“What is the soul?” I get asked this question a lot. It’s hard for most people to describe the soul.
Your soul can’t be seen on an MRI, biopsied in surgery, or proved to exist in traditional scientific experiments. But over a century ago a doctor did an experiment claiming he had weight a patient’s soul and found it weighed 21 grams. But later that was proved false.
Right from the start the Bible has a lot to say about the soul. We read at the beginning that when God created Adam and Eve he formed them from dust and then breathed his life into them and they each became a “living soul” (Genesis 2:9 KJV).
A word study on “soul” in the Bible (YLT) shows the word is used 520 times! The Psalms especially deal with the soul — they’re the “soul book” of God’s Word. Our soul is essential to life so understanding the Bible’s teaching on the soul assists us in soul care for ourselves and others.
This blog features key Bible verses and insights on understanding your soul, how it gets split or broken, and how to care for our restore your soul. At the end is a list of verses on the soul.
If you want to go deep into understanding and caring for your soul pick up a copy of our book, Journey of the Soul: A Practical Guide to Emotional and Spiritual Growth.
What is the Soul? A Definition
Your soul is a hidden dimension of you but it is not a disembodied spirit or ghost. Your soul is embodied now and in eternity. In fact, your soul is larger than your body, emanating out from it like a light or an aura and mingling with the persons around you. You experience the expansiveness of the soul and how it naturally connects with other souls in proximity to it when you walk into a room of people and can sense someone’s “vibe.”
Another common misconception of the soul is to equate the soul with the spirit. In Biblical terms, even though both are invisible, eternal, and deep, they are distinct (Hebrews 4:12). The human spirit is essentially the same as our heart or will and it is the inner core of our being.
But the soul is the largest and most encompassing aspect of the person. In fact, when Dr. Jeff McCrory, my Hebrew scholar friend and a Sr. Spiritual Director with Soul Shepherding, is asked, “What is the soul?” he answers, “The soul is the person.” This is why the new NIV often translates soul as “my whole being.”
The ancient Hebrews used the word “nefesh” for soul, which literally means “throat.” What is the soul? It’s your throat! Let me explain.
In the Hebrew people’s anthropology they used the word for “throat” in the Old Testament to refer to the soul, probably because our breath flows in and out of our throat. In the Hebrew understanding, to be a soul is to be a living and breathing, God-created, embodied person with a distinct personality.
Where Does the Soul Go After Death?
Most people know their soul is eternal and so they ask, “Where does the soul go after it leaves the body?”
Contrary to the popular notion, the human soul is not a wispy ghost that leaves our body when we die and floats up to heaven. As we just said, your soul has a body now. It will also have a body in heaven, a body like Jesus’ resurrection body (John 20:19-20, 26-29). The research studies of people who have had Near Death Experiences confirm this (see Imagine Heaven by John Burke).
When they die their person and personality lives on with full consciousness and they have a new body. They totally experience this new body but people on earth cannot see or touch them. The amazing thing is that people who were blind on earth they can see in heaven! If they had a limb amputated it’s grown back in heaven!
I’d like to think that everyone who dies goes to heaven but Jesus and the writers of the Bible teach that when someone dies their soul either goes to heaven or hell, depending on whether or not that’ve trusted in the God of mercy and justice that he revealed (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31). We think of heaven and hell as far away, but really they’re just another dimension of space and time that we cannot see.
The Functions of Your Soul
Your soul is designed by God to integrate and enliven all aspects of your person – spiritual, psychological, and physical – to flow in love and wholeness. A healthy, flourishing soul will run almost on its own. This is why the Psalmist often talks to his soul in the second person, often saying things like, “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone” (Psalm 62:1, 5).
To understand your soul it’s helpful to contrast it functionally with your spirit. Dallas Willard teaches that our spirit or heart is like the CEO of our personality that makes decisions and directs activity by working in tandem with the mind. In contrast he says the soul is like the computer that runs the whole operation of our life. It’s in the background making everything work well together. Like a computer that’s running a church or business, we don’t normally think about our soul — until it’s not working!
Indeed when your soul is damaged or broken (nonfunctioning) it is a problem that needs careful attention! That’s why we need all kinds of soul shepherds, professional and volunteer, in our churches and communities.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4). In many places the Bible refers to God’s Spirit flowing like a river in our midst and through our souls. It’s with our soul that we thirst for God. So the Psalmist cries out, “O God.. My soul thirsts for you” (Psalm 63:1).
To live with soul is elusive for most people — so much so that Jesus warns us to be careful not to lose our soul! (Matthew 16:26). If you neglect your soul you lose touch with it. To lose soulfulness is to lose your vitality for living and loving well.
