Spiritual Senses Part 3 – Smell
What do you love the smell of? Fresh bread, lemon zest, percolating coffee, or a bouquet of flowers? Whatever it is, smell is tremendously evocative. It triggers memories, influences emotions and tests contamination – it allures and it repels.
Our sense of smell is one of the ways that we encounter our world, but unlike other senses, we have less choice with smell. If you don’t like the sight of something? Close your eyes. Too loud? Block your ears. Can’t abide the taste of yeast extract? Don’t eat it. Dislike slimy textures? Avoid them. It is arguable that if you don’t like the smell of something, you can go somewhere else, but it isn’t always that simple. You’re unlikely to move house when you can smell a dead mouse rotting under the floorboards. Or perhaps God has prompted you to speak to the homeless man on the street to share the good news of His Kingdom – will the bad odour deter you?
Two Side to the Story
On one hand, we smell things. As volatile (easily evaporated) molecules come on the air into our nostrils, receptors in the top of our nasal passages detect different odours. According to biologists, humans can detect more than 10,000 different smells through specialised hair-like neurons.
On the other hand, we give off a distinctive scent too. Each of us has an odour-type which is as unique as our fingerprints.
As we consider smell and all its components, we need to be mindful of both sides – the “smeller” and the smell.
Let’s briefly compare Good Smells and Bad Smells:
Signals Which Require A Response
If we stop to think about it, there is basically never a time when we don’t smell anything. Let’s remember, though, that the smell itself is not the issue – it indicates the presence of something else whether good or bad. There may be a beautiful smell of roses in a room but remove the roses and the pervading smell dissipates.
It is easy to appreciate that smells give us signals from a distance – inviting, warning, attracting and repelling, but how should we respond?
2 Corinthians 2:14-16 says:
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?
These verses show our approach as Christians and then juxtaposes two responses and two results. The approach is that God leads us in triumph in Christ and in so doing, diffuses the fragrance of the knowledge of Him in every place. Every place? Yes, everywhere we go as Christians, we are diffusing this beautiful fragrance of Christ.
The two responses are determined by whether people are being saved or are perishing. And the results of those responses lead either to life or to death.
Derek and Ruth Prince once had a wonderful experience of enjoying a divine fragrance here on earth. Ruth had been battling pain which the Lord revealed had come from lying spirits. They prayed for release and then this is how Ruth described it:
I rose to my feet and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. Suddenly Derek called to me, “Come quickly!” When I returned to the bedroom, I gasped! The whole room and adjoining bath were fragrant with the scent of roses—like an English garden. It was as if the Lord Himself was there. I fell on my face on the floor in adoration.
This is a wonderful story and one that helps us to connect the earthly to the heavenly and to appreciate the close connection of the two. Note that the response was not to the fragrance, the adoration was for the Lord. The beautiful aroma alerted Derek to the presence of the Lord.
Doing Something About It
We have to process different smells on a continual basis and it is impossible to analyse every situation, but let’s consider a couple:
Babies have a wonderful smell yet it is one that can be quickly overpowered by a dirty nappy! What do we do? Reject the baby? No, of course not – we clean them up.
The same is true of spiritual babies – they are born again, and we are encouraged by the freshness of their testimony of grace. However, they still have many areas that need to be cleaned up and often they need help. Perhaps there is a deep wound of rejection and they are unable to relate appropriately within their new church family. Some church folk find this a bit offensive, like a bad smell, but Jesus has made provision for every one of our needs through His death on the cross. This is where we must see through the fault to the need and help them to apply the finished work of the cross – we assist in cleaning them up.
Marriage is designed to be the closest of all human relationships – one that mirrors the relationship of Christ and His bride. Owing to the closeness of the relationship, there is little escape from the issue of odour. The closer you get to the source, the stronger the smell grows.
Where marriages aren’t arranged, undoubtedly smell is a major influencing factor in bringing a man and a woman together. If you look up the word “aroma” or “fragrance” in a concordance, most of the references in the Bible come from the beautiful, poetic book describing the relationship of a man and a woman, Christ and His bride – Song of Solomon. In this book, each scent which is described is attractive and alluring – the way it should be.
Once the relationship has been well established (on a firmer foundation than smell alone), an open relationship brings in the added dimension of discussing smells: Darling I’ve noticed your breath has been smelling recently – perhaps you need a trip to the dentist? Or, Honey, that new soap you’ve started using isn’t quite doing the job – what about going back to your usual kind?
Of course these sorts of discussions can’t happen effectively unless there is the relationship to support them, but ideally we should be doing this not only in marriages and families, but within the church family too.
The point I’m trying to make, is that if there is a bad smell – physical or spiritual – there is something to be done about it. It requires honesty, wisdom and grace both to approach someone about an issue and to receive such a comment from another. If we don’t, though, we find ourselves in a difficult situation – we’re all a bit smelly, but we’re all a bit touchy about hearing that, so we do nothing. The result is that we don’t enter into the fully fragrant life that God has made available.
