According to a Harris Interactive poll, a majority of Americans believe humans have a soul and that it could survive after death. Speaker, author, and pastor John Ortberg (@johnortberg) goes further to say the health of a person’s soul is the hinge on which the rest of life hangs; the difference between deep, satisfied spirituality and a restless, dispassionate faith.
[Sign up to receive John Ortberg’s weekly email devotional, Care Instructions for a Life Worth Living]
Bible Gateway interviewed pastor Ortberg about his book, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (Zondervan, 2014).
What is the soul? Is there a difference between soul and spirit? How do our “souls” differ from our “selves?”
Pastor Ortberg: The soul is what integrates separate functions into a single, organic, whole creature. That’s why the search for harmony and integration and connectedness is a ‘soul’ function. So the soul is the deepest dimension of our existence. It captures the reality that we live before God in a way that the word “self” does not. Think of the difference between the word ‘soul-ish’ and the word ‘selfish’.
“Spirit” refers more generally to the power or energy that comes from our wills. This difference is still reflected in current language; we might speak of a ‘spirited’ horse but we would talk about a ‘soulful’ artist—not the other way round.
What does the Bible say about our souls? What role does the Bible have in building and maintaining a healthy soul?
Pastor Ortberg: The Bible speaks of the soul often—although more recent translations are much more likely to substitute words like ‘life’ instead of using the word ‘soul.’
One of the most striking and misunderstood statements about the soul in the Bible is Jesus’ observation: “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their soul?”
I always used to think this meant it does no good to get a lot of money and pleasure if you end up going to hell. But that’s not what Jesus is saying.
If a soul is broken or mal-functioning, our wills and our values and actual behavior and our desires and our facial expressions and our secret thoughts will constantly be at war with each other. We will be incapable of soul satisfaction—let alone a meaningful or truly good life. Jesus was not telling people to commit to the right religion in order to get their afterlife taken care of. He was making a brilliantly diagnostic observation about the nature of human life.
What are the symptoms of an unhealthy soul? What are the signs of a healthy soul?
Pastor Ortberg: Persons are like cars, at least in the sense that you have to understand what the parts do if you’re going to take good care of them and keep everything functioning well. The essential parts of the person are the will (the freedom and creativity to say yes and no and bring things into being), the mind (including thoughts and feelings), our bodies (which are filled with appetites and habits that largely govern our behavior), and the soul, which ties these all together. In a healthy soul, the body has been trained to obey the will; the will in turn consistently chooses what the mind knows to be good, all the parts work together in harmony, and are peaceably connected with God, creation, and (to the extent possible) other people. The unhealthy soul is the opposite.
You say there are nine needs of the soul; unpack the most important one.
Pastor Ortberg: A great Old Testament scholar named Hans Wolter Wolff described the Hebrew word for soul (nephesh) as ‘needy man’. Sometimes when I think of the soul I think of the Bill Murray character in ‘What about Bob?’, whose mantra is ‘I need, I need, I need…’
The neediness of the soul is not an accident. Wise observers many centures ago noted that human beings are finite in every way except one: we have an infinite capacity to desire more. We are infinitely needy. In this way the soul is a mirror image of a God who has an infinite capacity to give.
Perhaps the greatest need of the soul is the need to experience gratitude. I’ve been working with U Conn sociologist Brad Wright on a project called SoulPulse (anybody who wants can log on for a two week spiritual discovery process); the one experience that increases both peoples’ awareness of God and of love joy and peace is the experience of gratitude.
What is the relationship between the soul and suffering?
Pastor Ortberg: A very old phrase that won’t go away is the expression: “the dark night of the soul.” Its often used in our day to describe any suffering. But as originally used it had a more specific definition: it was the condition of the soul when God’s presence and consolations seem no longer to be available. In the dark night, I suffer not only what ever loss or hurt may be going on in my circumstances, I suffer what seems to be the confusing silence of heaven as well.
