Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.

I’ve preached before on these words of Jesus from Mark 12:29-31, the double commandment to love God and love our neighbour. But yesterday as I read these words again during worship, I suddenly realized that there is a third commandment that actually comes before the other two: “Listen!”

I was so struck by the force of it that I almost stopped reading. If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbour, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening is right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together.

The other thing that I noticed in this text is the use of the word soul: “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.”

In Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You, pastor and author John Ortberg describes the soul as what makes us whole people. The soul is the integration of our will, mind, and body. Perhaps that’s why the soul gets listed in the middle of heart, mind, and strength–because it’s what binds the different parts together and makes us whole people.Soul_Keeping

This book owes much to Dallas Willard and is dedicated to him. It’s part theology in its focus on the soul, and also part memoir, as the author describes his encounters with Dallas over the years as teacher, speaker, mentor, and friend.

The book is rich in stories that provide a narrative flow. The tone is personal, even confessional –like the author’s account of his early years of marriage, and his first experiences in preaching and fainting(!) in the pulpit.

But some of his stories also made me wince. Like the time the author pestered his two-year old with questions until she started to cry. Or when he suggests an experiment to spend a whole day grumbling at other people and then another whole day making positive comments to find out which day makes you feel better. Is that really an experiment in soul-keeping, or is it simply selfish? Does the second day include going back to apologize to everyone for being so miserable on the first day?

I’ve finished reading this book now, but I’m still not entirely clear on the soul, and I wish the book were clearer on how to take care of ourselves without causing grief for others. I keep going back to the words of Jesus about loving God with our whole selves and loving our neighbours–surely that’s the context for our own soul keeping?

And then I think again about how Jesus prefaces the two greatest commandments with “Listen!” That seems to be the best starting point for any soul keeping too–to listen and to look to God. As my childhood bedtime prayer looked to God for rest and safety, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” So in the darkness of night and in the full brightness of day, God is the keeper of my soul.

Disclaimer: I was sent an advance reading copy of this book compliments of Zondervan Publishers via the BibleGateway Bloggers Grid in exchange for my honest review.

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Categories: Book Reviews, Spiritual Practice

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6 replies

  1. I’m working my way through this book myself. Hoping to get a review posted… oh… in a week or so. 🙂

  2. Love your discovery of a 3rd commandment in that oft quoted verse. What an important find and reminder. But … Oy! … what an experiment. I don’t think I would want to do that one. I’m wondering how much similarity you feel this has to the Herald Press forthcoming book you’ve read (and have seen the cover for), The Spacious Heart. Heart is likely another way of saying soul, too, you think?

    • Yes, I think The Spacious Heart comes close to what John Ortberg calls the soul – it’s our inner life, which he also refers to as the “operating system of your life.”

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