Suffering Spirituality!

Suffering Spirituality!

Spirituality has come into its own in North American popular culture. Secularism has been found wanting. So has rationalism and materialism. Into the void have stepped exponents of a new/old spirituality. Oprah, Deepak Chopra and others are offering variations of chicken soup for our souls. It all sounds great! (By the way the questing is healthy; the answers are usually superficial.)

In recent days the word “spirituality” has become a major focus of congregations that have adopted the ideas found in Natural Church Development theory. We are being urged these days towards a “Passionate Spirituality.”  This phrase can be very confusing unless we think with clarity about what these words means.

Some of us are caught up in a “Mystical Spirituality” that is warm and fuzzy and usually quite private. It is marked by prolonged meditation, quiet retreat, and by the use of Christian mantras. Using these means we seek tranquility and inner peace. This approach, however, often leads to a lobotomized, dreamy spirituality that seems to suspend all brain function and often disconnects its devotees from life around them. In Wesley’s day it was called Quietism.

Some of us have sought instead an “Ecstatic Spirituality” that is sensate, emotional, and demonstrative. It is often more physical than its mystical counterpart, as eyes are lifted skyward, hands raised high, fingers reaching out, and the body moving to the cadence of the music. It is marked by the pursuit of the experience of joy and spiritual excitement. If not careful it can move us towards a faith in feeling. It finds its normal expression in vigorous corporate worship with the hopeful question being raised by the worship leader, “Can you sense the Spirit?”  In earlier days it was called “religious enthusiasm.”

Others of us, wanting to avoid the ditches of Quietism and Emotionalism, have opted for a “Rationalistic Spirituality.”  These persons major on the history of spirituality, know the techniques of devotion, read the scriptures at the theological level and hold a rational faith. They love the hymns that sing about God in the third person, but are somewhat uncomfortable about singing to God with the language of intimacy. This form of spirituality is more interested in the pursuit of God through the pursuit of truth.

There is another trend, however, that in recent years has become quite dominant in North America. There is an increasing turn towards a “Pragmatic Spirituality.”  It is made-in-America spirituality and is often adopted by those of us who participate in the Natural Church Development assessment of our churches. In pragmatism everything of value must have a practical outcome. A thing is true only if it is useful. Spirituality in this approach to life is a means to an end. For example the conversation can go like this: “Churches grow when people are passionate about spiritual things. Our score in the category of “Passionate Spirituality” is our lowest indicator. So let us develop a passionate spirituality so our church can be healthy and grow.”  This form of spirituality may be more seductive than we dream. This approach takes an end (intimacy with God) and makes it a means (how to grow a church).

Passionate Spirituality

So what is passionate spirituality?  Some think passion has to do with high emotion, enthusiasm and excitability. But the word originally meant something quite different. “Passionate” comes from the word “passion” which means, “to suffer.” We call the week that led to the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ as “Passion Week.”  We call the accounts found in the four Gospels that describe the arrest, trial, sufferings and death of Jesus, “The Passion Narratives.”

There is an even deeper meaning, however, to the word. Its original meaning is tied to the word “passive” which means, to be acted upon, or to be moved by something outside of one’s self. It is tied to the word “pathos,” the Greek word that means, “to be saddened or to suffer grief.”  Our word “compassion” which means that we “suffer with” those who hurt, helps us understand the central idea in Passionate Spirituality.

In the course of time the word “passion” came to be associated with love, and so we talk about an amorous person as “a passionate lover”. But that is a bending of the word in the wrong direction, unless we are speaking of a love that would suffer anything to help another.

So how does this help us understand “Passionate Spirituality?”  John Wesley in his sermons “On Zeal” and “On Visiting the Sick” prioritizes the means of grace in a surprising way.

He lists them in this order:

  • Assembling ourselves together for Corporate Worship, has value.
  • Participating, however, in Works of Piety, which include reading the word, hearing the word, public, family and private prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, etc. has greater value.
  • But participating in Works of Mercy has the greatest value. It is when we share in the lives of those who suffer that we find ourselves participating in the central activities of God and in consequence become increasingly God-like and Christ-like. Wesley claims that only those who are involved in compassionate ministries participate in the chief means of grace.

So the question arises, is it possible that we could develop a truly passionate spirituality and not get involved in the acts of compassion that feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide comfort for those in pain?  I don’t think so!

 Think It Through…

Which form of spirituality do you find yourself most at home with?  There is nothing wrong with being a contemplative, an ecstatic, a rational person, or a pragmatist, but how can we ensure that we compensate for the weakness inherent in each of those forms of spirituality?

Take Action…

If you can find them, read Wesley’s sermons “On Zeal” and “On Visiting the Sick” to give you some guidance, and then make plans to add a “compassionate element” to the spiritual disciplines in your life.

For The Small Group Leader …

Read the following passages from the pen of St. Paul and ask your group what they think he meant by these disturbing ideas.

  • Philippians 3:10. “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and to share in the fellowship of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death,”
  • Galatians 2:19. “I have been crucified with Christ.”
  • Colossians 1:24. “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

Published in Light and Life,  September-October, 2002.

One Response to Suffering Spirituality!

  1. Stephen Merriman says:

    Great article David! I think if honest I have practiced all three spirituality types mentioned, at least two to the extreme at times. I think at my age and time in life I can now rest in the more passive track letting God work in me, and me continuing to work in a very hurting world. I think I have more patience and hopefully less pride to let God, to want God, to desire God to continue His work to develope a compassionate spirituality. Bless you David! Thank you! Stephen

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