Many years ago my men­tor and friend, Richard J. Fos­ter, and I had lunch. Not long into the lunch, Richard’s face looked very seri­ous, and he said, I want you to hear this word, and take it to heart. Your career is going to change. You are going to move from the minor league to the major league in the next few years. You must take care of your soul.”

I said, Well, I have no idea what that means, but thanks for the advice.”

No, I am seri­ous, Jim. You need to write this down and remem­ber it.”

So I wrote it down. I assumed Richard was just being nice; I nev­er expect­ed he might be right. I kept the nap­kin I wrote it on, but I did not heed his advice.

Richard was right. The next few years of my life, in terms of my career, changed. I went from being a col­lege pro­fes­sor and part-time teach­ing pas­tor in a local church, to the head of a min­istry with a grow­ing num­ber of staff. We were blessed with finan­cial resources beyond our expec­ta­tions, and we did our best to increase our impact for the king­dom of God. New oppor­tu­ni­ties came, and doors were opened that I had nev­er dreamed of. I was trav­el­ing around the world, and it seemed clear that God was doing a lot of good through our work. I found myself feel­ing two things at once: excite­ment to do the work and enor­mous pres­sure to succeed.

I did what many peo­ple do: I poured my heart into it and worked hard­er than ever before. I read books on how to be a leader, stud­ied min­istry pro­grams, learned about mar­ket­ing and brand­ing, and honed every skill I had in order to advance our work. Suc­cess kept com­ing, in terms of how suc­cess is mea­sured in min­istry work: more peo­ple were being reached and more influ­ence was being exert­ed and more resources were being giv­en. But I was enjoy­ing it less and less.

I did not have a moral fail­ure, I was not expe­ri­enc­ing burnout, nor was I suf­fer­ing under an addic­tion, though I sus­pect I had not sought help I could have. There was a lot of grief and unhealed trau­ma that I had sup­pressed. As a result, I sim­ply lost joy and was suf­fer­ing in silence. I made the com­mon mis­take of think­ing that doing work for God was more impor­tant than car­ing for my own soul. And now I was pay­ing the price, because my soul refused to be neglect­ed. I had pur­sued and achieved suc­cess but at what cost?

I con­fid­ed my con­cerns with my long­time pas­tor and friend, Jeff, who said, Maybe you need to talk to some­one, a trust­ed coun­selor.” had nev­er done any kind of ther­a­py work, but I was des­per­ate enough to try. God led me to a ther­a­pist in Col­orado, and I set aside a week to go for some inten­sive coun­sel­ing. I did not want to admit it, but I knew that I need­ed help. The only thing in my favor was a small amount of courage to ask for it. I knew that I would soon be going into the office of a ther­a­pist, and for the next week bar­ing my soul.

So,’ my ther­a­pist, Michael, asked, What brings you here?”

I can­not go on liv­ing this way,” I said.

Say more,” he inquired.

I feel emp­ty inside. I have lost my joy, my smile. I just feel noth­ing,” I said.

He invit­ed me to share any­thing and every­thing I was com­fort­able shar­ing. I thought to myself, Well, I am here, and it is safe, so I might as well let it all hang out. I shared all of my biggest mis­takes and regrets; I exposed all the skele­tons in my clos­et; I con­fessed my worst sins and dark­est fears, and the thoughts, words, and deeds of which I was most ashamed. This took around thir­ty min­utes but felt like an eternity.

Michael sat in silence and lis­tened, then said noth­ing for a minute. Then he said, I am so impressed with your integri­ty. You are such a man of integrity.”

Wait, what? Did you not hear a thing I just said? I con­fessed my worst fail­ures, most shame­ful sins, my dark­est secrets, and your first response is that you are impressed with my integrity?”

Yes, and it was such a joy and hon­or to hear it, not because you are James Bryan Smith, the author, but because you are Jim Smith, the won­der­ful human soul. In that con­fes­sion, you were tru­ly in align­ment with God. The integri­ty I see in you is not because you named your strug­gle; the integri­ty is in your soul. You opened up your soul, the place no one can see, the place where there is pain and fear and shame, but there is also so much more that you do not see.”

I was stunned.

Jim,” Michael said, look­ing right at me, God sees into your soul – into the total­i­ty of who you are. Jesus looks at our worst and puts his arm around us and says, Well, of course.’ Jesus knows the truth of where we are, and he does not con­demn us for it. But he does have great expectan­cy for how much we can heal, for how free and alive we can be. It was an hon­or to see the core of your being. Right now, you only see the junk … I see the gold—I see Christ in you. Your soul is long­ing to be made well, and you have tak­en the first step toward that by com­ing here.”

