The Spiritual Christian
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted (Galatians 6:1). And I, brethren, could not write unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1)
The task of reconciling the ideal and the real is never fully completed in this world. It is approximated, however, m one of two ways by practically everybody. On the one hand, some give up their ideals and settle down to contentment with whatever is. This they often do for themselves, and for others and for the world in general.
In such a state they become mere encumbrances — just adding to quantity and numbers without affecting quality or weight. Sometimes they become content with themselves, and not with others. In that case they become egoists and critics, or even descend to the position of satirists and sour pessimists. Sometimes they become content with others and not with themselves. In this case they normally suffer from inferiority complex or drift into a state of super-sensitiveness and self-condemnation on the border line of insanity and nervous collapse.
But there is a better way, and that is the way of bringing the life up to the standard. The standard, we conceive, is invariable in its final analysis, but variable in its application, according to the light and knowledge which we possess. “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.” This is the meaning of the saying, “Noah was perfect in his generation, and Noah walked with God.” That is, in the light of the day in which he lived, Noah was as good as he knew how to be. It is according to God’s mercy that the full light does not shine upon us all at Once, but it comes little by little as we are able to receive it. “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” The Christian life is a progressive life. It begins with a crisis, but it continues as a process. Christ seems close enough that one can grasp Him even in the hour of the penitent’s faith. Still He goes on before as a peerless pattern to the time when we shall see Him on His throne, “when the mists have cleared away.”
Ideally, every Christian is a spiritual Christian, and the subject of this address appears as but a truism. But really, every Christian is not a spiritual Christian. What shall we do? Shall we ascend the judgment seat and set up a standard and say whoever does not come up to this standard is not spiritual? No, we cannot do that, for the whole life is occupied with the task of bringing the real up to the ideal. Perhaps we would better content ourselves with lifting up the standard and let who will come up to it.
John Wesley, quoting from another, said, “There have been from the beginning two orders of Christians. The majority of the one order live an honest life, doing many good works, abstaining from gross evils and attending the ordinances of God, but waging no downright warfare against the world nor making any strenuous effort for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. These aim at no special spiritual excellence, but are content with the average attainments of their neighbors. The other class of Christians not only abstain from every form of vice, but are zealous of every kind of good works. They attend all the ordinances of God. They use all diligence to attain the whole mind that was in Christ and to walk in the very footsteps of their beloved Master. They unhesitatingly trample on every pleasure which disqualifies for highest usefulness. They deny themselves not only indulgences which are expressly forbidden, but also all those which by experience they have found to diminish their enjoyment of God. They take up their cross daily. At the morning’s dawn they pray, ‘Glorify Thyself in me this day, O blessed Jesus!’ It is more than their meat and drink to do their heavenly Father’s will. They are not Quietists, ever lingering in secret places, delighting in the ecstasies of enraptured devotion. They go forth from the closet as Moses came down from the Mountain of God, with faces radiant with divine glory, and visiting the degraded and the outcast, they prove by their lives the divineness of the gospel.”
Almost anything can be approached through its opposites, and in the case of spirituality there are a number of opposites, depending upon the angle from which approach is made. Sometimes spirituality must be thought of as contrasted with materiality. Material things have a way of getting very close to us until their ideals blind us to higher values. This is what happens to the miser and to the covetous man. This is what happened to Esau. Coming in from the chase weary and hungry this “profane” man thought honor and responsibility of small consequence in comparison with food for his body. He had no right to sell the birthright. That was given him by the “accident” of providence. It involved much responsibility, as well as certain privileges, and an honorable man would hold on to it and die, rather than sell it and live. There are some things like purity and honor that have no price and to which a man who sees things in their true light will hold fast at any cost whatsoever. We are really not bound to live, but we are obligated, if we live, to live right before God and men. So a man who is spiritual will properly appraise things material and will not become their slave. Or stating the matter positively, a spiritual Christian is delivered from the love of money, the love of material goods, and the love of cheap reputation. He is devoted to the things of the soul, and accounts character true worth, and is without price where right is involved.
Then spirituality is in contrast with formality. Form is inescapable and desirable, but when form is without spirit it is formality. Take the instance of the human body: it has form, but while the vital spirit is in it, it is alive. But when the spirit is gone out it is a corpse. Religion, like all life, has its forms. It has its personal habits and its social orders in home, state and church. But when it has . these and no more, it is formality and like its prototype, the human corpse, becomes unsightly and deserves only to be buried out of sight. It is a good thing to pray, but merely saying prayers in the absence of sincerity and faith is no better than the heathen can do. It is a good thing to go to church, but if one goes only for custom’s sake and does not there meet and worship God, church going has no virtue. Hymns and songs and sermons can be artistically correct and yet be but the products of cultured minds and be disconnected from true spirituality.
Spirituality may be in contrast with legality. “There should be a law against it, and the law should be enforced,” says the legalist in church and in state. And one can be ever so exacting on himself and on others and yet be harsh and cruel and unchristian. It is not unusual to find people of faultless outward conduct who are minus love. Paul conceived of persons so talented that they could speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and yet not be spiritual because without love. He thought of the possibility of being gifted and possessed with a willingness to give away all one possesses and, even willing that his body should be burned, and yet, being without the inner content of love, be without profit. The state must maintain prisons for the incarceration of the socially unfit for the protection of the innocent. But prisons do not make men new. The church exercises some authority over its members, but it does not save men by church trials and the enforcement of discipline. Problems are not solved really until they are solved in a spiritual atmosphere, and our task is not to destroy men, but to save them.
