Soul, not Self
Updated: Apr 26
Is there a distinction between our 'soul' and our 'self'? How can we flourish, as meant to?
'Self' comes from the primordial sense of isolation, not a sense of connection. The 'self' is contrary to connection. It is the consciousness of our own 'otherness' from all else. It is the alienated identity, and it is legion. We have many 'selves' that originate at times of stress by emerging to take control. These 'selves' love us but primarily seeks 'self-preservation.' The love emanating from 'self' is not entirely pure because it is 'self-interested.'
The world of the self is mastery, or gaining 'self-reliance'. But this soon proves to be illusory. We soon learn, and almost immediately forget again, the vanity of relying on our 'self.'
The 'self' is too weak to bear the fullness of who we are. The 'self' soon acts out in two distinct falsehoods when denied. The first is narcissism, and the second is egoism. The result is selfishness, self-seeking, self-centredness, idolatry, irritability (petulance), pride, covetousness, etc.
Our era accepts the notion that we are some sort of an accidental carbon lifeform, here today, gone tomorrow, and our consciousness of this happenstance is called the 'self' - self-consciousness. The secular, Darwinian world view is that of 'self,' where self-actualisation is the primordial motive for existence. We are isolated individuals fighting for survival. This 'self' seeks a distinctive identity: how it looks, how it achieves, who it associates with, what it owns, etc.
Any failure of self-actualisation and the race to exsert one's 'self' also quickly flips over to become the root victim. 'Self-hatred' or a 'slighted-self,' a 'scorned-self' or many other events and imposed attention that does not agree with the 'self's' brittle consciousness cause pain, bewilderment, and inner rage. It is a wild creature that knows how to survive.
Self needs the mirror of others. The self easily derives identity from non-reality. The 'self' perception of what others signify and the accumulated ideas and images gathered, filtered, and projected successfully back to others. If we can fool others, we quickly believe it must be true. Therefore the 'self' constantly craves and seeks validation and distinction from others. Resultantly, the self is a sucker for flattery and adulation.
We now live in the 'Century of the 'self.' Pity us! At its most inflated and dominant state, the self becomes the ego, the tyrant that assumes universal centrality and sucks everything to orbit around its needy gravity—the god of its own universe. This false soul only makes love to itself. It is an idol, replacing and even attempting to get the creator to serve it by attending to all its needs.
In contrast, the 'Soul' originates from the breath God blew into the humanoid modelled out of the dirt. The soul is our 'anima' (from breath: 'ane-'), the animator, the core life wellspring. It is entirely us but fully gifted from beyond the mere 'self.' Our 'soul' is a donated component. It may even be correct to view our souls as sacred. (Compare this to what Jung called the 'animus' or the rational egoist.)
Because it comes from God, it alone can bear all of who we are. It is the consciousness of our own God-origins. It seeks to reconnect. The soul is almost entirely about connection. The 'soul' only finds rest in God, and seeks God, yearns, and longs for God. Without God, it feels cast down. Soul music is the music of connection and relationship. We can speak to our 'soul,' but we essentially 'prophecy' God's words. When the 'soul' connects with God, it exalts and fills with inexpressible joy. The 'soul' is like a pale tourist beach body that needs to sunbathe in the light and love of God. Like in that Sting lyric, we can let our soul be our pilot because naturally, our soul comes from and seeks to return to God. Our soul holds all the capacity for our wholeness and wholesomeness. It knows what matters. It cares for vastly different things to what our 'self' cares for.
Our soul cares for: 'Harmony' (free from harmful practices), 'Connection', and 'Integration'. The soul is absolutely about integrity, to body-forth on the outside all that we are on the inside. The soul is about what is real, true, beautiful and good. It is made to be desired; it is the Shulamite lover from Solomon's songs, wanting love without conditions, yearning for connection with a deeper reality. Our soul longs to live in surrender to God.
There is a trend to reduce the work of God to a mere triage of damaged 'selves' rather than finding its elevated place of connecting the 'soul' into an eternal relationship with the Divine. The triage effect reflects the trend of diagnosing people's chronic impairments and hooking them up to lifelong treatment programs. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, becomes the substance needled into us from a heavenly drip to sustain and help our 'self' in its anguish. Jesus is no longer the Devine bridegroom that sweeps us up through love, which vivifies and animates our souls into a glorious union, unimaginable connectedness.
Psychology (the study of the soul) morphed into chronic triage for the self, creating a people mashed into the co-dependently weak, constantly a whisker away from utter self-failure or self-implosion. How many of our Christ-based relationships are simply not just this type of mutual neediness of the self? How many of us transcend out of self-agony into soulful living? If we can imagine God as more than just the wonderful Saviour and Redeemer but as the love of our lives, we cease to run and hide in that shame of self but yield entirely to the soul's hunger. The 'self' we offer and leave to crucifixion and death.
