God has given you a foremost responsibility, one thing above all else to carefully steward, upon which everything else in your life depends: keeping your soul.
Where do I get this? From something Moses said in his valedictory address to the people of Israel, which is the book of Deuteronomy:
“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9)
“Our life is a mystery to us because God’s life is a mystery to us.”
The people were standing on the brink of what they had dreamed about for generations. Four hundred horrible, humiliating years of slavery, and forty years of disciplinary wilderness wandering, now were behind them. Before them lay the land God had promised Abraham to give to his offspring, long before Abraham had any offspring (Genesis 12:7). Now here they were — the offspring of Abraham numbering in the millions — about to receive the promise. The moment was, in the true sense of the word, awesome.
But the promise came with a condition: you must keep your soul. And if they didn’t, if in their prosperity they forgot God and placed their hope and trust elsewhere (called “idolatry”), Moses warned them the consequences would be devastating:
“You will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you.” (Deuteronomy 4:26–27)
This warning is not merely for the ancient Israelites. It’s for us as well. We too must keep our souls.
What Exactly Is the Soul?
What exactly is our soul? Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t define it with exactness. The soul is like love, in that you think you know what it is until you try to define it. Then you realize you’re talking about something too wonderful for you to fully know.
“We are real because he is real. We are because God is.”
In the Bible, sometimes the words “soul” (most commonly nephesh in Hebrew and psychē in Greek) and “spirit” (most commonly rûach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek) refer to distinct realities. For example, in Genesis 2:7, God made Adam a “living creature” [nephesh or soul]. Here “soul” means the whole of Adam’s (and our) physical and spiritual dimensions. And in Ecclesiastes 12:7, when a person dies, “the spirit [rûach or pneuma] returns to God who gave it.” Here “spirit” means the dimension of our being distinct from our physical bodies.
But other times the Bible uses “soul” and “spirit” synonymously. For example, when Rachel was dying in childbirth, we’re told “her soul was departing” (Genesis 35:18). And when David expressed his spiritual longing for God, he described it as a soul thirst (Psalm 63:1). In the New Testament, the apostle John seems to mean the same thing when he writes that Jesus was troubled in soul (John 12:27) and troubled in spirit (John 13:21). And Jesus himself told us not to fear those who can kill the body but not the soul (Matthew 10:28). Because the Bible frequently uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably, most of us understand our soul to be what Paul called our esō anthrōpos — our “inner man” (Ephesians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 4:16).
The Essential You
Perhaps the simplest way to capture the biblical meaning is to say your soul is the essential you. Or as Dallas Willard writes, your soul is “the most important thing about you. It is your life” (Soul Keeping, 23). Your soul is your essential life. It’s what animates your body and continues to exist when your body dies. And it’s what will animate your resurrection body.
“Forgetting God is sin, for it is forgetting what is real, what is true, what is life.”
We have trouble defining exactly what the soul is because we — including everyone with PhDs in the life sciences — have trouble defining exactly what life is. We — including everyone with PhDs in the neurosciences — have trouble defining exactly what consciousness is. But we have no trouble grasping that when someone’s body dies, the essential him is gone. His body was a precious part of him, but not what really made him him. His soul, his spirit, his inner man is what made him him.
Our life is a mystery to us because God’s life is a mystery to us. We can’t explain what God’s life is; he simply and unfathomably is. That’s why God refers to himself simply and unfathomably as “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). God is reality. We are real because he is real. We are because God is. Each of us “became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7 KJV) because the Life (John 14:6), the Soul — the source of all souls — breathed into us the breath of life.
You Must Keep Your Soul
This helps us understand why Moses so urgently warned the people on the brink of the Promised Land to diligently keep their souls, and why the writer to the Hebrews used the ancient Israelites’ failure as an example when issuing us a similar warning:
Let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:11)
God is life, and life comes from God. God alone is the source and sustainer of our essential lives (Deuteronomy 30:20; John 1:4; Colossians 3:4). And to define life and pursue life and live life apart from God in any form is idolatry. Idolatry is forgetting God: “lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Forgetting God is sin, for it is forgetting what is real, what is true, what is life — which is why “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
Keeping our soul is being diligent to not forget God (Deuteronomy 4:9). Or to say it positively, it is to do whatever it takes to remember God — remember Who life is and what life is all about (Philippians 1:21).
How to Keep Your Soul
Remembering God and his gospel is why he gave us the local church. When we meet regularly together (Hebrews 10:25), when we teach and sing to each other (Colossians 3:16), when we share the Lord’s Supper together (1 Corinthians 11:23–26) and pray together (Ephesians 6:18) and encourage each other to seek God daily in his word (Psalm 1:2) and in private prayer and fasting (Matthew 6:5–6, 16–18), we help each other remember God. These things are not legalistic pursuits; they are life pursuits. They are gifts of God to help us keep our souls.
But “while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of [us] should seem to have failed to reach it” (Hebrews 4:1). The promise to us also comes with a condition: we too must diligently keep our souls (2 Peter 1:10) or face the dire consequences of not doing so (Hebrews 6:7–8).
“Keeping your soul is doing whatever it takes to remember God.”
Your soul, the essential you, is a priceless gift from God. Jesus, the great Soul, the very source of your life, died to pay your sin-wages of death so your soul might be saved and live forever (Romans 6:23). Your soul is the only way you will ever receive and enjoy the greatest of all gifts: God himself.
And therefore, your foremost responsibility, the one thing above all else you must carefully steward, upon which everything else in your life depends, is to keep your soul.