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FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Reflections on Spirituality Jenny Ancell
As early as the 4th century, Christianity witnessed an emerging group – monastics – who rejected worldliness and became secluded to devote themselves exclusively to God. The monastics practised fasting, praying, and self-denial to achieve a deeper sense of God’s presence and spirituality. In part, the monastic movement was a radical response to worldly values sliding into the church after Emperor Constantine united church and state.1
However, even in the 1st century the church battled with worldliness. On one occasion, Paul writes that he cannot speak to the Corinthians ‘as spiritual but as to men of flesh’ (1 Corinthians 3:1). While ‘spirituality’ as such isn’t used in Scripture, Paul contends that one can cultivate a spiritual mindset and argues that the Christian’s great ambition is to have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
What then might spirituality look like today? What are the conditions for it to thrive?
Contrary to new-age definitions of spirituality, a spiritual mind has received ‘not the spirit of the world; but the Spirit who is from God’ (1 Corinthians 2:12). In his profound generosity, God provides Christians with his Spirit. This enables a Christian to have spiritual thoughts and motives as well as an ability to appraise all things (1 Corinthians 2:11-16).
E.W. McMillan, a well-known 20th century preacher among Churches of Christ in America and founder of Ibaraki Christian College in Japan, fleshes out some defining characteristics of spirituality. He states that spirituality doesn’t easily lend itself to a narrow definition. Rather, spirituality is an interpreting power that enables discernment; it places value on redemptive rather than temporal rewards; and it exercises a mature faith.2
McMillan argues that a mature faith is not developed by easy circumstances but is refined by adversity. Out of difficult circumstances one develops an implicit faith and trust in the overruling providence of God. He asserts: ‘Real faith grows sweeter and stronger when trials are more severe, for it is unacquainted with fear. In courtship and marriage, in home and profession, in preaching and practice, in prosperity and adversity, in health and in sickness, whatever may come – this faith is “the victory that overcomes the world”.’3
Spirituality also balances an inward, contemplative state with an outward demonstration of one’s faith. Spirituality isn’t purely meditative. It’s the practising of one’s beliefs and values in the arena called life. Like a deep reservoir, spirituality equips good works, produces light and salt in everyday circumstances, and sustains a focus on God’s kingdom. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, his reply demanded an all-encompassing allegiance: ‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37, my emphasis). This kind of focused commitment can help develop one’s spirituality.
Meditating daily on God’s Word provides a rich source of guidance and allows the Holy Spirit’s promptings to inspire our faith and actions. Paul prayed that the Christians in Ephesus would grow in the knowledge of God. This would lead to a maturity, ‘unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13). Such maturity comes from a disciplined life of meditating on God’s Word. The famous hymn, Take Time to be Holy, encourages the Christian to ‘take time to feed on his Word’. Including a regular pattern of meditation on God’s Word can help us develop the fullness of Christ.
Building a strong prayer life has much to do with overcoming battles which war against spirituality. Communing with God gives spiritual direction and strengthens resolve. Growing up in China and often imprisoned because of his faith, Brother Yun held the motto: ‘Much prayer, much power; little prayer, little power. Prayer equals power.’ His life endured such persecutions that the antidote to giving up was found through prayer and perseverance. He said: ‘We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power.’4
How can Christians develop a meaningful prayer life? Reading a portion of Scripture as a prayer can help the Word infuse our soul.5 For example, the prayer – ‘Grant unto me a love that is patient, a love that is kind…. One that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things…’ – can only inspire a sacrificial love.
Finally, practising love can boost our spirituality. Training our heart to give much for another person’s salvation and blessing the lives of others will build in us the same heart and mind of Christ. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ (John 13:34). This is spirituality at its finest, when sincere love is the motivating factor for serving God and humanity.
1 Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, 2nd ed (Fortress Press, 2013) 170.
2 E.W. McMillan, The Minister’s Spiritual Life (Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1959) 5.
3 McMillan, ibid, 25.
4 Paul Hattaway, Back To Jerusalem: Called to Complete the Great Commission (Piquant, 2004) 69.
5 Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (InterVarsity Press, 2005) 247.
Jenny Ancell is a member of the Coffs Coast Church of Christ and managing editor of InterSections.
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