“Do you consider yourself to be more religious or more spiritual?” This was an interesting question posed by FOX News some years ago. The answers were what you might have expected. Some people said they did not see any difference between the two. However, most people claimed they were more spiritual than religious. In fact, one woman claimed that she was now a “born again Christian” who no longer needed “organized religion” because she was truly spiritual inwardly.
Lauren Green, one of the commentators on FOX, created her own definitions to try to distinguish between being religious and spiritual. She claimed that being religious had to do more with liturgies and worship rituals, while her description of spiritual was more a state of being. Another commentator, Julian Phillips, who seems to have some Bible knowledge, remarked, “Well, Jesus himself said that those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth.”
We might note that there are shards of truth in the distinction some people make between being religious and being spiritual. St. Paul told the people of Athens that they were altogether too religious because they had built altars to honor every god under the sun, including “THE UNKNOWN GOD” to whom they had erected an altar lest they leave out any deity and thereby offend it. However, those religious people did not believe in the only true and living God.
The word spiritual is used 25 times in the New International Version, and with only one exception, it is used in relationship to God. When Paul, for instance, speaks with reference to “spiritual” people in 1 Corinthians 2:15 and Galatians 6:1, he equates them with Christians, in particular those who are mature in their faith, even spiritual leaders of others. In that context, being spiritual means to be connected spiritually with Christ by faith.
However, we must be very wary of making false distinctions. There is a reason why most people claim to be spiritual but not religious. It is the self-righteous, sinful nature in all of us that says, “I am good inside and do not have to prove it by what I do. I know what I know, I believe what I believe, and I don’t need to be accountable to anyone. I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” There is the idea that faith is a private matter, just between God and me, and it’s no one else’s business.
God tells us in the Third Commandment and in the words of Hebrews 10:25 that we are not to give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. When the first New Testament disciples of the apostolic age were converted on Pentecost, their immediate reaction was to meet together with other Christians, to pray, to worship, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with other believers. That is what spiritual people do; they practice their religion. The truth is, it is not possible to be spiritual without being religious, too.
The way in which the term “spiritual” is used on Oprah or the way it was applied to George Harrison when Paul McCartney referred to the follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as “the most spiritual of all the Beatles” denotes spirituality of a different kind. Jesus once met up with a man in Gadara who was full of spirits, a legion of them. However, they were not spirits from God, but from the devil. John in his first letter tells us to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. In fact, the same Greek word that Paul uses elsewhere to describe the Christian, he uses with reference to the devil and his demons in Ephesians 6:12. Being spiritual in and of itself is not necessarily good.
Christian spirituality is fundamentally connected with the Christian religion. God wants us to show our spirituality by the way we put it into practice. The confession of our hearts will also be the profession of our lives. St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). Religion is the fruit of our spirituality. What we believe will be shown by what we do. As Christians, the root and cause of our spirituality can only come from knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
It is not by our own power and will that we are able to follow Christ. It is because the Holy Spirit comes to us through the Gospel in the spoken Word and in the Sacraments. It is He who shows us that even though we are by nature sinners doomed to hell, Jesus Christ came to this earth in order to live a perfect life in our place and to die on the cross to take the punishment for our sins. It is the Holy Spirit who causes us to be born again through faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior. It is He who teaches us that we are forgiven, not because of anything we have done, but by God’s grace alone. It is also He who enlightens us through the message of God’s love and mercy, and shows us the way through the gates to heaven itself. As we embrace all of this by faith, faith that is given by the Holy Spirit Himself, the result will be a life that follows Christ, and does so religiously.
May we never attempt to separate our spirituality from our religion, for when we do, we fall into the devil’s snare. We make excuses for not worshiping. We shy away from studying God’s Word. We become lazy about spiritual things and our religion becomes a focus on what we do for God rather than on what God has done for us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Reverend Erich Hoeft