Spirituality is a buzzword that has settled comfortably within the cultural ether. Many (most?) are comfortable using it, because the word has become highly customizable. Once tethered to some formal religious tradition or ideology, “spirituality” (and what it means to be “spiritual”) has morphed into an incredibly broad, and thoroughly personal concept.
Who defines your spirituality? That is, whom do you empower to frame your understanding of one of the most important ideas within your life? Our highest values and priorities are often connected to our ideas around what it means to live an authentic and vibrant spiritual life, and therefore it’s important to consider who we’ve given the keys to that kingdom over to.
A celebrity? A spiritual guru? Ourselves?
I believe that Jesus—because of who he is—should be the one defining what an authentic and healthy spirituality looks like. And he does, but in a refreshing and challenging way. One of the things that I’ve come to value about Jesus’ definition of spirituality is how much sharper it is when compared to contemporary definitions. For Jesus, genuine spirituality is framed by the concept of discipleship; the process of learning how to align one’s life to what God values and prioritizes.
Jesus defined discipleship in its most basic form when he responded to a question posed by a religious scholar of the day:
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
Jesus framed spirituality around two foundational principles: loving God thoroughly and intensely, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. There are a few things I appreciate about this definition:
1. We are not the centre. Most modern definitions of spirituality place us at the centre. The self is understood to be the supreme source of truth, hope, and power. There is a kernel of truth here. Yes, human beings hold tremendous capacities due to the fact that they are image-bearers of God. However, to localize the source of truth and hope within ourselves is, for Jesus, a magnificent error. God and his kingdom are central to Jesus’ definition of spirituality.
2. One’spirituality has to find its place within a larger story. By invoking the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”), Jesus is implicitly teaching that spirituality that is healthy and hopeful must be grounded in a larger story. The Bible reveals the larger story of Creation, Fall, Redemption to be the one that provides us with the cosmic narrative within which our individual expressions of spirituality can be located and established in meaning beyond, “this seems right/helpful to me.”
3. Scripture is our Foundation and Guide. When asked, Jesus doesn’t turn the question around and ask the religious leader to search his own heart. Instead, Jesus drives him back into Scripture. It’s incredibly tempting to listen to spiritual gurus who would encourage us to look within and trust ourselves in the formation of a fulfilling and meaningful spirituality. Jesus does the exact opposite. He places our focus on the revealed Word of God, and challenges us to draw out its implications within our lives as individuals and communities.
4. There is/not a “one size fits all” spirituality that leads to life and wholeness. To modern ears the idea that there could be one–and only one–valid expression of spirituality seems beyond ridiculous. Could anything be more myopic and even irrational?
But Jesus consistently answers these questions the same way in the gospels, turning people’s attention back to this Great Commandment. Why? If it’s just one choice among many, why not switch it up once in a while and highlight some alternatives? But Jesus never does. Whenever he’s asked what the priorities of one’s spirituality should be, his answer is always the same: Love God and love people.
Which seems incredibly restrictive and exclusive. Until you realize just how vague that centre is. Love God and people. Ok, but how? That is for us to experiment with and discover. There are clearly boundaries to that exploration in the Bible (i.e. no need to experiment with whether loving your neighbour might include adultery), but Jesus’ definition of spirituality is (almost) alarmingly vague. There is a dynamic and inexhaustible breadth and depth to one’s ability to express these two priorities. These aren’t rules that you can easily check-off and complete. They are principles and priorities that require continued practice, imagination, right intention, and humility before God and others.
The older I get the more I see the genius behind Jesus’ definition of–dare I say it–true spirituality. It is accessible to everyone, and yet it rescues us from the self-centred (and therefore self-serving) definitions of spirituality that call out to us.