Don't be religious, Be SpiritualI recently read an interview in Reader's Digest of the country music star Reba McIntyre. The interviewer asked Ms. McIntyre if she was a religious person. Ms. McIntyre said that she was not a religious person, but she was a very spiritual person. She went on to talk about her prayers and the role of God in her life. Webster's definition of religion as: "Any specific system of belief, worship, conduct, etc., involving a code of ethics and a philosophy."
This may all sound rather mysterious and perhaps like a battle of semantics, but we would like to suggest that there is a major point to be made in the religion vs. spiritual area, and some dangers associated with it. A simple definition of religion is that religion is man's attempt to reach God. Being spiritual is opening ourselves to God's influence on our whole being. Let us draw some contrasts between these two definitions.
Religion focuses on what pleases man. Being spiritual focuses on what pleases God. Most of what we see religious people do in today's world is the end product of what they think is appropriate to be religiously correct. Huge edifices are constructed, beautiful works of art created, beautiful music made, and marvelous words are said in the name of religion. People tend to judge churches by their size, location, and visibility in the community. A part of this judgment is how well the minister of the church entertains the membership. A good speaker can bring lots of people into the church as long as he does not offend and brings lots of humor and good feelings to his listeners. The mega churches of our day are groups that have learned this formula and do it well. As an atheist, I found this kind of artificial atmosphere to be especially repulsive, and atheism was and is an attractive alternative to all of the religious materialism that swirls around us.
The New Testament shows spirituality as a vivid alternative to religion. John the Baptist and Jesus did not come on the scene as smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, aesthetically-appealing individuals. Paul worked as a tentmaker and Peter was a fisherman. The early Christians were not the wheelers and dealers of their culture. A casual reading of Hebrews shows people who were under persecution and rejection, and when the inspired Word of God talks about being spiritual (or pure religion), it speaks of visiting the widows and orphans in their sorrow (James 1:27).
Religion involves emotions and externals while spirituality involves the whole being. Religion tends to tell people to react to their emotions and express them visibly. In today's world, there is an emphasis on wearing things that express our convictions and doing things that are ruled by our emotions. Preachers who can move people emotionally are looked up to, and religious services with great amounts of tears, emotional outbursts, and spirited responses are deemed to be the best. There are many problems with such approaches to God. One is that these services tend to produce huge peaks and valleys. A person is motivated to make a response by a capable preacher; and when the person is away from the positive reinforcement, they tend to crash. Another problem is that because the person is reacting emotionally to being in the service, their mind is not functioning on what is being taught. People like Jim Jones in Guyana, Marshall Applewaite in California, or David Koresh in Waco were able to get people to do incredible things which they certainly would not have done if they were not emotionally distracted.
Spirituality involves one's total self in his/her relationship to God. The Christians in 2 Corinthians 8:3-6 were identified by Paul as being of special spiritual nature because they gave themselves to God. The picture we get of church in the first century is not of entertaining preachers in fancy buildings, but people meeting together regularly in homes--sharing their burdens and needs and supporting one another in the challenges of everyday life.
When we look at the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, we see very little appeal to emotions. Jesus used parables which required His listeners to think and reason. Much of His teaching was to have His subject state an understanding and then He would elaborate on it. Paul spent over a year at a school (Acts 19:9) and reasoned with the people in terms where they could think. When he saw the artifacts of worship on Mars Hill in Acts 17:28, he declared God to be a God in whom we live and move and have our being. One of the reasons there is a reluctance to use and involve apologetics in today's world is because religion depends on emotions and not on reasonable thinking and logic. Awful things have been done in the name of religion, and the main brunt of what atheists and skeptics see to be wrong with religion is what they see as the result of belief in God. A part of all this is the risk of mind control and with it the control of resources. If I can get you to allow me to control you emotionally, then I can get you to do what I want you to--including giving me control of your money. Being spiritual involves using your mind as well as your body to accomplish God's will. Jesus demonstrated real spirituality when He washed His disciples' feet and then taught them about serving one another. When Ananias and Saphirra lied about what they had done with their resources in Acts 5, the condemnation was not because of their gift or because of what they chose to do, but because they lied to God about it.
