Do you feel harried and empty, driven by unrelenting ambition to accomplish something big and meaningful? What are the obstacles that keep us from flourishing in our spiritual lives? What’s the secret to a robust inner spiritual life? What is our soul and how do we care for it?
Bible Gateway interviewed Ken Shigematsu (@KenShigematsu) about his book, Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Zondervan, 2018).
What is the soul and why is it important?
Ken Shigematsu: The soul is the life-force of a human being.
The first human being, Adam, had a body, but was not yet a living being. When God breathed life into Adam’s body he came to life and “man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7 KJV).
The book of Genesis teaches that our soul is the part of us that is distinct from our body and makes us alive.
Our soul is also the part of us that communes with God and determines our true well-being and happiness in this life and in the world to come.
Why is a survival guide needed for the soul?
Ken Shigematsu: Scripture says it’s possible for our soul to be compromised by sin, cluttered with busyness, and even lost. Jesus asked, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Matthew 16:26)? Contrary to popular belief, this verse isn’t warning against eternal damnation alone but also to our losing connection with God in this life. Jesus invites all of us who are weary and burdened to come to him so that we may experience true rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-29).
What are the “two Adams” in every soul you write about?
Ken Shigematsu: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik observed that there seem to be two different portrayals of Adam in Genesis. In Genesis 1, Adam is called to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). He’s ambitious and driven to produce. In a modern context, this Adam wants to create businesses, conquer disease, or control the world. I call him, Striving Adam. However, in Genesis 2 we see a different portrayal of Adam, he is called to humbly tend a garden (Genesis 2:15). This Adam walks with God in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8) and is lonely until Eve appears. This Adam yearns for connection with God and people. I call him Soulful Adam. Within each of us is both a Striving Adam and a Soulful Adam. Our society, however, puts the spotlight on Striving Adam. Thus, many of us feel pressure to achieve and produce. While we need a healthy dose of Striving Adam to get things done, we also need to tend to the spiritual and relational yearnings of Soulful Adam through spiritual practices.
What are spiritual practices and how do they train a person’s heart to be aware of God’s love?
Ken Shigematsu: Spiritual practices cultivate a greater awareness of God’s loving presence in our lives. They don’t lift us into God’s presence like jet propulsion lifts a plane 30,000 feet into the air. They’re more like tuning into radio waves. God, though invisible, is present to us all the time (Acts 17:28). Spiritual exercises simply make us more aware of the God who is already with us. Prayer and other spiritual practices reveal this abundance we already have (Ephesians 3:17-19).
What’s the difference between achievement and fruitfulness?
Ken Shigematsu: Achievement often refers to our visible or measurable success; it’s something specific we’ve earned or accomplished, such as an academic degree we’ve earned, a position in society, a salary, an award, or something we’ve built.
Fruitfulness, on the other hand, is about our character and the impact we have on others because of who we are (John 15:1-5, Galatians 5:22-23). Our achievements can certainly bless others, and in this sense, achievement and fruitfulness can overlap. But there are times when our accomplishments generate envy and bitterness in others.
As Henri Nouwen observed, if we’re honest, most of us can remember secretly resenting and feeling jealousy over the achievement of someone else. Our fruitfulness isn’t necessarily synonymous with success. For example, being a loving and gracious person won’t necessarily win you recognition, but will bless others!
Why and how should a Christian meditate?
Ken Shigematsu: Some people associate meditation with Eastern religions or New Age practices but it’s in fact biblical. We’re called to meditate on God and on his Word (Psalm 1). We’re called to be silent before God (Psalm 46:10, Job 6:24). In the midst of a demanding ministry, Jesus took time in the morning to attend to God’s presence in solitude (Mark 1:35, Luke 4:42).
Meditation leads to a powerful change in the way we inhabit the world because it grows our capacity to pay attention to our Creator, even when we’re not consciously praying.
Each morning before breakfast, I take time to sit quietly and meditate in God’s presence. To begin, I breathe deeply, inhaling and exhaling through my nose. After a few moments, I begin to wonder, “How much time has gone by?” To focus, I use an app on my phone called “Centering Prayer” which has a timer. Often I set it for 20 minutes, but sometimes I set it for 10 or 15 minutes. The app has a chime that summons me to attend to God like a bell in a monastery. I’m so easily distracted that not long after taking a couple of deep breaths, I usually start thinking of all the things I ought to be doing. To still my mind, I focus on a brief portion of Scripture, such as the phrase from Psalm 46:10:
“Know that I am God.”
“Know that I am God.”
Sometimes I use a single word from Scripture, such as wait (Isaiah 40), to help me focus on God.
Jesus warned against vain repetition (Matthew 6:7), but there’s nothing vain about gently calling ourselves to be still before God. There’s nothing hollow about focusing on a word such as love to remind us of the love of the Father, or centering on the name Jesus or simply God.
