Architecture of the Soul

During our sojourn on this earth, we pass from birth into eternity. During that passage, the concepts of faith and of sanctification are central to the purpose and success of the journey. By faith we sort ourselves into or out of the camp of God and in sanctification we further God's purposes and prepare our resume for the world to come.

While faith and sanctification are central to our success in achieving God's purposes through us, many believers have no clear concept of what they are or how they work. Because of this fuzziness, most of those who love God are not operating at anywhere near their potential - either for Him or for themselves. In this note I hope clearly to define both faith and sanctification, to give some practical examples of how to make them work and to suggest some resources for further study. In all of this, the goal is to glorify and please God through you, His servant.

To make progress in developing practical ways to improve your character, which is sanctification, and to appropriate the promises of God through faith, it turns out to be very useful to have an accurate understanding of how people are designed and how they function. There are several sources, both religious and secular, that I have used to construct a conceptual structural model of a human being. On the religious side, the base document is, of course, the Bible. If you know what you are looking for, the Scriptures provide everything that you need to perfect yourself and please God. Sadly, centuries of error, deception and cultural drift have obscured the clear set of instructions that God provided. If the Torah was written on our hearts as God originally intended, I would not be writing this note and millions of priests, ministers and rabbis would not need to teach (Jer 31.31).

In addition to Scripture, the Jews have been investigating the mind-body-spirit connection for centuries. This long course of study and prayer brought forth the discipline of mussar1 in the 19th century. mussar, or ethics, has provided a rich source of insight into how we are made and how we may be improved. The Jewish understanding is that each of us is born with spiritual strengths and weaknesses and that we are placed in circumstances which provide opportunities for growth and improvement. Mussar then, is the study of how to inventory one's character strengths and weaknesses in light of what Scripture says is good and right. Building on that 'accounting of the soul', mussar then provides exercises that improve the character by building on strengths and reducing weaknesses; all with the goal of becoming a more suitable instrument in the hand of God.

In the secular world, there is a lot of research into self improvement covering every discipline from golf to selling soap. Lots of the secular stuff is either wrong or fluff or not applicable to sanctification, but some secular research parallels and illuminates both Scripture and what the Jews have discovered. In the category of parallel illumination, research on the mind-body connection combining cybernetics with psychology is particularly insightful. The book Psycho-Cybernetics 2 , written in 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz is a popular and practical exploration of the subject.

The Model

The Bible in Genesis 2.7 describes the creation of mankind:

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

In this account, there are three parts or processes listed, the dust of the ground, the breath of life (neshama) and becoming a living creature (nefish). Considering both the quoted passage from Genesis as well as other Scripture and applying the insights from mussar and cybernetics it is possible to infer a block diagram of a human being.

As you can see, we've added two blocks, the Conscious Mind and the Ruach. This separation into blocks is obviously conceptual and artificial. For example, the Conscious Mind resides in the brain which is part of the Physical Body; there is no actual separation there. Similarly, scientists have been trying to discover where the Neshama (spirit) resides for quite a long time with no success whatsoever. So, considering the parts in the above diagram, we can directly observe the Conscious Mind and the Body, but the rest of it we can only infer from Scripture and indirect observation based on behavior.

Neshama The 'breath of life' or 'spirit' is the immortal part of a man. It is the part that comes directly from God (the breath of God in the Genesis passage) and remains always connected to Him.

Nefesh Literally 'soul', 'appetite' or 'passion' is the repository of the self image and provides stability to the individual. It is where habits live - both good and bad habits. In reading Paul's letters, the nefesh plus the physical body is what he calls 'the flesh'. In psychology this would be called the unconscious or the subconscious mind.

Conscious Mind This is the mental part whose function is accessible to us. It is where one plans and ponders. In the diagram, it partially overlays the Nefish because the boundary between the two is not at all crisp. The Conscious Mind can influence the Nefish and conversely.

