This is the last message in the Transforming series. I believe that this has been a very important series for us as a church because we have been focusing on Christian spiritual formation and Christian spiritual formation is how we engage with God’s grace to grow to become more like Jesus. We need and want that transformation, not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of the world. Because following Jesus won’t make a difference in the world until the world starts to see that following Jesus has made a difference in us.
We started off the series by looking at the why, the what and the how of Christian spiritual formation, and then we began to dig down into the specifics of how God transforms the various aspects of our life. We looked at how God transforms our mind, both our emotions and our thoughts. Then we reflected on how God transforms our will so that we want the things that God wants. Then we considered how God transforms our body so that it works with God and his ways instead of against it. Last Sunday, we focused on the social aspect of our life and how, starting with followers of Jesus selflessly loving each other in our marriages and our gatherings of believers, God’s agape love can flow through us out into the world. Today, we are looking at God’s transformation of our soul. If you missed any of these messages, or you want to see them again, you can find our sermon podcasts on our church app and on our website. Next week, we will be starting a new series called The Humble King Comes and I hope that you will join us for that.
A few years ago, I was going for a walk in Walnut Grove and as I crossed the bridge over the creek behind Walnut Grove Secondary School, I met a woman who expressed sadness to me over the condition of the creek. The water was polluted with garbage, the stream was no longer flowing freely, and the water had become stagnant and murky. She asked me if I knew why salmon no longer spawned in that stream. I said, “I don’t know, I have only lived here eight years.” She said, “I have lived here twenty years.” And then we parted.
That conversation stuck with me over the years since because, even though I had seen that stream many, many times, I did not know how bad its current condition really was because I never knew how good it could be.
And there is a parallel between that creek and a human soul. Just as a creek connects all the various parts of a watershed and brings nourishment and life everywhere it goes, so also the human soul connects all the other aspects of our life—mind, heart, body and social context—and gets them working together toward a common goal, even if you are not aware of it. Dallas Willard writes, “What is running your life at any given moment is your soul.”[i]
And also like that creek, a human soul can become stagnant and polluted so that it no longer brings nourishment and vitality to the other aspects of our life. Instead, it spreads toxic pollutants to all the various dimensions of our life, and into all the lives of the people our life touches. This is what happens when we live the away-from-God life, for instead of God being the source of the water that flows through our soul, as God intended, we connect to other sources for the water that flows through us. And those other sources will always leech poison into our soul. For some people, this has been going on for so long that they don’t know how bad their current condition is because they don’t know how good it could be.
We all need soul transformation, but how? How can our soul be transformed? That’s what we are going to be reflecting on in this blog post. We will be looking at 1 Peter 2:11-25 and other passages from the Bible, and I also used the book Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard as a major resource during the preparation of this and all the other messages in this series.
It is Impossible for Us to Live Without Regard for Our Soul
Let’s begin by trying to understand our soul. In our secular world today, many find it difficult to accept that human beings have a soul. Evolutionary theory has no explanation for such a thing, and because our soul operates so deeply within us that we may not even be aware of it, it is easy for us to go through life without giving much thought to our soul.
But our soul is real, and the features of its existence always rise to the surface, even when they are suppressed. All the things in life where we find meaning and purpose—things like art, family, health, community and meaningful work—are all functions of the soul. Our soul is at work as we engage in these things because they connect us to something bigger than ourselves. Going through life with a lack of soul awareness and engagement means that we miss out on the meaning God meant for us to experience in life. Without meaning, we lack feeling and we go through life like dead souls. We are living in a crisis of dead soul living, where people will do almost anything, such as take great risks or experience pain, to experience feeling and have meaning in life.
Where life meaning is lacking performance becomes everything, because performance creates the illusion of meaning, if the performance was successful. Pick nearly any area of life and think about what we do: we exalt those who perform well, and then we turn our backs on them when they falter. We strive to perform well ourselves, but even when we do accomplish peak performance, it never satisfies us like we think it would.
