While reading today, I had to ask myself, "Are you focused more on soul improvement or self-improvement?" Self-improvement seems so urgent, while soul improvement lasts for eternity.
We each have an outer life and an inner one. My outer life is the public, visible me. My accomplishments, my work, and my reputation lie there. My inner life is where my secret thoughts and hopes and wishes live. Because my inner life is invisible, it is easy to neglect. No one has direct access to it, so it wins no applause.
In one of his books, Dallas Willard explained: “What is running your life at any given moment is your soul. Not external circumstances, not your thoughts, not your intentions, not even your feelings, but your soul. The soul is that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of the self. The soul is the life center of human beings.”
It is terribly important to understand the parts of the inner life. Each one must be healthy and working as God intended it to work. If your soul is healthy, no external circumstance can destroy your life. If your soul is unhealthy, no external circumstance can redeem your life.
Your soul is what integrates your will (your intentions), your mind (your thoughts and feelings, your values and conscience), and your body (your face, body language, and actions) into a single life. A soul is healthy and well-ordered when there is harmony between these three entities and Godʼs intent for all creation. When you are connected with God and other people, you have a healthy soul. An unhealthy soul is one that experiences disintegration, and sin always causes the disintegration of the soul.
To lose my soul means I no longer have a healthy center that organizes and guides my life. I am a car without a steering wheel. It doesnʼt matter how fast I can go because I am a crash waiting to happen. We live on a planet of lost souls. That is the human problem. It is not some superficial thing that only relates to getting the right afterlife if you affirm the right doctrines. It has to do with the depth of the human condition.
Our world has replaced the word “soul” with the word “self,” and they are not the same thing. The more we focus on ourselves, the more we neglect our souls. The Journal of the American Medical Association cited a study that indicates that in the twentieth century, people who lived in each generation were three times more likely to experience depression than folks in the generation before them. Despite the rise of the mental health profession, people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to depression. Why? Martin Seligman, a brilliant psychologist with no religious ax to grind, has a theory that itʼs because we have replaced church, faith, and community with a tiny little unit that cannot bear the weight of meaning. Thatʼs the self. Weʼre all about self. We revolve our lives around ourselves. Ironically, the more obsessed we are with ourselves, the more we neglect our souls.
All of our language reflects this. If you’re empty, you need to fulfill yourself. If youʼre stressed, learn how to take care of yourself. If youʼre on a job interview, you have to believe in yourself. If someone dares to criticize you, you have to love yourself. If youʼre not getting your own way, you have to stand up for yourself. What should you do on a date? You ought to be yourself. What if yourself is a train wreck? What do you do then?
Self is a stand-alone, do-it-yourself unit, while soul reminds us that we were not made for ourselves. The soul always exists before God, so the soul is needed for deep art, poetry, and music. Imagine singing, “Then sings my self, my Savior God to thee,” or “Jesus, lover of my self.” Innately we know that the self is not the soul, even as we do everything we can to preserve the self.
Attending to the soul doesnʼt mean we neglect those practical things like career or health. The soul lies at the center of them all. It means I donʼt simply ask, “How can I be more successful in my work?” or “How can I acquire more money?” Instead, I learn to understand how my involvement in each area of life is marking my soul. In fact, your soul can be all right when everything in your world is all wrong.
The salvation of your soul is not just about where you go when you die. The word salvation means healing or deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus. Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. What will matter then is the soul you have created.
Take aways from John Ortberg's book Soul Keeping Chapter 2: What is the Soul?