Ruach Literally 'breath' or 'wind' is the animating force. It handles the mechanics of the mind-body connection. It is what keeps the body moving, breathing and upright. Since I have a background in computers, I would call this either the hardware abstraction layer or the device drivers. It is the layer that translates your desire to pick up a tea cup into electrical impulses that cause your muscles to contract or relax so your hand moves smoothly to the cup and lifts it to your lips.

Physical Body In computer terms, this would be the hardware whereupon the cognitive and spiritual functions operate. It would, however, be an error to regard the body as nothing more than dumb clay. There is a tremendous amount of feedback between the physical and the mental/emotional/spiritual processes.

If you come from a Christian background, you would group the Ruach, the Nefesh and the Conscious Mind together and label it 'The Soul' (as on the diagram). You would then call the Neshama 'The Spirit'. If you were a Jewish mussar student, you would group the Neshama, the Ruach and the Nefesh together and call it 'The Soul'. It's not particularly important which way you think of it so long as you understand what you mean and are careful to insure the people to whom you speak also understand how you see it.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few preachers and teachers who use the terms 'spirit' and 'soul' imprecisely. This leads to either confusion or fuzzyness and prevents people from having access to all that God has provided. Since this is a Messianic site, we'll use the Christian terms, confident that our Jewish readers will be able to make the translation.

Now that the definitions are set, how does all this work and what does it have to do with faith and sanctification?

Paul, in Romans 7, complains that he knows what is right, but he doesn't do it consistently.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom 7:18-20, ESV)

Paul had studied Torah and knew what God expected from him in pretty much every situation. He was so knowledgeable that the Council of Jerusalem chose him to carry the Gospel to the gentiles and he wrote many letters explaining Torah principles to the newly converted. His problem was not knowledge, but that there was a part of himself that not only didn't agree with how he wanted to behave, but actively worked to sabotage his good intentions. In terms of the diagram, we'll see that Paul had a conflict between his Conscious Mind and his Nefesh.

Although Paul speaks of 'the sin that dwells within me', the Nefesh is not sinful so much as it is amoral. It doesn't deal with right and wrong but with truth and falsity (from its own perspective). As the picture shows, right and wrong are perpendicular to true and false.

The Conscious Mind and the Neshama deal in the realm of right and wrong. (That is not to say that they can't determine what's true or false, just that they have exclusive possession of the vertical axis.) To see how this works in practice, imagine that you have been raised in a family that is very careful with money and does not give to charity. You yourself have always known the value of a dollar and you don't spend frivolously, much less give money away. If you were to want to become more generous because you had been convinced that that would be pleasing to God, that process would start with a decision in your Conscious Mind. Your Nefesh, however would still be operating on a lifetime of frugility and would make you feel uncomfortable every time you took out your wallet. It might also distract you so that you never quite got around to writing a check to someone in need. You might make an initial gift when you decided to change, but you would soon fall back into your old ways and find at the end of a year that you hadn't really given much at all.

What has happened is that from your Nefish's perspective, it is not (yet) true that you are a generous person. It doesn't matter at all that generosity is right and good from God's perspective, "It's just not you." The consequence is that your 'flesh' will struggle against your conscious decision to give more. And absent a strong campaign to change your image, the Nefish will always win in the long run.

Your Nefesh spends a lifetime building up an image of who you are. It doesn't make value judgments about that image, it just does whatever is necessary to keep your behavior consistent with it. The image itself may not be internally consistent and it almost certainly does not square with how God sees you. Further, if the image has sinful behavior baked into it, you will find yourself in Paul's situation - sinning when you really don't want to. Later in the article, we'll find out how to change your self image into something more in line with what God wants.

The Nefesh also serves as a gatekeeper between the Conscious Mind and the body as well as between the conscious mind and the Spirit. To see how this works, consider the diagram below. The blocks have been recaptioned and arrows have been added to the original.

Notice that both the Conscious Mind and the Nefish are able to work through the Ruach to get the body to do stuff, but that the connection from the Nefish is much larger than that from the Conscious Mind. The red arrow from the Nefish might be called habit or training or muscle memory. The green arrow from the Conscious Mind would represent will power.