By the end of the week I felt like a new per­son. A bur­den had been lift­ed. On the last day, as I was leav­ing, I noticed for the first time that the name of the coun­sel­ing pro­gram is Restor­ing the Soul. I sud­den­ly thought of Richard, and what he had said many years ear­li­er. I would learn that week and for the next few years that it was my soul, the thing years ear­li­er Richard had asked me to guard, that was both the cause of my pain and the hope of my heal­ing. I had, in fact, not guard­ed my soul. But now I would, and resolved to try my best nev­er to make that mis­take again.

Our Souls Want Life

Not long after my own time in ther­a­py, I was lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast in which the guest spoke about his time in coun­sel­ing. The guest was one of my favorite spir­i­tu­al writ­ers, whose books have been help­ful to me. I was sur­prised to learn that he had strug­gled for years with clin­i­cal depres­sion. He said he felt ashamed of his depres­sion, feel­ing as if he had to keep it secret, and keep­ing the secret was exhaust­ing. He assumed that the spir­i­tu­al life was like an ascent to a high moun­tain where you try to touch God, but that spir­i­tu­al­i­ty had noth­ing to do with the val­ley, and he had been liv­ing in the valley.

He said dur­ing his depres­sion he nev­er felt less spir­i­tu­al,” but that the things he relied on in his life for mean­ing and pur­pose, such as his intel­lect and his emo­tion­al life, were gone; his willpow­er had been shat­tered. And yet, there was this prim­i­tive core of being, this life force that was alive and hold­ing out hope.” He said it was his soul. He said, The soul is this wild crea­ture that knows how to sur­vive where our intel­lect and our feel­ings and our will can­not.” Then he said this: Catch­ing a glimpse of my soul kept me alive, real­iz­ing I was more than my mind and my will, because when those things are gone, the soul is still available.”

I have come to believe that our soul is the most essen­tial, pre­cious thing about any of us. And, para­dox­i­cal­ly, our soul is some­thing we are the least aware of, the least con­cerned about, until our lives begin to fall apart. I have come to believe that our souls help to save us — not in and by them­selves, but because their needs can dri­ve us to God who alone can save us, and to the things only God can pro­vide. But I also believe that for many peo­ple the soul is neglect­ed. The key to our hap­pi­ness, our well-being, our joy, our sense of mean­ing and pur­pose, is our embod­ied soul. 

Ten Things Your Soul Needs

You have a mind that is phe­nom­e­nal. It can think and rea­son and cal­cu­late; it can imag­ine and dream and envi­sion. You have a body that is amaz­ing. It is made of over thir­ty tril­lion cells, all work­ing mirac­u­lous­ly, with­out much help from you. Your heart and lungs and liv­er are all doing their thing right now, even as you read. You have a will, a pow­er to decide and to act and plan and exe­cute and accom­plish. Your soul is inter­act­ing with all of these dimen­sions of who you are.

But your soul is more than an oper­at­ing sys­tem; it came fac­to­ry loaded with a lot of needs. Your embod­ied soul is durable and tough, but very needy. Your soul was intri­cate­ly designed with sev­er­al needs; there is no debat­ing them or escap­ing them — they sim­ply must be met. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it, cre­at­ed your soul with each of these rela­tion­al needs that only the Trin­i­ty can ful­fill. And because God is good, all that we need God has pro­vid­ed as free gifts. Ful­fill­ing these desires is an act of grace. There are at least ten God-cre­at­ed long­ings of the soul:

1. To see my body as sacred 

2. To be want­ed, desired

3. To be loved with­out condition

4. To be inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to God 

5. To be for­giv­en forever 

6. To be alive and empow­ered to adventure 

7. To be holy, virtuous 

8. To own my story

9. To be called to a life of purpose 

10. To be glo­ri­fied and live forever

First, our souls, which are embod­ied, long for our body to be regard­ed as sacred. Harm to our bod­ies is harm­ful to our souls, because they are united.

Sec­ond, our souls long to be want­ed. When you feel wel­come, when you feel as if oth­er peo­ple real­ly desire you and are glad you are there, your soul feels joy and peace.

