Apparently, we live in an age of increasing spirituality. Magazines and websites are full of articles explaining how to increase the spirituality that is latent within each of us. The advice is often connected to the diet we eat, the attitude we have toward others, or the practice of daily habits like meditation and prayer. If only we could practice patience, tell the truth more, find something to believe in and join a spiritual community, then we would be more spiritual, or so we are told.
We live in a generation that seems to be obsessed with this kind of spirituality – one that is fashionably new, and yet at the same time, rooted in ancient practice.
Everything I have written so far could be written about your natural-food-eating, yoga-practicing colleague. But it could also be describing someone totally different. In John 3, Nicodemus came to speak with Jesus. He was in many ways much more like the impressive moralist of two or three generations ago – that is, someone who looks impressive because of the standards they keep and the things they don’t do. But still, in today’s terms, he is not unlike a 21st century spiritual leader.
Nicodemus believed there is a latent spiritual life within that can be cultivated and developed if you live well. He ate a strict diet, had a certain attitude toward others, and was diligent with daily habits not unlike meditation and prayer. He may have practiced patience, taken pride in his honesty, definitely believed something and been at the heart of a spiritual community.
He really was not a 21st century spiritual man, nor a 19th century moral man, but he was an impressive 1st century spiritual leader and example to others. Nicodemus was morally impressive, highly educated, significantly influential and personally powerful. In almost every respect he was at the top of the pile, and I suspect all of us would have been intimidated if we met him.
Jesus wasn’t intimidated, nor impressed. Nicodemus wanted to talk spirituality with Jesus, but Jesus couldn’t talk spirituality with him. Why? Because, despite everything he had learned, achieved, cultivated and developed, he was yet to even begin being spiritual. Jesus knows what is inside every man, and as he looked inside Nicodemus he saw absolutely no evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God.
This is a massively important point for us to remember – the spirituality of the New Testament is always absolutely defined by the presence of the Spirit of God. It is not a quality latent in humans. It is not something our meditating and travelling neighbor can develop outside of faith in Christ. As Jonathan Edwards writes in his Treatise on Grace, spirituality is not given its name because it is connected to the soul or the spiritual part of humanity, but because it comes from the Spirit of God. In fact, Edwards makes it clear that people who are not saved are not just lacking enough of the Spirit of God, they actually don’t have Him at all.
Why is it important for us to be clear that true biblical spirituality is completely wrapped up in the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit?
1. Spirituality outside of Christ? We must not be fooled into thinking that spirituality is a quality that some humans can develop more than others, and that they are doing so outside of Christ. Hopefully you are clear that outside of Christ there is no access to true spirituality. However, there may well be people in your church who are not clear about that. We live in an age where a certain kind of tolerance is celebrated, and so there will be young and biblically untaught believers in your church who assume all spirituality is genuine – after all, they have been trained by our age to not question the experience of others. If our churches are going to be effectively evangelizing this generation with its version of spirituality, then we need to help people understand the radical and eternity-changing difference between human spirituality and true Christian spirituality.
2. Confused spirituality within the church? It is not just how we view the world around us that matters. We also need to be clear within the walls of our churches, too. The church reflects its surrounding culture more than we realise. I wonder how many people in our churches assume that spirituality is a quality that is latent within each person, which can be developed and grown by Christianised versions of non-Christian practices and ideas? It could be the case that we have lots of Christians investing lots of energy into approaches to spirituality that are inherently missing the point. For all their apparent Christian devotion, it could be that their healthy living, daily meditation and prayerful practices are more oriented to what they assume lies within them naturally, instead of fixing the gaze of their hearts on the person of Christ by the Spirit of God.
3. The profoundly personal nature of true Christian spirituality. Self-focused spirituality is not a 21stcentury invention. It is not even an ancient idea originating with Eastern religions. Self-focused spirituality goes right back to the Fall of humanity into sin. We have a deep inner pull towards our own independence that goes back to Genesis 3. We think we are alive when actually we are spiritually dead. That was Nicodemus’ problem. And apart from Christ, that is my problem. In fact, even as Christians, because of our flesh, it is still our problem.
We need to ask God to grow in us a discernment concerning any spirituality that poits our hearts to self, rather than to Christ. Let us thank God for His Spirit living within us, who always wants to pour out God’s love into our hearts and nudge our hearts to fix their gaze on Jesus. True Christian spirituality is not primarily about a quality within us, but about a person we love. It is profoundly personal, and Christ will always be the focus when the Spirit of God is at work.
And if the Spirit of God is not at work, then call it what you like, but it isn’t spirituality.