To see how this works, think back to the first time you stood on a high dive as a child at the swimming pool. Standing on the ground, you knew you were going to dive right off, but when you got to the end of the board things were very different. Suddenly the water looked very far away and the diving board felt very small and unstable indeed. You probably had a knot in your stomach and you were completely immobile, frozen at the end of the diving board. That reaction was your Nefesh explaining to your Conscious Mind that under no circumstances were you going one step further and that you were going to get down on your hands and knees and inch your way back down the ladder. At that point, some people do just that - turn and walk (or crawl) back down the ladder. Others, hearing the taunting and laughter of the other children, are able to override the Nefesh by explaining to it that being humiliated is also contrary to the self image. In other words, certain death is better than dishonor.

This example is pretty simple, but it illustrates some of the interaction between the Conscious Mind, the Nefesh and the Body. Notice also that the labels on the diagram have changed. The Nefish is now subtitled, "What you believe" and the Conscious Mind, "What you think you believe." Those labels are closer to the actual state of affairs. Standing on the ground, you believed that you could climb right up and go off the high dive. Standing on the end of the board faced with reality, you discovered you really didn't believe that at all.

A similar dynamic exists with the Conscious Mind, the Nefesh and the Neshama. There, instead of physical action, the arena is prayer, faith and belief. In the diagram above, the fat red arrow from the Nefish to the Neshama might be labeled faith or unbelief (two sides of the same coin) and the smaller green arrow from the Conscious Mind might be labeled mental assent.

The Bible says in several places that the things we do or say in faith have great power. Yet it is very common for believers not to see anything happen in response to prayer. Assuming the prayer is legitimate, the reason for this is that the Nefish is not convinced that prayer will change physical circumstances and so works to protect the self image "in case things just don't work out." It does this by communicating doubt at the same time that the Conscious Mind is trying to generate faith. In biblical terms, this would be described as a lack of faith or hardness of heart or being double minded.

The clearest biblical example of this phenomenon is in Matt 14.28ff where Peter, seeing Y'shua walking on water tries it himself. Things go well for a few steps, but then Peter has a Wylie Coyote moment and realizes that this is impossible. Once that happens down he goes. In terms of our diagram, Peter's faith was temporarily built up between his Conscious Mind and his Neshama because of the example of Y'shua. This was, however, completely foreign to his Nefesh. The Nefesh basically said, "I can't do this - and it's dangerous." and interrupted the flow of faith with a blast of fear.

The same thing happens to believers all the time in matters both large and small. The Bible says. "Lay hands on the sick and they will recover." The Nefish says, "But what if it doesn't work. You'll look like a fool or worse." The Bible says, "And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried." The Nefish says, "You need to take care of yourself or you'll starve."

Because of this interference or cross talk within the soul, all believers live far below the standards that God has in mind for them. Beyond the sustenance common to all men, the promises of God are only accessed by faith. The Conscious Mind may want to act on the promises, but the Nefish is firmly anchored to this world and does not easily accept the supernatural. Because the body also is anchored to the world, it and the Nefish often make league against the Conscious Mind for self preservation or the satisfaction of appetite. When this happens, Paul calls it the flesh.


With the previous discussion in mind, we can define sanctification as the process of getting the self image aligned with the image of God. Put another way, it is the process of getting your Nefish to believe the same things that the Conscious Mind and the Neshama believe. As you can well imagine, this is the work of a lifetime.

As mentioned earlier, the Nefish is amoral. It doesn't so much care what is right or wrong as it does what is true or false with respect to the image that it has built up. To the extent that that image is well formed and wholesome the Nefish is a powerful ally in keeping one on track. (Remember the fat red arrows from the Nefish to the Ruach and the Neshama in the diagram.) When the image is contrary to the Word of God, the Nefish becomes one's enemy.