We’re recognizing the hoped for liveliness of our soul when we refer to tasty food as “soul food” and to music that moves us to dance as “soul music.” The soul that is alert to life and to God’s Spirit flows with strength, direction, beauty, and harmony. It’s why David prays in Psalm 57, “Awake my soul!” (v 8). With an alert mind and a fixed heart David continually opened his soul to God’s presence (v 7).
Your soul is meant to rise up from God like a mighty wave of the ocean! It’s meant to flow continuously and joyously like a vigorous stream of living water that gushes out of your belly to bless the people around you! (John 7:37-39).
Restoring Your Soul Splits
But our souls have been split by sin (James 1:5-8, YLT). Neglect, anger, lust, deceit, judgment, pride and other sins coming from our hearts or imposed upon us by others cause our souls to be malformed and to malfunction. Only God can heal and restore the soul to the glory it’s created for. As we’ll see in the additional Scriptures below, a primary way that the Lord revives our soul is a surprise to most people: He uses the law!
We tend to not like “law” because we associate it with restriction, punishment, and shame. But the law of the Lord — for instance, the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ distillation of them in the Greatest Commandment — is truly a wonderful grace to us. For a hint of this just consider the difference between citizens who abide by good laws and those who don’t.
How can we live a holy and healthy life? As Dallas Willard taught, the law is not the source of goodness — it is the course of goodness. The only true and lasting source of righteousness and wholeness is the grace of Christ Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. But the law that he fulfilled perfectly and taught us to live by in the power of the Holy Spirit is the wise and beautiful structure of a good and effective soul-life.
“He restores my soul,” David sings of the Lord, his Shepherd. Psalm 23 shows us the path to soul satisfaction! This is one of many examples of God’s word bringing us life.
Bible Verses to Care For Your Soul
We’ve briefly discussed the big questions about the soul: What is the soul? Where does the soul go after it leaves the body? How do I care for my soul? Let’s summarize and elaborate by citing some key Bible verses about the soul and soul care. (All verses are from the NIV84 unless indicated otherwise.)
What is the Soul? It’s God’s Breath + the Dust of the Earth
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7 KJV).
Be Careful to Keep Your Soul
“Give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently” (Deuteronomy 4:9 NASB).
Our Soul Needs to Learn to Obey the Lord
“Follow [the Lord’s] decrees and laws; carefully observe them with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 26:16).
Meditate on God’s Law to Revive Your Soul
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7).
The Lord Shepherds and Restores Our Soul (Because it Gets Lost, Weary, and Broken)
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1-3 NKJV).
Lift Up Your Soul to God
“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul” (Psalm 25:1).
To Live Well Cause Your Soul to Delight in the Lord Right Now!
“Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation” (Psalm 35:9).
When You’re Hurting Talk to Your Soul and Pour it Out to God
“I pour out my soul… Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” (Psalm 42:4-5).
Moment-by-Moment Remind Your Soul to Praise the Lord
“Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name” (Psalm 103:1).
Your Soul is Thirsty – Soooooo Thirsty! – for God
“My soul thirsts for [the Lord] like a parched land” (Psalm 143:6; Psalm 63:2).
Your Soul Can be Lazy and Dull: It’s Up to You to Awaken it!
“Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn” (Psalm 57:8).
Knowledge is Good for Your Soul
“Knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Proverbs 2:10).
Your Soul has Longings
“A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19).
Jesus Christ Offers Real Rest for Your Soul
“[Jesus said] take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
Lose Your Life for Christ or You’ll Lose Your Soul!
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
Jesus’ Greatest Commandment Includes Loving God with All Your Soul
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul [or prayer, (MSG)] and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
Where Does the Soul Go After it Leaves the Body? Either to Heaven or Hell
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side [in heaven]. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16:22-23; see also Matthew 25:31-46).
Where Does the Soul Go After it Leaves the Body? God Wants to Give You a New Resurrected Body Like Jesus’!
“A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe’” (John 20:26-27).
Come to Christ and the Living Waters of the Spirit Flow From Your Soul
“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him’” (John 7:37-38).
S.O.S. (Lord, Save Our Souls!)
“You are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9).
Jesus Christ is the Shepherd of Our Souls
“You have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
This blog was formerly called “Transforming the Soul” and is part of a series from my teaching for counselors and other soul shepherds on “How People Change.” (See my related articles on “Transforming the ______”, e.g., the Heart, Thoughts, Feelings, Body, and Social.)
Journey of the Soul by Bill and Kristi Gaultiere shows you how to care for your soul and the souls of others by guiding you through six stages of faith in emotional and spiritual growth.