Worldly Spirituality

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
27th March 2009

Tagged: holy spirit materialism spiritual gifts

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Confusion abounds about Spirituality.

It is a word used both inside and outside Christianity. But it covers such a wide range of phenomena that we often do not know what people mean by it.

“Spirituality” refers to things of the soul or spirit or even mind as opposed to things of the material physical world. It is a word relating to religious and sacred things as opposed to the word ‘secular’ which refers to things of this world and of this age.

Christians are spiritual people. We do not live for this world only but are also concerned for the age to come. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24).

But the Christian's spirituality is quite distinctive. Christians rejoice in God's physical creation and Christians know the Spirit of God as a person not an impersonal force.

God created the world and saw that it was good. So Christians receive the material physical world as a good gift of God to be used with joy and thankfulness. The Spirit of God himself warns us against immaterial spirituality:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

This is so different to New Age spirituality. The Spirit speaks. He is not a dumb, impersonal force that we align ourselves with. The Spirit warns us of spiritual realities that are not good—indeed worse—are positively deceitful and evil. He teaches us of them and their denial of the goodness of creation. He declares to us the importance of thankfully receiving everything created by God as good.

So Christianity is committed to a material spirituality or a spiritual materialism. We believe in the creation and its pleasures. We work in this world for the physical good of humanity—not just their spiritual immaterialism. We look forward to the resurrection of the flesh, not just the passing of the soul into heaven.

Yet there is a worldly spirituality, a carnal spirituality, which is not Christian. Its emphasis is on the Spirit and his work here in this world. But it is a worldliness that is unspiritual—for it is not of the Spirit of God.

Take the Corinthian church as an example. Here was a church that lacked no spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:7) and yet Paul could write to them: “I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). They were Christians but could not be addressed as such, for their behaviour was no different to non-Christians or completely new Christians, who had not grown at all in Christ. As he continued: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” Then in chapter after chapter Paul has to rebuke this spiritually gifted church for its unspiritual behaviour. They fight amongst themselves, they tolerate immorality, they take each other to court, they do not understand sexual morality, they are confused about the relationship of the Christian to idolatry, they are fighting at the Lord's Table and so the letter goes on. Apart from the Galatian churches, no church that Paul addresses is as unspiritual in behaviour as the Corinthian church.

It is more than possible to be very spiritually gifted and still be unspiritual. For the “fruit of the Spirit” trump the “gifts of the Spirit” every time.

The problem is that the fruit of the Spirit are so unglamorous compared to the gifts of the Spirit. It requires the spiritual renewed mind to value and see the miracle of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). But even the non-Christian who knows nothing of God will be impressed by “gifts of healing ... the working of miracles, ... prophecy, ... the ability to distinguish between spirits, ... various kinds of tongues ... the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:9-10)”. There is nothing wrong with these “gifts” though they can be used wrongly and wrongly valued. They are not wrong like the asceticism of fasting and celibacy.

The problem is that the worldly minded man looks for power, miracles, wealth, prosperity, health and happiness and above all success in this world. He will seek to tap into any spiritual power that will satisfy his desires and aspirations—he will even pay money for it.

Simon in Acts 8, was a man who amazed people with his magic. He believed the gospel that Philip preached and was baptised. He, who had amazed others, was now amazed by God's signs and miracles. But when he saw the coming of the Spirit of God, through the prayerful laying on of hands, he tried to buy the apostles' power. “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:19). Here is what Peter calls “wickedness” and “the gall of bitterness” and “the bond of iniquity”.

Many things that are good and proper—wealth, justice, health—will be ours in Christ Jesus. These are good things not bad—things to desire and value. For our God is just and has created this world with its wealth and our bodies with their health. But these things are not necessarily ours in this world or this lifetime. They are part of the promise of the age to come—when there will be no more tears “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying not pain anymore for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Our spirituality must rejoice in God's world—without ever being worldly.