A great soul

What risks are more conducive to the achievement of a great soul than a prosperous and comfortable life?

It’s a fine question my friend Michael has asked. And it suggests a series of other questions: Why have we lost the idea of a “great soul” in our national conversation? What does it take to recover it, and interpret it Christianly? What role do churches and colleges play in this effort?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to think of these questions. Michael asked them too. I spend a couple of weeks talking about the trauma of turning 50, whining about my financial status and my diet, and he wants to know what a great soul is and how you get one. Nothing like a little perspective.

So first I have a question of my own. Does having a great soul preclude prosperity or comfort?

My sense is that it precludes comfort, but not wealth. Greatness of soul is the result of some personal risk, and real risk is not comfortable. It’s, well, risky. And people don’t understand. We invest a lot of energy in the consideration and the execution of risks. When we fail, it hurts.

Someone has said that you can be comfortable and happy, and you can be growing and happy, but you can’t be growing and comfortable. A great soul has experienced discomfort, and in the crucible of pain discovered a sensitivity and appreciation for what matters. I don’t know how much pain it takes to have a great soul, but it takes some.

Pain is not enough to produce greatness of soul, however. I know people who have experienced a lot of pain and ended up shallow and bitter and small. This is not so much about the risks they took as it is about the reasons they took them. A small risk on behalf of others moves us closer to greatness than a large risk we take for ourselves.

But risks on our own behalf can move us toward greatness of soul as long as two conditions are met. One requires risks rooted in moral principles. If I risk rejection or resistence in order to do the right thing, my soul is stretched, even if it results in my gain or advantage. The question, of course, is did I do it for the gain or for the good. There is nothing wrong with doing well by doing good. But greatness of soul requires that I do good even if I don’t do well.

The second condition involves the thoughtful application of knowledge. Greatness of soul requires understanding things, and understanding things requires knowing things. Perhaps this is where churches and colleges come into the picture. The risks conducive to greatness of soul are thoughtful risks, framed by a knowledge of ones history, an appreciation for ones culture, and an understanding of God’s design. We call this wisdom.

We don’t start there. But we get there. As each risk builds on the risks before it, we grow in greatness of soul.

For me this means three things.

Motives matter. The risk I take may benefit me, but it’s more important that it benefits others. I take the risk and they get the reward. Think of Moses in this regard, who was willing to forsake the pleasures of Pharoah’s palace to suffer affliction with the people of God.

Righteousness matters. Is it for good, and ultimately for God? I take the risk and God gets the glory. Think of David, dancing naked before the ark of the covenant. He tried to bring up the ark and failed, but he went back and learned the right thing to do and tried it again.

Context matters. Is the risk relative to the reward? I take the risk and I can explain why. Ezra rebuilds the city, Nehemiah rebuilds the walls. They can explain it and defend it.

For me this often falls apart on the last issue. And I think it does for most of us. I think of all the books I own I haven’t read. And I think of the college senior who told me recently that she had never read a whole book. It’s hard to have a national conversation about what a great soul is in a world without context.

But I’ll risk it.

How about you?

Definitions? Examples? What is a great soul? Who do you know that has one? We can have a context if we want to.

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