A Reformed Perspective on Spirituality: All of Life is the Lord's
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Marx was wrong. Religion is not "withering away." In fact there are more religions and spiritualities now than a hundred years ago. Major traditions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, continue to flourish. Cults like the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have become mainstream. Novel spiritualities, such as Scientology and the New Age Movement, still proliferate. People have not stopped searching for something deeper than ordinary life.
>br> Christians likewise quest for spiritual renewal. Catholics become charismatic. Evangelicals embrace Eastern Orthodoxy. Praise and worship songs displace Lutheran chorales and Wesleyan hymns. Mainline Protestants dabble in mysticism. Spiritual advisors are hired and spiritual journals kept. Prayer chains are forged and prayer warriors recruited. Christians too are spiritually seeking. Some of what we find is healthy; some is not.
It is tempting to look elsewhere for novelty and excitement even when we have nourishing spiritual food at home. Recently rereading Abraham Kuyper's classic devotional book, Near Unto God, (ed. James Schaap, CRC Publications and Eerdmans, 1997) reminded me how rich and biblical the spirituality of the Reformed tradition is. Like Calvin, the Puritans, the "Second Reformation" Dutch, and Jonathan Edwards before him, Kuyper practiced a piety that is profoundly personal and experiential—almost mystical— yet doctrinally anchored and engaged with the world.
What is Reformed spirituality? Simply put, it is stewardship of God's gracious gift of a full and complete relationship with him, according to Scripture. Some of its key characteristics are these: Reformed spirituality is dependent on God, Trinitarian, personally intimate, "worldly," comprehensive, and open. Let's briefly consider some implications of each point.
Dependent on God
All kinds of Christian spiritualities focus on God. But not all stress our dependence on God. Some concentrate instead on our efforts to get closer to God—our devotional practices, our praise and worship, our meditation techniques, and our advances in nearness to God. Important as such discipline is, genuine spirituality is a gracious gift from the sovereign God, who generates it in us through his Word and Spirit. Our efforts at spiritual discipline are empowered by God and ought to express grateful stewardship of his gifts.
Biblical piety is devoted to the Triune God. While the Creeds simplify the picture, relating creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Holy Spirit, Scripture teaches that the Triune God is present in all his works. The Son and Spirit are active in creation. The Father initiates redemption and sanctification. Thus a spirituality that fully appreciates the mighty acts of God is Trinitarian. This point may seem obvious, but it is overlooked in those forms of piety that concentrate disproportionately on the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit. Some Christians even dwell on the earthly Jesus as he walked with his disciples instead of the ascended Lord, seated at the right hand of the Father.
Although mature spirituality is more than a "personal relationship with Jesus," Reformed Christians prize an intimate, loving relationship with the Triune God. Assurance that we are children of the heavenly Father through the Son by the Spirit is our greatest privilege, security, and joy. Reformed piety is not just thinking a lot about God and feeling earnest about living for him. We desire a warm, personal, "I-Thou" relationship with God no less than evangelicals and mystics. As Kuyper writes, "Only he who feels, perceives and knows that he stands in personal fellowship with the living God, and who continually tests his spiritual experience by the Word, is safe." (Near Unto God, Preface).
Reformed spirituality is "worldly." This does not mean that it focuses on the world more than God or that it is soft on sin. It means that Reformed spirituality aims at living life with God as he created it to be. We humans were made from the earth, blessed to have children, and given dominion over the creation as God's image-bearers in his "very good" earthly Kingdom. We were called to live in loving obedience to the King as his children and covenant partners. This is what it means to be human. Salvation and spirituality do not remove us from life, they restore it. When the Kingdom comes, we will still be worshiping God as humans with bodies, living on the new earth, and reigning with Christ.
Because it begins with creation, Reformed spirituality embraces the "ordinary" and tends to avoid the "extraordinary." It relates to God from within the natural context of human life, not seeking transcendence to supernatural heights. Some traditions regard mystical meditation or unusual charismatic gifts as the highest and most desirable kinds of spirituality. Following the pattern of Scripture, Reformed Christians commune with the Lord in more ordinary, mundane, and natural ways-through Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, and worship. If other, more esoteric or paranormal practices are legitimate, they are neither the core nor the culmination of healthy biblical spirituality.
Ordinary food for ordinary people whose ordinary lives follow ordinary routines can seem unappetizing to a culture that is quickly bored with familiar things, always looking for something new, addicted to excitement, and constantly craving the "rush" of a "peak experience." Although we strive to give our best for God's glory, Reformed spirituality is neither "showy" nor elitist. Ordinary, everyday life with God is full of inspiring surprises and exciting possibilities for creativity, growth, and excellence. So there is no reason why our piety should be monotonous, lethargic, mediocre, or tradition-bound. Our challenge is to discern the difference between what Scripture means by "Spirit-filled new life" and our culture's preoccupation with novelty and excitement.
Being "worldly" also means that Reformed spirituality involves all of life. Spirituality and piety are not limited to prayer, praise, Scripture, and meditation-so called "devotional" activities. We were created not only to dialogue with God, but also to marry and have children, to be stewards of the earth, and to engage in culture. We are to serve the Lord whether we eat or drink or whatever we do.
Spirituality must permeate and integrate life, but eating, carpentry, and voting are not automatically spiritual. What makes these everyday activities spiritual is why we do them and how we do them. Why we do them is because we love the Lord and wish to give him glory, and because we are grateful that he is renewing our lives. How we do them is according to God's will as expressed in Scripture and in the good order of creation. Thus, eating is a spiritual activity when we do it with conscious thanks to God and we have intentionally prepared our food so that it is healthy, enjoyable, and stewardly as God intends. Cooking and eating as well as table devotions should be spiritual disciplines.
Comprehensive spirituality includes all of life's dynamics and circumstances, good and bad. We are fallen creatures, redeemed and being restored by God. We still suffer from the consequences of sin and evil, so we lament our troubles and feel Godly sorrow for our sins, as well as rejoicing in our salvation and celebrating God's goodness. A lot of contemporary spirituality focuses almost exclusively on praise and "positive feelings." Biblical piety certainly stresses the hope and joy of our salvation, but it also includes the penitence of the sinner, the lament of the sufferer, and the cry of the child unsure of the Father's presence. Read the Psalms!
The spiritual dynamics and practices of the Reformed tradition are deeply biblical, vital, inspiring, and nourishing. We should not abandon this way of living with the Lord because we no longer appreciate it or find problematic kinds of spirituality more attractive.
But we ought not to be close-minded traditionalists. Reformed Christians confess that we are part of the "holy catholic church" and that we continually need reforming. We should adopt devotional, liturgical, and life-disciplines of other Christian traditions that can enrich and fill some of the gaps in our own. There are also features of contemporary culture that can invigorate traditional Reformed spirituality. Our "worldly" disposition should incline us to adopt and reform the good things of culture for God's glory and our edification.
As grateful stewards of God's gracious power in us, we ought to cultivate an everyday spirituality that is biblical, self-conscious in its historic Reformed identity, and intentionally open to the richness of the broader Christian tradition and the best of contemporary culture.