What ever happened to true spirituality? Why is it that in the Christian church today it has become so popular to exalt all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons?
In the Christian media we hear far more about new converts who are famous movie stars, singers, athletes and politicians than we ever hear about mature Christians living holy lives or about pastors preaching the Word of God. These new converts, who are known biblically as spiritual babes, are promoted and publicized until Christians all over the country are willing to make available to them every possible pulpit and platform from which they can speak and influence the church. They speak or perform as Christian celebrities, offering mostly Spiritual superficiality. And it’s really not their fault – how could they be expected to speak with great wisdom and maturity when they have been a Christian for only a few weeks or months or years? How can they possibly have a solid grasp of Scriptural principles or make judgments with true discernment if they are mere babies where spiritual truths are concerned? But even more important, why is the church listening to these people? Why are we caught up in this Hollywood syndrome of being drawn to the glamorous and the spectacular? Granted, not all celebrities are immature Christians or insincere – and we are thrilled with much that God is doing in the lives of many of them. But that concession only emphasizes the problem among the others.
On a Christian television program, a man once announced, “We’re starting a new church. It’s a fundamental, soul-winning, Bible-believing church, and this Sunday, our special guest star is…” Special guest star? What is this? Some churches pay excessive or obscene amounts of money a night for “Christian superstars” to appear at their services. One midwestern church even boasts of a Christian Hall of Fame, and in the foyer of their church the hangs pictures of the ten current “best Christians.” One prayer meeting was once promoted by a national advertising campaign listing the forty-eight Christian stars with whom you could pray if you attended the conference.
But the problem is not just the wrong people. We are also looking to them for the wrong reasons. What most of them are emphasizing is personal experience. The more fantastic or bizarre the experience, the more invitations the person receives to tell his story publicly and the more opportunities he has to put himself forward as a spokesman for Christianity. A steady diet of the sensational attention-getting testimonies produces the impression that being spiritual is equated with having visions, revelations and ecstatic encounters. It perpetuates a craving for unusual experiences which can hold an audience spellbound, and it creates little or no hunger for Scriptural knowledge and real spiritual depth.
Something is terribly wrong with this superstar mentality we’ve developed. Christianity was never meant to be a constant parade of celebrity favorites. It was not meant to find its fundamental meaning in each person’s private spiritual experience. Let’s consider the unhealthy results this “Hollywood Christianity” is producing in the church today.
Three Problem Areas
First, think about what happens to the new Christian athlete or politician who finds himself in the Christian limelight. His life becomes a frenzy of dashing from one gospel rally to another, with little time for his conversion experience to take root and ripen into an enriching, overflowing testimony. He picks up current Christian jargon that makes him sound spiritual, mixes in the story of his dramatic conversion and gets set for the next show. There’s never time for solid Bible teaching or for genuine long-term fellowship with believers. He repeats the same testimony over and over again to different crowds of people until the conversion glow is gone and nothing new is flowing in to replace it.
Fifteen years ago the church took all the converted movie stars and put them up as great propagators of the Christian faith, and I had a friend who was used in that way. He was ballyhooed, made a public speaker, promoted as a famous Christian, traveled all over the country and on and on until his life went right down the drain. He fell into sin and drifted away from Christ. He was about forty years old when he came to our church for the first time. He brought his family, and they attended regularly to study the Word of God. Only a year later as he lay dying in the hospital of cancer, he said to me, “John, it’s terrible what happened in my life. They ruined my life by exploiting my testimony because I was somebody known. Only in the last year has my life been meaningful.”
What a tragedy! The church has got to stop and consider what we’re doing to these new Christians by putting them in the spotlight of the Christian superstar world.
Secondly, let’s think about what the non-Christian sees in the world of Christian super saints, celebrities and personal experience. Are non-Christians seeing the gospel and the Christian community that Jesus said should be salt to the earth?
Listen to what one unbeliever once wrote – in a New Times article way back in September 3, 1976):
I’m not real big on the Jesus movement, a peculiarity which apparently puts me out of the cultural mainstream these days. The Jesus business is no longer confined to the fruit jar whisky backwoods. You cannot walk through Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village without trembling bug-eyed prophets laying a lot of syrupy sweet Jesus rhetoric on you. Most of them have no foggy notion of what they are talking about. I’m an old biblical student raised among foot-washing Baptists and I’m simply appalled at how few of the Jesus folk who solicit me are conversant with the Holy Scriptures. Nor are they informed as to the history of religions, Christians or otherwise. Mention the Holy Wars or beg information on how the King James Version of the Bible won out over its rivals and all you get is a blank look and the blanket assurance that Jesus loves you. No, my complaint is not against Jesus but against those who misuse the notion of Him. I have had my fill of high school football coaches praying in His name for victory, of Lions Clubs soliciting Him to bless their annual broom sale, of John Birchers beseeching Him to keep a wary eye on the North Koreans and of white-collar criminals claim their conversion when prison gates loom in their futures. It would be my modest suggestion that perhaps a working Jesus as well as His supervising daddy might be better occupied in sorting out larger injustices and really doesn’t need the babble of selfish prayers. I don’t pretend to know whether Jesus might have wished it so, but personally I think He’s got more class than many of His agents.
