5 Steps for Embracing Real Christian Spirituality
The old cliché says that, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” And while there are aspects of this saying I’d quibble with, there is more than a morsel of truth here. The struggle is that we’re all learning what it means to live out this relationship in a concrete and natural way . . .
When it comes to spirituality, we’re all absolute beginners. Those of us who live within the context of post-enlightenment Christianity struggle with intangibles. We’re suspect of anything that smacks of supernaturalism, and so we fill our minds with information with the hope that this alone will transform our inner lives.
If you’re interested in learning what it means to start walking in this spiritual relationship, here are a few tips:
1. Embrace historical Christianity
We Christians need to realize that we’re just a portion of a larger river of Christian thought and practice. Despite what we may assume, we haven’t now reached the apex of Christian spirituality (by a long shot).
Since he ascended, Christ has always had representation on earth—it didn’t start being the church after the Reformation. Read deeply and widely focusing on the writers who had learned what it meant to subject themselves to the Holy Spirit. Challenge yourself with instruction and views that might not make you comfortable.
It’s been authors like: Thomas Merton, Francis de Sales, François Fenelon, and Teresa of Avila who have challenged, frustrated, stretched, and inspired me. And through their writings, I have been confronted with the need to recognize Christ’s movements in my life as well as a call to profoundly manifest the Spirit’s fruits.
2. Cut out the noise
My mind was blown recently when my wife and I sat quietly in a couple of beach chairs without any phone service. In a matter of a couple of hours, I could feel myself unraveling. I had no idea how entangled my heart had become. As I sat there in the silence, I felt tranquility I had not felt in a long while.
God doesn’t often choose to shout over the din of modern life—and when he does, it can hurt. So it’s probably good to choose to pay attention.
Our culture is constantly keeping us stirred and troubled. But similar to water, you’ll see your true reflection when your spirit is still. Many modern prophets warn and encourage us to regularly disengage, but reading about it isn’t doing it. If you’re serious about walking in rhythm with the spirit, you’re going to eventually need to make it happen.
As Richard Foster says, “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
3. Focus on your story
“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”—C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy
Every parent has a special and individual relationship with each of their children. To treat them fairly, a parent can’t always treat each child the same. Our relationship with God is similar. Not everything you’re called to do or convicted about is universally prescriptive.
Imagine two people working for a tyrant of a boss. One of these individuals tends to be more of a quiet wallflower easily folding under pressure, while the other is a loudmouthed lion who has no problem being aggressive. Christ might call each of them to respond to their situation differently. For the spirituality of the mousey person, the Spirit might prompt them to take a stand, and at the same time, encourage the combative person to submit.
There’s a temptation to flaunt our spirituality by projecting onto others what God tells us in secret. A lot of what God shares with our spirit is given to personally challenge and edify us, not to burden others.
4. Question the wisdom of your culture
You don’t have to be combative, cynical, or difficult, but you do need to challenge your culture’s messages. Whether it is the culture of your birth of your religious background, there are definitely aspects that don’t align with the spirit of Christ. It’s too easy to interpret Scripture through the ingrained matrix of our cultures than it is to see through a spiritually detached lens.
There’s no need to disentangle yourself from your culture in order to recognize messages that don’t line up with kingdom life. Just be aware. Spiritually sensitive people are always a little out of step with their environment—walking in relationship with Christ means learning to be comfortable not entirely fitting in.
5. Stop being afraid of screwing up
I recently preached a message about learning to renew, not just our rational minds, but our imaginations as well. God has gifted us with this amazing capacity to see with our minds things that we may not see otherwise. Afterward, I was warned by a well-meaning individual about all of the imagination’s potential dangers.
Therein lies one of the biggest hindrances to spiritual life. We would rather shut down a God-given gift than open it up to potential misuse. We’re often so afraid of screwing up, going overboard, looking silly, or being a heretic that we never do anything.
Christianity is often a pretty safe religion. We’re told what to think, how to think, how to dress, how to behave, and we live in safe little enclaves huddled around the very doors by which we entered the kingdom. When I am tethered to Scripture and community, I should be given enough lead to go get myself in all sorts of trouble. Christ’s work of redeeming the world is a messy business and takes people who aren’t afraid to get messy.
In the end, so many of Christ’s parables are more about his frustration about what we do or do not do . . . I can’t think of any parables about goats being sent away for being mistaken in an area of their theology or having messed up in their sincere desire to live out the call of the kingdom.
It’s my conviction that we need to trust the Spirit to lead us into truth and be willing to learn as we go. Spirituality is messy business, and if we’re afraid of getting dirty, we’re missing out.