The Expository Files

What is Spirituality?

The term "spiritual" and "spirituality" are being tossed about quite a bit these days. Almost anything can qualify as "spiritual." Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, a NBA basketball team, has authored Sacred Hoops, a book about his spiritual journey in coaching ball. Art exhibits proclaim they are part of an emerging "new spirituality." Many books have been written, with authors making the talk show circuit, that discuss how to find one's spiritual center or be a truly spiritual person. Everyone seems to be more interested than ever in finding spirituality. Yet few seem to be asking for a definition of exactly what they are looking for. Just what is spirituality?

In our society, spirituality has come to mean three or four key ideas. First, much of today's spirituality movement is certain no one source holds all truth. Elizabeth Lesser has written one of the most popular books on today's spirituality, The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide. In it she speaks of how she has discovered a "deeply personal religious path-one that wandered through Zen Buddhist monasteries, meandered through Christian churches, dabbled in African and Native American traditions . . . ." Thus "using her own journey as the road map, Lesser discusses why so many Americans are coming to a deeply personal form of religion - one that does not prescribe to a specific doctrine or definition of God." To find your own spirituality you need to wade through all sorts of different ideas and traditions to find what appeals to you, what you like and what makes you feel good. That leads to the second key idea, which is do what you want, how you want, when you want. American spirituality really is Home Depot spirituality - it's do it yourself religion. For example, one fellow has written a book about the spirituality of eating, saying that "eating connects us to the mystery and source of all living things." Others are practicing vision quests, nature hikes, or just about any thing else any one wants to do. Do what you like and then just call it a spiritual experience. Of course, a big part of this will be no condemnation of any kind. No one should judge any one else's spiritual experience, regardless of how silly or sick it may be. You do what you want, I will do what I want and we will all just agree that we are all very spiritual people. If this sounds ridiculous, remember that there is no objective reality. God doesn't really exist - we create Him. In this new spirituality there are not absolute standards of right and wrong that apply to all people in all times. Ethics fluctuate and change with every situation. God is not a real Being, an objective reality that has factual existence. No, instead God becomes something we make up, and that we can craft to suit ourselves.

A close examination of American spirituality reminds one of Romans 1 doesn't it? Today's spiritual gurus claim wisdom but are only leading people deeper and deeper into paganism and immorality of every kind.

The Bible offers a very different definition and idea of spirituality. 1 Corinthians 3:3 tells us "for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?" To be carnal is to behave like men, thus its opposite (spirituality) is simply to behave like God. Spirituality is simply being godly, or possessing godliness. A fine working definition of spirituality is knowing God so I can please God. That is what godliness (spirituality) is all about. Paul makes this clear: "If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:37). Spirituality is forever tied to knowing God and doing God's will. Let's break these ideas out.

First, I must know God. Paul writes "Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8). This first step must be taken very seriously. We need to know God, to understand Him, to love Him for all that He is. To go past this to obedience runs the risk of failing to have relationship with our Creator. God wants us to be His children, to know and love Him (see John 1:12). Do you know God? Spiritual things are those things that are in harmony with God's character. Do you know His character? Spirituality is being like God. Do you know what God is like? The spiritual person behaves and acts like God behaves and acts. Do you know how God behaves and acts? The beginning of spirituality is the determination to know God.

If you are wondering how to come to know God like this then I must tell you the only source of such information is God's word. Most people want to have some sort of experience, to feel something, to have a mystical encounter of some sort. Yet God never tells us that such experiences are the stuff of which truly knowing Him is made. God never says "feel this way" but instead "know me through My word." Titus 1:1 simply says "Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God's elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which accords with godliness."

Secondly, this knowledge of God must lead me to please God. So many want spirituality to be an excuse to be free of restraint, to do as they please. Yet the Bible shows us that the truly spiritual person obeys God. "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar" (1 John 2:3-4). My knowledge of who God is, His character, love for me, mercy extended to me changes me, causes me to do things, be things. Isn't this the pattern of Jesus' life? Who can deny that He was deeply spiritual person? Yet it is Jesus who said "I can of Myself do nothing. . . . because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 5:30). Like it or not, real spirituality is rooted in obedience.

Judges 21:25 tells us of a time when people were interested in spirituality but not interested in God. So we live in those times again. Sadly, sacred exercise plans and the art of the inner meal simply cannot deliver what people are questing for: a genuine relationship with God. That is the essence of spirituality: to know and please God. This will only come from the Bible, as we allow it rule our lives. May God bless as we pursue true spirituality.

By Mark Roberts
From Expository Files 11.7; July 2004