Since everyone's self image is a mixture of good and bad, the task we are given is to reinforce those parts of the image that line up with God's definition of good and alter or replace those that do not. As was stated at the start of this series, there are numerous resources, both secular and sacred that give good advice on how to improve one's character. Although they don't all use the same terminology, all of them focus on communication with the Nefish. So, how does one go about communicating with and changing the Nefish?

The first thing to understand is that while the Nefish and the Conscious Mind have access to the same data, they don't weigh them in the same way. The Conscious Mind places great emphasis on logic and reason to which the Nefish gives relatively little weight. Since we make decisions with the Conscious, most people try and use logic to get the Nefish to go along with their decisions. That doesn't work very well. For example, say you were convinced for medical reasons that you should eat less, lose some weight and exercise more. Nothing radical or life threatening, just the promise of greater well-being and longer life. Makes perfect sense - so why don't you follow through for more than a few days? Because very soon you find yourself negotiating with an inner voice, "You exercised yesterday, take a break today and make it up tomorrow." "You've been pretty good today, you can afford a slice of cake." And so your Nefish drags you back to your old behavior patterns after a short time. In other words, you can operate for a short time using will power, but unless the Nefish is changed, it will eventually drag you back to the status quo. That is what it is designed to do - keep you stable.

While reason and logic aren't the way to change the Nefish, they are very important because they are the means by which you decide what you want the changes to look like. In other words, they are how you set your goals. Those goals may be grand and long range or they may be common and immediate, but they must be achieved in small steps using the language of the Nefish if there is to be any prospect of success.

Language of the Soul

As was mentioned earlier, the Nefish has access to the same sensory and spiritual data as does the Conscious Mind, but it values that data very differently. So if you want to tell the Nefish to change your self image, you must use the same techniques that were originally used to form it. Because the soul's ways of communication are not the first choices of the Conscious, this is not intuitive or easy, but it is well understood and so it can be done.

Of the ways that the Nefish accepts information, the five most important are emotion, authority, hearing, images and repetition. Let's look at each one with the object of seeing how it works and how it might be used to change the flesh from what it is to what God wants it to be.

Emotion The first thing to understand in designing your campaign toward sanctification is that every thought comes with emotions attached. Emotions provide the energy that carries a thought into action. Emotions also greatly influence how the Nefish integrates an event into the existing self image. Consider, for example, a child standing in front of a class to give a book report. If that child does poorly on his first attempt and is ridiculed by the class, there is a good chance that public speaking will be at least uncomfortable for the rest of his life. The Nefish takes the strong emotion associated with being humiliated and ties it to public speaking. That makes getting up in front of a group a very dangerous activity - easily as terrifying as going off the high dive.

Parents, teacher and coaches use strong emotion to get the performance they want. Positive emotions and negative emotions work equally well, the choice of which to use is a function of the goal. Certainly God uses both ends of the emotional spectrum in dealing with us. The point is, to reach a long term goal, it is necessary to associate strong emotions with reaching that goal. Think about how dumb you will feel if, after announcing to the whole office on Friday that you're going to quit smoking, you show up with bad breath and a pack of Kools in your brief case on Monday. The fear of failure and ridicule can help you get past the cravings until smoking is no longer part of who you are.

Alternatively, if your goal is to save 20% of your paycheck, think of how good it will feel to be able to go on vacation next summer and pay cash for everything. Setting up emotional rewards or punishments will help you win the inner negotiation with the Nefish when it tries to bring you back to your original self image.

Authority A great deal of your self image was built by your parents using their authority in your life. Most of us still brush our teeth every night because "mother said so" when we were children. Advertisers use authority to get us to buy stuff. "Four out of five doctors recommend..." God certainly uses authority in His communication with us, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, you shall not..."

While the Nefish is designed to respond to authority, the authority does not need to be external; that is, the Conscious Mind can be the authority under some circumstances. Without that ability, a person would operate on pure instinct, having no ability to adapt to his circumstances. To see how this works, the next time you feel like you are coming down with a cold, face yourself in a mirror and firmly say, "You will not be sick." or "God says, 'By His stripes I was healed.'"

