five Spiritual Senses
In the third chapter of The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer, the author observes, "We apprehend the physical world by exercising the faculties given us for the purpose, and we possess spiritual faculties by means of which we can know God and the spiritual world if we will obey the Spirit's urge and begin to use them." (pg 38)
I once wrote about how it is our habit to only consider that to be real what we can perceive with our five physical senses. Meanwhile there is a spiritual reality that we can only perceive with the spiritual senses God has given us. Yet Tozer writes, "The soul has eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear. Feeble they may be from long disuse, but by the life-giving touch of Christ alive now and capable of sharpest sight and most sensitive hearing." (pg 42, emphasis added)
It is these reflections that got my wheels turning. What are the spiritual analogues to our physical senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling? I could find scriptures that tie each of these senses to to spiritual truths: "O taste and see that the Lord is good." "All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory places." "My sheep hear my voice." "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." These are four that Tozer explicitly points to for example (pg 38). But I don't think that gets us any closer to discovering these spiritual senses for they still appeal to a physical reaction. Instead, I think we need to look at why God gave us these senses in the first place in order to discern why our spiritual senses are so critical to knowing God.
Why do dogs see in black and white? Why do the eyes of cats look like mirrors in the dark? How can an eagle soaring high in the sky spot an animal hundreds of feet below on the ground? Scientific explanation of rods and cones aside, God gave the sense of sight in order to find and hunt food. Spiritually speaking, replace food with that which nourishes the soul and we can begin to understand the scripture above requiring a pure heart in order to "see" God.
How often do we read from the Word of God and say "I've never seen that before!" or as we are going through trial how God is showing us something new? We seek to do God's will. So our spiritual eyes are only strengthened through viewing of God's word, revealing His will, directing our eyes to the Son. "Fix [y]our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2).
Our ears augment our sight to give us a full sense of our surroundings. We can look around and see images, but sound brings them to life. Wind rustling through the trees, Water bubbling down a brook. This is true when considering spiritual sight as well. Hearing the word brings to life what we see. We cannot have faith without hearing the Word. (Romans 10:17)
But spiritual hearing is more than just listening to the Word. In the physical world, our sense of hearing calls to attention what we cannot always see. A predator hiding in the bushes. An alarm coming over a speaker. So hearing also alerts us to danger. "Do not merely listen to the word . . . do what it says" (James 1:22). If seeing leads us to the will of God, then listening guides us away from the dangers of sin. The voice of the Shepherd leads the sheep away from harm towards safe pasture.
How often, when you take communion, do you actually think and meditate on the taste of the bread, matzo, or wafer? Probably only when it doesn't taste good! Jesus described himself as the bread of life. (John 6:48) So what does Jesus taste like? If that sounds a little bit morbid, let me rephrase: what does Jesus' life taste like?
The flavor of communion bread appeals to our physical senses. But again, we need to look at the purpose of our sense of taste. We can taste sweet, salt, and bitter. Jesus calls us to be salt to the world that is worthless if we do not have flavor. (Matthew 5:13) We are warned against bitter roots growing in our hearts. (Hebrews 12:15) Wisdom is sweet to the soul. (Proverbs 24:14. Also God's decrees and God's words). So taste indicates to us the nature of what we're ingesting. Does it enhance flavor (salt), will it make you ill (bitter), or is it pleasurable (sweet)? But taste can also deceive; a poisonous berry may taste sweet. So we cannot rely on taste alone. "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isaiah 5:20).
Our sense of smell is closely linked with taste. Plug your nose to choke down that spoonful of cough medicine. Just as hearing enhances our sight, smell adds to the flavor of which we consume. Step outside in the summer and you can tell if someone is grilling hamburgers. The shape of the wine glass is such that you can smell the wine right before taking a sip. But in the spiritual sense it is not what we consume where smell is important, but our own stench that can be perceived by God. When Noah offered a burnt offering after stepping foot on dry land, God was pleased by the smell. (Genesis 8:21) In place of a sacrificial animal, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) who may smell like death, but are actually the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
And also like hearing, there is a second purpose to our sense of smell. In nature, animals use smell to identify not only food, but also their mates. Some animals release pheromones to attract and there are scents distinct in every animal that are related specifically to attraction. Just skim Song of Songs to see how many references there are to smell and fragrance. We cover ourselves in perfume, cologne, aftershave, or body lotions all in the name of attractiveness. In the New Testament, the Church is described as Christ's bride. Again, our sacrifice is a fragrant offering attractive to Jesus. And applying 2 Corinthians above, our smell is not only important to please our groom, but also to attract unbelievers into the Church.
Our physical sense of feeling can give us pleasure or pain. I've already talked about pleasure in the sense of attraction and smell, and I think in nature the sense of pain is more important to God's general design. Being able to sense pain is critical to life. Consider the leper, who is unable to feel in their extremities, sometimes rubbing their noses completely off or losing fingers because they cannot feel what they are touching. We know not to put our hand in the fire because we feel the pain from the heat. Pain actually protects.
Spiritually, this sense of pain is just as critical to the health of our soul. The consequences of sin hurt our hearts with regret and shame. Meanwhile the gospel of Jesus cuts the heart (Acts 2:37). If we feel pain because our hand is in the fire, we act and pull it from the flame. The same should be true when we feel spiritual pain. However just like the leper suffers even more harm because of numbness, we risk eternal suffering if our hearts are allowed to become numb. "Having lost all sensitivity, [Gentiles] have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:19). Feel the pain, pull yourself out of the fire before it is too late!
OK, a couple of hours later writing this and my wheels are still turning. I think there is a lot more to be said on this subject, and hopefully this gives you a starting point for further study. In the meantime, consider these senses and how we need to hone them for our spiritual health and to fully know God.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness.
Why do the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but they cannot smell;
they have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but they cannot walk;
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
O house of Israel, trust in the Lord—
he is their help and shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord—
he is their help and shield.
You who fear him, trust in the Lord—
he is their help and shield.
The Lord remembers us and will bless us:
He will bless the house of Israel,
he will bless the house of Aaron,
he will bless those who fear the Lord—
small and great alike.
May the Lord make you increase,
both you and your children.
May you be blessed by the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
The highest heavens belong to the Lord,
but the earth he has given to man.
It is not the dead who praise the Lord,
those who go down to silence;
it is we who extol the Lord,
both now and forevermore.
Praise the Lord
CC Image • Fey Ilyas on Flickr