We who are part of the ministry of Soul Shepherding love the soul! Our focus is to minster to the souls of pastors, leaders, and other servants of the Lord. So it’s very important to us to understand our souls and yours so that we can nurture them under God.
“Transforming the Soul” is an updated version of a Bible study I did in 2006 on the role of the soul in spiritual transformation. It is inspired by Dallas Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart. This article 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.)
What is the Soul?
It’s hard for most people to describe their soul (even psychologists!), but the Bible has a lot to say about it, especially in the Psalms, the “soul book” of God’s Word. Our soul is essential to life so understanding the Biblical meaning of soul assists us in soul care for ourselves and others.
Many people mistakenly think of their soul is a hidden part of them that floats up to heaven when they die, but the soul is embodied now and in eternity. In fact, our soul is larger than our body, emanating out from it like a light or an aura and mingling with the persons around us. 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 is to equate the soul with the spirit. In Biblical terms, even though both are invisible, eternal, and deep, they are distinct. 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, Jeff McCrory my Hebrew scholar friend and a Soul Shepherding Associate says, “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. In their anthropology they used the word for “throat” 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.
The Function of Your Soul
Your soul is designed by God to integrate and enliven all aspects of your person – spiritual, psychological, and physical – into one unifying personality or flow of being that runs 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. 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 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 lay, in our churches, communities, and families.
“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 or “vim and vigor” for life.
The healthy soul is alive with God! 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).
As pictured at the top of this article, 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
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? The law is not the source of goodness, but it is the course. 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 what a good and effective life looks like.
Through the lens of the New Testament we understand God’s law as part of his Word, which is both his revelation of truth in the Bible and his invitation to be born from above with divine and eternal life through faith in Christ, the living Word. By hearing and depending upon God’s Word we participate in eternal living, even while on earth!
Bible Verses for Soul Shepherding
To help us better understand our soul and to guide us in our soul care for ourselves and one another I did a word study on “soul” in the Bible. Some of these Scriptures were referenced above, but here are some more of the Bible’s teachings on the soul and soul care. (All verses are from the NIV84 unless indicated otherwise.)
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).
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 – your Innermost Being – 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 the 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 you Rest for your Soul – No One and Nothing Else Can!
“[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).
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).