Hebrew Spirituality. Hebrew spirituality is a life lived within the framework defined by God's saving Acts in his history with his people. This sacred history is reflected in the faith of the community and its liturgy, particularly as that was rehearsed in annual commemorations (such as Passover) and centered around the temple and its practices.
The individual appropriated this history and identity, especially in his or her prayer life. The Psalter, for instance, supplied worshipers with prayers to express petitions, praise, thanksgiving, and repentance, just as the Psalter would do for Christians.
Israel's prayer life went beyond the Psalter, though. Intercession, especially for the sins of a people, stretch from Abraham ( Gen 20:7 ) to Amos ( Amos 7:1-6 ). God is even argued with, particularly to persuade God that the pray-er's cause is just and that God would be benefited if the request were granted ( Gen 18:25 ; Exod 32:11-12 ).
This reflects a conception of God as one who enters into a dialogical relationship with his people. He is concerned for his people's needs, angry at their sins, and even open to a change of mind ( Exod 32:7-14 ; Num 14:13-25 ; 1 Sam 8:4-22 ). He can also be absent from and silent to his people ( Job 23:8-9 ; Psalm 30:7 ; Hab 1:2 ), or present to and seen by his people ( Psalm 42:2 ; 84:7 ).
Much of Hebrew spirituality focuses on God's presence in this life. Though his presence is sometimes dreaded or not always desired (e.g., Job 23:15-17 ; Psalm 51:9 ), God's absence is painful to endure ( Psalm 51:11 ). Life is to be lived in the consciousness of God's presence; death (sheol) usually means the loss of consciousness, the absence of God, and the cessation of the praise of God ( Psalm 6:4-5 ; 88:3-6 ; Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 Ecclesiastes 9:10 ).
Those who truly experience life are those who obey God and are penitent and humble in God's presence ( Deut 30:15-20 ; Psalm 119 ). For this reason, obedience to the law is central in Hebrew spirituality, for the law of God is virtually the presence of God in his people's midst. The law expresses the mind of God and his intentions for his people, let alone for all of his creatures. Thus, one is to meditate on, study, and keep the law ( Deut 6:4-9 ); by so doing, the Hebrew was perhaps exercising the equivalent of the Christian way of practicing the presence of God.
Christian Spirituality. In order to appreciate what Christian spirituality is, we must first clarify what it is not. Christian spirituality is not a gnostic renunciation of the created world nor the Platonic flight of the soul from the body. The world is the object of God's love ( John 3:16 ), and we are to glorify God in our bodies ( Rom 12:1 ; 1 Cor 6:19-20 ). Furthermore, such attitudes fly in the face of appropriating the Christian doctrine of the creation and the incarnation. Spirituality must be practiced in this world, which God made good ( Mark 7:19 ) and which God is in the process of redeeming ( Rom 8:18-25 ). As in the Old Testament, spirituality does not imply that one is to flee this world to find God, but that one must find God and grow in grace in this world, even discovering avenues (i.e., spiritual disciplines) in and through the physical realm for spiritual growth.
Christian spirituality begins with our redemption in Christ. We are baptized into Christ: We die to sin and the "old man" and we are made alive to God as a new creation ( Rom 6:3-11 ; 2 Cor 5:17 ). True spirituality, then, is not a human self-help program or a means of justifying ourselves ( Gal 2:15-21 ). It begins with a divine call, rebirth, and conversion ( John 3:3-8 ; Acts 2:38-39 ) wherein we admit we are helpless to help ourselves in our bondage to sin and enmity with God ( Rom 5:6-11 ).
With this foundation clearly in mind, Christian spirituality has to do primarily with sanctification. It requires divine grace (first and always) and deliberate human cooperation. It is neither a passive quietism nor a triumphalist activism. (This combination is epitomized by Paul in 1 Cor 15:10 ). So, spirituality has to do with holiness, which is the restoration of the human person to what he or she was created to be. One could say that holiness involves the recovery of wholeness the integrity of our lives as they are being restored by the Spirit.
