Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You by John Ortberg

Summary: It is not a violation of faith in Christ’s work, to pay attention to our own soul.

Lately I have been increasingly frustrated with Christian Living books. Particularly their introductions. I think I first noticed this strongly with James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Life, but I have noticed the problem with a number of other books as well.

Maybe it is my problem and not one else need pay attention. But if I have to diagnose a more general problem, it is that for some reason Evangelicals seem to need to over compensate in their introductions for the general feedback that they think they are going to hear. And worse that overcompensation seems to be particularly focused on clichés. The books that are am frustrated with often have some really good content, once I get past the general introductions. But several times I have been so frustrated with the cliche-ridden introductions that I have had to force myself past them.

Soul Keeping has this problem. I really love that John Ortberg is writing a book that is as much about a tribute to the work of Dallas Willard in his life as it is about soul keeping as a subject. But honestly, I don’t need to be convinced that it is important to think about and work on my own spiritual health. I have been seeing a spiritual direction for over a year now. I read Christian books incessantly. I go to church regularly and while far from perfect, I really do think I am paying attention to my spiritual life for a lot of good reason. And the primary reason I don’t need to hear about the importance of spiritual care is that I grew up as an Evangelical (as would most of the readers).

What I am frustrated about, is that many authors seem to want to apologize for the fact that this type of work is a good thing. We are not saved by our own works. Pretty much no one that I am reading believes that we are. But virtually all of the authors I am reading on subjects around spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines believe that we have a responsibility to pay attention to our own spiritual formation and put in the time and effort to develop it, just as any one would expect that to learn to do something well takes time and effort.

Maybe it is just that I am reading too much Christian living books, but I want Christian authors to stop wasting my time and stop tiptoeing around the fact that spiritual formation (discipleship) really is important.

That being said, I do think that it is important that John Ortberg, a prominent Presbyterian is writing about spiritual disciplines in this method. As a Presbyterian, Ortberg generally believes in election and covenant. But still, as a believer in election and covenant, he still is writing this book focusing on how we as Christians screw up our spiritual lives and how we as Christians need to pay attention to the right formation of our spiritual lives. (This is one of the main themes of his writing in general, not just in this book.)

My guess is that at least some people that are not familiar with Ortberg’s background would dismiss this book as being more about works righteousness or earning our place in heaven. It is neither of those things. Ortberg is sure of his salvation, but that does not mean he is content with his spiritual position. He knows he is saved, but he also knows that there is more in this life and he want it. He wants comfort and focus and spiritual maturity. To get those things he needs to put away sin and distraction and add on spiritual disciplines and Christian maturity.

One of the important points early on in the book is that not caring for our soul affects others. Spiritual growth is not just us and God. Because no Christian is an island, we are part of Christian communities and part of families. Those around us are affected by the way we live our lives whether we want them to be or not. A powerful way to think of this is how parents impact children both for good and bad.  (I really recommend this lecture from the Mockingbird conference, Grace in Parenting: I have no advice by Sarah Condon. It is one of the significant themes of the lecture.)

As much as I like much of this book, and especially the reflections on Willard and how he impacted Ortberg, the book meandered a bit, not really being a fully focused book on either remembering Willard or spiritual formation. Willard was a good image of proper spiritual formation, but I think I would have prefered either a memoir of Willard’s life or a book that was more focused on spiritual formation. Both felt a bit short changed because of the inclusion of the other.

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0 thoughts on “Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You by John Ortberg”

  1. You aren’t surprised that a reformed theologian should write a book on spiritual formation. You just wish he would have stuck to that theme rather than talk so much about Dallas Williard. Good points, but I would still like to read it.

    • You are right, it is not that I am surprised that a reformed pastor pays attention to spiritual formation, it is that he doesn’t spend half of his time talking about how it is all God’s work that allows us to draw near to God. I of course do believe that we are given the grace that allows us to draw near to God, but the practical reality is that most authors that I read about spiritual formation are not reformed because the reality is that many reformed as an unhappy byproduct of their theology don’t think they can do anything to affect they spiritual formation. That is certainly an over generalization. But I have read more than a few reformed that condemn spiritual formation authors like Dallas Willard because they think that Willard and his followers are trying to save themselves through their works.

      It is not that I don’t want Ortberg to talk about Dallas Willard. I think those sections are fairly interesting. It is more that I think that the split in focus doesn’t really do justice to Willard or the general topic of spiritual formation. I honestly don’t know what could have been different, but it just feels a bit off with the split focus.


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