I drove to see Dallas Willard one time to spend an entire day with him and I was at a needy point in my soul. I told him I felt frustrated because the people at the church where I served were not changing more. And I asked him, what do I need to do to help our church experience greater levels of spiritual growth? It’s what I think about and write about a lot, and I really want that for our church. And there was a long pause, always with Dallas, and then he said, “You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.” No, Dallas, I said, I wasn’t asking about me, I was talking about those people. I was wondering what do I need to do as the pastor to help those people grow? I was thinking what book should everybody read? What program should everybody go through?
What prayer meeting should we institute? Dallas said, yes, John, I know you were thinking of those things, but that is not what is most needed. The main thing you will give to your congregation, just like the main thing you will give to God, is the person you become. The main thing that you get out of your life, and the main thing that God gets out of your life is the person you become. And if your soul is unhealthy, if it is raw, you can’t really help anybody. You, and nobody else, are responsible for the well-being of your soul. And you must arrange your days so that you are experiencing total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.
Now my mind was just exploding. How can I do that? My work isn’t going nearly well enough. A lot of people aren’t happy with me. I’m not adequate as a pastor, or a husband, or a father. Every day I carry this burden of I’ve got a sermon that I’ve got to write. I’ll have to feel the pain if it doesn’t go well. I get all kinds of questions that need to be answered, problems that need to be solved. Dallas said, I didn’t say you should experience total contentment, joy, and confidence in the remarkable adequacy of your competence, or the amazing success of your life. It’s total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday experience of God. That, and that alone, is what makes a soul healthy, and that is not your wife’s job, and it’s not your elders’ job, and it’s not your church’s job, and it’s not your children’s job, and it’s not your friend’s job. It’s yours. The stream is your soul and you are the keeper.
There is great truth about reality here. The Apostle Paul put it like this: you reap what you sow, and this is true above all with the soul. Often we like to say it as kind of a warning to people because often we live as though by some form of magic the law of consequences doesn’t actually apply to me. I can spend without getting into debt. I can lie without getting caught. I can let my temper fly without damaging my relationships. I can have a bad attitude at work and get away with it. I can avoid disciplining my children without their getting spoiled. I can neglect the Bible and still know God. Our capacity to live in denial about the law of consequences is vast and deeply damaging to the soul. Now the solution, the response to this, is quite simple, but it’s also very hard to do. Slow down, look up, lean in, listen to God, be responsible for faithfully keeping our soul. And it’s an all day, every day deal. It looks like this.
Not long ago I got really angry at somebody and eventually I stopped in my tracks because I was so immersed in my anger that it had just kind of consumed me. It had kind of taken over. Now I just stopped and asked myself, why are you angry, oh, my soul? And I found that from there I began to pray, because, speaking to our soul reminds us we live in God’s presence. And it was kind of like God saying, John, you are not your anger. It was kind of like my soul had a place to stand with God and we could talk together about what to do with my anger, and I found my soul being freed. The psalmist wrote in the very first Psalm that blessed people are like trees planted by rivers of water. They yield their fruit in season. Their leaves do not wither. They prosper in all that they do. In the Middle East trees were pretty rare. Rain was scarce. Deserts were plentiful. But if there was a tree planted by a river it was no longer dependent on uncertain weather or the surface condition of the soil. It could flourish at all times because its roots allowed the water to stream into each part of the tree to bring it life.
Our soul is like an inner stream of water that gives strength, direction, harmony to every area of our life. The stream is my soul and I am its keeper. I am the sole keeper of my soul. And this is not just a metaphor, this is life and death.
We don’t always think about this, but the Bible does teach that one day we will stand before God who is the judge of our eternal destiny and if I live my life in deliberate violation of God’s will and God’s ways my soul will eventually be destroyed by being completely separated from God. That was at the heart of Jesus’ teachings. Make room in your life to care for your soul. Protect it. Guard it. Keep it. Only one person can keep the soul, and that’s you.
I left Dallas’s house and began to think about how do I help my church grow? I left with a greater understanding of the needs of the soul. I wrote Dallas’s words to me on a piece of paper and they hang above the door in my office. I see them every day and I think about Dallas. “Arrange your day so that you experience total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.” They are the first words I see every morning when I come to work. They are good first words to see.
On an overcast day in Florida in the winter of 2013 a man whose family had lived in the same home for generations suddenly lost his life when a sinkhole opened beneath the home’s foundation. It made the floor collapse and it just swallowed up the house. Experts say in parts of Florida the limestone that lies beneath the earth’s surface is slowly being dissolved by acidic rainwater and when enough rock is eaten away the void just collapses under the weight of what an inadequate foundation can no longer support.
A wonderful writer and thinker, Gordon MacDonald, once wrote about what he called the “sinkhole syndrome” and how that can happen in a human life. It might be triggered by a failure at work, or a severed relationship, or for no apparent reason, but it feels like the earth has given way, and this all comes back to the inner life/outer life dynamic we discussed before. Because our outer life is visible, and measurable, and expandable it’s easier to deal with. It demands our attention. The result, he said, is that our inner life, our private world often gets cheated, neglected because it doesn’t shout so loudly. It can be ignored for large periods of time before it gives way to a sinkhole-like cave-in.
So how do you know if your soul has sunk in? Well, I’ll give you some cues. First, a soul without a center has difficulty making a decision. In the Bible, one of the pictures James uses of this condition is that a person with a sunken-in soul is like a wave on the sea driven forward one moment and back the next. They’re a whisper on the wind. A classic example of this in the Bible is Pontius Pilate. He struggles with a decision of what to do with Jesus. He tries to talk Jesus into saying what will allow Pilate to free him. He pesters the religious leaders without making the decision that his authority would have allowed. He asked the crowd to let him off the hook, but they opted for Barrabas. When the soul isn’t centered, see, one is never sure what temptations are worth resisting, what sacrifices are worth making.
Then a soul without a center lacks patience. When I’m with my children in a line at the grocery store, in the car on a crowded freeway, my soul does not have to be tapping its toes and drumming its fingernails. If I am always in a hurry to be somewhere else it’s a little indicator that my soul has not yet found its home. My soul is centered when I’m at rest. And then a soul without a center gets easily thrown. If my soul lacks a center, when life comes at me fast, hard, I will be easily and painfully overthrown. No matter how hard I try to hold on, I get thrown. A centered soul can hang on easily.
And then, finally, the soul without a center finds its identity in externals. When my soul is not centered in God I define myself by what have I accomplished, or by my physical appearance, or by my titles, or resume, or my important friends, and if I lose those I lose my identity because I’m all wrapped up in that stuff. But when the soul reaches out to God then it is nurtured and healed. A soul centered in God always knows it has a heavenly Father who will hold your anxiety, your fear, your pain, and this is life. This is life, to place my soul every moment in the presence and care of God.
The stream cannot stay vibrant without its keeper. It cannot meet its central needs by itself. It requires care.
— John Ortberg, adapted from What the Soul Needs, Session 3 of Soul Keeping
How to Use This Study
Your soul’s resting place is in God. In the Soul Keeping video curriculum, author and pastor John Ortberg helps you rediscover your soul—the best connection to God there is—and find why it’s hurting and why neglecting it has set so many believers back spiritually. The six-sessions of the video study explores the souls from the perspective of someone who has struggled to understand and care for his own soul. Learn more at ChurchSource.com