Spirituality is often the antipode of worldly. The Scriptures use that word “world” to describe the whole course of the age as it runs in transformation to the way of God. Worldly includes wicked, but it takes in respectable also. It begins at the top just under the lower boundary of the kingdom of God and extends down to the nethermost hell. The world has a bid for every one — it had a bid for the Son of God himself. It offers pleasure, ease, honor, promotion, popularity, creature comfort, and everything appealing in substitution for the Spirit of God as an indwelling presence. Often worldliness is defined only as it respects adornment of the body. It includes this, but it goes much deeper. The spirit of the world is almost as universal and penetrating as the air we breathe, and mere vows and intellectual decisions are insufficient to defend us against it. We must have the Spirit of God dwelling within us, else this other spirit will break in and spoil our goods and use our souls and bodies as a home and basis for operation.
St. Paul gives us an idea of what spirituality is not when he tells the Corinthians he could not write unto them as unto spiritual, but as unto babes in Christ. As babes these Corinthian Christians could not take strong meat, but had to be favored with a milk diet. Little people are easily offended, and these nonspiritual Christians were little and had the characteristics of infants. If people claim to be spiritual they should be able to bear the disagreeable. This is, I think, a better sign of genuine spirituality than any demonstration one can make. Ability to take the undesirable uncomplainingly is needed more often than ability to enjoy the desirable. Almost anyone should be able to keep up his courage when things go his way. But in the world we have tribulation and the spiritual Christian is able to glory in tribulation. Tribulation is said to work patience. This is does by making it necessary for us to appraise ourselves anew.
We are hurt when we think we deserve more than we get. But when tribulation does its work we learn that we are not pets in the universe, and that the worst that can come to anyone can come to us, and this new appraisal makes it difficult for us to get hurt. It is on the principle that one who .is already flat on the ground cannot be forced lower. And when we get our own appraisal low, others, even when they think to belittle us, exalt us, for they give us a higher rating than we give ourselves. In the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul asserts that love beareth all things and never fails. Undoubtedly this is speaking of the fullness of love, and such a state is therefore the same as that which we are calling a spiritual state. A spiritual Christian is able by the grace of God to keep his balance and . equipoise when there is pressure such as would naturally be expected to upset him. He is able to possess his soul in patience. He is habitual in the practice of true temperance, which is the New Testament word for self-control. St. James describes a high class Christian as one who bridles his tongue, and does not say things he should not say.
We may think of talkativeness as just a human trait without moral and spiritual significance. But James warns that there is invariably sin in too much talk. This must be true because one cannot talk much without saying something he should not say. Scandal, gossip, backbiting, offending by words — how long indeed is the list of sins of the tongue toward which much talk invariably. trends! But let this not be simply a call for more careful use of the tongue. Let it be also a challenge for obtaining grace that will bring the tongue under control. There is not much in the New Testament about mere abstinence. The stroke is at the place of fundamental error — the heart. Out of the . heart come the words of the lips. The Spiritual Christian does have his tongue under control because he has his heart under grace.
St. John described the spiritual Christian as one who loves God and loves his brethren in the Lord Jesus Christ. And it makes it clear that the demand is for practical love. That form which would assert love and then break down on its practical proof cannot pass. The spiritual Christian does not love in word alone, but in deed and in truth. When there is a company of spiritual Christians together, onlookers must be moved to say, “Behold, how they love one another!”
Coming again to St. Paul, he lays it down as a principle that the spiritual Christian shall be a restorer of lost love and a healer of broken faith. “If any man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” It takes more grace to bear with another’s faults than it does to tolerate our own sins. But it takes yet more grace to restore the erring than merely to bear with them. And still more grace is required to restore in the spirit of meekness — to restore and not brag about it. It is relatively easy to drop names from the membership roll, but to bring the wandering back to the fold — that is the test. People who err and know they err are usually sensitive and can be won only .by those possessed of a heart full of love. The spiritual Christian may not be talented, but he will have love and compassion. He may not be a theologian so that he can analyze one’s spiritual ills in intelligible terminology, but he can point the penitent to the Savior. He may not be wordy in prayer, but he will have faith for the divine intervention. He has a sense of the divine presence in his own life, and therefore arises to hope and faith for others.
If my subject called for the possession of talent or ability of a natural kind it would be in order only to either congratulate you on your possession of the treasure or to sympathize with you on your want of it. But seeing it is possible for the weakest and least gifted to be spiritual, I think it is allowable to close with such an exhortation as Paul gave, “Be filled with the Spirit.” Be a spiritual Christian. Be spiritual in the essential sense by becoming Spirit-filled, Spirit-cleansed and Spirit-anointed. Be spiritual in voluntary attitude by laying your principal evaluation upon the things of the soul, rather than upon the things that relate to the body. Deny ungodliness and worldly lusts by turning your back entirely upon them. Reject the offers of the world once and for all, and account nothing as having value except in its relation to the kingdom of God. Give your life to God as an offering poured forth. Be hard on yourself and considerate of others. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” You need not be a fanatic, you need not become a religious curiosity. You should become a worthy example of Christian character and conduct that you might say, as did Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”