Christian SpiritualitySpirituality is common to all religious faiths. In religion spirituality expresses the intimacy of our association with the divine. Christian spirituality denotes the way we realize (ie. make real in an experiential way) our relationship with God the Father through Jesus. So Christian spirituality concerns our pursuit of God, and his pursuit of us. The theological title given to this aspect of our faith is mystical union. That is, spirituality concerns the mystical union that exists between the believer and God, and how that is achieved, developed and expressed.
Practicing the presenceNew Testament spirituality
The New Testament teaches that Jesus is the way to God. We touch God through Jesus and he touches us through Jesus. That, of course, is realized for us now through the person of the Holy Spirit. A prime ministry of the Holy Spirit is to relate us to the Father through the work of Christ. The Spirit makes us one with God. He ministers to us in a personal and intimate way, bringing us into an intimate association with the Father by means of his involvement in our day to day life.
There are two sides to Christian spirituality, to our mystical union with Jesus. It is as if we survive within a paradox. In fact, the whole Christian life is a paradox, eg. in weakness there is greatness, in suffering there is glory. The paradox of our union with Christ is that it is both of this earth, and at the same time heavenly:
i] Union of the flesh. On the one hand our union with Christ reflects Christ's incarnation. Christian spirituality is expressed within this environment. It is world affirming, not world denying. It is expressed within a positive engagement in human living. It is a spirituality that affects every area of our human existence. So on the practical side, we find that Christian spirituality is expressed in brotherly love, social concern, all the way through to political action.
ii] Union of the spirit. Yet on the other hand our union with Christ reflects Christ's glorification. Christian spirituality is expressed within the framework of an eternity which we actually share in at this very moment. We are in the world, but not of the world. So in that sense there is an other-worldly aspect to it. We even now dwell with Christ in the heavenlies. So we find that Christian spirituality is expressed in the otherness of prayer, meditation, worship, spiritual experience, renewal.....
When we were "born again" our old life died with Christ on the cross and a new resurrected life was created in us. The old life is the life enslaved to sin and awaiting the judgement of God. The new life is the life possessed by the Spirit (free from the power of sin) and experiencing the blessing of God. The Bible describes this as being "united" or "identified" with Jesus in his death and resurrection.
The new life is created by means of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, whose resurrection power enlivens us. Having been "baptized", "indwelt" by the the Holy Spirit, we are progressively shaped into the image of the glorified Christ. There is a sense where we are actually identified with the ascension of Jesus. We are united with Jesus in his heavenly reign. Right now we are with him in the heavenlies experiencing all the blessings of having him as our intimate friend, Eph.1:3, 2:6. In fact, there is a sense where we are now as Christ already is. Certainly in the eyes of God that's the way we are, and for the present we are being shaped into that image - being "filled with the Spirit".
The union we have with Christ in the heavenlies is made real for us by the Holy Spirit while we live on this earth, Jn.14:15-18, Rom.8:1-27. The Bible describes this union in the following ways:
i) Abiding in Christ, Jn.15:5, 2Cor.5:17.
ii) Christ in us, Gal.2:20, Eph.3:17-18.
iii) Members of Christ's body, 1Cor.6:15-19, Eph.1:22-23, 4:15-16.
iv) Marriage. The church is related to Jesus as a wife is to her husband. Eph.5:23-32.
v) Jesus our foundation, 1Pet.2:4-5.
vi) The vine. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, Jn.15:1-8.
So our mystical union with Christ involves our identification with his death and resurrection, made real to us through the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Spirituality is the personal experience of this reality.
How we experience friendship with God
Although we can't see and touch Jesus, we do experience his friendship in similar ways to a normal human relationship. We experience objective, or outward acts of Jesus' love for us, and we experience subjective, or inward feelings of the deep relationship we have with him.
