What is the soul? According to author and pastor John Ortberg, "The soul is the coolest, eeriest, most mysterious, evocative, sacred, eternal, life-directing, fragile, indestructible, controversial, expensive dimension of your existence." Years ago, Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy and author of many books on the spiritual disciplines (The Spirit of the Disciplines;The Divine Conspiracy), had become Ortberg’s mentor, especially on matters of the soul. Ortberg dubbed him "healer of souls," and for him Willard shed light on the soul’s amazing depth, offering a list of practices for its proper care and feeding. Ortberg’s latest book, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (Zondervan, Apr.) captures the wisdom Willard imparted before his death last year, making the book, Ortberg says, “a kind of Tuesdays with Willard.”
What prompted you to address the needs of the soul?
I wrote Soul Keeping because we are taught more about how to care for our cars than how to steward our souls. But you cannot have an impactful life with an impoverished soul. Soul neglect is the greatest spiritual epidemic of our time, and people with neglected souls rush through life disconnected from God and dis-integrated within themselves. When the soul is understood and attended to, we can be liberated from hurry, preoccupation, unsatisfied desires, and chronic discontent.
How has Dallas Willard helped shape your idea of what the soul truly is?
Many years ago, when I asked Dallas how to have a healthy soul, he responded with a single sentence: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” I realized, from a thousand sentences like this one, that Dallas is the wisest soul doctor I know. He was a philosopher at USC and the smartest guy I ever met—I never argued with him because I was afraid he’d prove I don’t exist. But his heart was [even] better than his mind was. He helped me understand exactly what the soul is, which is crucial because unless we understand the soul (or anything else) we cannot take care of it. Even more than Dallas helped me understand the soul, he showed me how beautiful a soul can be in life and then in death.
What do you hope Soul Keeping will inspire in its readers?
I hope through this book people will learn to care for their souls with greater effectiveness than they care for their retirement accounts or their waistlines. People need to learn the warning signs of an unhealthy soul, hardened and cluttered by the world, shallow, and disconnected from God, and discover the practices and rhythms God uses to help the soul to flourish. The soul is both the most fragile and most resilient thing about you; a healthy soul is what holds you together when your world falls apart. Since you will carry your soul into eternity, it’s worth checking up on it at least as often as your teeth.
Of the nine you mention, which is the most important way we can keep our souls healthy?
Gratitude. The soul is by its nature a needy being; one great Old Testament scholar [Hans Walter Wolff] referred to the core of the soul as ‘needy man.’ Research that I’ve done with sociologist Brad Wright indicates that experiencing gratitude is the single most powerful factor in helping people live both in an awareness of God’s presence and in the flow of the fruit of the Spirit: love and joy and peace. Gratitude is what we radiate when we experience grace, and the soul was made to run on grace the way a 747 runs on rocket fuel.
What is the most inspiring message Dallas Willard left you regarding the soul?
“Your identity is that you are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” Those were not just words for Dallas. While I wrote this book, I watched Dallas walk through the valley of dying from pancreatic cancer. It was like watching an advance scout go to a distant land where all of us will travel one day. One of many amazing statements Dallas made was: “When I die, I think it may be some time before I realize it.” Dallas had no fear of death, and he had great confidence that his conscious life before God would simply continue right on; that’s why Jesus said that no one who trusts in him would taste death. The most inspiring message Dallas left about the soul was his life.