As Christians, we know that we are more than just physical bodies; we’re more than just biological material. We know that we are material bodies with an immaterial aspect to us. One knows this from reading Scriptures such as Second Corinthians 5:8. In that section, Paul speaks of the Christian not fearing death because they “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (English Standard Version). If one is only a body, how can one be away from the body and be with the Lord? This indicates that we are all more than just a material body; we all have a soul and a body. The question this raises is, what is the soul?
Dallas Willard describes the soul as “the deepest dimension of human personality” (Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation and the Restoration of the Soul. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 26.1, 1998, 101). He states that the soul is “the fundamental but not the only component of a human person and life” (Willard 101). This seems to be a good description of what the soul is. It is because, as David Benner points out, the Old Testament word means “the inner person…to the whole person, including the body…also the source of emotions, the will, and moral actions” (The Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel, 21-22). He elaborates further by describing the word from the New Testament as meaning, “the totality of a person, physical life, mind, and heart…also…the religious center of life and as the seat of desire, emotions, and identity” (Benner 22).
The soul, it seems, is the “what” that makes a person a person. Without it, no one would be who they are because it makes them who they are. This does not mean the soul is all that makes us who we are. What it means is that the soul is the core of who we are. We are bodies and souls, and as such, we are fully human, but the soul is the inner fundamental component of who we are.
Even though this is the case, there have been other views of the soul. Some have claimed the soul is “the source of life” that the soul was a different entity in its own right (Willard 103). That the soul in a person was only formed appropriately when educated rightly. This is from the Platonic and Aristotelian schools. They believed that reason and proper legislation would rightly order the soul (Willard 103). It is because of this view that they believed that rhetoric and properly chosen words would aid in the healing of a soul (Benner 23).
Whereas, in Judaism and Christianity, the view is different. In Judaism, the care of the soul was invested in the soul being the whole person. They believed that the whole person needed a change because the whole person was included. This was accomplished by applying the whole of the Torah being taught to them and for them to use it to life (Benner 25). In Christianity, it is revolved around repentance and confession (Benner 28).
Much of this is seen in Scripture, where the soul is tied to the heart, and one is to watch over their heart with diligence (Prov. 4:24). Where one is to keep the words of truth and wisdom near their heart so they will remain healthy in their whole body (Prov. 4:20-22). This, along with what is inside a person, is what corrupts them (Mark 7:15-23). This fits with repentance and confession, while the Scripture from Proverbs fits the teaching and applying of the Torah to life. If we hold things in, such as remaining in sin and evil with no repentance or confession, our soul will be tainted. This, along with not applying wisdom to life we will be corrupted and miserable.
The soul, it seems, has a significant role in spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. If it is the whole of a person, the “what” that makes a person, then it is of extreme value to spiritual formation. If it is disregarded and left to itself, it can and will fall into bad shape. It will become tainted, and the person will be defiled from the inside out. We will not be healthy and sound in our thinking or life. We will become useless and tainted utensils that are of no good purpose.
The soul is what keeps us going and what makes us who we are. If we feed it right, we will desire more of the good, but if we feed it poorly, we will want more of the bad. I believe that our soul will guide us down whatever path we feed it from the most. So, it is essential to feed it the right things if we want our spiritual formation to be strong and vibrant and go down the correct paths for proper growth.