1. The objective touch of Jesus
Like a good friend he keeps all his promises. He does everything he promised to do and more. His love is demonstrated in faithfulness and this can be seen in the following:
i] Teaches us all things. He reveals himself to us and he gives us an understanding of reality. This he does through the Bible.
ii] Renews us. We can observe an ongoing change in our character. He moulds us daily into his image through the indwelling Spirit. He is continually shaping us into the person we are in reality.
iii] Equips and empowers us for service. We find that we are able to do what he asks of us, even though at times this seems beyond our human capacity. More than that, we find that many of our natural abilities are, as it were, supercharged. We are able to do things for Jesus which we would never have imagined possible, Rom.12:1-8.
iv] Cares, encourages, strengthens, supports and protects in life's journey as we struggle against the powers of darkness. In times of greatest stress we can see the evidence of his involvement in life's events as he stands with us. We are not alone.
v] Blesses. He answers our prayers. He is like a Father to us. At times we are filled with wonder at the way he involves himself in our lives.
vi] Disciplines. Like a good friend he straightens us up when we go astray. He points up our faults and purifies us through the rough and tumble of life.
2. The subjective touch of Jesus
Like a very dear friend we experience a deep inward warmth toward Jesus. Note the following:
i] A sense of acceptance. The guilt that once separated us from God has gone. He has forgiven us.
ii] A sense of hope. We look forward to being with him face to face for eternity, Rom.8.
iii] A sense of trust. We know that he will do all that he has promised, Rom.4:21, 8:38.
iv] A sense of fatherly care. The Spirit prompts believers to call God "Father" and bears witness in our inner being that we are God's children, Rom.8:15-17, Gal.4:6, Rom.5:5.
v] A sense of the active indwelling of God. We feel that he is intimately involved in our lives, John 14:15-23.
vi] A sense of being filled with the fullness of the love of God in our inner being, Eph.3:16-19.
vii] A sense of joy through the Spirit who enables us to rejoice with a joy that is glorified, 1Peter 1:8.
viii] A sense of peace. A peace, says the Bible, that passes all understanding, Phil.4:4-7.
The history of spirituality
Christians of every age have emphasized different ways of developing and expressing the union they possess with Christ. Consider some of the following examples:
i] Ignatious, who was the bishop of Antioch in the second century, said "Allow me to be an imitator of the passion of my God". For him, following in the sufferings of Christ was the way to be one with Christ.
ii] Irenaeus, who was the bishop of Lyons in the second century, emphasized the necessity of living a Christ-like life. To walk in the footsteps of the historic Jesus was the way a believer become one with Jesus.
iii] In the fourth century the church became institutionalized and great divisions started to develop. There was both a movement toward communal living with an emphasis on the inward spiritual life, and an escape from human contact toward personal piety. Mantra type prayers evolved during this period. eg. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me".
a) Augustine of Hippo sought ecstasy in Christ. "Our hearts are restless till they find rest in thee". For Augustine, to submerge self in the utter beauty of God was the prime goal of the Christian life.
b) On the other hand men like Gregory of Nyssa stressed that the Christian life was to be lived by serving God and neighbour with love.
c) At this period the Desert Fathers developed a view of discipline and self denial. Withdrawal from the world was the way toward union with Christ.
iv] In the Middle Ages different ways were again journeyed. Anselm of Canterbury spoke of orthodox faith. Truth was the way toward light. Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi spoke of devotion. Thomas a Kempis and Julian of Norwich spoke of the inner light - mysticism
v] In the Reformation the reformers spoke of the Cross of Christ gaining our right standing in the sight of God. Forgiven and accepted by faith and not by works of the law. In contrast Ignatius of Loyola spoke of spiritual exercises - the need to become a soldier for Jesus.
vi] During the Evangelical revival the stress fell on the renewing power of Jesus in the life of those who surrender to him. The emphasis fell on the personal experience of Christ in conversion and the need to reinforce that through personal Bible study. Wesley and Charles Simeon were the great forces behind this movement. Wesley moved toward an ongoing spirituality in sanctification, teaching that the constant touch of the Holy Spirit allowed a "moment by moment non-transgression of the known will of God." This teaching developed into the "holiness movement" and then into Pentecostal revival. The main feature of the movement has always been a "two stage" Christianity. The first stage being conversion, a personal confrontation with Christ, a sense of being broken by sin followed by the release of forgiveness. The second stage being the gift/baptism/infilling of the Holy Spirit, a sense of the empowering of the spirit for the obedient. This experience was associated with shaking (early Methodists), "tongue speaking" (Pentecostals)......
vii] In the 1800s the Oxford Movement developed with its stress upon worship, communion, the discipline of prayer, retreat and reverence. Henery Newman and John Keble were the great forces behind this movement.
viii] In our time we have seen the stress fall upon social action (liberation theology), discipline (discipleship, simplicity), Christian fellowship (community), liturgy (liturgical revival) and personal experience (Charismatic movement and new-age mysticism).
