What Does it Mean to be Spiritual?

A 2017 Pew research form discovered an increasing number of Americans (27%) describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than religious. Another group (48%) describe themselves as both “religious and spiritual”. What exactly does it mean to be spiritual? Today’s Christian circles often equate spiritual activity with hyper-emotionalism. Because of this, when they come into a worship assembly patterned after the New Testament, they may feel the church isn’t as spiritual. To them, an emphasis on Biblical teaching and congregational, acapella worship lacks too much emotion to be truly spiritual. Is this accusation true?

When we open our Bibles, we discover how the text uses the word spiritual:

  • “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”—Rom. 7:14
  • “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”—Rom. 12:2
  • “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”—1 Cor. 2:13
  • “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”—1 Corinthians 3:1

When we examine the usage of the word, we discover that being spiritual isn’t equated with being emotional. Neither does spiritual mean a rejection of the physical realm (the law and our bodies are physical and yet still referred to as spiritual). Rather, the Bible’s use of this word refers to someone/something which originates within and conforms to the Spirit of God. The Law is spiritual because it originated within God; our bodies can be given as spiritual sacrifices when we submit our will to that of the Spirit.

Therefore, when Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for their lack of spiritual maturity, he isn’t reprimanding them for their emotionless worship service. Rather, he is pointing out that they were immature in the things of God because their hearts were set on the lust of the flesh. Instead of being governed by God’s truth, filled with the fruit of the Spirit, they were dictated by the whims of their carnal minds.

Once we understand this, we can see how unbiblical it is to accuse a church of lacking spirituality simply because they aren’t participating in a hyper-emotionalized rock concert for their Sunday worship. In fact, such activity can be viewed as quite the opposite: unspiritual and fleshly since it fails to submit to the truth of the Spirit and inwardly focuses on the consumerist desires of the immature worshipper.

This isn’t to say that emotional worship is wrong. In fact, lacking emotion in our worship could be a sign of lacking spirituality. Jesus calls for us to worship God in truth and spirit (John 4:24) and we are called to love the Lord with all of our heart (Matt. 22:37). So, a lack of joy, sorrow, or excitement in worship very well may indicate a heart that has grown hardened and carnal to what God has done for us within Jesus Christ. Yet, our emotions should be guided and founded within the truth of who God is and what God has done. Our emotions should spring—not from the manipulation of lighting within the worship, or even the tune of a particular hymn—but from the truth that we declare together as God’s redeemed people.


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