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.”

Text First Published May 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org August 2022

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