The Spiritual Life

Luke 2:25-38 

Several years ago when we lived in the little west Texas town of Vernon, we were friends with a young man who was the geological engineer for the Waggoner Ranch, the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S. Topping cattle, cotton and wheat, the largest revenue producer for the ranch was oil, and the Waggoner Ranch sat on top of a lot of it. Our friend’s job was to find that oil and get it out of the ground.

Now, it wasn’t as simple as sticking a pin in a map and sending a crew out to drill an oil well. It required geological studies, seismic data, core samples and test wells. It was a long involved process requiring months of testing and thousands of dollars just to get to the test well. And even then, more often than not, the well would be dry or produce just a minimal amount of oil – not enough to justify setting a production well on it.

Their hope was that their research was solid and the results would confirm they had tapped into one of those massive subterranean pools that would consistently produce oil for years to come.

Every now and then, they would have a test well that would put out an enormous amount of oil on the initial drilling, and excitement would rise and hopes would be up. Plans would be made to drill more wells, tapping into the reservoir that everybody knew would be the next big producer. But then, after a few days or weeks, the pressure would decrease, the oil flow would diminish and disappointment would descend over his team of explorers. As you can imagine, a geologist who couldn’t produce productive oil wells had the job security of a west Texas high school football coach with a 3-8 season.

My friend’s experience with oil wells turns me back to the issues of things below the waterline in life – issues of the soul.

Is my soul like a well whose output, if sustained, will lead to prosperity of the spirit – that abundant life that brings joy to God, blessings to others and life to me? Or is my soul like one of those wells whose initial output is filled with joy and excitement, but has nothing to follow up and brings disappointment crashing down in my life?

What must I cultivate in my life to allow my soul to experience that continuous flow of abundant life in God?

The OT relates the story of Lot, nephew to the holy and noble Abraham, and who traveled as part of the extended family of Abraham. Wherever Abraham went, so did Lot. And whenever Abraham prospered, so did Lot. I suspect that if you would have met the two men, you would have gone away impressed with both. And you might have been even a little bit more drawn to Lot, the younger, perhaps more seemingly ambitious and energetic of the two. We might have looked upon Lot’s success and assumed that we were in the company of a man with a deep soul, a man greatly blessed by God.

And we would have been wrong. The proof that they were two distinctly different men at soul-level came after they separated: one to the plain of Sodom and the other to the hill country. If anything, Lot, who headed for the lush valley of Sodom became a worse man. His choices, his values and his direction in life became all too evident; they put him on a course that diverged from the God of Abraham, away from a life where prosperity of the spirit could have been a possibility. For Lot, the story ended in deep tragedy while Abraham’s life seemed to grow deeper and more intimate with his God, to the point where God takes a walk with Abraham and allows him to influence his decision in his judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. James calls Abraham God’s friend.

Lot teaches us some valuable lessons. He is like that oil well that gushes oil for a few days and then loses its vitality. He looks terrific under the right circumstances and with influential connections; the truth of his life is exposed when he goes off on his own and begins to make choices that reveal the real condition of his heart. He reflects the influences of the moment: spiritual and holy in the company of his uncle Abraham; something less than admirable in the company of the people of Sodom.

And what we observe in the lives of these two men gives us insight into the distinction between two very different approaches to life. In Abraham we see an authentic spirituality, deep-rooted and long-term. In Lot we see the almost empty promises of spiritual experiences. Spirituality and spiritual experiences are two different things and must not be mistaken for each other. Let’s take a few minutes to look at what those differences are:

To me, spirituality (and I realize that word is used and misused by all sorts of people friendly and unfriendly to Christian faith) suggests all the efforts involved and all the benefits gained when one chooses to organize his or her life around the soul, and cultivate that relationship with God and consciously invite and experience the indwelling Holy Spirit’s influence. In other terms, spirituality is a journey in the company of the Creator in which he is permitted to guide the way, provide the travelling strength, and offer the necessary sustenance in time of fatigue or injury. Spirituality means taking one’s cues, not from the world around you, but from the inner world out of which flows heavenly discernment, conviction and decision.

The term spirituality covers a lot of ground. It speaks of the inner demeanor of a person; it refers to his or her conduct and character; it has everything to do with what is below the waterline in one’s life.

In a day when people seek careers, success, wealth, the so-called good life, the quest for spirituality has dropped off the horizon for many. Or, it has been redefined to describe any vague emotional leaning toward inner happiness. Here was one definition I came across that illustrates that: Being a spiritual person is synonymous with being a person whose highest priority is to be loving to yourself and others. A spiritual person cares about people, animals and the planet. A spiritual person knows that we are all One, and consciously attempts to honor this Oneness. A spiritual person is a kind person.

Even in the church, our definition of spirituality is more akin to what you would hear Oprah say than what the Bible says. Having said that, let me state what spirituality is not: It is not knowing more Bible stories than everyone else. It is not being hyperactive in church activities. It is not possessing a highly defined doctrinal position on biblical issues. It is not tied to your church attendance or your level of involvement or leadership. All those might be noble and praiseworthy ventures, but are not necessarily tied to whether one lives out of the soul or not. In fact, those are often misguided substitutes for a spiritual life. Religion is an anemic substitute for spirituality. That doesn’t mean that a spiritual person won’t also be religious, but to be religious without being spiritual tends to put you in the company of the Pharisees. On the other side, emotional feelings are not spirituality either, and make an even poorer substitute for real spirituality.

