Real Spirituality

by Larry Barber


SPIRITUALITY FOR SALE. YOUR SPIRITUAL LIFE. These recent articles in Newsweek and Self magazines represent a small portion of the plethora of advice on “spirituality.” Leading pop gurus promote their unique prescriptions with promises of satisfying our spiritual yearnings for peace and enlightenment, and we respond by reading their how-to books, attending their seminars, listening to their motivational tapes, taking the vitamins they sell, and meditating.

What makes their offer of spirituality so appealing? In a Newsweek interview (October 20, 1997), Deepak Chopra, a popular spiritual guru, asserts that you and I can satisfy our desire for spirituality without giving up everything, without worrying about God or punishment. For those who want spirituality, but who have rebelled against the burdensome yoke of mainstream orthodox religion, this is a very appealing path to nirvana. And so we respond to these gurus, hoping to find just the right prescription for connecting with the spiritual and rising above the difficulties of our daily lives.

We live in a culture that has very different values and beliefs than those found in the Bible. Yet our culture’s values are very similar to the values of the culture in which the New Testament was written. The authors of the New Testament were very concerned about the influence of their culture’s worldview on their readers’ faith. We should be equally concerned about our culture’s influence on how we think about “spirituality.”

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul responds to a problem: people in the church are aligning themselves with teachers who are rhetorically more “polished” than Paul, and in doing so, they are disregarding Paul’s teaching. Paul addresses this issue because he understands it to be symbolic of a much more serious issue: the “wisdom” of their culture was seducing the Corinthians away from the true wisdom found in the gospel. The Corinthian culture considered “wisdom” to be that skill and understanding necessary to persuade listeners and win debates, and some in the church found this kind of wisdom very appealing. Paul is concerned that their attraction to rhetorical flash–rather than truth and content–might lead the Corinthians to reject the gospel.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that God chose to act in a way that appeared to the world to be foolish in order that He might shame those who proclaimed to be wise. Through the cruel, bloody, publicly humiliating execution of His Son, God offered reconciliation and hope. In defending himself and the gospel, Paul describes himself as a messenger speaking “God’s wisdom.” He argues that the Holy Spirit brought God’s very thoughts to his (Paul’s) understanding, and having received this revelation, Paul had communicated these same spiritual truths and realities to the Corinthians. Paul writes that those among the Corinthians who have the work of the Spirit in their lives will have eyes to see and understand the gospel; they will embrace it because it makes sense to them. Paul describes these people as “spiritual.” In contrast, those among the Corinthians who do not have the work of the Spirit in their lives will look upon the gospel as foolishness. Paul describes these people as “natural men.”

Paul is asserting that true spiritual enlightenment comes through the Holy Spirit, and it includes the truth found in the gospel. The gospel tells me that I am not God; God is God. It tells me that I am not the good person I would like to think myself. It tells me that as much as I would like to think I know what is going on in life, I am really very foolish. The work of the Spirit brings me to the place where I can embrace the message of the gospel as truth. I can’t get there any other way.

In the mid-seventies, Richard Bach wrote a book about a seagull that illustrates our culture’s view of spirituality–and the sentiment many Christians have about their relationship to the Holy Spirit. Briefly, the story goes:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was one very frustrated bird. More than anything Jonathan wanted to fly fast–the faster, the better. But he had a problem: he was a seagull, and seagulls have certain physical limitations; at best, they can only fly fifteen to twenty miles per hour. After struggling for quite some time to fly faster than a normal seagull, Jonathan discovered a secret that enabled him to go beyond his physical limitations. He learned to press “power” into his wings with his mind. As he perfected this technique, his body seemed to change before his very eyes: he began to glow, and he could fly faster than he had ever imagined. Jonathan soon met other seagulls like himself and learned more secrets. He learned to stop thinking of himself as trapped inside a limited body with a forty-two inch wingspan. He began to understand that his true nature lived everywhere at once, across space and time. Jonathan knew no limits. He could go anywhere he wanted–the past, the future–whenever he wanted, as fast as he wanted.

The story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull illustrates many of our culture’s beliefs about spirituality. And many in the evangelical community share those beliefs. They believe that God has given them the Holy Spirit, who is at their beck and call, for the primary purpose of giving them the power to rise above their moral and spiritual limitations. They interpret the gospel to be a message of peace and tranquillity. And finally, they believe that “spirituality” means arriving at a state of conscious “connectedness” with God.

