Anatomy of the Soul, Part 2: a definition
Clearly, humans have a complexity to them. We aren’t simple animals who live by instinct but we are beings capable of joy and peace and love as well as hurt and despair and hatred. Quite often, we get confused as to why we do what do it. We seemingly desire one thing but do another. On the whole, our interior lives are not integrated with our outer lives and even parts of our interior world do not seem to be integrated.
In part one of Anatomy of the Soul, we looked at a translation of Jeremiah 17:9 which says that “the heart is deeper than all things and human, who can know it?” Grasping this should lead us to a humility and dependence upon the One who does know all things, including the anatomy of our soul. Knowing the anatomy of our soul is foundational but not the solution to (dis)integrated lives. Just as knowing how nutrition and human anatomy function won’t make me a healthy eater, simply knowing how our souls work won’t bring spiritual health. However, understanding how things work can lead to spiritual health, i.e., an integrated kind of life.
Dallas Willard, in his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, says that spiritual formation occurs when “all of the essential parts of the human self are effectively organized around God, as they are restored and sustained by him. Spiritual transformation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself.”
So, what are those parts? And, how do we begin to make sure that they are organized around the God who loves us and restores us and sustains us?
The Scriptures use various terms to describe us: mind, body, heart, soul, spirit, will, self, life. On one level, there is clearly an immaterial part of us and a material part of us; an inner life and an outer life. But, the terms suggest a bit more complexity as well.
The words heart, will, and spirit all talk about the same thing, the control center of one’s life. It’s the place where decisions and desires originate. When the Scriptures speak of having a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19), the words spirit and heart are used interchangeably. The heart is the capacity to run or operate one’s life.
The mind is the place where we have thoughts and experience emotions and recall memories. There are elements of our mind of which we are conscious and others of which we are not conscious. Lots of things we do each day happen without our awareness. If you’ve ever driven to the corner store and forgotten how you got there, the mind took over without full awareness on your part.
The body? This one is perhaps the most clear. It’s the physical dimension of who we are. It’s the place where the desires of the heart and the thoughts and emotions of the mind are expressed.
Finally, the idea of the soul is one of the most prevalent in the Scripture but perhaps the least understood. The words life and self are often used interchangeably with soul. First, it’s important to understand that we don’t have a soul, we are a soul. The Hebrew word for soul in the Old Testament Scriptures is the word nephesh which was used to speak of one’s life. The word was also used to speak of all living things, like animals. Soul is life. It is the interconnectedness of body, mind, and heart. It is the operating system on which everything runs. If the soul is healthy, there is an “integration” between desires and thoughts and actions. This is the idea of peace or shalom. We are at peace when all the parts of us are integrated and working together. If they are not, then we are not at peace and this is where we “crash” much in the way a computer might crash. If there is not integrity or connectedness between the parts, things don’t function well.
To go back to Willard’s definition, only when things are organized around Him is there spiritual transformation and spiritual health. Our ability to love and be loved flows from a healthy soul, a healthiness of all the parts working together.
So, how do things get organized around Him? How do we ensure that our souls are in His care? The answer is relational. As we grow in intimacy with Him (“The Lord is my shepherd”), he “restores the soul.” (Psalm 23) In other words, He heals that connection between heart and mind and body by bringing an integrity to the parts. Where we have thoughts that are in conflict with our hearts, He restores. When damaging emotions cause our bodies harm, He restores. As our love for Him invades each part of who we are, there is a progressive, deepening transformation. But, only He can do this. We are never told that we can restore ourselves. He restores and heals and brings peace.
Where do we start? One of the huge issues in our current culture is the busyness of life. How often have you thought, “I’m not all here.” Or, has a friend or family member ever observed, “you don’t seem to be ‘present’ tonight.” The busyness of our lives can cause a “disintegration” between our bodies and our minds and hearts.
There is an old African parable about a traveler who landed on the west coast of Africa with the intention of traveling deep into the bush. He hired several local guides who knew the lay of the land. The assured him it would take 4 days to reach their destination. After a day of going very quickly, the traveler realized they had made it half way. He excitedly calculated that the trip would only take 2 days with all their progress on day one. On the second morning, he woke up and hurriedly tried to get his African companions moving. They wouldn’t budge. He kept trying and trying, and then finally asked the interpreter what was going on. One of the guides replied, “We went too fast the first day and now we are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
In Romans 12:1-2, we are challenged to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice … as an act of worship.” Why? Because our bodies are what give expression to what is going on in our hearts and minds. Our life with God, with Him as our shepherd, is experienced in our bodies. If we are so busy that our “souls” need to catch up, we might have a desire for God and for “walking with Him” that never gets realized because our bodies are just going with the flow of life, on a sort of auto-pilot.
Living with an awareness of and enjoyment of Him in the moments of our daily lives requires a slowing down of our bodies. As I spend time alone with Him each day in prayer, I am able to practice His presence … I am able to embody an awareness of Him. Just as an athlete “practices” so that specific plays can be executed in the fire of competition, we can practice His presence so that we stay aware of Him in the fire of our daily lives.
Here are a few challenges:
1. We can unbusy our lives. To what do you need to say no so that you can spend regular, daily time practicing His presence?
2. We can spend time in silence and solitude (a bodily presentation of our selves) so that we can learn to be attentive to Him.
3. We can ask the Father to search our hearts and minds, and allow Him to shepherd those places where there is inconsistency with the truth of who He is.
All of these require a “presenting our bodies” to Him. Thankfully, He is a good shepherd who restores our souls.