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Soul First

It is the shepherd's primary duty.

The Primacy of the Soul (2) 

And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls… 2 Corinthians 12.15 

No cushy calling
The apostle Paul was only one of the many remarkable men and women used of God to establish and grow the Christian movement in that first generation. As we see in the book of Acts, Paul was almost continually on the move, pausing only on a couple of occasions for extended stays in one place or another. He preached, evangelized, taught, counseled, and trained leaders for the emerging churches. In the process he endured no small amount of hardship – deprivation, harassment, persecution, stoning, imprisonment, and, ultimately, death at the hand of the Romans (though this last is beyond the scope of Acts).

Clearly, this was no cushy calling. Why would Paul devote so much time, invest all his best energy, and become so thoroughly and completely spent? What was he so urgent about, so single-minded in pursuit of, and so determined to accomplish through his many and arduous labors?

He tells us: He was zealous for the souls of those the Lord had called into His churches.

The focus of Paul’s efforts was on strengthening the souls of those entrusted to his care. He commended his friend Philemon because he was able to refresh the souls of those he served (Philem. 1.7). He wrote to Timothy to remind him that love, which is the hallmark of every true follower of Jesus Christ, rises from the soul – from sound thinking, a clean heart, and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1.5). Jesus had come to show and declare the love of God to the world, and He instructed His followers that it would be such love that would mark them off as His disciples (Jn. 13:35). To be able to love like Jesus, in the face of all kinds of adversity, one must be strengthened in the soul – heart, mind, and conscience.

Paul understood this, and he made it the focus of his ministry. It was to this end – strengthening the souls of believers – that Paul spent and was being spent in his teaching, disciple-making, evangelizing, preaching, and all his other pastoral duties.

Shaped from within
The consistent teaching of Scripture is that human beings are shaped from within, by the condition and disposition of their minds, hearts, and consciences. Certainly, outside influences and opportunities play a role in making us the disciples and witnesses Jesus calls us to be; but lasting transformation begins within, where we are being changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ in our heart, mind, and conscience.

The soul consists of three interacting, overlapping, mutually-supportive spiritual components: the mind, the heart, and the conscience. With the mind we perceive the world, and ourselves in it. We think, analyze, compare, assess, associate, plan, and envision the life of Kingdom and glory to which God has called us (1 Thess. 2.12). The heart provides the emotional energy and affective staying power to help us carry our thoughts through to action (Prov. 4.23). And the conscience guards and guides the mind and heart by the Word and Law of God, to clarify our thoughts, purify our affections, and engage our wills for Kingdom living (Rom. 2.14, 15).

Each of these components – heart, mind, and conscience – is a spiritual entity. Each has its own function, but they all work together, interacting and overlapping, to shape us into the people we are. The Spirit of God, Who dwells in the soul of everyone who believes in Jesus, is at work within us, giving us the mind of Christ, nurturing a heart of love for God and neighbors, firming up our commitment to God and His Law, and making us willing and able to do that which is pleasing to the Father – exceeding abundantly beyond all we’ve ever dared to ask or think. His power works in us as if we were on spiritual steroids, strengthening our soul and transforming us into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2.13; Eph. 3.20; 2 Cor. 3.12-18).

The soul is of such importance in the life of faith that the Lord has built into the structure of His churches an office dedicated to watching over the wellbeing of the soul of every believer (Heb. 13.17). We’ll have more to say about this later in this study. For now, though, let us be clear: They who are called to shepherd the flock of the Lord must pursue one overarching and primary concern – to spend and be spent in strengthening the souls of those who believe in Jesus.

The self-watch
The Christian movement grows and flourishes on the strength of the souls of individual believers. If we are strong in our souls, the faith of Christ spreads, expands, transforms, renews, and restores to uprightness everything it touches. If we are weak in our souls, faith languishes, worship droops, the work of making disciples falters, or is substituted for by lesser commitments, and the mission of the church falls on hard times.

We need to have the same emphasis as the apostles when it comes to our own faith, ministries, churches, and the Christian movement of our day. If we continue to spend and be spent primarily on externals such as buildings, budgets, programs, and the like, we’ll fail in our calling and mission. The apostles spent and were spent on behalf of the souls of God’s people. We must do the same, beginning with our own souls.

But we must know this work, what it requires of us, and how we can monitor our progress in it. How well do we understand the state and needs of our soul? Are we able to ascertain its strengths and needs? Determine a course for its improvement? Know how to guard it against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil? The Scriptures consistently call us to keep a close watch over our souls. Consider Solomon’s advice in Proverbs 4.20-27. He urges his son to exercise vigilance with respect to his thoughts (vv. 20-22), his heart (v. 23), and the decisions of his will (vv. 25-27), as well as over his words and ways. Paul urged Timothy to keep a close watch over his soul and life (1 Tim. 4.16), and he instructed all of us to be very circumspect about the conduct of our lives (Eph. 5.15-21).

But can we even take up the discipline of watching over our soul if we do not understand the soul or its workings?

Most of us, I suspect, have  only the vaguest of ideas concerning the nature of the soul and the best ways of nurturing it for Kingdom living. We cannot expect to know the kind of conviction, courage, caring, and confession as those first believers unless we give ourselves to spend and be spent for the strengthening of our own souls and the souls of our fellow disciples.

For reflection
1. How would you explain the nature and function of the soul to a new believer?

2. Why do we say that lasting change comes from the inside-out of our lives?

3. What does it mean to spend and be spent for the soul of a fellow believer?

T. M. Moore 

Next steps – Preparation: Spend some time in prayer, asking the Lord to reveal to you as much as possible about the state of your soul at this time.

Your soul in the Kingdom of God

Jesus has conveyed us into the Kingdom of God. It is in the context of seeking the Kingdom that we can grow strong souls. Our book, The Kingdom Turn, can help you understand and begin making yourself more at home in the Kingdom of God. Order your free copy by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore

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