A lack of meaning from soul less living also results in the rise of fanaticism. We become obsessed with performance and then attach our entire being to it. Though commonly associated with dedicated fans of sports teams or pop music singers, fanaticism is also found in areas like religion, politics and philosophy. Disconnected from God and the good he intended to flow through our soul into our entire being and beyond, a fanatic has attached his or her self to some other source and has allowed the “flow” from that source to take over their thoughts, emotions, behavior and social context. They become intoxicated by that flow and make it absolute in their lives, no longer subjecting it to the ordinary tests of truth claims, reason or common sense. Thus a loss in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals led to riots in Vancouver, a scene that has been repeated after sports championships in many other cities before and since. But the same kind of fanaticism over different issues has led to destruction and brokenness all over the world. You can try to live without a soul but you can’t. You still have to live, and so you try to cobble together whatever resources you need to hobble through life. But it never works. The soul will always make itself known.
How Good Can Things Be for Our Soul?
For our soul to have life, we need to know how good things could be. Let’s think for a moment about our image of a stream as a source of life, and then consider this definition of life from Dallas Willard: “Life is self-initiating, self-directing and self-sustaining activity and power.”[ii] In its fullest sense, only God has life, and the only life that we have is the life that he gives us. This life flows through us in the form of our own soul. Therefore, for us to fully function as God intended us to do, it is absolutely necessary for us to have a spiritual relationship with God. Therefore we must do what we can for that to happen, knowing that only God can make it a reality.
This gives us a direction on the way back to soul health. We first must acknowledge our soul, that is, pay attention to it. The Bible has several examples of people talking to their own soul. For example, Psalm 42:11,
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11 ESV)
We need to acknowledge our soul so that we can bring it back to its rightful place under God. And when we do that, we will be able to hear the cries of our own soul.
Jesus is a person with a great soul. Therefore, he could not only hear the cries of his own soul, he could hear the cries of the souls of others, how they were harried and distressed like sheep without a shepherd. It was for these weary and heavy laden souls that Jesus came into this world and became human just like us. He took our place and lifted all our burdens of sin, guilt and shame from us on the cross, then he suffered and died to destroy their power to ever separate us from God again. With his resurrection from the grave, Jesus destroyed our enemies of death and the devil, and opened the door for us to live by faith in the family of God forever. Restored and reconnected to God, his life flows through us, and we are able to rest in Jesus no matter what, for we approach the problems before us in his power. We abandon all outcomes to God and live in humility before him, trusting that our good and great God has a good and great plan for our life. We simply rest in the life that God has given us.
We Use God’s Law (Torah) to Protect Our Soul From Sin
There is no peace with sin. That means that then next step, after acknowledging our soul and bringing it under God, is to protect our soul from sin. In 1 Peter 2:11 we read, Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11 NIV) Please keep in mind that we don’t do this in order to earn salvation. We do this in gratitude because Jesus has already given us salvation and we want to grow to become more like him, which is called sanctification. In this phase of life, we partner with God, but it is always God who is doing the heavy lifting. Our part is to be willing to go deeper, farther, higher and longer with God so that more of his life can flow through us into the world around us.
For direction on how to grow to become more like Jesus, we look to God’s law in the Bible, but we use it in a very particular way. There are three ways that God’s law can be used. It can be used as a mirror to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. It can be used as a curb to reduce the amount of sinful behavior in the world and in our lives. And with the salvation that Jesus has given us as a 100% free gift, and the blessed Holy Spirit to guide us, we can use God’s law as a guide to show us how to live.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word behind our English word “law” is torah. And while the word torah means “law,” it can also mean “instruction.” In our life with God, these two meanings are not incompatible. God’s law is also his instruction to us in how we are to live. Please keep in mind that love is behind all of God’s commands. As we read in Romans 13:9-10, For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. (Romans 13:9-10 NLT)
Your soul wants to love and wants to be loved. So acknowledge your soul and bring it to Jesus so he can love it back to health. Then let his love so fill your soul that it overflows in love for God and wants to do the things he commands. As Jesus said,
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-39 NIV)
And today you have an opportunity to love and be loved as we gather to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We receive love from heaven in the person of Jesus Christ, and we share Jesus’ love with our sisters and brothers as we humbly receive the divine medicine that our wayward soul needs: love. Love that we can taste, touch and see. For it is love that will heal the world. Love from God, given to his people, shared with the world. Amen.
[i] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 20th anniversary edition (Colorado Springs CO: NavPress, 2021), 207.
[ii] Willard, 213.
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(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on November 20, 2022. For more information about our church, please go to wglc.org.)