A Different Perspective
Let’s take a brief look at this from God’s perspective (as far as possible). Consider that He is the parent and we are the baby/child. He is the Lover and we are His beloved.
When we believe, we are given a robe of (Christ’s) righteousness (Isaiah 61:10) and when we are baptised, we are clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). If Jesus hadn’t made provision to cleanse the source of our bad odours, we wouldn’t have a chance. The good news is that He does, not just because it is His duty, but He likes us and He wants us. I think that sometimes we get caught somewhere in the middle where we are grateful that God has rescued us from hell, but are not really sure that He is looking forward to our company in heaven.
Deuteronomy 32:9 reminds us, “For the Lord’s portion is His people.” You and I are what God is seeking to take out of history as His own portion. And so He sets about cleaning us up and preparing us for spending the rest of eternity with Him.
A Worshipful Offering
God doesn’t only begin to clean us up in the hope of producing a neutral smelling person. Far better, He shows us the way to produce sweet-smelling aromas for His enjoyment.
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. Ephesians 5:1-2
Here then is our example – to walk in love like our Saviour, Jesus, as an offering and a sacrifice.
The picture of the sweet-smelling aroma of Jesus is foreshadowed in the Old Testament sacrifices. Helping us to make that connection, here is how Derek Prince explains it in his book Entering the Presence of God:
When we offer our lives to God there are two figurative actions we must take: we must pour oil on it, and put frankincense on it. All through the Bible, oil is invariably a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. We cannot offer anything to God unless the Holy Spirit enables us to offer it.
Frankincense is a kind of aromatic gum that comes from trees. In its natural state, it is usually white in colour and has no particular attractive qualities. But when it is burned, it sends forth a beautiful and distinctive aroma that typifies worship. In fact, in most instances in the Bible where you find the word describing incense or scent or aroma, it refers to worship.
So, when we offer ourselves to the Lord, we have to do it by the Holy Spirit, and we have to do it with worship. But something different happens to the frankincense:
He shall bring it to Aaron’s sons, the priests, one of whom shall take from it his handful of fine flour and oil with all the frankincense. And the priest shall burn it as a memorial on the altar, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 2:2)
There has to be a priest to make the offering. He takes a small portion of flour and the oil and casts it into the fire of the offering. But—and this is very important—he includes all of the frankincense. The worship (the frankincense) goes only to the Lord. It is a sin to offer worship, to give frankincense, to anyone but the Lord. I believe this is a lesson that many high profile Christians need to learn. In recent decades, we have seen too many distinguished, well-known figures come tumbling down in disaster and disgrace. I think one reason may be that they have sometimes permitted their followers to take a little of the frankincense and give it to the preacher.
As a preacher, I never want frankincense. Often people will approach me with flattering words, for which I am grateful, but worship goes to one person only—and that’s God. Remember, anyone whom we worship becomes our god. If we worship the preacher, we are making him our god. And that is a terrible thing to do.
Here we have a warning never to receive worship ourselves. There are three other warnings I want to leave with you.
Choosing, Using and Losing Your Sense of Smell
The first is something I have alluded to earlier in the article: Sometimes we need to choose what we smell and what we filter out. Consider the need to overcome the nauseating smell of a rubbish dump to rescue someone. I think that the converse also needs a warning: discerning what smells good from what is good. A scenario to describe this may be where a man’s wife uses a particular perfume. He has been travelling away from home and passes through the bar area of the hotel en route from the reception to his room. As he walks, that beautiful scent catches his attention but he must beware – it is the right smell, but the wrong woman.
The second warning is that we must use our spiritual discernment just as we must use our sense of smell. When we have so many smells around us, it may seem strange that there are many things that we can’t smell. A dog can reputedly smell 1000 to 10,000,000 times better than humans depending on breed – that’s a lot of things we’re not smelling! An example of this danger is Carbon Monoxide. It is tasteless and odourless, but it kills. We need spiritual discernment to find those things that are affecting us and others that don’t seem to smell, but are “the aroma of death”
The last warning is that of losing your sense of smell. This can be a temporary thing like when you have a blocked nose, but we need to be healed of nasal congestion. Again, losing your sense of smell has an element of discernment, but is more about attitude. When we become complacent about what is a good smell and what is a bad smell, then we place ourselves in danger of not responding rightly. We must be active in our discernment so that we are not deceived by losing our spiritual sense of smell.
Lord, even as I read through some different smells, I can feel how they affect me – memories surface and emotions swirl.
Help me to seek that which smells good – things from You. And please strengthen me to follow Christ’s example and to offer the sacrifice of worship as a sweet-smelling aroma to You.
Father, when there is a constant bombardment of smells, both good and bad, help me to be active in my discernment. I recognise my need for help not to be deterred by things which smell bad in places where you have told me to diffuse the fragrance of the knowledge of You.
In Jesus’ name. Amen
– Peter Lindop