When we think of the “soul,” we’re probably thinking of the non-physical aspect of our existence, the “real me” that lives on when the body dies. And while it’s true that our life in God is not bound only to our bodies, it’s also true that we get this concept of “soul” more from the Greek philosopher Plato than from Moses, Jesus, or anyone else in the Bible. Plato taught that our present experience of life, the world around us experienced by our five senses, is ultimately a two-dimensional shadow of what is actually real. Our physical bodies simply cannot experience what is real, but the non-physical aspect of our being could.
But when we say “soul” in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), we’re not referring to something non-physical. We’re referring to something that encompasses every possible level of what it means to be alive. Physical, non-physical, all of it. “Soul” only scratches the surface of what we’re saying when we say the Shema.
The Hebrew word behind “soul” is “nephesh” and soul is only one way to translate it into English. In fact, it’s most frequent English translation in the Bible is “life.” In Genesis 2:7, God breathes life into Adam and makes him a “living nephesh.” “Soul” is not something that finds its true form at death, but at birth, at the moment God breathes us into this world. Nephesh becomes over 50 different words in our English Bibles. So in the Shema, we can be assured that we’re being called to a love that is truly all-encompassing. Nephesh will not be reduced to some small back alley of life that doesn’t require much to give up. To love God will all the nephesh, all the soul, is going to draw more out of us than we thought possible. It is to love by devoting my whole body, all my vitality, energy, vigor and stamina to God. On every level of what it means to us to be alive, to be a living, breathing person, it belongs to God, because God is the one that gave it to us in first place.
To make such a sharp distinction between body and soul is more dangerous than we might think at first, not only because it’s the opposite of what the Shema means by “soul,” but because it’s going to lead us into a discipleship that only devotes half of ourselves to God. God can have our immaterial afterlife existence, but not the whole nephesh. Yes, we are more than our bodies, but the Shema (the most important thing in the world for Jesus (Matthew 22)) is demanding every part of everything that God has made us. The whole body, all the vitality, energy, intensity, enthusiasm and stamina (and if the well is drying up, we make sure someone else is pouring it back into us).
The Shema is signing us up for the most grueling marathon we will ever run, but that’s exactly how we want it because it means that God is ever changing us. To love with all the soul and all our might means today there will be a hundred ways for love to pour out of us toward God and each other, and we’re going to do all of them. And then tomorrow there will be a hundred more ways, and we’ll do all of them again. And the next day and the next day.
God places within us vitality, strength, tenacity, endurance, joy and passion. These things exist in us by the grace of God so that we can grace God with them in return.