As sheltered as I was from the evil in the world and in society it did not take long for me to figure out that life is painful and difficult. I am convinced that God, as an act of sheer mercy, leads everyone to a point of coming to the end of himself or herself. That is, of exhausting the knowledge and skill for solving the persistent weakness and tendency toward self-destructive acts in oneself and in one’s society. This can be the impetus for searching for some means beyond physical tools or technology to address this. And given that people increasingly consider “religion” wholly negative they may turn to some “spiritual” teaching or explanation about the reality of what the five senses cannot directly perceive for help. What other option is there to understand and move toward some resolution of one’s questions and felt “spiritual” needs?
This is not surprising to me because Scripture says, “Human beings do not live by bread alone” and then completes the thought, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (See Deuteronomy 8:3) What a contrast this is to worldly so-called “spirituality”! What an enormous relief it is to know that I do not have to learn the right techniques (meditative practices) or learn the correct verbal formulas (magic) to get God’s attention. What a relief that I do not have to expend the psychic energy of my soul in order to control my surroundings or the people around me. What a relief that I do not need to flex my intellectual muscle to comprehend spiritual matters!
True spirituality is radically simple. For it is rooted in the human heart and the knowledge God grants to redeemed persons. The model for spirituality is the Lord Jesus himself and the experience of spiritual life in the redeemed soul is rooted in his eternal Person.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:7-10, NRSV)
Compare this description of the Lord Jesus to that of every other teacher of religion (historically or current). There is none like him and no one else can provide what he gives to those who trust him. This is that hallmark of true spirituality. And any tradition or teaching on the reality of the unseen, whether that be from the Christian churches or other religious traditions, must be measured by the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
My wife and I live in an area of Tucson, AZ that has a Home Owners Association (HOA). We pay this organization a certain amount of money each year and the elected Board of the organization makes decisions regarding how to spend money on things that benefit every one of the homeowners in this area. They also come up with rules to regulate what the homeowners must do and may do with their homes. Now having this organization does make sense as it meets a need for maintaining the good order and general neat appearance of the physical space and the homes in this area. It serves a valid purpose. However, the HOA cannot regulate what people do inside their houses.
I suggest that this case exactly parallels what happens with the human soul seeking a religious or “spiritual” option in life. To embrace a religion is to be bound by its teaching, practices (spiritual disciplines) and prescribed (and suggested) forms of worship. Like living in a neighborhood under the rules of an HOA, so the persons who embrace religious practice must learn to keep the rules. And in doing so there are some very positive benefits—particularly because the rules help to protect one person from another and mediating conflicts and teaching skills for conforming to the expectations of being a “good person.”
What I have asserted above is also true for agnostics and atheists who like to pride themselves on being independent thinkers and thus not involved in “organized religion.” This is sheer self-deception because they have picked up and pasted together from various sources their own philosophy on what the “good life” is and how to work toward living that out. They still have to follow the rules of their own self-tailored beliefs within the context of the society in which they live.
All of these examples are carnal—they are rooted in the best (or the worst) of human knowledge and perceptions about the natural world, human nature and fulfillment of human desires. Even regarding those points where common truth can be affirmed and sought out it will still remain that striving after any of these options is rooted in the “flesh.” The instruments of human nature that people normally exercise (pyche—the intellect and the emotions) cannot receive God’s truth or love unless they have been purified by the blood of Christ’s cross.
This presumptive sin of acting as though I have the capacity within myself to know the living God through my intellect or my emotions is pernicious and is far more common among “Bible-believing”, orthodox and evangelical people than we will admit. Here is the problem: In our flesh we desperately want to control and manipulate—and not only our surroundings to survive and thrive (to get material things) but also to assert our wills to get what we deem best for ourselves. And we quite easily transfer this tendency to God. But this is not an expression of faith. Faith requires humility and yielding to God’s way, modeled by our Lord Jesus, to live a life of submission and obedience to the living Father.
Andrew Murray makes this point in a refreshing and unique way:
“They [believers] imagine that the Spirit, in teaching them, must reveal the mysteries of the spiritual life first to their intellect, and afterwards in their experience. And God’s way is just the contrary of this. What holds true of all spiritual truth is specially true of the abiding in Christ: We must live and experience truth in order to know it. Life-fellowship with Jesus is the only school for the science of heavenly things. ‘What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter,’ is a law of the Kingdom, specially true of the daily cleansing of which it first was spoken, and the daily keeping. Receive what you do not comprehend, submit to what you cannot understand, accept and expect what to reason appears a mystery, believe what looks impossible, walk in a way which you know not—such are the first lessons in the school of God. ‘If ye abide in my word, ye shall understand the truth’: in these and other words of God we are taught that there is a habit of mind and life which precedes the understanding of the truth. True discipleship consists in first following, and then knowing the Lord. The believing surrender to Christ, and the submission to His word to expect what appears most improbable, is the only way to the full blessedness of knowing Him.” Andrew Murray, Abide in Christ, “Seventeenth Day”, italics in original [cited from The Andrew Murray Collection (Barbour), pp.99-100].
Thanks be to God that this is possible for those who believe! And yet how offensive the way of the Lord Jesus is to human sensibilities and pride. Can you see this? You who claim to be a disciple of the Lord, does this bother you? I admit that it is unsettling to me even as I write about it here. But I think that must be a good sign—for it is better to be tripped up and fall so as to be broken before the living God than to harden oneself against his word and eventually be crushed (Luke 20:18). Thank you, holy Father, that you tripped me up with the foolishness of the cross so I could grow into the knowledge of the truth.