Daily touching Christ
In Philippians Paul makes this statement, "all I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death". Phill.3:10. For me, this verse is probably the most powerful in the New Testament. Paul is at this point right at the center of spirituality. He states clearly that all he wants is to realize in his person the: i] "presence" (subjective - to know Christ as one knows a wife/husband), ii] the "power" (objective - expressed in renewal, rising to a Christ-like life) and iii] to identify with Christ in his death (the atonement). The issue we face is how do we make this real in our daily experience? How do we move from doctrinal truth to living truth? The process of doing that has been termed by Brother Andrew as "practicing the presence". So then, how do we practice the presence? Consider the following examples:
i] Conversion. For many this is a powerful experience of Christ. The conversion experience of a new Christian can be a mighty release from sin, an enlightening, a renewing, a wonderful inner experience of Christ's wonder-working power. Yet for many of us, believing in Jesus did not prompt a powerful subjective experience. It is then easy to feel that our conversion was not valid, or even worse, we may be tempted to fudge the experience.
ii] Faithfulness. Exhibiting of the "fruits of the Spirit" is a very powerful objective means of experiencing the touch of Jesus in our lives. We find ourselves, by grace through faith, being renewed by the indwelling Spirit of Christ who channels the compelling love of Christ into our beings. It is that "compelling" to love as Christ loved, which we then experience as the touch of Jesus. Yet we do need to be careful of any suggestion that being obedient serves to bring us close to Jesus. This is a particular problem with Evangelical Christians. Legalism only ever serves to promote disobedience and so undermine our relationship with Christ.
iii] Fellowship. The love of the brotherhood makes real the love of Christ. In touching the brother, "the least of these my brethren", we touch Christ, Matt.25:40. This is the commandment by which Christ "manifests" himself to us, Jn.14:21. The only danger here is that we may not have separated our love for Christ from our love for the person. For instance, we need to identify the compatibility component, as well as the sensual component. There is nothing wrong with sexual attraction, but we do need to differentiate it from the oneness we have in Christ. None-the-less the physical can serve as a channel for the spiritual, ie. incarnate it. The two are therefore integrally linked
iv] Discipleship. In cross-bearing discipleship "we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he (Christ) whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross", Bonhoeffer. We do though need to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing the poor of the World as somehow the center of God's concern. Cross-bearing has to do with caring for the brotherhood and reaching out to the lost with the gospel. The poor whom God cares for are the "poor in spirit". They are the "least of these my brethren". The lost are those who seek mercy from a loving God.
v] Church attendance. Where two or three gather together Christ is in their midst. Meeting with a brother enhances union with Christ. This is particularly so in table fellowship - the "love feast". Christ is also made real to us in the business of making known the will of God through the Spirit-filled ministries of the Word. Our only problem here is that we do need to accept the limitations of human association.
vi] Bible study. One of the most important expressions of spirituality is, meditation on, and study of, the Bible. For believers the Bible is the prime source of contact with the Lord Jesus. By means of personal daily study, group Bible study, and the hearing of sermons, we are daily confronted with the person of Jesus. It is by means of this constant contact with the living Word of the scriptures that we touch the living Word himself. It is the Spirit inspired nature of the scriptures that makes them so personal. Our only danger here is to deify the Bible itself, to deify our personal system of doctrine, or to think that the hearing of sermons is more important than adoration.
vii] Quiet time. Personal meditation and prayer is a powerful means of touching the Divine. In quietness and secret is found the Divine presence. As long as we view this as a technique, an aid to "practicing the presence", we will have no problems.
