We each have an outer life and an inner one. My outer self is the public, visible me. My accomplishments, my work, and my reputation lie there. My outer world had changed a great deal since I had last seen Dallas Willard. I was working at a church that — in the little world of my profession — was large and visible. There were more people on staff at this church than there were attendees at the church where I had last worked. Suddenly people sought out my opinion more and assumed I was smarter than I was and invited me to speak at their events. My outer world was now larger and busier and more complex than it had ever been.
But my inner world had not grown at all. My inner life is where my secret thoughts and hopes and wishes live. Because my inner life is invisible, it is easy to neglect. No one has direct access to it, so it wins no applause. Abraham Lincoln was a brilliant lawyer, but notoriously disorganized; he used to have a bulging folder labeled, “If you can’t find it anywhere else, look here.” My private self can begin to look as chaotic and untended as the inside of Lincoln’s folder.
I thought that such a large change in my outer world would bring a quick upgrade to my inner one — more fulfillment, more gratification. Instead, the very busy-ness and complexity of it was almost like a private blizzard that made it hard to navigate my internal world clearly.
What drew me to Dallas was the sense that here was someone who had mastered the inner life — or had at least gone much farther down that road than most. There was leisure of spirit to him. It sounds strange to say, but he had an overwhelmingly calm face.
I asked him, “Why am I not happier, now that I’m getting to do what is in many ways a dream job?” I asked him, “How can I have a private self that is flourishing no matter what my public self is doing?”
For that, Dallas said, we would have to talk about the care of the soul. I was afraid that topic might come up.
“I work at a church where my job involves saving souls,” I began. “But if someone asked me, I’d have a hard time saying exactly what a soul is. Is soul just a word religious people throw around?”
I wasn’t prepared for his answer.
“Brother John, why is there such value and mystery to your existence? The really deep reason is because of this tiny, fragile, vulnerable, precious thing about you called your soul. You are not just a self; you are a soul. ‘The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’ You’re a soul made by God, made for God, and made to need God, which means you were not made to be self-sufficient.” In one of his books, Dallas further explained,
What is running your life at any given moment is your soul. Not external circumstances, not your thoughts, not your intentions, not even your feelings, but 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.
We all have two worlds, an outer world that is visible and public and obvious, and an inner world that may be chaotic and dark or may be gloriously beautiful. In the end, the outer world fades. We are left with the inner world. It is what we will take with us. I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s glorious universe.