Third, our souls also want to be loved, not for any­thing we do, but for who we are. We all know when peo­ple are show­ing affec­tion or appre­ci­a­tion for what we have done. The soul’s long­ing to be loved is to be loved for absolute­ly no reason.

Fourth, our souls long for God. And we con­nect to God and to the spir­i­tu­al realm in so many ways, not just in church. A piece of art, a wild­flower, a calm­ing or exhil­a­rat­ing song, con­nect to our souls. 

Fifth, our souls long for for­give­ness. Just as our souls can­not endure being unfor­giv­en, our souls rejoice when we have found real for­give­ness. When the wrong we have done has been acquit­ted, our souls find release.

Sixth, our souls also long to be ful­ly alive. They long for an adven­ture. Our souls want to be a part of some­thing thrilling.

Sev­enth, just as our souls reject sin, they also long for holi­ness. Our souls have been pre­pro­grammed for puri­ty. They long to be clean. When I walk in holi­ness — when I do the next thing I know to be right — my soul feels whole. I am liv­ing into who I was designed to be. 

Eighth, our souls come into this world in a time, a place, a fam­i­ly, and a cul­ture. Our lives become our sto­ry. And our souls long for our sto­ry to have mean­ing. We want our lives — with their pains and loss­es, as well as joys and suc­cess­es — to matter.

Ninth, our souls also long to live a life that makes the world a bet­ter place. For most of us, we long to feel like we are called to some­thing, to be a part of some­thing. We are born with a set of gifts, with a spe­cif­ic tem­pera­ment, and cer­tain tal­ents and pas­sions that come togeth­er to form our unique calling.

Tenth and final­ly, we long for glo­ry. Not mere­ly the fame and glo­ry that come in this life, but to be glo­ri­fied in the next. Our souls long for eter­nal life. 

Every one of these long­ings has been met in God and by God. There is noth­ing we have to do to earn that ful­fill­ment — they are all a gift.

It Is Well with My Soul

The week of inten­sive coun­sel­ing was the begin­ning of my soul restora­tion. Dur­ing that week I stopped and acknowl­edged that I had a soul, some­thing I had for­got­ten and neglect­ed. Indeed, I am a soul, and to neglect my soul is to neglect my entire per­son. But that week was only the begin­ning of the work I need­ed to do to devel­op well­ness in my soul. The pri­ma­ry change in me was learn­ing to live again with my soul in mind in all that I do. I was able to see that suc­cess is some­thing to be thank­ful for but not to rely on, and in fact is some­thing to be care­ful about. We sim­ply must guard our souls.

Over the next few years I would relearn to love the things my soul loves: lov­ing God, first and fore­most; lov­ing that I am desired and loved by God; lov­ing being made alive in Christ; lov­ing being for­giv­en for­ev­er by the cross and liv­ing with no con­dem­na­tion; lov­ing the unique call­ing God has giv­en me; and lov­ing the real­i­ty that I, and those I love, will one day rule and reign and dance and sing in the new heav­en and the new earth. And in the mean­time, tak­ing suc­cess­es lightly.

A few years after my own heal­ing jour­ney, I had din­ner with Richard Fos­ter. I shared with him my own sto­ry of soul restora­tion. Way back when, you told me my life would change, and that I must guard my soul. How did you know this would hap­pen?” I asked.

Because it hap­pened to me. That is why I tried to warn you.”

Well,” I said, I wish I would have listened.”

You lis­tened as best you could,” Richard said. There are many things we just have to go through on our own to ful­ly understand.” 

One of the odd things peo­ple who have done coun­sel­ing, or been through ther­a­py, or through twelve-step pro­grams, will often say is, I am actu­al­ly grate­ful for my strug­gle.” One friend of mine even said, My addic­tion saved my life.” I used to think that was crazy. Now I know it is absolute­ly true. I am sad for the few years I strug­gled as my soul atro­phied, but I am not sad that I strug­gled. It led me to a new kind of love and free­dom and pas­sion I could nev­er have expe­ri­enced if I had not strug­gled. I am so grate­ful to be able to say, It is well with my soul.”

Tak­en from The Good and Beau­ti­ful You by James Bryan Smith. Copy­right © 2022 by James Bryan Smith. Pub­lished by Inter­Var­si­ty Press, Down­ers Grove, IL. www​.ivpress​.com.

Pho­to by Dewang Gup­ta on Unsplash

Text First Published May 2022 · Last Featured on August 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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