The Elders Ask Questions
"Brother, how is it with your soul?" — that was a well-known, home visit question.
Often the question resulted in a painful silence, for who would talk about the state of his soul? Who, among the matter-of-fact (Dutch) people in the Reformed churches, will do so in this impersonal time? There people are constantly warned against introspection, mysticism, and subjectivism, and a host of other creepy matters.
If one wishes to silence talkative Reformed people, one has only to ask that question. It causes nothing but 'frustration' and, therefore, can hardly be called 'effective.'
However, is the question so wrong?
There is no doubt that often the question has been asked in an 'unhealthy' way. When we mean by 'soul' that separate area in man's life — a higher and nobler part, where the 'hidden spiritual' life of man has its home — then we quickly enter the swampy terrain of subjectivism and mysticism. Then we seek information about an isolated part of man that as such has greater affinity with the 'heavenly things' than the daily routine that tends to occupy his concrete life. And who will be able to judge this 'soul' and measure it with the yardstick of self-examination?
There is a story (in a novel, the title of which escapes me) about some elders who were visiting a rather wild Christian in a Frisian region of the country. After beating about the bush for a considerable time, they finally dared to ask the inevitable question. "And brother, how is it with your soul." The wild Christian quickly answered: "Still as miserable as forty-five minutes ago." The robust humour of this answer commensurates with its profound wisdom.
But we have learned a thing or two in the Reformed churches. Among other things, we have learned that 'soul' in the Bible means: the life of man, as it is lived concretely on earth before God's eyes. What we have not learned is that, therefore, we should no longer speak of 'soul.'
We'll repeat our question: Is it so wrong to inquire after someone's soul?
Undoubtedly that is not wrong: on the contrary it is profoundly benefactory in this life. For the question coincides with the question: Brother (sister) how is it with you, as child of God and member of the church? How is it with you in your life here on earth before God's face?
Inquiring after the soul is then at the same an inquiry into daily life, the work place, and family circumstances. It is a question that addresses one's walk with the Lord and one's joy in God in all concrete situations of life. If no one would ask about our soul, we would soon fall victim to intense loneliness.
That was precisely David's complaint when — in the cave — he was confronted by that difficulty. In Psalm 142:4 we read that no one asked about 'his soul' (KJV).
Such an 'inquiry' is the inquiry of an interested, caring neighbour. Therefore, the 'inquiry' together with the 'visit' are the characteristics of the true shepherd (cf. Ezek. 34:11). He keeps his eye on the 'prosperity' of the soul (cf. 3 John 2).
Hence the 'question about the soul' may not be neglected in the spiritual relationship between office bearer and members of the congregation. Of course, we may dress up the 'old' question in new linguistic garb.
When it then becomes very quiet on home visits, the silence may well be a matter of self-examination for us. In that case all appeals to sober Calvinism cannot justify the fact that we today appear hardly able to speak with one another in a healthy way about our life with and for God.
For the time being we need not yet be afraid of pietism, for now we concern ourselves with the fact that the 'pietas,' i.e. the piety, the love-life with the Lord ought to make us talkative in our dealings with one another.
For otherwise, no matter how garrulous we are, we will altogether become lonely people, who very eloquently talk past one another. And 'to talk past one another' is contrary to what Christ means by his church. In it one member builds up another in faith and love (cf., e.g., 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11). Our home visits must have that goal in mind, and call all of us to practise and do it. Then it will become clear that we, as traveling companions, can mean a great deal more to each other than we generally realize in this time of individualism and protection of the so-called 'privacy.'
It will also become clear that behind this brave front of 'privacy' hides much more hunger and thirst than we initially imagined.
In church we are regularly told about our 'hungry and thirsty souls;' it happens every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper.
And from of old the home visit is an activity that took place around this central moment, this highlight of our life with God and each other.
Why then do we search in all sorts of strange and contorted ways for a starting point for our conversation, when we have learned to know one another as guests at the Lord's table?