This post is the second post in a series based on a conversation with Rich Plass on the Saturate Podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
Adam Breckenridge: Rich, I’ve heard you say that we are permeable souls. How would you define a permeable soul?
Rich Plass: Well, a permeable soul is the soul that has the capacity to actually internalize the presence of others. Robert Roberts makes this point in a book Limning the Psyche, in an article on parameters of a Christian psychology. Roberts argues that one of the foundational dimensions of the human soul is that it’s permeable. Now, from a theological perspective, that’s how it’s possible for the Holy Spirit to dwell within us according to Corinthians. We’re the temple of the Holy Spirit. We have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within us because our souls are permeable.
But also, we had that adage when we were kids, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Well, we know that’s a total lie because the verbal speech that we hear in our adult life and particularly in our early years, literally gives definition to how we see ourselves and how we see others. And how can that be so powerful those words? Because the soul is permeable and it internalizes those words, and in a sense, begins to construct ways by which we see ourselves and see others in our world.
God gives us this wonderful gift of being permeable, which I suspect is really related, as well, to our experience of relational intimacy. It leads to one of the deepest joys of our lives, wouldn’t you say? That we can love and experience the depth of being loved because our souls are permeable.
Adam Breckenridge: They can be pierced or penetrated by the words, presence, and actions of others, which gives a whole new meaning to the communion that we have with God, that He gives us His very presence, His very spirit. We absorb His presence.
Rich Plass: Yes. I think that’s what Jesus is after, frankly, when He’s talking about eternal life. His life is now our life. Our life is hidden in Christ with God, says Paul in Colossians 3:3. We’re in Christ. This phrase, we’ve been buried with Christ and raised with Christ. We’ve even ascended in Christ. How is that so? Because Christ is now in us. He has penetrated our souls. His Spirit dwells within us.
This is not a metaphor for a figure of speech that Paul and Jesus are talking about. This is our reality, right? That we now live with God’s presence and in God’s presence. And what Christ’s life is, that’s what our life shall be.
Adam Breckenridge: This begins to make a lot of sense then when you say, for example, in your book that we cannot reach our potential without healthy relationships. Obviously, we’re talking about a healthy relationship with God but also a healthy relationship with one another. I would like to hear you flesh out how would you define a healthy relationship.
Rich Plass: Well, that’s a good question. What makes for a mature person? Let’s kind of back it up a little bit. What leads to a healthy relationship? And it strikes me that what leads to healthy relationships, and it’s the currency in all relationships actually, is the notion of trust. When we are trusting of others, that’s the platform for building healthy relationships.
However, if we’re mistrustful, and there’s a dimension in all of us because of a fallen world that we’re mistrusting, but mistrusting, if it gets exaggerated because of, most likely, family of origin experiences, early childhood experiences, we become mistrustful. Then we become avoidant, or we become very, very hesitant and scared if you will. And so we’re not willing to be vulnerable. We’re not willing to get close because we mistrust.
It’s fascinating to me that Erikson made this point when he explored stages of development. He said the first stage is learning to trust. We either learn to trust or mistrust, and I think that’s absolutely correct. What a little child is learning to do is they’re learning to trust. They’re learning to trust the people closest to them, or frankly, mistrust them.
And it fascinates me that when Jesus calls us into His kingdom He says, “We must become like little children.” And foundationally what He invites us to do is to trust. I was rereading in John’s Gospel just today, John 6, where the disciples are asking Jesus, “Well, Jesus, what’s our work here? What’s the work of God for us?” And Jesus says, “Your work is to believe in me.” And so He invites us into this foundational journey of trusting, which is the currency of all healthy relationships, the capacity to trust.
How do we get there? Well, we get there by being in relationships, fundamentally I think, with healthy people. But we can make effort in certain things. We can make effort by being intentionally present. We can make effort by being open and receptive, which pushes us and moves us beyond our defensiveness. I think we can make progress in maturity by being curious, by being open-minded and by being willing to explore and seek to understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling or even ask why they’re thinking and feeling a certain way.
But I think too, reflecting on the question, I think an essential part of creating healthy relationships is not only learning to trust, not only learning to be self-giving, but also learning to be trustworthy. If we’re trustworthy, we invite friendships. We invite closeness because people will migrate towards individuals that are reliable, dependable, and trustworthy.
And so that leads us into then a consideration of the virtues of our faith. Right? What’s the purpose of the virtues of our faith? That we can just end up being good boys and girls? Good men and women? Or are the virtues of the faith given in service of something? And I would propose that the virtues of our faith are really in service of connection and communion. They’re in service of relational intimacy.
We can trust an honest person. We can trust a gentle person. We feel we can be drawn close to the person who is kind and self-controlled. But if the opposite of those are in play, vices are in play where people are dishonest, and impatient, and they lack control. They’re harsh and judgmental and critical. What happens? The soul shrinks back and we withdraw because of those vices.
So, to foster mature relationships, to be a mature person is to engage in those virtues as we seek to grow in the journey of being trusting persons.
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