What a sad picture non-believers have received of what biblical Christianity and true spirituality are all about! Unfortunately, the non-Christians often see through spiritual superficiality much faster than the church does. We therefore need to consider how today’s spiritual superficiality is influencing the church. God intended for Christians to have examples to follow – truly spiritual leaders in the church who are mature, godly men and women. Paul told the Corinthian Christians to imitate him as he imitated Christ. If we consistently exalt and promote new and immature Christians, the church will never have mature examples to follow. We will continue our emphasis on personal experience rather than the authority of the Word of God, and the church as a whole will be spiritually immature and superficial. We will miss the quiet, meek men and women of God to whom we ought to look as our examples and teachers. As the church emphasizes sensational and bizarre spiritual experience, it neglects instruction which is essential to build baby Christians to maturity. If the current trend is not checked, the church will become weaker and weaker until it will have little positive influence on either Christians or non-Christians.
Where to Find the Solution
The nature of true spirituality seems to have gotten lost behind the smokescreen of glamour and sensational private opinion. God’s Word, the Bible, lays down the guidelines to lead us through the confusion and to show us clearly the path to true spirituality. But the crucial remains: What does it really mean to be spiritual? Each person offering his own opinion simply adds to the frenzy of confusion since one person’s opinion is no more valid than another’s. But God in His wisdom has given us a standard by which to measure each god, the path is very different from what we might expect – it’s not at all the way we would plan if we had charge of the design ourselves.
True spirituality, according to the Bible is Christ-like character. The goal is character, not who can have more grandiose experiences than anyone else. This character is described in Gal. 5:22-24: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, humility, and self-control.”
If the ultimate goal is Christian character, how do we get there? Which direction do we take through the maze? Are there several directions, one just as good as another? Or is there only one right path and must all find that one?
The Bible teaches that walking in the Spirit, that is, living in the daily power of the Holy Spirit, is the road we must all travel if we want to be truly spiritual. And walking in the Spirit involves two steps: receiving the Word of God and living it out in obedience. In 1 Cor. 3:1, Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, “I cannot write unto you as to spiritual but as unto carnal.” Why were they carnal? “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:2-3). In the Corinthian church, the believers were not able to receive the Word or to obey it, and as a result they continued to in carnal activity.
Elements of True Revival
In the midst of all our modern superstar Christianity many people are proclaiming revival. Because so many people are talking about God, Christians assume this must be what spirituality and revival are like. But, according to Scripture, these are not the evidence of true revival.
Psalm 85 establishes the two elements of true revival. The plea for revival in the first seven verses says in part: “Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not Yourself revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?” The Israelites had been chastened by God – they had spent long years exiled in Babylon. And now they cried out for spiritual revival. In verse 11 the psalmist praises the two elements which always accompany a true revival: “Truth springs from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.” Truth and righteousness always accompany the work of the Spirit. True doctrine and right living! And this is exactly what Paul was telling the Corinthian Christians that they lacked. They were not spiritual because they had no real commitment to the truth of God in His Word and they were not able to live righteously by obeying that Word. True spirituality and true revival are always demonstrated in these two ways.
Let’s look first at righteousness or right living. In Eze. 36:27 the Scriptures say, “And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my ordinances.” The result of the true work of the Spirit then is not visions and ecstasies and special experiences but rather it is the obedience of righteousness. It is walking in God’s truth, keeping His ordinances and doing them.
The obedience of righteousness is two-sided, having both a positive element and a negative element. The positive side is the pursuit of the commandment of God, and the negative side is shown in verse 31 of the passage we just examined: “Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations.” If we are truly pursuing righteousness, we will loathe, despise and hate our own sinfulness. We will have a deep sense of conviction about our sin.
Where is the grief over sin in the modern Christian superstar movement and our so-called revivals? I see lots of laughing, fun, joking, frivolity, but there’s very little of a deep burning conviction of sin and its ugliness. Scripture says that if we pursue righteousness and seek to obey God moment by moment, we will experience deep sorrow. When the stench of immorality and self-centeredness fills our nostrils, the Spirit-filled man just cannot be “happy, happy, happy all the time.” In Acts 2, when the Spirit of God came at Pentecost, thousands were pricked in their hearts and cried out, “What shall we do to be saved?” They were not laughing and joking.
What we are seeing in our country today is not true revival. We hear lots of people talking about God, but we don’t see many of them weeping as Christ wept over Jerusalem in its sin and carnality. We don’t see people beating their breasts and crying out in grief over their sin as the people of Ninevah did when Jonah preached and the Spirit of God brought true revival.
The second element of true Holy Spirit revival is truth. When revival comes, there will be a deep commitment to divine truth. The revival in Nehemiah’s day began when Nehemiah said, “Bring me the book,” (Neh. 8:1). As Ezra the priest read from the book, which was the Law of Moses, and explained its meaning, the people began to mourn and weep because of their failure to keep the law. The beginning of their revival meant spending days listening to the reading and explaining of the Word so that they might confess their sins and repent and begin to live righteous lives. Biblical exposition and instruction are the work of the Spirit. Through knowledge and understanding of God’s Word the Holy Spirit produces a deep conviction of sin and a desire for holy living. And such a conviction and holy living doesn’t result in a Christian elitist group who think they are above the rest of the world and occasionally condescend to them, but a body of believers who are salt and light in the world – they walk through the world as Jesus walked, changing men as Jesus did.