Ancient wisdom—not least the wisdom recorded in many places in the Scriptures—suggested that this suffering itself can be redeemed by God, and that the soul itself is being kept and guarded an nourished by God even when the person may not realize it.
If you ask people when they grew the most spiritually, the number one response consistently will be a time when they suffered. But often in the church we have not done a good job of recognizing or talking about this.
The soul is both unbelievably fragile and incredibly resilient—when it’s connected to a power beyond itself.
What is SoulPulse?
Pastor Ortberg: SoulPulse is an idea that’s been fostered in the past two years by a team of researchers, clinicians, pastors, and programmers. Having been awarded a Templeton grant, SoulPulse uncovers associations between daily spiritual experiences and situations, interactions with people, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors. Participants track their spirituality for 14 days and get feedback customized to their interests. They can compare their data to the 2000 current users. Each person will receive a spiritual report/snapshot, and there will also be customized suggestions for developing a person’s God awareness and experience of love joy, and peace.
What’s the distinction between will, mind, body, and soul?
Pastor Ortberg: The ultimate enemy of a healthy soul is sin, because the soul cries out for wholeness within the person and between the person and God, others, and creation. It’s the nature of sin to dis-integrate the sinner. If I gossip unfairly about you, I have to train my face to disguise my contempt when I’m with you. I have to distort my own thoughts to rationalize my self-image. Over time gossip becomes a habit—and now my bodily habits are ruling over my will rather than having my body serve my will. My feelings of resentment toward you are inevitably at war with my desire to be at peace. And I cannot deeply with God while holding on to defiance of his will. My soul becomes dis-integrated at every level, all the time.
How is the Earth a planet of lost souls?
Pastor Ortberg: One of the indications of the depth of the soul is that in the ancient world people would speak to it as if it were a separate person: “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” Or “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” This is never done with other parts of the person; with the mind or the spirit.
In our day, the word ‘soul’ is increasingly unfashionable. People may think that science has proven it does not exist.
When people do not recognize their need to connect with God, or do have the various parts of their lives integrated with each other and with spiritual reality—the soul becomes lost. Dallas Willard said that the soul is not lost because its going to the wrong place; it may end up in the wrong place because its lost.
So the place to begin is simply to acknowledge that we have a soul. I’ve noticed that when the simple sentence: “You have a soul” is spoken to a roomful of people, they have a way of getting quiet.
In the book you say it’s the nature of the soul to need. What do you mean?
Pastor Ortberg: One of the classic books on Old Testament anthropology describes the soul as needy man. And, the idea is that the language of the soul reminds us that we exist before God, that we were made by God, and therefore we’re not self-sufficient. Ancient writers used to say that human beings are limited in every way except for one. We have an infinite capacity to desire more. And that’s the mirror image of God who has the infinite capacity to give to us, and so our souls always need, and what they need most is God.
How does “hurry” impede the healthy development of the soul?
Pastor Ortberg: Hurry blocks the development and health of the soul because the soul requires being rooted in the presence of God. And, hurry by its nature makes me unable to be fully present before God or fully present before other people. Hurry causes me to be conflicted and divided in my desires, and it causes my thoughts to jump around as Henri Nouwen used to say, “like a monkey in a banana tree.” There’s nothing that I can do that’s rooted in the kingdom when my soul is hurried.
What do you mean, “The soul is a ship that needs an anchor”?
Pastor Ortberg: The soul has to stay rooted. Our souls, because they mostly lie beyond our conscious control, can easily drift and slide along. We see this with many people and often with ourselves. We go from moment to moment, day to day without being clear about our deepest values, without being truly grateful for this day that we have received without being rooted in God. And the soul that is anchored in God is the only soul that can find peace.
Bio: John Ortberg is senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (@MPPC_ODC) in Menlo Park, Calif. He’s the bestselling author of When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box; The Life You’ve Always Wanted; and If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. He and his wife Nancy have three children.