That brings me to what Gordon MacDonald calls the “spiritual experience.” The spiritual experience is a quick fix that is more centered in the emotions or the mind rather than the soul. It is quite possible that, for a moment, a spiritual experience is actually more appealing than anything spirituality has to offer.

In a world where the intensity of an experience is considered the greatest value, we are easily duped into thinking that a personal momentary religious incident that leaves us ecstatic or astonished is far more genuine and satisfying than the hard work of developing spirituality.

This is especially true in the current American religious world where worship services are carefully and intentionally orchestrated to bring attendees to an emotional high. The music, the speakers, the lighting – everything that can be humanly orchestrated is directed toward creating the spiritual experience.

And unfortunately, many mistakenly see the emotional spiritual experience as evidence that God is at work in a person’s life. But, in order to maintain this feeling of spiritual emotion, this dramatic experience has to be repeated on a regular basis, or the person feels empty and unfulfilled.

Do you remember what used to happen at summer Bible camp or youth retreats? Each evening teens would gather around the campfire and sing songs and a devotional talk would challenge the listeners to repent and make things right with God. And these teens, with tears streaming down their faces, would share their testimonies about how things were going to be different when they got back to the real world – to life at school and among their friends. They were going to be a new person and their light was going to shine as it never had before. And the counselors and youth ministers would nod and smile and agree that something unique was happening here. It would indeed be, everyone predicted, a different year.

And I’m not ridiculing what we did at those campfires (I did it too), because we all made those fireside declarations with the greatest sincerity. We really did intend to do the things we said. And most of us did… for about three days. But it’s hard to sustain the conviction of a spiritual experience without the intensity of the moment.

Now, I want to make sure you are hearing me clearly. By putting spirituality and spiritual experience in contrast with one another, I am not wanting to minimize or denigrate those wonderful moments when we discover strong emotions while on the spiritual journey. True spirituality will indeed involve our emotions – from tears to unrestrained joy and laughter, and profound feelings of awe and deep mystery. And if these were missing, I would wonder if anything else is genuine.

The Bible is filled with examples of men and women who experienced deep emotions as they worshiped and exalted God. They felt compelled to dance, weep, shout, raise their hands, fall on their faces, or stand in profound silence.

The issue is not whether we feel or express emotion in this life that comes out of the soul. Rather, the danger of spiritual experience apart from spirituality is when emotional displays and sensations are all that there are in one’s encounter with heaven.

In fact, spiritual experiences tend flow out of three emotions: regret about something that has or has not happened in our past; ecstasy about something in our present which is stirred by music or emotionally laden words; or finally, a great feeling of resolve about something we intend to do in the future.

Simon Peter seems to illustrate the last of these emotions on the night of the Last Supper when he pledges that even if all the others abandon Jesus, he will fight to the death for him. But Jesus knows the soul of Peter well enough to reject his euphoric promise and says, “You may feel this way now (i.e., spiritual experience), but the fact is that when push comes to shove, you will deny me (due to an inadequate spirituality).”

And again, I’m not minimizing the place of emotion in the life of the soul, but cautioning us not to elevate emotion to the pinnacle, or isolate it as the evidence of God’s activity in our lives.

Focusing on the spiritual experience requires little discipline of the soul. Because it is usually prompted by an external stimulus (music, persuasive speaking, intense feelings), the person involved doesn’t need to prepare himself in any particular way. In fact, it is quite possible that the spiritual experience will never reach deep enough into one’s life to engage the soul at all. It is something that happens to them, not something happening from within them.

Think about those thousands of Passover pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the week of festivities, but suddenly found themselves caught up in the emotion of the moment, shouting, “Hosanna to the king!” and waving palm branches before Jesus as he entered the city. And while their experience of the moment seemed genuine enough, the Gospels tell us, “Jesus knew what was in them,” and he refused to play their game. Though their words sounded genuine enough, their souls were empty, and Jesus wept that they were like sheep without a shepherd. And five days later those same men and women are caught up again in the emotion of the moment shouting “Crucify him!” Emotions are a dangerously deceptive litmus test of the depth of the soul.

Contrast that with something that happened on the other end of his life. Jesus’ parents had brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as a baby to present him to the Lord. And while they were walking through the Temple courts, they had two encounters:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.  (Luke 2:25-38)

Simeon and Anna are two people whose lives demonstrate true spirituality. Their patient endurance through the years, their constant devotion to God (it wasn’t by accident that they happened to be in the Temple). Their lives were in tune with God’s Spirit, and though this is a moment filled with emotion for each of them, it is placed within the context of their life-long quest for spirituality – a life lived out of the soul.

Like that oil well, our goal isn’t the gusher that has that initial burst, but then quickly sputters out, but the long-lived reservoir that continues to produce and bring prosperity for years to come.

Don’t substitute the quick fix of the spiritual experience for a deep and substantial life developed and lived out of the soul.