The Apostle Paul in the New Testament also made a definite connection between a commitment to the Word and spirituality. Eph. 5:18 says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” and Col. 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” If you study these two verses in detail, you find that they are parallel passages, meaning Paul wrote sections in both of these epistles which are almost word for word, or at least have essentially the same meaning. The results produced are so much the same the one verse could be substituted for the other. Being filled with the Spirit has the same results as letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of truth.” So where there is true revival, there is a hunger for and a commitment to truth, and there is an emphasis on righteous living – not gifts, signs, visions, wonders, revelations, and ecstasies.
Scripture gives many examples of truly spiritual men. In the Old Testament Isaiah the prophet was allowed to see a vision of God in all His holiness, but Isaiah didn’t rush out to announce his personal spiritual experience. Instead, he mourned because of his own sin and he described himself as a man of “unclean lips.”
In the New Testament when Peter was confronted with the power of Jesus expressed through an incredible miracle, he fell on his face and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Then, just a few verses later, Peter “left everything and followed Christ” (Luke 5:11). He was the kind of man for whom Jesus was looking – a humble man with a deep sense of his own inadequacy and his own sin.
The early church had no celebrities and no gimmicks. They were simply godly people living in an ungodly society and having a phenomenal influence.
When the Corinthian church began at the urging of some false apostles to question Paul’s leadership over them, what credentials did Paul present to defend his spirituality and right to leadership? In 2 Cor. 12:1-10 Paul describes his own vision and his personal spiritual experience, but he immediately plays down the importance of his experience. His last vision had been so long ago (14 years previous) that he couldn’t even remember whether he was in the body or out of the body.
Many Christians today are claiming to have died and seen heaven before returning to their bodies. They then write books and give television interviews to tell their story to the world. Paul had been to the third heaven and had marvelous revelations, but he spent years in the Christian ministry preaching the gospel and teaching the Word and never mentioned his vision. He brought it up once in this epistle to the Corinthians to prove that visions and revelations were not what qualified a man to be a leader in the church. Such experiences were not to be a cause for boasting.
Paul did not offer the vision for spiritual credentials. In fact, he minimized the value of the vision and chose rather to glory in his weakness and infirmities.
However, in 2 Cor. 11:23 he gives his real spiritual credentials. Speaking of the false apostles who were harassing the Corinthians, Paul says, “Are they servants of Christ?…I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches… In Damascus the ethnarch under the Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.”
Here are the real evidences of Paul’s spirituality. His commitment to teach God’s truth and his overwhelming desire to be obedient to God’s will resulted in a life of affliction and persecution. He wasn’t laughing and joking all the time, and he wasn’t sitting around boasting about how spiritual he was because he had had visions and revelations from God. Most of the time he was running for his life!
Lastly, look at the example of our Lord Himself. His life was also one of suffering and humiliation. He wept over the destruction which sin was causing. He struggled in agony against the temptations of Satan. He was beaten, publicly humiliated and executed as a criminal. Of course there was a deep inner joy in fellowship with the Father and in doing the Father’s will, but there was also pain and sorrow.
In Matt. 5, Jesus talks about the kind of joy and happiness which true spirituality brings: “Blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit… happy are those who mourn… happy are the gentle… happy are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness… happy are the merciful… happy are the pure in heart… happy are the peacemakers… happy are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness… happy are when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Are the really happy people the ones who laugh and joke all the time? No, happy people are humble Christians who experience persecution as they struggle to live righteously in an ungodly society.
Let’s Get Our Values Straight
What are Christians seeking today at their goal? Is it purity of life or is it freedom from earthly troubles? We often hear that the Holy Spirit will cure all ills and smooth all the rough bumps along the road of life. He will heal you of any disease, and He will remove every problem. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as offering to all Christians a candy-coated life; they confess with David in Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.”
We may not all suffer as Jesus and Paul did, but we must get our goals and our values straightened out. According to the Bible, our goal should be holy living in accordance with God’s truth as revealed in His Word. Any lesser goal will not produce true spirituality. I believe the church today is facing a great danger in this area. If we continue to settle for counterfeit spirituality, we are going to lose sight of the real thing. Let’s stop exalting people who are not truly spiritual. Paul makes it clear in his instruction in 1 Timothy that new converts should not be given positions of leadership and responsibility – they should first demonstrate maturity through righteous living and knowledge of God’ Word.
Let’s make true spirituality our goal and begin to exalt mature Christians who are humble and manifest the character of Christ, those who can teach us God’s Word and teach us to live righteous lives. Let’s choose Christian examples whose lives demonstrate grief over sin and a hunger for holiness, and together let’s become a church which is characterized by true spirituality.
Pulpit Magazine Vol. 02. No. 1 January 2013