Most of us grew up thinking that there's no cure for the common cold and that the normal course of a cold runs two weeks. Every time we turn around, the radio or TV is touting something that will let us function for the two weeks we have our cold. Not cure us, that's "impossible", just keep us from being so miserable. We also don't regard colds as being life changing, just a bit miserable and inconvenient. So when a cold starts, rather than attacking it with the Word, the Nefish just guides the body into a well worn path. All this despite the fact that the Bible says that God has provided all we need to live in health.

The point is, telling yourself in a firm authoritative manner that you walk in health because God says so will begin the process of change. Once your Nefish is convinced that colds are not for you, it will open the channels of faith and healing will flow through you. You will find that your colds will get fewer and milder until they stop completely. This takes persistence and time but it does work.

The same technique of speaking with authority will work for anything. "You are not a smoker." "You are generous." "You are kind and forgiving." "You are strong and of good courage."

Now that you understand how authority works, you are also in a position to defend yourself against the world's attempts to manipulate your self image. For example, there was an advertisement recently saying that after the age of 50 most men could expect prostate problems and, "they do not go away" (said in a deep, commanding tone of voice). The advert was trying to sell some sort of treatment. If you are not careful, your Nefish will take this in and make it part of what you "know" is true. In which case, you will experience prostate problems right on schedule (if you are a man). You have hundreds of these little time bombs embedded in your Nefish. While you can change them as with the cold example above, it is much easier to prevent them from embedding. To do that, all you have to do is say, "That's not true." when you hear something you don't want to accept. Say it immediately and emphatically. Believe me, being thought a bit odd by your friends and acquaintances is far better than having prostate problems, or colds, or being in debt or ...

Hearing Scripture says, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Messiah."(Rom 10.17) Spoken words have power and the Nefish pays more attention to speach than it does to thoughts. All sorts of thoughts flow through the mind; most of which are discarded and so have little effect. Thoughts that are spoken out loud are another matter entirely. The Nefish is designed to take note of the outside world and do whatever is necessary to keep you safe and stable. Once thoughts are spoken, they become part of the environment that the Nefish is monitoring and are processed differently than thoughts that are not vocalized. That's why in the section above, we said to exercise authority by speaking to yourself.

Consider also that God created the world by speaking. So in His economy the spoken word has power. The Nefish knows this and behaves accordingly.

Get into the habit of speaking aloud to yourself. Speak about the character you want to have. Speak about the goals you want to reach. Speak words of blessing and encouragement. Read the Bible out loud and personalize it. "The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want." Doing this every day will cause rapid changes in who you are. The hearing and repetition help, but the words have power. Speaking aloud releases that power.

Images One of the reasons that God tells us not to worship images is that they are so powerful in programming the Nefish. There's a reason we say that the Nefish is the repository of the self image. Think for a moment about the figures of speach, "I can't see myself doing that." or "I can just imagine myself being there." In both cases you are generating an image and checking it against the self image stored in the Nefish to see if it fits. If it does, you go ahead; if not, you don't.

Images can be direct and obvious or very symbolic and subtle. Consider Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the giant statue in Daniel chapter 2. It was all images without any dialogue, but it told of the sweep of empires over many centuries then future. The symbolism was so rich and obscure that only God could explain it; which He did through a prophet. Consider your own dreams. They are rich in images and it is often very difficult to understand what they mean. Yet they do mean something; not always something profound, but something important to you. One approach to dreams is that they may represent the Nefish reorganizing the self image and incorporating new data. Another is that they are a spiritual download which is processed at night while the conscious is sleeping. Certainly that was the case with Nebuchadnezzar and with Pharaoh.

The world knows the power of images and uses them constantly to get people to do things. There is a science of image symbology that advertisers use to sell products or ideas. Consider an automobile advertisement. It uses sex both in the pretty lady walking by and caressing the upholstery and in the angle of the photo that catches the sensuous curve of the fender. It would be a toss up whether power comes before or after sex in the image parade, but it's certainly right up there. The elegantly dressed man with a touch of gray at the temples opening the car door exudes both power and sex.

