Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Nature of Christian Spirituality

What do you get when you combine a broken right leg with a broken left leg? Let's get back to that question later.

Evangelicals view spirituality in polar opposites. On one side, spirituality is how much you can give yourself over in the moment of an emotional high during a worship service. It's talking excessively in spiritual language, and using repetitious phrases like "praise Jesus," and "hallelujah." It's bursting out in tongues, dance, or speech. Spirituality to this group is letting your emotions go for Jesus. They seek out churches that believe accordingly.

The opposite school of thought is that spirituality is defined by how much someone knows. This group seeks to fill their "worship" with lectures. The pursuit of knowledge about Christ is the pursuit of Christ Himself. To know is to master. To master is to be mature. The more theology this group reads, the more mature the group is thought to be. They view spirituality as a cultivation of the intellect. They also seek out churches that believe accordingly.

But although these groups tend to think both of these are aspects of spirituality, one greater than the other, and although some groups just try to combine both of these groups into one in an effort to gain balance, a fundamental question has not been asked in the pursuit of all of this: "What is the nature of Christian spirituality in the first place?"

The Bible tells us that there are two aspects of spirituality, one theological and one ethical. In regard to what is theological, the Bible tells us that it is not the mass of knowledge one accumulates, but how he accumulates that knowledge. In other words, spiritual maturity is in fact connected to knowledge (that is clear from numerous verses); but it is not simply any disposition toward accumulating knowledge that is deemed spiritual. Spirituality in terms of knowledge is gauged by how teachable one is. It is a teachable spirit toward God and His Word that gives an indication of the Spirit's continual, transforming work is present in one's life. I say toward God because people can be teachable to all sorts of things, but Christian spirituality is in terms of learning the Word of God. But this is not merely learning in the modern sense, where we simply seek to learn facts about something. This is learning in the sense of implementing. This type of teachable spirit is described with the word "humility" in the Bible. This is what biblical humility means. It is being teachable toward God with the intention to do what God commands. It is the subjugation of one's life to God's teaching, and subjugation is what the word "worship" means (lit. "to bow down to"). We bow our lives to God by approaching His Word in a humility that seeks to bend what we think and do to what is pleasing to God. So spirituality is connected to learning the theology and ethics of Scripture, but merely learning these without the disposition of humility, i.e., a teachable spirit that seeks to believe and do what is taught, is not only worthless, but leads to a life that is untransformed and will simply use the knowledge it gains from Scripture or otherwise to justify its arrogant beliefs and lifestyle. In fact, rather than work toward redeeming the individual, it actually works toward condemning the prideful soul, as he who hears and does otherwise receives a worse punishment than him who does not hear.

But what of the other view of spirituality, i.e., that which pertains to the ethical? This view is getting caught up in the emotional high that the Spirit supposedly brings to the individual. This is love as emotion and emotion with or without ethics. What is important here is that one experience God emotionally. Spirituality is not the continual submission of one's life to Christ, but a continual emotional high one experiences that indicates the presence of God in one's life. The more God is felt in a person's life, the more spiritual he feels. Now, the Spirit does pour out love into the individual who worships the Lord through the seeking of Him through His Word (i.e., through the humble learning of God's Word), so there is much emotion in spirituality; but so is there is winning the lotto and listening to a pagan song that moves the person emotionally even though it moves him away from what is glorifying to God spiritually (I'm referring to specific pagan songs here, not all pagan songs). What is spiritual is not determined by how much emotion one has, but by how much one controls his emotion. In other words, emotions often make us drunk, and as such, they often control us rather than us controlling them. But the fruit of the Spirit is filled with things that are accompanied by emotion, so much so that we often confuse them with emotions themselves: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness. We ascribe many of these as the emotions that accompany them themselves, but this is an error. The reason why is that true spirituality is brought about by the final element applied to all of these elements of the fruit here: self-control. The word egkratia is made up of the word ego "I" and kratia "rule/control." This word simply describes the ability to control oneself in contrast to being impulsive. We are impulsive with our emotions when we do not put a reign on them. We fly quickly off in anger. Our minds are quickly drawn off to lust. We make rash decisions to buy something in the moment, all because we do not have control of our impulses. So the Spirit of God would not be training us, even in worship, to be impulsive and have no reign over our emotions. What He would be doing, however, is pouring into us things that are accompanied by strong emotions with the ability to control ourselves, so that those things are truly directed toward what is pleasing to God. Love, then, becomes sacrifice of the selfish impulses that would imprison our thoughts and actions to the pleasure of the moment. Joy, peace, and patience becomes a happiness that God will work all things together for His glory and for our good. It can be happy in waiting for the culmination of all things in the eschaton. It causes us to not take injustices into our own hands as acts of revenge. Hence, it creates patience rather than allowing anger to rule. And it produces goodness and loyalty to God even though the moment is calling us away to fulfill a nagging impulse to live for each and every temporal fulfillment. The control of the self puts the fruitfulness in the fruit, and through it, the emotions that accompany these things are put on the proper path to enhance rather than to hinder their growth in our lives.

So what do you get when you combine a broken right leg with a broken left leg? You already know the answer to that. Hence, the answer is not simply to combine these two polar opposites in some church that is made up of academics and emotions (e.g., a charismatic reformed church), but to see Christian spirituality as it really is: a disposition of humility toward God displayed by how one approaches learning His Word and a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit, including a self control that works against our impulsive tendencies. This is spirituality. This is what indicates the transforming presence of God in one's life. To be sure, each individual, perhaps with the feedback of friends, can tell for himself what path he is on; but if our goal is to worship God, the right and wrong paths to spiritual maturity need to be identified. Only then will the love of God be perfected in us.

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in [your] moral excellence, knowledge; and in [your] knowledge, self-control, and in [your] self-control, perseverance, and in [your] perseverance, godliness; and in [your] godliness, brotherly kindness, and in [your] brotherly kindness, love. For if these [qualities] are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these [qualities] is blind [or] short-sighted, having forgotten [his] purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;  for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (1 Pet 1:5-11)

No comments:

Post a Comment