People are drawn to church for lots of reasons. At one church I served, a Jewish family that lived across the street asked if they could take out a social membership. They enjoyed the Strawberry Festival that the deacons put on every June, the Election Night Supper that Presbyterian Women held in November, the special concerts that the choir gave. They even showed up every Easter at the sunrise service in the town park. Church was a great place to meet their friends, even if they didn’t belong.
Others are drawn by the experience of worship. They like to sing the hymns. Some love the sacred music repertoire, or the pipe organ. Some are intrigued by theology and the Bible and want to learn more. And some come because they want to be part of the church’s mission, a mission that helps make the world a better place by caring for the elderly and the sick, feeding the poor, and standing up for the oppressed around the world. They want to be part of something that matters.
But undergirding everything we do is the promise of a transformed life. How do I find meaning and purpose? What am I supposed to do with my life? Where do I find the wisdom to raise kids? How do I find strength to endure a loss? Along with all the things we do as a church, along with all our activities and our worship and our study is the hope that there is something more to life. Paul told the church in Corinth,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the
human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him” – these things God has revealed to us through the
For all we have in common with other wonderful organizations that help the poor, nurture kids, cultivate the arts or build community, what makes the church different is that we submit ourselves to the direction of the Spirit that is revealed to us through Jesus Christ. And, says Paul, “those who are spiritual discern all things.”
That’s a wonderful promise, but how many of us consider ourselves spiritual? That sounds like a tall order. Most of us think of a spiritual person as someone like Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, people whose commitment and zeal for God we find hard to imagine. You hear a lot of people these days say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” What they usually mean is that they’re interested in things of the spirit but not in institutions like the church. They’re describing their spiritual quest. But to be what Paul calls a spiritual person – that sounds like a tall order.
Yet think of the people Paul was writing. They weren’t perfect examples of piety. These were the Corinthians who were breaking into factions over their allegiance to Apollos or Cephas or Paul. They were the ones he went on later in his letter to chastise for sexual immorality and poor theology and selfishness at the Lord’s Table. Obviously, Paul thought they had it in them to comprehend the things of God, in spite of their shortcomings. He wasn’t giving them a secret formula to unlock the mysteries of the universe. He wasn’t prescribing a regimen of spiritual calisthenics to lift them up to heaven. He was just reminding them of what they already had and exhorting them to use it. He was reminding them of a simple fact: They had the mind of Christ.
When Christ puts his claim on us, he transforms our minds and our spirits to conform to the Spirit of God. That same Power that created and sustains the universe has come to us in Christ, and through him our spirits are transformed. We signify that claim in the sacrament of baptism. We become aware of that claim in different ways. Some become aware of Jesus’ claim on their lives in a dramatic conversion experience, like Paul had on the road to Damascus. Others become aware gradually, through the nurture of Christian parents and a caring church. Some like C.S. Lewis get there through an intellectual journey. Others have some life-changing event bring them face to face with God. The ways we become aware of Christ’s claim on us are as different as we are.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that regardless of how Jesus claimed them, they belonged to Christ. Through Christ the Spirit of God searches us and attunes us to the power of God at work all around us. It’s what lets us see the world in a different way. So much of spiritual growth is just being aware of what is going on.
Spiritual growth involves being aware of what is going on in yourself. An important part of growing in the life of the Spirit is understanding who you are, how your own human spirit works. There’s something in us that resists the guidance of the Spirit of God. There’s a perverse independence or pride that doesn’t want anyone, even the Lord of the universe, telling us what is best for us to do. A healthy spiritual life involves deep knowledge of yourself.
One of the blessings of friendship is that our friends help us understand who we are. One of the benefits of a Sunday school class or a small group is that in addition to learning about some topic, you also learn about yourself as you reflect on scripture and faith with others.
You can also learn from the people you meet
in the Bible. Something you might want to try when you’re doing your daily Bible reading is to figure out which character in a Bible story you identify with most. I don’t mean the one you’d most like to be, I mean the one that is most like you. It was a humbling insight to me a while back when I was reflecting on a story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and realized how much I have in common with those religious leaders, and it’s not very flattering. The Pharisees were the ones who wanted to make sure that everything was done properly and according to the rules. They were so concerned that things be done properly, that they resisted when Jesus pushed them out of their comfort zone to do the right thing. I’ve tried to be a little more open to looking for God in the messiness of life.
Another thing to acknowledge about the life of the Spirit is that we come in different spiritual types. There’s always value in setting aside quiet time and getting away from all distractions to focus your thoughts on God and open yourself to the movement of the Spirit. But that’s easier for some than for others. Some, whose spiritual type is more extroverted, are more open to God’s spirit when they’re with others. They can notice God at work more clearly in conversation with others. Some people have a hard time sitting still, and their prayers are deeper when they’re walking or running. Some find techniques from other religious traditions help them focus on the Spirit of God, and incorporate yoga or tai chi in their spiritual life. Knowing yourself lets you allow for what works best for you as a way to notice what God is doing and to discern how God is moving in your life.
Some worry that all this sounds self-absorbed. After all, didn’t Jesus come to serve others? Doesn’t he tell us that the way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves and to give freely of ourselves? Of course. The whole point of knowing yourself is so you can cooperate with what God’s Spirit is doing in you to shape you into a person who is more like Christ. Christ gave himself for the world, and as he shapes us, we become more and more for the world.
Isaiah describes what happens as we grow in the Spirit. He was addressing people who had become self-absorbed in their spirituality, for whom their prayers and their worship and their piety had become simply another means of self-fulfillment. Isaiah wrote:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the
bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
As we grow in the life of Christ, we become more like Christ, who gave himself for the world. Just as he sought out the poor and the downtrodden, we become more aware of the needs of others. We notice the poor in our midst. We lose our complacency toward injustice. It starts to matter that so many people in Africa are dying of AIDS, that our government is in cahoots with oppressive dictators, that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.
And all that activity leads us back here to worship, and to prayer and to reflection so that we understand what we do and why we do it. We give thanks for what we have seen – the power of God working in places where it’s often overlooked. And as we give thanks, God’s Spirit searches the depths of our spirits and opens our eyes to see what else the redeeming power of Christ is up to and join with him, in our homes, our schools, our places of work, wherever we are, and receive what he has prepared for us, which is beyond anything we ever imagined.