As with authority and hearing, you can use your understanding of symbolic imagery both to persuade others and to protect your own Nefish. Be especially aware of images that cause an immediate emotional reaction. They are constantly used by news media and politicians to move your opinions in one direction or another. That is why Scripture says to guard your eyes.(Pr 4.25) Since visuals don't have to be translated, they can go straight in.

From the Nefish's perspective, an image is an image. It doesn't matter whether it is real or not. You can use this to your advantage in communicating with yourself. When you imagine something, you are creating an image in your mind (notice that image and imagine are the same root word). So when you have decided consciously on a goal, imagine yourself reaching that goal. Make the image as vivid and real as you can. As time goes on, recall that image frequently and embellish it; always moving yourself closer to your goal. What will happen is that your Nefish will integrate that image into your self image and then will activate the faith connection to make it happen.

Repetition Habits are formed by doing the same thing over and over, by hearing the same thing over and over, by seeing the same thing over and over. Keep doing a thing long enough and the Nefish will integrate it into the self image. Since the Nefish is amoral, it will form habits from either good or bad behavior. Once formed, good habits are just as hard to break as are bad ones.

To break a habit, stop the unwanted behavior long enough and the habit will go away. Of course, we all know that that's easier said than done; it's called a habit precisely because it's hard to stop. Yet, stopping the activity will work provided that you are consistent with your Nefish. What does that mean? Suppose it is your habit to finish everything on your plate every meal (because mother always said so - starving children in China, you know). Suppose further that you wish to lose a bit of weight and decide that you will deliberately stop eating when you're satisfied rather than when your plate is empty. Good plan. To make it work, however, you need not only to actually stop eating before your plate is clean (repetition), but you also need to stop feeding the image. By now, if you are an adult, you're probably no longer eating because of starving children in China (if you ever did), but you do "see" an empty plate at the end of the meal and you may also start to imagine larger portions or dream about favorite foods. This is because your body complains that you're starving it and your Nefish cranks out reasons why you should eat more. The point here is that in dealing with habits, you are dealing with the flesh - the Nefish and the body - and must communicate in ways that it understands. As the flesh is trying to keep you on track with being pleasantly plump, the Nefish will serve up images that try and drag you back into line.

Repetition will change the Nefish, either for good or for evil. We typically don't notice when establishing a bad habit because we focus on enjoying the activity at first. One of the things they don't emphasize in Sunday school is that sin is fun. If it wasn't, nobody would do it. It is only later that we come to realize the down side of sin, by which time the behavior has become habitual and is hard to give up. So, as with other ways of communicating with the Nefish, pay attention to things you do more than once. The second time you do something, pause a moment and ask whether you want this to become a habit.

Where's God in All This

The above article may appear to be the unnatural child of "Psychology Today" and "The Purpose Driven Church"; all behavioral science with a thin veneer of Bible talk to pull in the unwary. While I do not believe that psychology has any answers for a believer, psychologists are not stupid. Through years of observation they have discovered many of the principles that God has used in His design of humanity. So a lot of their mechanics are perfectly sound even while they miss the spiritual side, which is the point of the whole enterprise.

What I've tried to do here is tie the valid secular observations back to Scripture and to a coherent model so that the believer can see past the psycho-babble and figure out how to work in harmony with God's design rather than struggling. The goal here is to work with God's instruction manual to become the person He wants you to be. I firmly believe that many believers do not experience victory and blessing simply because they don't understand how they are built and they don't understand the language of the soul. The flesh wins out far too often simply because believers don't know how to change it.

The Bible gives us pretty clear direction as to what a Godly person looks like. It also gives instructions on how to get to holiness if you know what you're looking at. This article was written in hopes that you will use it to bring your flesh into submission to the Word of God so that the Light of God can shine through you to His glory.