Pastor’s Column: Holistic Care of the Soul
In recent decades, Christians everywhere have become more familiar with and comfortable talking about spiritual formation. Jeffrey Greenman and George Kalantzis define spiritual formation as: “the continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith for the sake of the world.”
It is as if an entire generation woke up to recognize this fact: our spirits are constantly in a process of growth, shaping, and transformation in a dynamic back and forth dance between the Holy Spirit and ourselves. This gift of formation is not only for our own individual benefit but for the sake of the world. We are to be formed and shaped into the likeness of Jesus so that we move about this world bearing his likeness in line at Target, as we coach our kid’s little league teams, and so on. Pastors have done a helpful job bringing spiritual formation to a more prominent position within the church today, recognizing this is a significant part of the spiritual journey that requires our participation.
As one who has been studying topics such as human development and spiritual transformation over the last 25 years, I am beyond grateful for pastors who take seriously teaching and modeling to their congregations what it means to participate in this spiritual renewal and formation process.
And I believe we – pastors and congregants alike – are at a crossroads. As a generation, we are at a fork in the road where one path leads to keeping the conversation around human transformation into the likeness of Jesus firmly rooted in the camp of spiritual formation. The other road moves into new territory, where the landscape is less familiar.
This second road leads toward holistic soul care as a useful vehicle for renewal and transformation.
I recognize that saying these words, holistic and soul care, may cause red flags to go up in some minds. For those who may be a bit concerned, stay with me for just a bit longer.
In Genesis 2:7 God breathes life into humanity and Nephesh or soul is the outcome. Each person does not get a soul, they are a soul – a ‘living creature’ made up of body, mind, and spirit. In ancient Hebrew, the interaction of body, mind, and spirit was integral for conceptualizing and understanding the essence of a human being. Dallas Willard helps the conversation by saying this: “The most illuminating and rational way of thinking about the soul is to regard it as that component of the total person which coordinates all of the capacities and dimensions of the human being and leads to their interactive development to form an individual life.”*
So, Willard sees the soul as the component that coordinates all of the dimensions of a human and leads them toward interactive development.
If the soul has that much influence, perhaps we should invest in its care!
However, a dilemma arises as we move into this new terrain: we can’t see our soul so how are we to care for it?
Instead of utilizing a top-down approach, an approach that targets caring for the soul so that all the dimensions of human life are then also tended to and transformed, perhaps a ‘bottom-up” approach is required. Using this type of approach, we begin with these alternative questions: What are the dimensions that make up the essence of a human? What are the dimensions that the soul needs to coordinate? If we can identify those dimensions, then perhaps we can invest in the renewal and restoration of each part, thus positively influencing the whole.
The Hebrew perspective as well as the perspectives offered by Dallas Willard, Thomas Moore and Curt Thompson (among others) propose that the dimensions a soul coordinates are these: one’s body, thoughts, feelings, spirit, will or choice, social context and I would offer one’s sense of meaning for existence. Over the years, I have developed this image to help people conceptualize that, at a minimum, the human soul works to coordinate these dimensions or aspects of life:
Using this image as a limited starting point, the statement can be made: If we want to care for our soul, we need to care for these dynamically interconnected aspects.
Who you are as a human is influenced by your body (physical) – especially your brain. The essence of you is influenced by your thoughts (cognitive) and your feelings (emotional), illuminating both sides of ‘the mind’ coin. The deepest portion of you is impacted by the people (relational) you consistently engage. The calling, mission or purpose (meaning) you believe your life is about impacts the essence of who you are. And last, but actually first among all these dimensions is your spirit (spiritual).
Your spirit is your incredible source of knowing God, listening to God, being shaped by God.
In order for the soul to be well, I am suggesting we need to care for and invest in these six interrelated dimensions. But how does one do that?
I suggest three steps to help this journey of soul care begin:
- Recognize you are a soul that needs to coordinate multiple interrelated aspects of your life: your body, thoughts, feelings, relationships, spirit and sense of meaning.
- Own that these aspects of your life indeed impact one another which means you can’t ignore one (or more) in the cultivation of another. For example, you can’t neglect or ignore your habits of thinking or feeling in your pursuit of caring for your body.
- Try this exercise: Print out the soul wellbeing wheel depicted in this article. In the midst of prayer, move around the wheel dialoguing with God about the state of each of these dimensions in your own life. Notice where you are thankful for the health and wholeness of that dimension. Also, notice if the spirit prompts an awareness of needed investment. Don’t ignore that prompting. Listen as the counselor and guide invites you to begin nourishing a malnourished aspect of your soul.
Pastors, we need to recognize the importance of soul care in our own lives.
If our souls are depleted and dry, chaotic and overwhelmed, this internal state will undoubtedly spill out upon all we encounter.
Notice the soul wellbeing icon again. The relational dimension of the icon depicts this concept: That which is deep within us literally ‘spill’s out’ and encircles our being. When others come into contact with us, they experience the overflow of our own interior life.
So, the question we need to sit with is: What is the overflow of our souls?
Dr. Christine Osgood, LMFT, D.Min. is a licensed marriage and family therapist, faculty member and spiritual director. After completing her therapy degree and license, she pursued her M.Div. and D.Min in order to study and help facilitate spiritual formation within the followers of Jesus. She has led a missional community functioning in a teaching role in that community. Additionally, she is an Associate Professor at Bethel University in St. Paul Minnesota where she currently teaches all incoming students about this idea of soul wellbeing and how at the beginning of their adult journey, they can begin investing in the holistic health of their soul. For more information, her website is currently being revised as she is uploading online resources for soul care, however, you can access and read more at www.theurbanretreat.info