Faith in Focus

Mere Spirituality


Our editor has asked me, for this issue on Apologetics, to write on the dominant world view of contemporary New Zealand and its attitude to Christianity. Once again, I have to plead incompetence - for that you need a whole book and a philosopher to write it. But I think I can at least reflect on one aspect of the current situation and I trust that will be helpful.

We are entering a very confused period of world history. In a way we are entering a new age. Not according to God's programme, of course. He brought in His new age 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Yet, in a sense what the New Agers say is not completely offbeat. There is a sense in which the new Age of Aquarius, beginning around 2,000AD, will be new - at least for us twentieth century Christians. All this New Age thinking is bringing in a new phase of the devil's warfare against the kingdom of God. He is presently changing his tactics the better to meet the current disillusionment with materialism (albeit still riding pretty high), but more particularly, rationalism. And we need to prepare ourselves for it and we are going to have to think about our faith much more carefully and critically.

Into the age of reason

About 300-400 years ago, with the Reformation and the Renaissance, the western world began to move out of the age of faith, which had degenerated almost into superstition, into the age of reason and science. It began to understand the world much more in terms of natural laws, rather more as if it were a big machine rather than a place in which God lived - along with devils, angels and sundry other spirits. In other words, it began to understand the world much more as matter. And so Karl Marx said that what made the world go round was economics rather than the love of God and religion and faith. And so science would solve all our problems. We'll come up with a new technique; we'll control the weather, predict earthquakes, produce test-tube children to order and so on.

But it doesn't seem to have worked - and we find ourselves a very troubled generation. We have thought of man as not much more than a machine with a few emotions, but we find ourselves empty still. Our economic prosperity and scientific and technological progress has not solved our problems or brought us happiness. Our wars have not ended wars and our politics and treaties have not united our nations. And so we are still, as loudly as ever, crying for joy and peace. It's all very sad really, because we have all missed the boat which Jesus brought 2,000 years ago. Did He not come precisely for that purpose - to bring peace? (See John 14:27)

The good news is that modern man is finally waking up to the fact that, new inventions, better jobs, better housing notwithstanding, there is another side to us that is not satisfied with these things. As the British historian, Thomas Carlyle, said over a hundred years ago, "Will all the Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake to make one Shoeblack happy? They cannot accomplish it above an hour or two; for the Shoeblack has a soul quite other than his stomach."

And of course, as Christians, we're inclined to think that this is a good sign; it is great that man has woken up to this fact; maybe now he'll be more inclined to take the Gospel seriously. Maybe. But at the same time, it means the difference between Christians and the world is not so clearly drawn - the devil has simply switched from appearing as a Gabriel to appearing as a Michael. Let me illustrate. I was talking to a psychologist some time ago and she said to me, after she found out I was a minister, "Most people in social work have a deep sense of spirituality." We'll leave the question whether a minister of the Gospel is in social work. The prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel had a deep sense of spirituality but Elijah did not see them as being on the same wave-length for that reason; he did not consider them fellow travellers. Nor did He deny the reality of their spirituality. But just because something is real does not mean to say it is right. He called the people to make a choice.

A New Thing

But we are entering a time in our history in which the reality of the spiritual is a new thing for many people. But because it is spirituality, because it is being concerned with the inner man, the soul, the heart and not the house he lives in, the car he drives or the money he makes (which, of course, Jesus always said is not what life is really about), many people think they are on the same track as we Christians. We must not get sucked into that. Because the world is now talking about what we've always talked about, spiritual things, many in the Church think the world is on its way to God. The world has finally given up on material things, and realised it has a soul which is quite other than its stomach, that it needs inner joy and peace. And the world is full of all sorts of new spiritualities teaching one how to find inner peace and contentment - indeed, even God.

But there is a great difference between the peace that Jesus gives and the peace many people claim to find in all sorts of other ways - and we don't need to deny that; they may well find a kind of peace; the devil is the great imitator after all (2 Thessalonians 2:9f.).

