Monday, April 15, 2013

Spiritual Junk Food?

What is it that constitutes Christian faith? Is it believing certain things, or is it more than that? Today's reading from 1st John speaks of us abiding in Jesus and him in us. Then it adds this, "And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us."

There is nothing particularly stunning about this statement. The early Christians understood the Spirit to be something given to all believers, not just a few at Pentecost. John's gospel especially focuses on the idea that Jesus' return to the Father allows him to become present to all via the Spirit. His presence is no longer limited by bodily constraints, but is now able to be with everyone. And today's epistle reading clearly understands that faith is confirmed by this experience of the Spirit.

But our reading today adds a caveat. If you have a spiritual experience, make sure it is the Spirit. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God."

We Presbyterians have tended to be uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit and spiritual experiences. We're about as rational, studied, and reasonable sorts of Christians as you will find. But even we have needed to learn some spiritual language of late. Spirituality is such a hot topic that it is now quite common to find classes on contemplative prayer and discernment in Presbyterian churches. And there is a growing desire on the part of many for worship that is less informational and more experiential (although few churches have done much to satisfy this longing).

However, I wonder if many of us, from those who long for more spirituality to those who are suspicious of or even frightened of more it, aren't a bit ill-equipped to "test the spirits." How are we to tell what is "from God" and what is something else altogether?

I have met spiritual junkies who seem to relish spiritual experiences for their own sake. They long to be touched deep inside, but such touches do not necessarily lead them to anything beyond wanting more such touches. At the same time I know many traditional church folks who resist the spiritual currents in the church today by insisting they are spiritually fed by traditional church practices. But when pressed, some of them sound a bit like the aforementioned spiritual junkies. They find a particular style of hymns or music touches them deeply, and so they want more of that.

But what if we were to test these spirits? Perhaps the better question is, how are we to test these spiritual experiences? I don't know that there is one right answer to this question, but one simple test seems very helpful to me. If my spiritual experience does not equip, propel, lead, entice, inspire, etc. me to follow Jesus, to continue his ministry on this earth, then there is a problem. Not that spiritual experiences shouldn't warm my heart, fill me with a deep serenity, or any other number of such things. But if that is all my experience provides, then I have not discovered the bread of life, I have found spiritual junk food.

I hasten to add that I know many people with vastly different spiritual practices whose varied spiritualities nurture them in equally committed discipleship. I do not begin to presume that there is a correct way to be spiritual or a spirituality that works for all. But I also know that there are many things that touch me or move me which are not of God. And so whatever sort of experiences or practices I identify as feeding me spiritually, I need to make sure they are the sort of food that leads to true life.

So how do you "test the spirits" that touch or move you?

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