viii] Church year. The development of the church year was a very slow process in the ancient church. Initially the Jewish festivals were taken into the church and given a Christian meaning, eg. Pentecost. The church year traces the life of Christ through a yearly cycle. Special events and periods in the life of Christ are celebrated, scripture readings set for each day of the week, and illustrated with seasonal colours. The keeping of the church year can be a very powerful means of identifying ourselves with Jesus. It locates our passing life in the life of Jesus, rather than in the rush of secular life. It therefore becomes a physical sign of our identification with the life of Christ and as such realizes the spiritual reality of that identification.
ix] Liturgical adoration. The liturgy is very ancient in form of worship. It has a quality which is unknown in non liturgical churches. The ancient liturgies of the church focused on God. They were God centered rather than man centered. As such, liturgy serves to enlarge God to those who participate. The form of the words, song, chant, colour, incense, light, shape of the building; all are woven together into an artistic form which touches, not just the mind, but all the other senses as well. Liturgy is artistic and therefore touches the emotions as well as the mind. Liturgical worship focuses our attention on the "awful" presence of Christ, through adoration, praise, thanksgiving, prayer and hearing of his Word. In so doing it makes real the spiritual reality of Christ's presence. Of course, there is always the danger that liturgical worship becomes little more than ritual.
x] Holy Communion. The service of the Lord's Supper is a most powerful means of promoting an awareness of the reality of the mystical union we possess with Christ. The whole service is designed to focus our attention on the death and resurrection of Christ. The bread and the wine serve to remind us of his sacrifice on our behalf, and as we "feed" so we are prompted to feed in faith, to possess our Lord and be united with him. The bread and the wine taken into ourselves are then signs of Christ's infusing presence within our very persons. Following the communion, the service prompts thanksgiving, a new resolve for service, and a looking forward to the day when we will feast with Christ in heaven. The Communion service brings to us physical signs of Christ's mystical union with us, and these signs signify the spiritual reality of that union.
The search for the Master's touch
i] "The reward of the search is to go on searching. The Soul's desire is fulfilled by the very fact of its remaining unsatisfied, for really to see God is never to have had one's fill of desiring him". Gregory of Nyssa.
ii] "You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness, you sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness, you shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you." Augustine of Hippo.
iii] "Put aside your own will so as to go to war under Christ the Lord, the real King, picking up the keen and glittering weapons of obedience." A rule of the Benedict Monks.
iv] "You wish to hear from me why and how God is to be loved? My answer is: the reason for loving God is God himself, and the measure in which we should love him is to love him without measure." Bernard.
v] "Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing, yes, even though you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing, though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer." Julian of Norwich.
vi] "Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to ask for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward save knowing that we do thy will." Ignatius of Loyola.
vii] "Because we cannot see Christ we cannot express our love to him; but our neighbours we can see, and we can do to them what, if we saw him, we would like to do to Christ." Mother Terasa.
The French novelist Gustav Flaubert described God's presence in the world as "nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be heard." Our experience of Jesus is often like that, a limited relationship. The above study seeks to accentuate that relationship, but in the end we will have to accept the limitations of our present condition.
We must accept that our friendship with Jesus is dissimilar to a normal human relationship. As he is spirit, our normal human senses of touch, sight, hearing..... do not apply. This is a real limitation to our relationship with Jesus and is why we so often yearn to depart this life and be with the Lord - to see him face to face, Phil.1:21-26, 3:10-14. The truth is simple enough, while we are a part of this world our experience of heaven is limited, 1Cor.13:12.
We must also accept that as with a normal human relationship, our friendship with Jesus has a starting point, it grows and deepens during our lifetime and of course, it can be broken or harmed if we act in a hurtful way toward our Lord. The Bible calls our harming of the relationship "grieving the Spirit". Sadly we often grieve the Lord.
Finally, the Christian walk is marked by test and trial. In the same way as Christ struggled alone toward Calvary, so our journey will be seemingly one of solitude. By faith we will have to hold onto the promise, "Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth."
So "knowing" Christ is a real experience, but I will have to wait till the day of glory to "know fully even as I am fully known."
Intex of studies
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons