When we aren’t doing well on the inside, the consequences aren’t always as apparent as a fever or red-eyes.
Bitterness and unforgiveness may not be visible from a distance. Cynicism shows up subtly in our words and reactions. Loss of perspective can show up slowly and then all at once. And a loss of motivation and drive is often felt by us before anyone else sees the consequences.
While the consequences are easier to hide, the challenges which have been developing slowly can snowball into big problems seemingly all at once.
We can put off caring for our souls for a time, but eventually, the impact of this approach will hurt us and those around us.
Responding to Questions on Soul Care
After I released my article last week, How’s Your Soul?, I heard from one reader who said, “I don’t know if you were planning it already or not, but I know I’d be interested in more information about the ‘how to’ of a healthy soul.” While I shared about my personal dashboard in that post, I wanted to dig deeper into more practical steps we can take to care for our souls.
I also wanted to respond to a question I received on social media. One reader asked, “What is your soul? Do you really mean ‘heart’?”
When I write about our souls, I’m playing with a word used by Jesus in two specific instances. First, Jesus asked an important question in Mark 8:36 when he said, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” Second, Jesus told his crowd of followers the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Our soul is the “inside us.” I grew up singing an old hymn with this line, “may all that is within me bless His holy name.” That’s a good summary of our souls – all that is within me. Sure, there are places where what I’m attributing to the soul is also linked to our hearts. But, the fact that Jesus called us to love God with our hearts and souls leads me to believe the two are distinct.
Soul Care is a Continual Process, Not a Final Destination
Every student who began a program at my seminary was required to take a course entitled Foundations for Ministry in their first semester. The class included a weekend retreat and a lot of self-examination. The “final” for the class was a 20-30 minute conversation with our professor, reviewing the materials we created over the semester.
I’ll never forget the content of the conversation I had that evening with Dr. Hornecker. By this time, Dr. Hornecker was in his late 70s, full of wisdom to share. He was confident in my call to my ministry and hopeful regarding my future effectiveness. Yet, he wanted me to know his concern that my ambition and drive put me at risk of future burnout.
We talked about healthy practices of soul care, personal boundaries, and approaching my ministry with a lifetime mindset. In the more than ten years which have followed, I’ve seen Dr. Hornecker’s words come true. I battled burnout in 2012 and I’ve had other seasons where I tried to sustain an unhealthy rhythm.
Over those years, I’ve learned soul care is a continual process, not a final destination. My successes and failures in this process have humbled me and continue my commitment to pursuing this process, even when I talk about it better than I live it.
7 Places to Get Started with Soul Care
If you’re feeling like your soul is unwell or not nearly flourishing like you’d hope it would be today, here are seven places you can get started with soul care. Now, I wouldn’t encourage you to start all seven of these today. I think that’s a recipe for frustration and disappointment. But, you might find two or three really intrigue you and you decide to start exploring them. That would be a win!
1. Cultivate a sense of personal identity in God’s unconditional love.
For me, my struggle with soul care often worsens when I’m living with as if my worth is tied to my performance in or contribution to this world. In this message I shared last year at my church, I noted that God the Father declared His unconditional love for Jesus before any miracles were performed, any messages were preached or anyone was healed.
If you struggle with linking your personal worth with performance, I heartily recommend Brennan Manning’s book, The Ragamuffin Gospel.
2. Develop a healthy, sustainable rhythm of life and work
Our souls will never be well when we live as if they recharge as fast as our phones. The data about the amount of TV we watch (34 hours per week), the number of times we touch our phones per day (2,617 times – over double that for heavy users) and the amount of unused vacation we leave on the table each year (nearly a week every year) tell an important story. We’re living a rhythm which we cannot sustain, a pace which is leaving us less and less healthy.
To move toward a healthy, sustainable rhythm, I encourage you to explore the value of a fixed schedule, establish boundaries with technology, and look for ways to use all of your vacation time each year. Personally, I’m looking to explore the subject of Sabbath by reading Mark Buchanan’s book The Rest of God later this fall.
3. Experiment with daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly practices of soul care and spiritual formation.
In my previous post, I shared about Gary Thomas’ book, Sacred Pathways, which outlines nine spiritual personalities. Thomas believes each of us is a mixture of two or three pathways. Within each pathway, particular spiritual practices are natural expressions of connecting with God and caring for our souls.
Caring for our souls requires intentionality. On a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis, we can step away from the crazy pace of our lives to ensure we’re okay on the inside. In addition to Thomas’ book, I heartily recommend John Ortberg’s book The Life You Always Wanted. It’s a very accessible introduction to spiritual disciplines.
Augustine once wrote, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Maintaining that soul rest in God requires practice and intention.
[Also, I’m working on a short email course on personal spiritual practices which have helped me develop a healthier soul. If you’d like to get more information on this project and hear about practices I engage at these times, drop me an email at email@example.com.]
4. Sit down for a one-time or ongoing session with a counselor or therapist.
I’m grateful for the growing change in perception regarding working with health professionals and experts on the subject of relating to the health of our souls. Recently, a friend reached out to me and shared about her recent experience with a new therapist.
If you’re ready to take this step, then I encourage you to reach out to friends you trust for referrals. When meeting with a new counselor or therapist, interview them to ensure they’re a good fit for you. Not every therapist is a good fit for each client.
A few years ago, I learned of some friends who visited a therapist every year near the date of their wedding anniversary. They shared, “Why spend all that money on dinner and gifts for each other if the marriage is falling apart? We’re spending money on a checkup to keep things from not getting to an unhealthy place.”
5. Pursue the humility of approachability.
I’m borrowing this term from pastor and counselor, Dr. Paul Tripp. This one might seem odd in a list of soul-care practices. But, consider how often we become unwell on the inside and don’t realize what’s happening until someone else notices something and asks how we’re doing. Ensure that you can be approached with this kind of feedback by pursuing the humility of approachability.
No matter how hard we try to monitor the state of our soul health, we’ll miss things. As humans, we’re incredibly gifted at self-deception. When we’re approachable, we give others the space to bring clarity to our blind spots.
6. Cultivate a small community of friends who can do life with you.
Developing a thriving soul is never a solo endeavor. In a world where we can easily count the number of friends we have on Facebook and followers we have on Twitter and Instagram, it’s much more difficult to know who really is doing life with you. Who really knows you and can speak into your life, both the hard words and the words of hope?
This list will be short by its very nature, but intentionally investing in a small community of friends is one sign of a healthy soul. When we’re both known to others and know others in transparent ways, we’re likely on our road to a thriving soul.
7. Learn from those you admire.
Living in the twenty-first century is a mixed bag. We have abundant opportunities our ancestors would have deeply envied or even viewed with skepticism as impossible. But there are realities facing us which are becoming increasingly problematic. The statistics regarding mental health today are deeply unsettling (I was going to write depressing but that seemed unwise).
If we discover someone (either up close or from a distance), it is easier than ever before to learn from them about how they care for their soul. If they’re a well-known figure from the past, we have biographies to read. For those who are alive today, we can follow them online or even reach out to inquire.
I believe each of us should consider having multiple mentors. Soul care is not a practice which any of us will master and we’ll learn from a variety of teachers. Even in this article, I’m both sharing with you what I do and what I’ve learned from those I admire.
Learning From You
I’d love to learn from you. What have you found helpful as you’ve worked to care for your soul? What have you learned from others? Do you have any questions about these seven practices I’ve shared?