This is a process, depicted by several metaphors in Scripture. We are to be trees whose roots are firmly established in Christ planted by streams of nurturing water ( Eph 3:17 ). We are people of "the Way" sojourners on a journey ( Acts 9:2 ; 1 Peter 2:11 ). We are "born again" and meant to grow from infancy to adulthood, sustained on a diet of rich spiritual food ( John 3:3 ; Heb 5:12-14 ).
The goal of the process is to be renewed in holiness, righteousness, and knowledge after the likeness of God ( Eph 4:24 ; Col 3:10 ), or, what is the same thing, to become more like Jesus Christ by whose stature our maturity is measured ( Eph 4:13-16 ). The goal is to acquire a Christian construal of everything. How does one acquire such a Christian construal of everything? The process is similar to that which we have found in Hebrew spirituality. It is formed by what one reads and listens to, the people with whom one associates (hence the importance of the church in Christian spirituality), the activities in which one engages, the way one eats, and so on, but above all it is formed by what one loves. When a Christian mixes the Christian construal with other construals (such as a materialistic conception of the world), then there is a kind of double vision that leads to conflicts, hypocrisy, and the like (see Matt 6:19-24 ). We need a single focus a total devotion to God ( Matt 6:33 ). This is simplicity, and it requires the grace of God and our response of total sacrifice and the transformation of our minds ( Rom 12:1-2 ).
Developing and keeping this single focus is accomplished by spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, meditation, prayer, fasting, church attendance, giving things away, and serving others. Initially, this begins by repenting (metanoia [metavnoia] turning our spiritual eyes away from our former conceptions of the world to see life from Christ's vantage point), followed by concentrating on, focusing on, conceptualizing, and even imaging Christ's character and God's presence and activity primarily through Scripture reading and prayer in the context of the fellowship of believers. (Recall the Hebrew and later Jewish focus on God's presence and the law.)
These disciplines mold and shape the embodied self. They are activities of mind and body intentionally undertaken to bring our entire person into effective cooperation with God's work. So, they are means to an end like a balloon angioplasty that opens up our spiritual arteries to receive and circulate divine grace. They put us in a condition whereby God's grace can really work on us. Our minds and bodies are then usable as instruments of righteousness ( Rom 6:12-14 ; 12:2 ).
By these disciplines the Christian is not simply copying Jesus Christ as a model (as in Sheldon's In His Steps), though "putting on Christ" might mean that the Christian sometimes Acts like Christ even if he or she does not yet understand why ( Rom 13:11-14 ). Nor is one merely accepting the values of Jesus (as in nineteenth-century liberalism). The Christian is learning Christlikeness by sharing Christ's life in an organic way ( John 15:1-17 ; 17:20-24 ). We share in the life of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit who indwells us and who groans in us for the completion of our redemption ( Rom 8:22-27 ). This indwelling is creative and transforming. It has been called "sanctifying" or "habitual" grace because it is not just a momentary help, but a vital source of holiness. Through this work of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ and our response we come to have the "mind of Christ" Christ's way of seeing the world that becomes "second nature" in us ( Php 2:1-5 ). This is coming to "know" Christ to become like him in his death and to share in the power of his resurrection ( Php 3:3-11 ; 1 Peter 4:12-5:11 ). The result is that obedience to God is "from the heart"; we become "slaves to righteousness" ( Rom 6:17-19 ). We are now free to serve God and others with self-sacrificial love.
On the way to this conformation to Christ's image we will experience continuing struggle ( Rom 7:15-25 ); but we also will continually experience God's grace, for through Christ we are "more than conquerors" ( Rom 7:24-25 ; 8:37 ), something that should manifest itself in every aspect of the Christian's existence as the one who calls us remains faithful to complete what he began in us ( Php 1:6 ).
Dennis L. Okholm
Bibliography. D. Alexander, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification; D. Allen, Temptation; A. Bloom, Beginning to Pray; R. Foster, Celebration of Discipline; idem, The Freedom of Simplicity; T. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion; S. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity; R. C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotions; idem, The Strengths of a Christian; W. Stringfellow, The Politics of Spirituality; D. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Spirituality'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".