I love being on the water, and I like to compare meditation to sailing. Sometimes I see garbage floating on the surface of the ocean: plastic bags, a Coke® can, or wooden debris. Other times I see salmon jumping out of the water, seals, pods of dolphins, and, on rare occasions, even whales.
As we sit quietly in God’s presence and relax, garbage may rise to the surface on the sea of our lives: anxiety, fear, disappointment, resentment, envy, pain, shame, or anger. When we offer this garbage up to God, we experience purging and cleansing. Though this garbage may return, we offer it up to God again and experience new freedom.
Other times, we may receive the gift of being quietly surrounded by the holy, loving, mysterious presence that upholds us and the whole world. Most people don’t experience anything particularly dramatic during meditation. Meditation is rather ordinary most of the time. Nonetheless, I find that the best way to begin the day is to be still and remember that God is God, and I’m not.
How does honoring the Sabbath heal the soul?
Ken Shigematsu: Sabbath helps us become more aware of God’s love because it reminds us that our value doesn’t come from what we produce, but from the fact that we’re loved by a perfect Father in heaven. If you’re a parent, you know how you love a newborn baby before the child accomplishes anything of significance in the world. At Jesus’ baptism, before he ever preached a sermon, or healed a single person, or achieved anything noteworthy, his Father said, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God says the same to you. Before you’ve done anything noteworthy, he calls you his beloved (Zephaniah 3:17, Romans 5:8).
When we cease working on our Sabbath, we live out the truth that our worth is not based on how much we accomplish, or on contributing something of benefit to the world, but on the fact that we’re a beloved child of God.
My good friend Jeff, who has keen powers of discernment, once told me, “For a long time, you’ve felt like you needed to be the guy… When you were younger, you felt the need to be the guy on the football field, as a younger man, the guy in the business world, and now, the guy as the pastor.” He paused and said, “I sense God saying: ‘You don’t need to be the guy. You just need to be the son.’” I was caught off-guard by his words. I felt an enormous burden lift off my shoulders, and tears came to my eyes—even though we Japanese are not supposed to show emotion in public.
Do you ever feel that you need to be the guy or the girl? God has a different word for you. He says, “You just need to be my son,” or “You just need to be my daughter.”
Honoring the Sabbath helps us become more aware of God’s love for us because it reminds us that our value doesn’t come from what we produce or how we perform but from the simple, glorious fact that we’re cherished by a perfect Father in heaven.
How does Jesus’ definition of success differ from our common understanding?
Ken Shigematsu: Jesus redefines true greatness. Our society defines greatness as being big or spectacular, but in the story of the widow’s gift, Jesus teaches that a small and obscure offering is even greater in God’s eyes (Luke 21:1-4). Jesus teaches us that many of the things that are esteemed by our society are despised by God, while many of the things that are overlooked or ignored by our society are honored by God (Luke 16:15). In fact, Jesus defines the truly great—those blessed of his Father who will inherit the Kingdom—as those who feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, offer hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and advocate on behalf of the oppressed (Matthew 25:34-36).
Jesus’ definition of greatness seems upside down—but perhaps we should think of his way as right side up, and our world as upside down. Jesus embodied this definition of greatness by choosing to live 90 percent of his life on earth in complete obscurity. Jesus’ life shows us that greatness and obscurity are not opposites.
What are practical ways Christians who are busy with their everyday lives can intentionally attend to strengthening their souls?
Ken Shigematsu: Find a rhythm to support your most life-giving relationship of all—your relationship with God. If you’re not in the habit of engaging in spiritual practices, pick one spiritual practice that deepens your awareness of God’s love for you and fills you with a sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence; for example, meditating on God using Scripture, daily prayers of gratitude, honoring the Sabbath, or serving the poor.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Ken Shigematsu: I’m drawn again and again to John 15:5 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
I love this passage because it’s an invitation to stay close to Jesus. I’m also reminded through this text that while I play a role in my spiritual transformation, it’s mostly God’s work, so I can relax and trust him with this process.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway Audio App?
Ken Shigematsu: I use Bible Gateway all the time. I feel it’s the best Bible website in the world. The Bible Audio App is excellent and is also especially helpful because it enables people to literally listen to the Scriptures. In the ancient world people would have originally received God’s Word not by reading it off a page, but by listening to it read aloud. The Scriptures were originally given to be heard, thus the Audio App helps us to develop our faith as “faith comes by hearing the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).
Survival Guide for the Soul is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Ken Shigematsu is the Senior Pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC, one of the largest and most diverse city-center churches in Canada. He is the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal awarded to Canadians in recognition for their outstanding contribution to the country. Before entering pastoral ministry, he worked for the Sony Corporation in Tokyo and draws on both eastern and western perspectives in writing and speaking. He is the author of Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a World that Pressures Us to Achieve and God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God, which was named Christian Living Book of the Year by The Word Guild and received honorable mention for the prestigious Grace Irwin Prize, Canada’s largest literary prize for Christian writers. He lives in Vancouver with his wife, Sakiko, and their son, Joey.
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