During the time of the New Testament, the whole Greek world was on a Jonathan Livingston Seagull trip. The Greeks believed in a dualistic universe: the material world was evil; the spiritual world was good. They concluded that what really mattered to God was the spiritual world, not the material world. Consequently, a person’s behavior was of no real concern to God. The Greeks, therefore, placed a great deal of importance on “connecting” with the spiritual world, which they tried to achieve by gaining knowledge of God either intellectually or through mystical experience. One could join any number of religious cults that possessed spiritual secrets regarding God. Or one could participate in a mystical ceremonial rite: the more mystical or emotional the worship experience was, the more one was in contact with God and the spiritual world.

In Romans, chapter twelve, Paul confronts the Greek’s dualistic worldview. When he wrote the letter, Rome was the center of the Greek world, and many different people and religions were attracted to this city where an estimated 420 temples were dedicated to the Roman gods and the gods of the people they had conquered. Paul urges his readers, in view of “the mercies of God,” “to present (their) bodies” as an offering, full of life, holy and acceptable to God, which is their ultimately real “service of worship.” Paul uses the word “mercies” to refer to God’s specific, concrete act when He intervened directly into history by sending His son to die on the cross to be the sacrifice for our sin. God had broken through the dualism of the Greek worldview. The spiritual had become material.

Paul also interjects a new meaning into the practice of sacrifice and worship when he refers to an offering “full of life.” In both the Greek and Jewish worlds, “sacrifice” had to do with something dead; animals were slain as a sacrifice. In contrast to these animal sacrifices, Paul urges his readers to present their selves as a living, continuous, ongoing sacrifice. Instead of offering a dove or sheep, Paul argues that his readers should respond to God’s mercy by offering their selves toward the pursuit of holiness.

The pursuit of holiness, Paul argues, is our real service of worship. Real worship is not participation in a religious ceremony whereby the worshippers close their eyes to reality and enter into a transcendent state of consciousness. These truths ought to determine how Christians think about worship. If I participate in a religious service or discipline–be it prayer, a quiet time, Bible study, or attending church–and I consciously or unconsciously use that discipline to close my eyes to the truth about God, about myself, or about the world, then that discipline is not of God–no matter how “spiritual” it may appear. According to Paul, closing our eyes to the material world and discomfort of our moral and physical limitedness is not spirituality. Striving after moral purity in the midst of our fallenness is.

Paul goes on to warn his readers not to be absorbed by the values and perceptions of this age:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Don’t let the world define reality for you, says Paul. Don’t let your culture influence you such that it determines your values and how you look at reality. Rather, be in the process of having your mind renewed. Be in the process of bringing your perspectives of reality more and more in line with reality as defined by God.

Believing they could close their eyes to the physical world and their moral limitations and enter into a spiritual consciousness that would give them power to overcome their daily struggles and moral failures was a fantasy for first-century believers. The same is true for us today. The “super-Christian”–one able to rise above his moral and physical limitations–does not exist. There are only garden-variety Christians, muddling along like you and I.

In Romans seven, Paul describes a conflict between his wanting to do the right thing on the one hand and finding himself not doing it on the other. While his heart wanted to do the right thing, and his mind told him what was the right thing to do, he nevertheless found himself not doing what his mind and heart told him to do. Whether one interprets this passage to be Paul describing his conversion experience or his on-going experience as a Christian, Paul is describing the work of the Spirit. The Spirit gave him a heart that wanted to do the right thing. The Spirit gave him a mind that could see the right thing to do. And the Spirit gave him the perspective that he had sinned.

God has placed us in this physical world to grow us up and make us wise people. To accomplish that end, He often uses the pain and suffering that results from our own sin. If our faith consists of closing our eyes to the difficult realties of life and entering some transcendent emotional state of consciousness, then the still voice we hear is not the Spirit of God, but our own.

Spirituality is not a state of consciousness that believers enter into in order to feel closer to God. From a biblical perspective, spirituality is the process whereby the Spirit of God enlightens us (gives us eyes to see) by revealing the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about the world. Spirituality is not some transcendent place in never-never land. It is the pursuit of righteousness in the context of a fallen world with other fallen people like ourselves.

Copyright May 1998 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Larry Barber