What Does it Mean to be “Spiritual”?


As religion – especially formal religion – has seen a downfall in the general public, a replacement of sorts has partially taken its place – and people have been noticing. The new trend is for people to say that they are not religious, but rather “spiritual.” Whatever the difference between those two may be, it is certainly at least a little bit reflective of putting off what is external and formal for what is internal and informal. It is a cry for something real in the midst of a religious scene that seems fake and hypocritical. It is a cry for something that people can identify with.

But this idea is not limited to those who are rejecting religion, or even formal religion. It is an idea that is growing inside the church. Away with cold formality, and in with vibrant spirituality! Away with dead “letter” religion and in with lively “spirit” religion! And, after all, who could be more “spiritual” than those who have not just any spirit but the Holy Spirit?

On the one hand, this is quite understandable. Decades of hypocritical, shallow “traditional” church have left many with nothing to be zealous about and no power to fight sin. Not getting out of this what they believe they should have, they flock to ministries that appear to have the power of the Holy Spirit at work in them. And often the solution is to stop clinging so tightly to that Bible and let yourself be moved by the Spirit – to be, it is thought, “spiritual.”

It turns out that this new trend among modern Christians is hardly new at all. In fact, it was a passion of a church in the New Testament era – the church at Corinth. The church thought itself to be many things that it wasn’t – mature and wise, to name two – but perhaps its worst self-assessment came in its boldly-marked A+ on being spiritual. And the Apostle Paul, caring for their good, had to correct their grade.

The first epistle to the Corinthians is occasioned by a series of subjects about which they wrote to him, but before he addresses them he has to deal with two reports: (1) the widely-known ungodliness among them as expressed in one particular individual as well as in their public lawsuits (1 Corinthians 5-6), (2) and the divisions among them reported by Chloe’s people (1:11). As it turns out, these divisions are essentially based upon their alignment into factions behind various gospel preachers, and this alignment is based on their personal preferences rooted in human wisdom.

It appears that Paul didn’t quite measure up to their desire for eloquence according to the standard of the day, so Paul has to clear up just what the problem is – and it’s exactly the opposite of what they believe it to be. Rather than him, it is they who are at fault. He explains, on the one hand, that he intentionally kept from speaking according to normal “wise” conventions, because he didn’t want their faith to rest on that (1:17, 2:1-5). But on the other hand, he wants them to know that in reality, his message actually was true wisdom – the problem is not with the message, but with the recipients.

He shows that it takes a certain kind of person to recognize the true nature of what he is preaching in the gospel message: someone who is “mature” (2:6). The world obviously didn’t have this kind of maturity, or they wouldn’t have crucified Christ (2:8). So what does it take to possess this maturity that recognizes God’s true wisdom?

Once the nature of the message is made known, it becomes clear: it is a spiritual message, and therefore it takes a spiritual person to receive it.

A Spiritual Message

What does it mean for a message to be “spiritual”? It is not that the message is difficult to understand or filled with convoluted nothingness. It doesn’t mean that it makes a person feel a certain way upon receiving it, or that it is anti-religious. Instead, it means essentially one thing: it is spiritual because it is objectively given by the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s message fit that bill. Nobody knows God’s thoughts, so someone has to reveal them if anyone else is going to know them. And the Holy Spirit, who searches “even the depths of God”, is up for the task (2:10-11)! This same Spirit was both received by Paul and his fellow workers, and also gave to them the message to speak to others (2:12-13a).

So it is a (S)piritual message that he preached. And Paul tells the Corinthians that the measure of their spirituality is easily determined, not by their metric – which had to do largely with visible spiritual gifts – but by God’s metric, namely, reception of the Spirit-given word of God.

A Spiritual Person

Paul says their message proclamation consists of one thing, which is best brought out by the ESV rendering: “interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (2:13b). The idea is that the things that are spiritual are given to the people are who are spiritual.

How do we know that it is people who are in view in the last phrase? Besides the grammar making it one legitimate option, the contrast is clear from verse 14: “the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God…”

Notice the parallel?

  • The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit. (14a)
  • The spiritual (one) is willing to receive that which is spiritual. (13b)

Clearly we are seeing here that that it is only those who have the Spirit of God who receive the Spirit-given words.

Like a plug that only fits into certain kinds of electrical outlets, or fuel that only works in certain vehicles, so also the Holy-Spirit-given message only finds a welcome in a person who is himself spiritual.

More than that: one of the distinguishing marks of a person who is spiritual is that, in contrast to the natural man of verse 14 who “does not accept” and “cannot understand” spiritual things, the spiritual man does both accept and understand them. Verse 15 explains the extent of it: “he who is spiritual appraises all things.”

What do Spiritual people do? They accept the things of the Spirit of God. What are those things? Experiences? Feelings? Intuition and being in touch with the inner self?

It is none of these things, but rather this: they accept God’s word as God’s word. It is those who are spiritual who not only receive the word but recognize it for what it really is: Spirit-given, real, actual, authoritative truth.

Ironically, many who pursue the kind of spirituality addressed here reject this foundational way of demonstrating true spirituality, suggesting that, when it comes to the Bible and the Holy Spirit, there’s only room enough for one of ’em in this town – and the Bible is always the one that ends up functionally demoted.

The Bible and the Holy Spirit are not at odds with one another in any way. It is through God’s word that the Spirit does his work, and a person’s submissiveness to that same Bible is the basic indicator of how much the Spirit is at work in his life.

So What Do We Do With This? 

There are other indicators of spirituality as well, which will perhaps be covered soon. But at a foundational level, the truth is this: a person who is spiritual is a person who understands and accepts God’s word.

At this point it would be good to make a self-assessment. If you think either that you are spiritual or that you should be, how do you fare on these tests?

  • Do you view God’s word as a help to being spiritual, rather than a hindrance? Or do you view the Bible as something that replaces that Holy Spirit rather than revealing his thoughts?
  • Do you accept God’s word as the ultimate source of wisdom?
  • Do you understand at least at a basic level what the word of God says, and does it make sense to you?
  • Do you view God-given religious practice (both individual and in the church) as part of the Spirit’s work or as an obstacle to it?
  • Do you look to know or show that the Spirit is at work in you by other ways that leave out the Bible?

God’s word offers true spirituality, and it starts simply with receiving it for what it really is: the wisdom of God found in the gospel of Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit to be preached and believed by those in whom he dwells.