When Jesus addressed the difference between religion and spirituality, He gave specific example. Giving religiously was explained as making a show of it (Matthew 6:1-4) instead of being sure problems with a brother were resolved before giving. Praying religiously was standing on the corner to be seen (Matthew 6:5-8) and using repetitions to sound good (verse 7) while praying spiritually was going into your closet and talking to God. Fasting religiously involved disfigurement and emphasis on show while fasting spiritually was cleaning yourself and making it so no one would know you were fasting. There is a proverb that says, "I'd rather see a sermon than hear one" but spirituality involves a lack of advertising--just doing what God places before us to do.
Religion follows man's standards while spirituality follows God's standards. If someone were to ask me what the main cause of atheism is from my experience, my response would be that it is the hypocrisy of people who claim to be followers of God. When a person sees no difference between the way Christians conduct themselves and the way nonbelievers handle their lives, there is a compelling argument against the Christian system. The question is why this happens. The answer is that many of us who claim to be Christians are religious, but we are not spiritual. There is a huge practical difference.
Being religious involves following the accepted behavioral pattern of the religious group we are identified with. These patterns are determined by the leaders of the religious organization. It is difficult in today's world to not hear of a religious group that is in turmoil over what is behaviorally acceptable and what is not. Everyone wants to know "what is your position on...." The focus is not on the individuals and their relationships to Christ, but rather on what the leadership of the religious organization is willing to condone and willing to condemn. This focus on organizational endorsement has sent the message to the average lay person that truth is a relative, dynamic, changing thing. The ultimate result of the acceptance of this message is that the religion has little or no effect on how the person lives. Even if lip service is paid to Christ and to the Bible by the leadership, the commitment is very diluted so that there is little effect on how people live or behave--even among the leaders.
Spirituality is not identical to conservativeness. Jesus was considered a liberal in His day. Many of the things that Jesus said were in total opposition to religion. One of the major statements Christ made along these lines was in reference to the Pharisees--the religious leaders of His day. "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you but do not behave as they do... Everything they do is done for men to see...(Matthew 23:2-6)." Jesus demonstrated by His life what spirituality was about. His life was not consumed by ritual and tedious religious observance of the right things. Rather His life was consumed with looking for those who had needs and serving them. Christ portrayed a successful life as one in which the hungry had been fed, those who had thirst being given a drink, those in prison being visited, and those who were naked being clothed (Matthew 25:34-46). Christ did not practice isolationism. He worshipped with the believers--sharing, teaching, participating in spiritual things in harmony with others.
For man living in the twenty-first century, the story is very much the same. People who are spiritual are people who serve others as Christ did. Like Christ, they are concerned more with doing good than observing ritual. Like Christ, they are concerned with letting their light shine so that God is glorified by how they live (Matthew 5:14-16). It is interesting that the enemies of Jesus never accused Him of immorality. Modern enemies of Christianity have tried to do that, but not the people who knew Christ. What they attacked Jesus for was His service to those they considered below their dignity. Jesus' key to this was his teaching and example of "avoiding all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22)." Jesus ministered to those who had mistakes in their lives, but His independence from sin shines through every moment of His life on earth.
We do not wish to imply that being spiritual is easy or that the choices that spirituality leads us to are always easily made. When an adulterous woman was brought to Jesus for judgment, He did not condone her immorality and in fact told her to "sin no more," but His response to her accusers was to consider their own struggle with sin and focus on compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and sympathy. The Bible tells us how to be spiritual. The method involves a constant focus on attitudes and a deliberate adding of mindsets to one's life.
"Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity (2 Peter 1:5-7)."
I do not know anything about Reba McIntyre's real life. I would hope she is continuing to seek out Truth and not isolate herself from believers and followers of Christ. I would hope that in the twenty-first century, the followers of Christ would get so free of religion and so into spirituality that no atheist or skeptic could justify their belief system on the failings of those who wear the name Christian.
--John N. Clayton
Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JulAug02.