This is the third in a series about the commandments to love. The others are:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” –Matthew 22:34-40I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:34-35
We talk about the soul a lot. We talk about saved souls, unsaved souls, someone who was “a good soul”. I’ve even been told I have an “old soul”. But what is a soul, anyway? For many of us, the idea of a “soul” is that of something separate from us, something disembodied, something almost ghostlike, floating up to Heaven when we die.
But is that really the image of “soul” that we get from the Bible?
If we look back to the Hebrew Scriptures first, we see the word nefesh (among others, such as neshama and ruach, but we’re just looking at nefesh here):
vp,n< n.f. soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion — 1. = that which breathes, the breathing substance or being =yuch,, anima, the soul, the inner being of man (From BibleWorks)
As always, when it comes to anything to do with the Hebrew Scriptures or language, I consulted my friend Yaakov, an Orthodox Jew, for insight. He told me that nefesh is the most basic form of the soul that gives the body life and represents the will as well, explaining that if you see the phrase “if you so desire”, in Hebrew it reads “im yesh es nafshecha”, literally meaning “if it is to your nefesh (will/desire)”
Let’s take a look at Genesis 2:7:
“then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
I love the translation that Yaakov gave me of this verse. When God breathed into the nostrils, it’s like saying “he blew into his nose his spirit”; “he blew into his nose a neshama of life”. The word at the end of the verse, that is here translated as “living being”, has to do with the word nefesh that we are looking at: linefesh chaya.
So, it looks like what we have here is that God blows a neshama into us through our noses and we become a living nefesh. God breathes his spirit into us and we become a living soul. Without that breath from God, what is humankind?
This nefesh that humankind becomes with the breath of God is what gives us life. If this is what animates our bodies and represents our will, then loving God with our soul means loving God with all of who we are, not just with part of who we are. The soul is not a part of us; it is integral to our identity. It’s not something that we can break off and see as separate; we can’t think of our soul as something that is only a part of who we are.
And so, when we ask ourselves, how do we love God with all of our soul, perhaps we should be asking instead
- How do I love God with all that I am?
- How do I love God with what defines my identity?
- How do I love God with all that I desire or will?
- How do I love God with all that he created me to be?
There’s a lot more depth to those questions. They are not quickly or easily answered. But the one idea that stands out to me is that the soul is a gift from God, and it is with that gift that we must love him back. It is the gift of life, and in loving God with our soul, we are loving God with all of our life.