The Gospel Coalition


"The evangelical orientation is inward and subjective. We are far better at looking inward than we are at looking outward."


Sinclair Ferguson


The word spirituality conjures up all sorts of images and ideas. For non-Religious--or secular--people, spirituality is nothing more than "an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being...aspects of life and human experience which go beyond a purely materialist view of the world without necessarily accepting belief in a supernatural reality or divine being." Of course, Christians reject this idea of spirituality. Whatever we Christians believe about spirituality, we assume that it has something to do with intimacy with a personal creator God who exists outside of us and has revealed himself to us.

There is, however, one area in which--it seems--both Christian and secular people agree when it comes to spirituality. Spirituality for both is purely subjective and private.

Whether it's a secular or Christian version, a spiritual person (in the minds of most modern people) is a person who focuses on "the inside of life." Most Christians I talk to think about spirituality exclusively in terms of personal piety, internal devotion, and spiritual formation. The focus is almost entirely on individual, inward renewal and private disciplines: praying, reading the Bible, meditation, spiritual retreat, contemplation, and so on. True spirituality, we conclude, is predominately quiet--focusing on the interior of life.

Martin Luther taught that "turning in"--regardless of the spiritualized rationale for doing so--was the essence of the Fall. It is the devil, he said, that wants to always "cast us back on our own resources, tearing us away from the external Word and Sacrament." Expounding on this, Gerhard Forde writes:
To be sure, the external must be internally appropriated, but salvation comes from without, calls us out of our own internality and will impress itself upon our inner lives to the degree that it comes absolutely and totally from without. We seem to have a desperately difficult time believing this. We are always collapsing inward upon ourselves. We are always turned inward. The self is a black hole endlessly sucking everything into itself and contemplating it's own case.

Echoing Forde's comment regarding "internal appropriation", personal disciplines are indispensable aspects of staying tethered to the truth of gospel (you'll shrink without them), nurturing love for God and others. But it's interesting that when James makes his strong point in 2:14-26 about faith without works being dead, what he describes are not works of internal, subjective "spirituality" but external, selfless service:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15)

As Mike Horton wrote recently, "True spirituality may be personal, but it's not private. It is wildly, unashamedly, thoroughly public."

Similarly, in James 1:27 he writes (the only place in the Bible where the word "religion" is used positively):
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Even in that last phrase "keep oneself unstained from the world", he's not talking about monastic retreat, private meditation, or even personal piety. The contextual implication there involves the need to "wash our hands of worldliness" which, throughout the book of James, is defined as self-absorption-a "my life for me" approach to life in contrast from a "my life for you" approach to life. Worldliness, according to James, is me thinking always about me (see James 4:1-3).

Therefore, in both James 1:27 and 2:15, he's making it clear that true spirituality actually take us away from ourselves and into the messy lives of other people--it's "down to earth", focusing primarily on the outside of life rather than on the inside of life. It is not simply introverted, but extroverted---it doesn't take me deeper into me; it sends me away from me. Real spirituality is forgetting about yourself, washing your hands of you.

One serious consequence of concluding that true spirituality is exclusively introspective--that it's all about internal betterment--is that we fail to see the needs of our neighbor and serve them, which is James' definition of "good works." After all, as Martin Luther said, "God doesn't need our good works, but our neighbor does."

As I mentioned in a post last week, the biggest difference between the practical effect of sin and the practical effect of the gospel is that sin turns us inward (homo incurvatus in se) and the gospel turns us upward and outward.  We were designed to embrace God and others, but instead we are now consumed with ourselves. The gospel causes us to look up to Christ and what he did, out to our neighbor and what they need, not in to ourselves and how we're doing.

The beautiful irony, of course, is that you and I are renewed inwardly to the degree that we focus not on inward renewal but upward worship and outward service.

Excerpt from Jesus + Nothing = Everything




Comments:

[...] What is True Spirituality? [...]

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December 29, 2011 at 03:12 AM

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Jody

December 28, 2011 at 12:45 AM

Great post. One I needed for myself. I wonder if this same truth is taught in John 15 regarding abiding in Christ. If we follow the flow of thought, Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). -- "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love..." (John 15:10). -- "And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them" (1 John 3:23-24). -- Perhaps the way to abide in Christ is not to continuously look inward and justify that we are focused on our relationship with Christ, but to keep his commandments, which (in the context of abiding) John says are (1) believe in Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another. Again, we see that we are to look upward and outward in order to abide in an intimate relationship with Jesus. This then leads to fruit and fruitful prayer lives (John 15:5,7).

[...] What is True Spirituality? One serious consequence of concluding that true spirituality is exclusively introspective–that it’s all about internal betterment–is that we fail to see the needs of our neighbor and serve them, which is James’ definition of “good works.” After all, as Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.” GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "333333"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "0066cc"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "f2f7fc"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "ff4b33"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "religion"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "calvin"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in calvin. Bookmark the permalink. ← Puritan poem [...]

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Mitchell Hammonds

December 22, 2011 at 12:05 AM

Man... this sounds like a call to reassess your life to see if you're performing the Christian life out of a grateful heart.

Bobby Sparks

December 22, 2011 at 10:31 PM

I've been caught in the trap of introspective spirituality.Gospel spirituality is much better! :)

Seth

December 22, 2011 at 06:09 AM

Great post. It's hard to go and make disciples if you keep your spirituality a private, introspective matter.

paul st.

December 22, 2011 at 04:36 AM

Pastor
placed this blog on my facebook page to share witth family and friends.
It is simple stop obsessing about yourself and look to Jesus.

True Spirituality « Luggaged

December 22, 2011 at 03:33 AM

[...] you’re interested in true spirituality read this post from Tullian Tchividjian. Whether it’s a secular or Christian version, a spiritual person (in the [...]

Worth a Look 12.22.11 : Kingdom People

December 22, 2011 at 01:15 AM

[...] What is True Spirituality? One serious consequence of concluding that true spirituality is exclusively introspective–that it’s all about internal betterment–is that we fail to see the needs of our neighbor and serve them, which is James’ definition of “good works.” After all, as Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.” [...]

[...] = Everything and he has given me not only more to think about but even far more to implement. What Is True Spirituality? is a vigorous call to radical spirituality. Is true spirituality merely inward growth, outward [...]

[...] http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2011/12/21/what-is-true-spirituality/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in KFD. Bookmark the permalink. ← Suffering, grace, and the glory of God [...]

Paul Adams

December 21, 2011 at 11:13 PM

This is hard...but necessary. Thanks for the biblical focus here on practical spirituality.

Taylor

December 21, 2011 at 07:10 PM

So how might outward spirituality differ for the naturally introverted personality? Or does it?