The New Age spirituality is quite right to be concerned about the heart. But here we come to the crux of the matter. And crux is a good word. God did something in language with that word crux because it comes from the word cross. And the crux, the crucial, the deciding thing about everything in this world, that which answers every question in the world, the solution to every problem in this world, ultimately comes back to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is precisely what all this spirituality, of which the world is full at the moment, does not want. It is very concerned with psychological hurts and emotional hurts. Criminals are people who have an illness (I have even heard it termed a "disease") that needs to be cured. But the cross, which must be the heart of all Christian spirituality, speaks about sin.

It is true that Isaiah said, "He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows and we thought He was stricken by God (Isaiah 53)". And indeed, He was. But, Isaiah continues, "He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him." As Jesus Himself said, "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28)." All the way through the Bible our griefs and our sorrows are seen to be the result of sin. And the peace that Jesus gives is peace in the presence of the Almighty, three-times holy Judge of the universe, because that sin has been paid for and we are declared not guilty on account of the Cross. So now we have a clear conscience, not healed emotions.

Emotions do not stand alone

That is not to deny there are such things as hurt emotions, but, in biblical spirituality, they also are to be dealt with by confession and forgiveness of sin. Emotions do not stand alone. They are the result of the attitude we take to life and to other people and there is only one attitude we are to take and that is "we are to forgive one another just as God, in Christ Jesus, has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13)." And if the one who has wronged us and caused this emotional hurt is not a fellow Christian whom we can talk to about it on a true spiritual basis, then we still simply go back to the cross for there, Jesus, "when they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly" and "left us an example that we should follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21-23)."

In other words, mere spirituality is no answer to our problems and cannot give us true joy and peace. The problem with the modern, New Age spirituality (which is not so new really) is that it does not lift us up and out of ourselves. In fact, it quite deliberately does the opposite. It directs you down and into yourself. But that is merely to wallow in the problem. Our problems are not really psychological; they are moral; they have to do primarily with sin. But that is the last thing modern man, whether of the new spiritualist type or the old-fashioned rationalist or materialist, want to hear about. I do not want to demean the good work done by other Christians, even less their good intentions, but it is to be feared that many Christian counsellors and very many in the charismatic movement, who constantly talk about inner healing, have fallen into this error - mere spirituality. They are constantly dealing with psychological hurts and damaged emotions; they are constantly directing people to look down and within their own hearts or back into their past rather than outside themselves and up to Christ.

Christian spirituality not superficial

But Christian spirituality is not superficial like that, dealing only with the hurt that sin causes. It goes right to the heart of the matter and deals with the sin that causes the hurt. It forgives it and cleanses it (1 John 1:9) and because we know we also are only terrible sinners forgiven by grace, we too can forgive others.

So how are we to approach this New Age spirituality? How are we give our apologia in this confusing spiritual market place? Certainly giving a reason for the hope that is within is, in one respect, going to be more difficult. We are going to have to think more subtly. We are going to have to see the differences between us and the world in perhaps a different place than we once did.

But we ought not be thrown off by this. The Church has been here before and come through it. As a matter of fact, the first 300 years of her history was a very similar time of great struggle for the truth over against the many other spiritualities that abounded in the Roman world. So again we find ourselves in a minority position. Psychiatry or some (other) spirituality has replaced Christianity. Its practitioners are the high priests in the law courts and social welfare agencies. They are the mediators of peace today, they or some other 'alternative' healer of emotions and relationships, just so long as they don't talk about sin and guilt and individual responsibility. And now psychiatry has struck a spiritual note - and that was very easy because both psycho-analysis and New Age spiritualities are heavy on looking within oneself; people must go back into the past and recall all the wrongs that have ever been done against them. Of course, it is helpful to understand why we got where we are today; hopefully we will at least learn not to make those mistakes in the future. But having done that, we must go on. Christianity is a religion of hope; it is always looking forward to the future. It was with His eyes fixed on the hope set before Him that Jesus coped with the reviling and threats to which He was subjected (Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 2).

And there again we come to the crux of the matter and see that the great antithesis is as great as ever it was; the new spirituality is really not so very different from the old materialism or rationalism. All of them look to man as the source of salvation (however that might be conceived and/or expressed). But in Christianity we look to Christ. As He looked to the future and the hope set before Him, so we are to look to Him who is our future (the finisher as well as the author of our faith) and the hope set before us, the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rev. Rogers (North Shore)


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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised August 96 / Copyright 1996