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Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You

John Ortberg


–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, ThD.


“Sometimes the soul gets sifted and shaped in places you could never imagine and ways you could never expect. For me it was in Box Canyon.” (17) Box Canyon is a rocky hideaway tucked between Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley west of Los Angeles. Two more-or-less famous residents were a cult leader and mass murderer named Charles Manson and a writer and intellectual named Dallas Willard.

John Ortberg read a book by Dallas that moved him more than anything he had ever read. (Makes me think of someone Sweet in my own experience…) As a young pastor in the area of Box Canyon, Ortberg wrote him, was invited to visit and over the years learned that he was a healer of souls. Ortberg had a twenty-plus year relationship with Dallas Willard, a retired professor of philosophy at USC. When they met, all John knew was that Dallas taught philosophy and wrote about subjects such as spiritual disciplines. [His small house “was mostly furnished with books.” YES] Willard had a primary library in his home, a secondary library in another home next door, a tertiary library at USC, his quaternary library in a garage near his home.

His first meetings with Willard were, by his own admission, to find out how to become more successful and possibly to impress him. We read much today of “creating safe spaces.” Ortberg says something about Dallas was so safe that he found himself offering unsolicited confessions. From church to marriage to parenting and more, Willard walked with Ortberg in and through all the realities, challenges, questions, and blind spots that life brings. We are given a front-row seat to listen in on two-plus decade deep mentoring relationship that spanned Ortberg’s journey from California to Willow Creek Community Church and back to Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.

The vulnerability and candor of Ortberg’s journey are both refreshing and surprising, because frankly, all too few of us really want to go there. But he does, and we are the beneficiaries of his testimony. As he says in the introduction, “Over the years I sought Dallas’s wisdom to help me understand the human soul, and in this book I will share what I have learned. But I did not really just want to know about any soul. I wanted to know that my soul is not alone. I wanted to know that a face is turned toward it.” (24)

Obviously Ortberg spends time talking about the soul. We don’t talk about our work without talking about our souls. We hear about the “soulful work” movement, knowing that cubicle life can cause a disconnect between our souls and the rhythms of working outdoors or making things with our own hands. The Internet can give you a list of the most soul-crushing jobs, “Jobs that make you feel like a caged ADHD Chihuahua on Red Bull.” (34)

In response to the question, “How can I have a private self that is flourishing no matter what my public self is doing?” you know Willard is going to have to talk about the care of the soul. Willard had written in one of his books, “What is running your life at any given moment is your soul… The soul is that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of the self. The soul is the life center of human beings.” (39)

According to Dallas, an unhealthy soul is one that experiences dis-integration, and sin always causes the disintegration of the soul. As Leonard Cohen put it, “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, and it has overturned the order of the soul.” (43) In a day of façade maintenance, the dis-integrating soul becomes the ruined soul.

Jesus spoke of forfeiting one’s soul. Willard corrected our view that this is speaking of acquisition, sex, and other sensual pleasures. Jesus is talking about a diagnosis, not a destination. “If we think of hell as a torture chamber and heaven as a pleasure factory, we will never understand Jesus’ point. For the ruined soul—that is, where the will and the mind and the body are disintegrated, disconnected from God, and living at odds with the way God made life in the universe to run—acquiring the whole world could not ever produce satisfaction, let alone meaning and goodness.” (44)

As Ortberg says, the neglected soul doesn’t go away: it goes awry. “The word salvation means healing of deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus. Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. What will matter then is the soul you have constructed.” (48)

The chapter on sin and the soul points out that soul language has to involve sin language, because sin is not just the wrong stuff we do; it’s the good we don’t do. Paul said he was the worst of sinners. He couldn’t conceive that anybody could be worse. That’s called sin awareness, pretty devoid in our day. We forget that there are no misdemeanors in the realm of sin. We ought to be asking ourselves, “What does God think of me?” A UCLA researcher notes, “prayer, meditation, and confession actually have the power to rewire the brain in such a way that can make us less self-referential and more aware of how God sees us.” (73)

Sin begets sin. It always ascends, beginning with rationalization. “Is it any wonder that workplaces become filled with gossipy, cynical, judgmental people exaggerating their own contributions and minimizing those of others? We tolerate jealousy, sabotage, and greed, but only enough so we can all feel good about ourselves—because we’re good people.” (75)

The book is broken down into three parts: what the soul is, what the soul needs, and the soul restored. The weightiest part is what the soul needs: a keeper, a center, a future, to be with God, rest, freedom, blessing, satisfaction, and gratitude. Ortberg offers lots of insight from his background in clinical psychology. The seeming unending flow of Willard quotes from conversations and his published works makes this a treasure trove of Willard wisdom. Willard’s life and counsel give us the results of, to quote the recently departed Eugene Peterson: “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Get this book. Read it. Let its truth and testimony marinate in your soul. You’ll love it and hate it, but you’ll know that this is not a solo journey. We’re in it together.


You’re welcome.