Editor’s Note: “There is a difference between having a rational judgement that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness,” Jonathan Edwards wrote. “A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes.” The Bible often describes our knowledge of God and his gospel with experiential language, using “sense” language like “taste and see” or the “eyes of the heart.” The term Christians have used to identify this emotive knowing is spirituality. Expressions of spirituality have taken many different forms, from Catholic mysticism to Pentecostalism. Evangelicals rejoice in the objective work of Christ in the gospel, yet an important aspect of our knowledge of the goodness of God and his saving work is through, what Edwards calls, “the sense of the heart.” That’s hard to define and often harder to bring about. So, over the next several articles, writers for The Gospel Coalition will consider issues related to evangelical spirituality.
Also in this series:
- Matthew Lee Anderson, Whitewashed Tombs and Gucci-Dressed Sinners
- Brent Nelson, Woe to Me if I Don’t Evangelize
- John Starke, Why Holiness Must Be Personal
- Owen Strachan, You Can Anger God But Not Lose Him
Who is the most “spiritual” person you know? Thumb through your mental address book, recalling little old ladies from church, that friend who led you to the Lord, or maybe even your father who led family devotions every evening. Maybe you’re the person who would come to mind as the most “spiritual” person your unbelieving friends, family members, or neighbors know. Why would they describe you as spiritual? They probably use the term the same way we Christians commonly do. You pray. You go to church. You talk about Jesus in everyday conversation.
Lately I’ve been talking with colleagues and other friends about the need for more guidance on evangelical spirituality. I admitted that I don’t even know what we’re discussing when we say “spirituality.” Surely I’m not the only one who’s confused. Are we talking about the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity? Personal acts of piety, such as regular Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines? Asking God to send revival as he has done so many times before? Rustic retreats filled with introspection, freed from the interruptions of the modern world? Re-appropriating the wonderful contributions of the Puritans, who saw the necessary link between head and heart?
Probably all these elements and countless more contribute to the broad-ranging subject of evangelical spirituality. But it’s easy to lose our way on the wind-tossed seas of speculation. For grounding, we have God’s firmly rooted Word, unflappable amid the spiritual fads of our day. How does it guide us to understand spirituality?
Fruit of the Spirit
We might start with the words of Jesus himself, who promised to send a Helper, the Holy Spirit (John 14:16) to guide us into all the truth (John 16:13). Unless the path to heaven has been illumined for us, we cannot find it. Next we turn to the apostle Paul’s commonly cited charge to walk by the Spirit in Galatians 5:16. No treatment of spirituality is complete unless it includes Paul’s counsel for the misguided, sorely divided church in Galatia.
[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23).
These famous words challenge how we so often think about spirituality. Framed by a Western worldview, we’re prone to understand spirituality as a private pursuit between us and God. But the Bible reveals the fruit of the Spirit as something demonstrated through relationships. We walk by the Spirit when we love our neighbors as ourselves. We walk by the Spirit when we show kindness to the friends who betrayed us. We walk by the Spirit when we demonstrate patience with our children. Spirituality never goes into hiding.
Voice from Heaven
So we’ve seen the result of walking by the Spirit. But what is the means? Where do we find the power to war against the flesh? Nobody wrote more vividly about this cosmic struggle than Paul. Later, in the conclusion to his letter to the Galatians, he identifies the source of his vibrant spirituality. “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
The great hope of everlasting life with God in heaven motivated Paul in his spiritual pursuits. There he would see face to face the God-Man who spoke to him out of heaven on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4-6). The upward call of God in Christ Jesus led him on a remarkable spiritual journey where his greatest delight became everlasting worship of the Man whose shameful, brutal death on the cross he once celebrated and sought to replicate.
Paul the persecutor became Paul the persecuted. But he wore the stripes of his transformation as a red badge of honor in service to the crucified Savior (2 Cor. 12:11-13:10). Spirituality surfaced in suffering. Writing in his treatise on the Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards explores the relationship between our love for God and our suffering for him and from him.
True virtue never appears so lovely as when it is most oppressed; and the divine excellency of real Christianity is never exhibited with such advantage as when under the greatest trials; then it is that true faith appears much more previous than gold, and upon this account is “found to praise and honor and glory.”
Spirituality means both bearing the Spirit’s fruit and sharing in Christ’s stripes. It’s living like Jesus, serving others and bearing our cross in the power of the Spirit he sent from heaven.
The Fray of Life
Scripture tells us spirituality is revealed in relationships, honed by looking to heaven, and strengthened through suffering. So why does so much of our advice on the subject skew toward the private, tranquil, and introspective? No doubt these quiet times of retreat and reflection are vital means of spiritual growth, as we can see in the examples of Jesus’ prayer practice (see Matt. 14:13 and many other examples of Jesus withdrawing to be alone). But we’re misleading other Christians if we fail to show them how God intends to give us great spiritual growth amid the fray of life. Indeed, everyday life is just the place God wills to provide us strength and opportunities to demonstrate our spirituality.
I’m sure you’ve heard Christians described as “so heavenly minded that they aren’t any earthly good.” Only when we grasp the Bible’s broader teaching on spirituality do we recognize the fallacy of this slur. Doing good on earth reveals whether we truly walk by the Spirit. But we can’t do good unless we’re heavenly minded. Only there do we find the reservoir of grace, overflowing for undeserving sinners like you and me, inviting us to jump in and join in the everlasting praise of our Creator, Redeemer, and Helper.