In November 1994, Newsweek did a cover story on ‘The search for the sacred’. It highlighted the popularity of spiritual concerns among people from all walks of life. Rather than the expected demise of religion with the advance of science and technology, the opposite is happening.
The ‘spiritual’ is ‘in’. Is this due to the New Age movement? Or is man simply compensating for the overkill of materialism? Whatever the cause, we cannot deny the prominence of spiritual interests today.
To be spiritual
Is this something for Christians to rejoice over? I am afraid not. From the same Newsweek feature, we learn that current spiritual interests concern anything that gives ‘inner peace’ and ‘a sense of wholeness’.
These can flow from the most disparate of experiences: an environmentalist reflecting on man’s oneness with nature; a yogist concentrating on his mantra; New Agers applying the latest self-help therapies; or anyone seeking the occult version of crystal power – all lay claim to genuine spiritual experiences.
Sadly, the current version of Christian spirituality mirrors this self-centred spirituality. It is a revival of one of the most perilous heresies that early Christians had to contend with, namely, Gnosticism.
The Gnostics taught the disparity, even hostility, between mind and spirit on the one hand, and matter and body on the other. Spiritual experience, they said, is a turning inward – an experience that transcends anything external, historical or objective; it is subjective, mystical and internal.
The experience of God, they argued, is what one feels inside. That feeling is definitive of everything truly spiritual. If we find this thesis acceptable, it shows how far we have departed from the biblical concept of spirituality.
A biblical model
The word ‘spiritual’ occurs as a description of Christian character in Galatians 6:1. ‘Spiritual’ people are to restore anyone ‘overtaken by a fault’. Who are these spiritual people in the church?
The exhortation of Galatians 6:1 follows chapter 5, which is full of teaching concerning the Holy Spirit. In contrast to those who sought legal righteousness, Paul characterised Christians as those who ‘through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith’ (Galatians 5:5).
From this starting point, Paul describes the Christian as one who must ‘walk in the Spirit’, be ‘led by the Spirit’, produce ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, and ‘live in the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:16,18,22,25). This is the man whom Paul calls ‘spiritual’.
What is the point of these observations? The ‘spirit’ in the word spiritual or spiritualityis not the human spirit; it is the Holy Spirit.
The spiritual person is not one who has an experience that transcends the body, but one in whom the Holy Spirit dwells!
Because current spirituality is a turning inward, its measure is the force of inner impressions and the satisfaction of felt needs. When someone claims that God is speaking to their soul, it is often in the form of an inner light or inaudible ‘voice’.
Pat Robertson talks of an ‘inner light’ which he defines as ‘intelligence that comes from God without reliance on sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell’. In other words, a voice that cannot be checked against the biblical text!
How is this inner voice to be evaluated? It is beyond any external authority, and herein lies its peril. Its validity is based on its therapeutic effect: if it makes you feel better, it must be from God! What is right is whatever serves felt needs.
One can only balk at the selfishness of this evaluation. Gone is the healthy self-doubt that our felt needs could be wrong – as they often are because we are sinners. But that will not be tolerated by a generation whose guru, Robert Schuller, can affirm: ‘Christ was crucified to sanctify man’s ego trip’.
Yes, we do want to hear the voice of God. But where shall we find it? The answer is in Scripture.
Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-3). Christ chose to have his revelation preserved in the apostolic testimony. All that we need to hear from God will centre on Jesus Christ, and anything that has to do with Jesus Christ is embodied in that testimony.
Now that the apostolic office has gone, the only mode of revelation we have is the written revelation left to us by the apostles and prophets – the Scriptures.
Paul warned: ‘Even if an angel should preach to you any other gospel than that which we have preached, let him be accursed!’ (Galatians 1:8). That is, there is no other gospel except the gospel of the apostles!
Paul was concerned that the Galatians were being hindered from obeying the truth (Galatians 5:7). And any experience that hinders obedience to the truth is, by definition, not spiritual experience.
Paul did not bother to investigate their inner feelings. No matter how inwardly satisfying might be the error they were tempted to espouse, Paul’s test of spiritual experience was obedience to the truth.
Let us judge our own spiritual experience by the truth of biblical revelation. John’s simple test of truth and falsehood applies to us: ‘He who knows God hears us [the apostolic witnesses]; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:6).
The genuineness of God’s dealing with the soul, and the measure by which any experience is to be judged, is not how and what one feels inwardly but whether it agrees with God’s holy Word – the Bible!
Thank God, he still speaks! Make no mistake there is more of God’s voice in the Christian who quietly and humbly studies his Bible than in all the spectacular inner impressions of our deceitful hearts!
The author is Principal of the Grace Ministerial Academy, Cubao, Philippines.