We are soul-embodied bodies or body-clothed souls. It is not a divided dualism but a strange oneness. (I imagine that my soul is much bigger than my body and fills more invisible territory than the physicality of my body.) We seek to become 'magnanimus' (Greek for great-souled, English: magnanimous) versus 'oligopsykhos' (Greek for small-souled, English: pusillanimous). Magnanimity is the elevated soul or sentiment, superior to petty resentments. It is a soul full of shalom.
But, it is not material how we imagine it; more important is how we unite with it. The soul weighs nothing but means everything. It can be saved or lost, nurtured or neglected. Music, art, poetry and prayer are all forms of food for the soul. The soul livens up when holy imagination draws aside the veils of rationality to the invisible God.
Ruth Haley Barton puts it like this: "Your embodied soul is the 'you' that exists beyond any role that you play, any job that you perform, any relationship that seems to define you, or any notoriety or success you may have achieved. It is the part of you that longs for more of God than you have right now." Our soul is the bridge between who we are in the heavenly places and our embodiedness in the visible earthly place, making us sacred, precious and valuable.
The theologian, Karl Barth, moaned that we search the scriptures in vain to understand the distinctions between our spirit, soul or bodies. We are a fully integrated oneness, but we have aspects interconnected, interwoven, singular, yet distinct. This is just a convoluted way to say our souls are mysterious. Another theologian Ray Henderson says that the soul exists in a bodily form - not dualistically.
Our lack of joy, depression and many other disorders result from a downcast soul (See Psalm 43:5). Our souls become cast down because of unmet needs or when our soul endures hardship. The soul, powerful and eternal, are fragile and need tending. Our souls refuse neglect.
A dose of God tends to the needs of our soul. According to James Bryan Smith, souls cannot endure the following:
Harm to our bodies (pleasure and sickness or pain resonates in our souls)
Feeling unwanted or unwelcome (need to be lovingly accepted by God and others)
Guilt (for what we've done)
Shame (for what we are - see 'self' above)
Disconnection (alienation or intermittent connection to God and loving others - stale relationships, taking people or God for granted - being in a rut)
Boredom (need to be part of something exciting, meaningful and adventurous - fear and disappointment driven - no current vision, or loss of vision, or previous vision done - new one needed. A need to reconnect to a sense of calling (challenging if the last one is disappointed). Also overly exposed to entertainment, sport and other distractions. Our soul finds secular stuff dull - requires some fasting.)
Sin (no need to explain - but there is a need to be convicted by the Holy Spirit - rather than a journey down into the hell of introspection)
Being victimised (Forgiveness of people, God and the past if we carry pain. Our soul wants to walk into our story, not be controlled or distressed by it)
Meaninglessness (Our soul is made to soar in transcendence. Our souls cannot stand spending life on things that do not matter.)
Non-existence (We need to engage with resurrection, the eternal future and the true escatology of our hope in a living God who did not remain dead. We need to work at ridding ourselves from the Platonic dualist visions of heaven and hell as Dante and the medievals wrongly injected into our culture; we need a Hebraic idea of a new heaven and earth living, rather than floating on clouds playing cherubic harps)
In contrast, our souls need the following:
To see our bodies as sacred. (Good enough for God, good enough for me. Ignore all secular advertising and shame-making exploitation.)
To be wanted and desired. (God did not leave heaven, emptying inconceivable splendour, to become a child, growing up to die a criminal in a political backwater because he did not want you. Surprisingly, some people want and desire you for who you are too.)
To be loved without conditions. (Contemplate why God's love can be flawed, then accept that it is not. Accept peoples' love to be equally God-inspired. It is all agape till it is not—frame innocence and not guilt when people love you. Strangely, you will find it more often accurate than can be imagined)
To be intimately connected to God. (Even and especially when you feel nothing)
To be forgiven forever. (Lingering 'doubtful' forgiveness is just not final enough. Gather faith in God's character that forgiveness means forgiveness, a true obliteration)
Permission to have adventures (Imagine God being idle or bored? Well, get on and have an adventure.)
To be wholly virtuous. (Living connection with the incarnated goodness received by the Holy Spirit inside of us)
To own 'my story.' (Healed people, reconciled to their souls, can tell their own story without adding or omitting anything)
Connected to a purposeful calling or vocation (We need the hope of good work flowing from us, there is no truth in retirement)
Eternal reality (The soul, breathed out of God, cannot deal with non-eternity)
Fill in the rest of this blog with your own admonition and advice. I'm off to spend some quality time with my soul in the light of God's reflective glory.