When this book first came to our attention some years back, the concept of slowing down and taking a rest was a bit unheard of. The value of the day was productivity and visibility. Even the Sabbath was put on the back shelf, especially when it meant a choice between our public responsibilities and personal time.
Busyness, constant activity, and relentless demands on our time and attention became the byproduct of success and growth. We had open doors and unprecedented growth, and for some, that meant we had to put our personal needs in the backseat. All seemed well and good.
But apparently, it was burning us out, wearing us down, and taking a toll on our health, our relationships, and our general well-being. Of late, I have found myself busy with the ministry of “mending souls.” I’m called for as a counselor in times of emotional and spiritual crisis.
Most of these stem from an unforeseen event, a breakdown of relationships, a sudden urge to do self-harm, a tragedy born of another person’s missteps, or a revelation of hidden events. Some would say that these are the normal challenges of life, but the reality is that sometimes we just cannot cope.
And so as a counselor, I give a nudge here and there. And I find that although the circumstances and details of each case may be vastly unique, there seems to be a commonality in all. And that one thing is that for proper healing to occur, there is a need to slow down and take stock.
In the book Soul Keeping, author John Ortberg relates his journey of soul keeping under the guidance of his mentor Dallas Willard. When he asks his mentor about how he can stay spiritually healthy in a busy season of ministry, Dallas tells him, “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
It is very noticeable how from the start, the author John Ortberg refers a lot to his time with his mentor, the late Dallas Willard. It was as if he were writing a tribute to his mentor, relating their various interactions and the lessons learned in these encounters.
By being candid with his personal struggles and the search for answers, he was creating a safe path that we readers could perhaps take as well. The book seems to be a testimonial of sorts, as it is a challenge to the reader to take the same hard look at our own lives, and somehow be spurred to take a renewed perspective and be “keepers of our souls.”
In chapter two, the author relates a time he visited his mentor. It was years since his last visit, and John had at the time advanced in stature, was leading a church with a substantially larger staff than before, and was sought after and invited to speak at numerous events. In his words, “My outer world was now larger and busier and more complex than it had ever been. But my inner world had not grown at all.”
Therein lies the premise for this book. There are two worlds we live in; two personas, so to speak.
There is the outer self, which is the “public, visible me.”
Our accomplishments, our work, our status in life, and what we are known for lie there. And obviously, this is where we put much effort and attention into building, care, and maintenance.
We also see the massive role that social media plays in magnifying and projecting the public image. We can now create and project an ideal persona that takes on a life of its own. And we so want to believe our own press. Mistakenly, this is where we base our true value and well-being.
The truth of the matter is that there is the deeper unseen self the Bible calls the “soul.”
Popular culture suggests that the key to our well-being is caring for “self.” Interestingly, John Ortberg also speaks to the heart of our modern-day religion of “self-care.” He says that our language reflects this. In times of uncertainty or sadness, you feel a need to fulfill yourself, take care of yourself, express yourself, believe in yourself, love yourself, stand up for yourself—be yourself.
I have advised these very things many times on various occasions, and they may be valid to some extent, but what if the “self” is in chaos and disintegration? What if the inner self is in turmoil and disrepair? And so in this book, John Ortberg distinguishes the vast difference between the “soul” and the “self.”
In God’s grace, He allows us some “sideswipes” in life that knock us off-course and wake us up to the neediness of our souls. So many times, it takes dire circumstances—an emotional, physical, or relational breakdown of a sort—to alert us to the fact that “It is NOT well with my soul.” It is in times of crisis that the Lord grabs our attention and directs us to the fact that our public life is not the entire story.
Our personhood goes way beyond what we perceive, and if we are not careful, we will miss it entirely. There is a deeper being that He is speaking to and calling to. “Soul keeping” is tending to the unseen depths of our being.
As the Psalmist in his distress so aptly sang:
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
This book is a reminder to pause, a challenge to take a hard look, and a call to the task of keeping our souls. Because at the end of it all, “What will it profit us to have the adulation of the world, and yet fail to keep the integrity of our souls?” (Mark 8:36) And to keep in step with John Ortberg, I quote the late great Dallas Willard: “The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.”