According to contemporary authors one can be spiritual without being religious. And we might suppose that our Lord himself agreed with this non-religious aspect of real spirituality when answering the lonely, religious Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar because he told her that true worship would no longer be restricted to a sacred place such as the temples in \this mountain or in Jerusalem.’ And why was that? ‘For God is Spirit’ (see John 4:21-24, New Living Translation throughout this study).
In the beginning
To assess the Bible’s perspective on spirituality we do well to go back to basics: ‘When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens’, and ‘Then … formed the man from the dust of the ground … He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils [as a first aid worker might administer ‘kiss of life’ resuscitation!], and the man became a living person’ (Genesis 2:4-7). By imparting the non-material ‘breath of life’ into Adam’s inert clay body, ‘So God created ha-adam in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27 margin), making meaningful relations of fellowship possible between Adam and his Creator, which surely is the essence of true spirituality.
It could be said that Adam and his wife sampled the fruit of the forbidden tree because ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ seemed to them like advancing to a higher degree of spirituality. One modern definition of spirituality is ‘aspiration for fulfilment’ or of ‘fullness’; another is ‘values beyond materialism’, and the fostering of ‘individual and communal wellbeing and wholeness’, or ‘cultivation of non-verifiable inner experience’ (according to Andrew Lincoln in his book ‘Contemporary Spirituality’.
Adam and Eve, having partaken of the enlightening fruit, felt ‘shame at their nakedness’ and ‘sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves’. They were confronted by God’s presence in a ‘spiritual’ setting: ‘When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden’, the Hebrew text actually employing a spiritual’ phrase: ‘the breath’ [Hebrew ruach, literally ‘the spirit of the day’] (Genesis 3:8). Reading between the lines of the Genesis narrative one can but wonder if the first humans had enjoyed the true spirituality of regularly walking with God in the cool breath on many daily occasions of evening fellowship prior to their disobedience and expulsion from the garden.
Some essential features of biblical spirituality
John’s gospel has often been referred to as ‘the spiritual Gospel’, so let’s consider how it handles this subject. Here ‘fullness’ means ‘abundant life’, wholeness and wellbeing (see John 1:16; 10:10 in various translations).
- Spirituality is personal
But it is not necessarily a private matter, because it aims at self-forgetfulness and renunciation.
John 7:37-39, ‘On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds … “Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” (When he said “living water”, he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him.)’.
- But it is also relational and communal
John 10:3b-4, ‘the sheep recognize [the shepherd’s] voice … and they follow him’. Also John 10:16, ‘They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.’ Each sheep in the one communal flock follows the shepherd’s call individually. In his Revelation on Patmos, John recorded a phrase seven times: ‘Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches’ (Revelation 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). And ‘Love each other’ (John 13:34; 1:1-2,14,18) as Father and Son love (John 15:9-17).
- True spirituality is also incarnational [this is, embodied in Christ]
John 1:1-5, ‘In the beginning the Word already existed, the Word was with [Greek pros = “face to face towards”] God … The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.’ The Son of God continued his vibrant eternal fellowship within the Godhead here in frail and mortal flesh!
- And therefore it is also sacramental
John 6:47-52, ‘“… I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” Then the people began arguing with each other about what he meant, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked.’
In the remainder of the chapter, narrating the conclusion of his synagogue sermon followed by his dialogue with his disciples, Jesus shows us how to ‘live forever’ (58). We must ‘eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood’ (53); ‘the Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ (63). That phrase ‘spirit and life’ conveys the concept of ‘spirituality’; eternal life is conveyed to the new believer by the Holy ‘Spirit’ from the moment one believes in the value of Christ’s death – when as a redeeming sacrifice he shed his precious ‘blood’ from his mortal ‘flesh’. This spiritual life can be renewed regularly in partaking of the communal meal as Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
- It is developmental [formative of character]
John 15:3-5, ‘You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me, Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.’ And from Galatians 5:22-23 we are left in no doubt that spiritual fruit is a Christ-like character, ‘… the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Note also 2 Corinthians 4:6, 13-16; 5:4-5.)
- Spirituality is also eschatological [futuristic]
John 14:1-3, ‘… There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.’
2 Peter 3:9-15 elaborates on this end-of-the-age event: ‘The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness.’
With such an ultimate future in view, let Jesus speak one last word to us in this study:
Luke 12:35-40, ‘Be dressed for service and keep your lamp burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks. The servants who are ready and waiting for his return will be rewarded. I tell you the truth, he himself will seat them, put on an apron, and serve them as they sit and eat! He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready. Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would not permit his house to be broken into. You must also be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.’