Yesterday, I stood in front of a ministry team and asked: "What tends to emerge in the life of a person who neglects his or her soul? What symptoms creep in?"
I explained that no one ever sets out to trash the condition of his soul, and particularly not those of us in vocational ministry. Yet we often find ourselves in a spiritual death spiral—facing ever increasing ministry loads yielding ever diminishing returns. But we march dutifully onward, assuming that our spiritual state, a neglected soul, is somehow part of the "deal" in a life devoted to ministry.
So, I asked, what are the signs of soul neglect? At first the room was silent. Then somebody ventured, "Anxiety," and I knew they got it (not every group does). Once started, their answers came so fast I couldn't write them on the flip chart fast enough.
"Self-absorption," they called out. "Shame," "apathy," "toxic anger," "chronic fatigue," "lack of confidence," "isolation," "sin looks more appealing," "no compassion," "self-oriented," "drivenness," "loss of vision," and "no desire for God." Soon every inch of the page was crammed.
A sad feeling hovered over the room as these leaders, "weary in well doing," saw themselves in the mirror.
Then, with much relief, we turned the page, and I asked: "What emerges in your life when you're deeply connected with God, when your soul is healthy?"
This page also filled up quickly: "love," "joy," "compassion," "giving and receiving grace," "generosity of spirit," "peace," (at this point, some bright bulb usually suggests the entire list of the fruit of the spirit!) "ability to trust," "discernment."
Heads nod in acknowledgement as individuals recall times when this was their experience, too. "Boundlessness," "work coming out of the overflow of my life with God," "creativity," "vision," "balance," "focus." All in all, a pretty desirable list.
Then I bring it to a vote. Holding up the Soul Neglect list, I ask, "Who votes for this?" Everyone laughs! No one in their right mind would choose to live this way. Then I call their bluff. "The truth is, you vote for one or the other of these two lists every minute of every day." Ouch.
The truth is, even as Christian leaders, we can neglect the care of our own souls in our attempt to care for the souls of others.
In a redemptive relationship with God through Christ, the soul is said to be "saved," and rightly so. Positionally, it has been brought from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
But beyond a soul's "position," something else is true about souls. They are living. Like all living things, our souls can thrive or shrivel. Every soul, even if redeemed, has a quality of life, a degree of health. How do we assess that degree of health, and how is it improved?
In the realm of physical health, if we care for our bodies, they tend toward health. If not, they don't. To assess physical health, we rely on measures like blood pressure, pulse, cholesterol, and the like.
There are also indicators of soul health. And for many in leadership these days, the results aren't good. The soul is susceptible to neglect. Why? Well, here's a profound thought to impress your friends with: souls are deep.
What exactly does that mean? In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard explains the depth of souls in two senses. In one sense, the soul is deep because it's below the level of our conscious awareness.
For example, your soul will not directly rise up within you after a conflict and say, "Hey, that's me driving your reaction here!" The soul does not register formal dissent when you mistreat your body; it will not announce itself wounded when harsh words are spoken to you. It stays well below the surface of your conscious life. It is, indeed, deep. There are many symptoms of soul health, but we often miss them because the soul evades observation.