Several years ago, I was excited that the topic of spirituality kept cropping up on talk shows, in books and magazines, in politics, even in health food stores.
What a refreshing change from the "God is dead" philosophy so prevalent during my college years in the sixties, I thought. In my naivete, I believed this spiritual awakening represented a trend toward a search for a biblically based relationship with God. I accepted what I heard and read with little critical thought.
Then, my nursing supervisor praised me one day for my "deep spirituality." I thanked her, secretly thrilled my Christian witness had been showing through. My excitement dissolved, though, when I read a book she gave me called A Course in Miracles. Although it used Christian lingo like atonement and sanctification, the concepts were far from Christian. I was puzzled. Weren't we speaking the same language? What had my supervisor meant by spirituality?
After that interchange, I began listening more closely to all the discussions of spirituality going on. Since then I've been learning how to discern whether the things I hear and read are truly Christian. Here are some guidelines I now use to tell the difference.
Logically examine the claims being made. Many statements about spirituality being passed off as "truth" today are not only lies, they're logically impossible. I discovered this when my daughter's public high school class planned a field trip to a meditation center known for its psychic readings. I objected, but the teacher justified the trip by saying this center taught spirituality—not religion. He claimed spirituality doesn't endorse one set of beliefs. That's simply not true. The basic (though flawed) belief system behind the whole concept of spirituality is that each person has a right to his or her own "truth"that there's no such thing as objective, absolute truth. This view essentially makes each person responsible for deciding what's right or wrong, good or bad, truth or lie. The result: There is no truth; people do what's right in their own eyes.
Another popular notion is that all religions and spiritual quests lead to God. Yet that belief denies the claim of Jesus Christ, who boldly declared he alone is the way, the truth, and the life: "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Period.
Compare popular spiritual concepts with what the Bible says. Our human reasoning alone isn't enough to discern truth from error. Just like the bank teller who knows the feel of counterfeit money after years of handling the real thing, our best protection against deception is to study and know God's revealed truth, the Bible.
This seemed more crucial as I began seeing angel pins, books, and stories in every checkout lane, bookstore, and on TV. At first I took this as another sign of people becoming more interested in spiritual (to me, meaning biblical) things. After all, the Bible teaches that angels are "ministering spirits," assigned by God to help us in many ways. But when I began comparing the media's portrayal of angels with the Bible's account of angels, I quickly discovered major differences. In popular culture, an angel is often portrayed as a beloved family member who dies and then gets his wings. The parents or children left on earth then seek guidance and help from their departed relative-now-turned-angel. So what's the problem with that?
For one thing, the Bible is very clear that angels are not repackaged souls of people but spiritual beings created by God to serve his purposes. By portraying them as reincarnated humans, the horrible reality of death as the dreadful consequence of sin is blunted. There is no judgment or hell to consider if we all turn into cute angels when we die.
The truth is, everyone will appear before the judgment seat of Christ, who was sacrificed for sinners and promises salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-28). Jesus is the only mediator between God and man—not angels.
In today's world, biblical discernment is crucial even when listening to the nightly news. A few years ago, Nancy Reagan reportedly contacted a psychic to decide when, where, and how her husband should make decisions. More recently, news reports tell us Hillary Clinton has "spoken" to Eleanor Roosevelt through a New Age "sacred psychologist." The news media scoffed at Mrs. Reagan for her silliness. But they generally excused Mrs. Clinton's actions because, as one reporter said, "We all have our imaginary friends." It's interesting to me that in a few short years people have become more open to spiritual experimentation. Yet both reactions missed the point: It's dangerous and completely outside of God's plan for us to try and make contact with the spirits of the dead through psychics or sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-13).
Remember, "Christian" words or songs aren't necessarily Christian. One day I heard the glorious strains of "Amazing Grace" coming from my TV set in the den. I ran to see who sang with such power, certain only a Christian could so magnificently sing those wonderful words: "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." After the song ended, the show's host complimented the soloist, a well-known recording artist, on her performance. She thanked him and explained how meaningful the song had been to her.
"So does that mean you've got religion in your life now?" the host asked. I waited, eager to hear a wonderful story of conversion to Jesus Christ.
Instead the singer replied, "Of course not. Religion is what you get when you're afraid of hell. Spirituality is what you get when you've been there and back." I couldn't believe it! Although she'd sung the whole story of Christ's atoning work for her, the fact that she needed a Savior from sin seemed the furthest thing from her mind. To her, being saved meant she'd been rescued from the lostness of "not knowing who I was." Being "born again" meant getting in touch with her "inner self."
In the past, I'd occasionally examined supposedly spiritual claims by comparing them to Scripture. But I'd never thought to see what the Bible said about the whole idea of spirituality.
Oddly enough, when I did a word search through my online Bible, looking for verses on "spirituality," the answer flashed back "word not found." That surprised me. Then I tried "spiritual" and all sorts of verses popped up. My friend, Barb, pointed out that throughout Scripture, spiritual is used to describe something else (e.g., a spiritual man, spiritual gifts, spiritual truths). Spirituality on the other hand, is something all by itself. Why is that an important distinction?
The Bible tells us our spiritual nature is dead in sin until we're born again by the Spirit of God who gives us spiritual birth through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3; Ephesians 2:1-9). Any discussion of what it means to be "spiritual" must relate to that diagnosis of our condition. To become a Christian means we receive a person, Jesus-not a thing, spirituality.
When someone speaks of spirituality, ask him or her to explain who Jesus is. One day I met a former high school friend for lunch. I was surprised when he began describing his spiritual quest, which included visiting gurus in India. As we talked back and forth about our views of God, I became increasingly frustrated and confused. No matter what I said, he seemed to agree, yet I knew we were miles apart in our beliefs. Why couldn't I pinpoint the difference?
The next morning I woke up and realized my mistake from the day before. Although my friend and I had talked extensively about God, I'd never asked him one simple question: Who is Jesus Christ? It's fairly easy to agree about God in some vague sense"Well, that's how you see your God. I see mine a bit differently." When we discuss Jesus Christ, however, we must deal with the specific claims Jesus made about himself—including his assertion that he is God—and face the question, "Are they true or not?"
The answer to who Jesus is marks the ultimate dividing line between who or what is and isn't Christian. In 1 John 4, we're told to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." The apostle John also says those who deny Jesus is the Messiah are liars (1 John 2:22).
Many religions and various forms of spirituality accept Jesus as a historical figure, but reject him as the Christ, the one whom God sent to be "an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Others talk of a "Christ-consciousness" in some mystical, global sense but refuse to tie that down to the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The fact is, if a person has strong morals and values but doesn't embrace Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, Savior, and resurrected Lord, his or her spirituality isn't Christian and cannot save.
Some days I feel intimidated as I realize how "narrow" others may see me because I believe the claims Christ made for himself. But the words of the apostle Paul are true: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
I'm also encouraged. When we stand in the truth of God's Word, we need not fear the spiritual confusion all around. God's promised the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. As the darkness of false spirituality grows deeper, the light of his truth can only shine brighter—pointing the way to those who still seek him.
-Ruth Van Reken is a speaker and author of several books and Bible studies, including Who Is Jesus? (Shaw). She lives in Indiana.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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