Soul is a difficult word to define. In the Bible, it refers to life, being, person or self. The word is translated literally as “to breathe,” yet it refers not simply to the state of being “alive” but more to that part of life that is most alive—the part of our life that makes us most who we are as persons. Thus the soul distinguishes us from all other creatures.
There are three dimensions to existence: the physical, the psychosocial and the spiritual. A rock has a physical existence but nothing more. An animal has both a physical and psychosocial existence, for it is conscious and able to relate in certain ways to other beings. But only human beings have been given a physical, psychosocial and spiritual dimension. From the soul flows our identity as sons and daughters of God.
When God made us, He gave us a spark of the eternal; a slice of the divine. The soul is that unique element of life that reflects God’s own image. Our souls enable us to do what only humans can do: respond and relate to God. The soul is the part within us that comes alive spiritually. Jesus said that those who cling to their life – their “soul,” in the original language – would lose it, but those who would lose their life for His sake would gain it (Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33; John 12:24). From the soul comes our hunger, our very yearning for God.
And the call of God is to love Him with all of our soul.
We enter into a relationship with God by choosing to relate to Him through Christ at the soul level. Then, an ever-increasing acreage of our inner world is developed in love and devotion to God. Like a cavern that is excavated, opened and filled with light, the soul is meant to be filled increasingly with the living God.
Soul love is the basis of communion with God. We open ourselves to His presence and power, crying out with Moses “Now show me your glory,” in order to speak with the Lord face to face, as a person speaks with a friend (see Exodus 33).
And yet, though God was willing to pass all of His goodness before His friend, and even proclaim His name to Moses, Moses was never allowed to encounter God directly. The face of God was to be hidden, for no one could see God and live.
Our souls ache for communion with God, yet we experience this restraint and feel estranged from Him. As one disillusioned character in Jean Paul Sartre’s play The Devil and the Good Lord exclaims:
I prayed, I demanded a sign. I sent messages to Heaven, no reply. Heaven ignored my very name. Each minute I wonder what I could BE in the eyes of God. Now I know the answer: nothing. God does not see me, God does not hear me, God does not know me. You see this emptiness over our heads? That is God. You see this gap in the door? It is God. You see that hole in the ground? That is God again. Silence is God. Absence is God. God is the loneliness of man.
We find it difficult to love God with our souls without seeing Him. Often, when we need communion with God the most, He seems most silent, most distant. Few struggles are as acute as the soul’s search for God—desperately wanting His attention, only to find ourselves groping in the darkness, unable to hear His voice; unable to find His hand to clasp.
We tend to put the distance we feel from God squarely on His shoulders, as if the burden of the relationship is on Him. But our relationship with God, like any relationship, requires that we do our part to maintain intimacy.
When people tell me that God seems distant in their lives, my first question to them is often, “What are you doing to stay close?” A spiritual malady is at hand, and we need to seek out the cause of the trouble.
- Are you praying?
- Are you spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible in order to apply it to your life?
- Are you involved in worship?
- Are you connecting with people whose relationship with God challenges and encourages your own?
- Are you engaged in some kind of ministry to others?
- Are you carving out time for spiritually oriented reflection?
If the answer to any of these queries is “no,” then there’s no wonder that God feels distant. Our relationship with God must be nurtured and developed. We can begin a spiritual life, but we must also develop it.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Wrestling with God.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.