“You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:14-15)
An antique mantle clock rests comfortably on a shelf of the cherry bookcase in our study. It is a plain old clock with a rough wooden case and glass door for viewing the clock face and pendulum. No chime or bells for this ancient timepiece, only a single movement that resonates with a sonorous, almost melodic tock, tick, tock, tick. What makes it special to me is that it once tolled time in the walk-in pantry of my parents’ house in Maine. Whenever we visited, there was its familiar beat marking the passage of time; its pendulum forever counting out the seconds in a soul-soothing cadence. To this day I find its sound highly evocative as it effortlessly takes me back to that earlier time and place.
The old clock has little to recommend itself as a functional timepiece. I don’t know that anyone in recent years ever relied on it to provide the precise time because it is notoriously difficult to regulate. And yet, the clock has a beauty in the deeply reassuring beat of its pendulum. These days, I hear it gently sounding in the still of the morning when I am walking in the hallway; I hear it during the day when I am reading in the study; and I hear it in the evening when I am retiring the house. Its only demand is a daily winding, which I usually do in a mid-afternoon ritual by opening the glass door, inserting a brass key in the winding mechanism and giving the key about eight half-turns. If it is running fast, I will sometimes lengthen the pendulum ever so slightly. If it is slow, just the opposite, I shorten the pendulum. But the critical thing is the winding because if I miss a day the clock stops and has to be both rewound and reset.
The clock is driven by a mechanical world hidden behind its face. It is a perfectly lovely world of springs, escapement and assorted gears that are precisely mounted one to the other to drive the clock hands. One gear turns another, which turns another, which moves the minute and hour hands in faultless synchronization. When all parts are properly aligned and oiled, the pendulum mounted, and the mainspring wound, the clock functions as its designer intended.
In a way, the inner world of a clock is very similar to the hidden world behind the façade of our visible self – a world that we know as the soul. The soul too can be a perfectly lovely world, except that instead of springs and gears, the soul is made up of the mind, heart, emotions, relationships, and habits. When these are properly aligned, then what we think, feel, speak, and do are united to the will of God. And our life functions as our Designer intended.
Yet, neither the clock nor our soul is naturally sustaining – each needs daily care and attention. In the case of the clock, its mainspring must be wound every day or else it runs down. In the case of our soul, it must be attended to every day or it too will run down. This is why the pursuit of virtue is an everyday affair. For as Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The alternative is to have days where we don’t pick up our cross. These are days where anger and lust have free reign; days of self-absorption and ignoring others; days of criticizing and complaining. As daily spiritual inputs decrease, days like this increase.
So what is soul care? Soul care is nurturing our mind, heart, emotions, relationships, and habits in a way that draws us closer to the kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is renewing our mind by meditating on Scripture, reading good books, and viewing appropriate media. It is softening our heart by listening to great music, serving those in need, and enjoying nature. It is healing our emotions by controlling our thoughts, praying through our fears, and receiving godly counsel. It is pursuing our relationships by building friendships, forgiving those who have hurt us, and persevering in fellowship. And finally, it is developing the habits of holiness by turning from our besetting sins such as anger, lust, and greed, and learning the way of humility, faithfulness, and love.
Above all, soul care is intentionally following Jesus every day of our life. Famed pianist Jan Paderewski once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” There is no doubt in my mind that God notices it when I go one day without spiritual input. How many days I wonder until I notice it? How many days until others notice it? The soul’s need for daily care is disregarded at one’s peril. For this surely is a way to give sin a foothold. A danger that the Lord expressed to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6)
The reality of sin crouching at my door is one that I take seriously because it is empirically verifiable in my life. Whenever I let down my guard, when I put my life on cruise control, inevitably I coast right into sin – I say hurtful things, repeat mistakes, forsake those I love, become ungrateful, and am increasingly anxious. NT Wright states it thus, “The difference between vices and virtues is this: Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice. But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.” (Interview with NT Wright)
My old clock does more than simply beat out a soothing rhythm. It is a constant reminder that my days are limited. For as the psalmist laments, “Oh we are but a moment, Lord, who soon will pass away; since dust we were and dust we’ll be and will forever stay. For in Your eyes a thousand years are like a day gone by, a watch that passes in the dark more swiftly than a sigh. You sweep us off as in a flood that rises in the night; for we are fragile like the grass that sprouts at dawn’s first light. We start our day as tender plants that spring up with the dew, but fade away by eventide when dry and withered through.” (Psalm 90:3-6)
Only the Lord knows the number of my days, so I don’t dwell on such things. However, I do think about what kind of person I am becoming in the time I have. I am convinced that the care I give my soul (or not) day in and day out will determine the answer. It will determine whether my soul will disintegrate under the slow poison of selfishness and pride; or, like the steady beating of my clock, all will be well with my soul.