John Ortberg. Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. 207 pp. $22.99.
Peter the Apostle once wrote of his fellow apostle Paul that Paul wrote to Christians out of “the wisdom given him” although some of his writings are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16). I feel this way about the writings of Dallas Willard. Willard was such a wise Christian, a man full of immense learning and inscrutable humility. However, I have struggled to finish any of his books—let alone understand what he is writing about. Yet, as with Paul the Apostle, I am immensely thankful for the life of Dallas Willard. For one thing, Willard mentored John Ortberg. . .and I love Ortberg’s writings. Like Peter the Apostle, Ortberg communicates the deep teachings of Christianity in a way that the majority of us can understand. In many ways, Romans and 1 Peter communicate similar theological messages. In like fashion, Willard and Ortberg communicate similar messages regarding the spiritual life. The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Ortberg) is the layman’s version of Spirit of the Disciplines (Willard); When the Games Is Over, All the Pieces Go Back in the Box (Ortberg) is the layman’s version of Revolution of Character (Willard); Soul Keeping (Ortberg) is the layman’s version of Renovation of the Heart (Willard). In reading Soul Keeping, I was able to listen in on conversations between pupil and teacher and also to see the mantle of spiritual director move from Willard to Ortberg.
However, if this is all that Soul Keeping is about, then I cannot honestly recommend it to anyone except those who are practicing spiritual directors. Thankfully, as is common with Ortberg’s works, there is always much more going on beneath the surface. The volume does serve as a form of extended eulogy for Willard. It is evident that Ortberg’s extensive ministry that has impacted the lives of so many (including myself and my students who have read Ortberg’s books in their classes) was shaped by the ministry of Dallas Willard. Willard demonstrated how to care for one’s soul. Through a lengthy relationship, Ortberg picked up on these lessons and implemented them into his own life, and now communicates those messages in his own books, sermons and workshops.
In this volume, Ortberg tackles the topic of the soul and how to care for it. His volume is divided into three major sections. In the first section, he asks and answers the question of what defines a soul. According to Ortberg, the “soul is what integrates your will (your intentions), your mind (your thoughts and feelings, your value and conscience), and your body (your face, body language, and actions) into a single life” (p. 43). A healthy soul, Ortberg argues, is connected with God and functions with integrity. The challenge, then, is how to develop a healthy soul that functions with integrity. This is the focus of the second section. In this section, Ortberg outlines nine “needs” of the soul (e.g., a keeper, a future, rest, freedom and gratitude). This section is the heart of Ortberg’s book. Delivered in his classic narrative style, Ortberg clearly defines each “need” and then succinctly delivers avenues that the reader can take to develop a healthy soul. For example, in the chapter entitled “The Soul Needs Rest,” Ortberg outlines a “cycle of grace” that flows from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:28-30 about his yoke of discipleship (p. 126-127). The cycle flows from acceptance to sustenance to significance to achievement. Each movement is centered within grace, which allows us to let go of the need to prove ourselves so that we can find spiritual rest in Christ. At the end of the chapter, he talks about “doing nothing” and simply enjoying God’s presence. Throughout the volume, I kept coming to the same conclusion: simple yet profound.
In my humble opinion, the mantle of spiritual director has passed from Dallas Willard to John Ortberg. Willard will continue to influence us through his books, as he has now gone to receive his eternal reward. Ortberg continues the legacy of thoughtful, practical spiritual direction through writing in Soul Keeping. It is likely his best work on spiritual formation, and that is saying something. However, this does not mean that the volume is perfect. There are portions of the book where simple prose falls into syrupy simplicity. However Ortberg does not stay there too long. Additionally, his views regarding the original sin come out in the chapter on freedom (specifically on p. 151). While this is certainly not the place to debate the various points of the determinist doctrine, I do believe that it is important to highlight this for potential readers. Fortunately, Ortberg does not dwell on this, although it central to his belief structure on sin. Despite these concerns, however, I heartily enjoyed reading Soul Keeping and drinking deeply again from Ortberg’s (and, conversely, Willard’s) well of spiritual wisdom, and gladly recommend it.
Rob O’Lynn, MDiv
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry
Kentucky Christian University