February 19, 2014

Let’s get spiritual!

by Lyndon Unger

Okay.  I’ve got two confessions to make:

1. I dislike talk about being”spiritual”.

2. I dislike talk about”spirituality”.

Why is that?

Most of the time when people start talking about “spirituality”, this sort of image comes to mind:


 Okay.  I tell a lie.

More often than not, this is what comes to mind:

One Hand Clapping

The topic of “spirituality” cause me pain, mostly because the topic has generally become an excuse for flakes and fools (and life coaches…*shudder*) to unleash whatever completely nonsense ideas on the general public under the cover of painful ambiguity.

Nobody defines the terms biblically, since almost nobody who talks about “spirituality” has much concern for the Bible (let alone exegetical ability).  Nobody talks about spirituality with any sort of clarity, since clarity would unveil the charade of the whole discussion (and unveil the general theme of “clueless” pervading the conversation).  As far as I’m concerned, the term “spirituality” is a get-out-of-jail pass for people to share their favorite “kinda makes you think…” ideas on matters related to positive thinking, the angelic realm, or metaphysics in general.

What’s worse is that I recently started reading a popular-level book on spirituality (because I’m an absolute masochist and a friend asked for my opinion) and it was so utterly painful, I actually screamed and threw the book…several times.  In the book, “spirituality” is defined as “the quest for relationship to the Other”.



“the quest for relationship to the Other”.

That’s a definition so broad that it’s impossible not to accomplish it.

Do you try to have a relationship with any form of “the Other”, personal or impersonal, real or imagined?

Hooray!  Whether you succeed or fail is irrelevant.  You’re spiritual just for trying!  Yay!

That definition aims at fruit hanging so low you need a shovel to get at it…


Now, here’s a different question that I’ve never actually seen addressed:

What does God think about “spirituality”?

Erm…that might be a little more than I can tackle in a blog post.  I’d love to write a 10 part series on the whole topic and provide a whole lot of answers, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Let’s refine the question to something manageable:

What does spiritual, as in the adjectival form of “spirit”, mean in the Bible?

Well, the Greek term is pneumatikos, which is the adjectival form of pneuma.  Pneuma basically carries the idea of energy, movement, wind, etc. when it’s not a proper noun referring to the Holy Spirit.  We still have it in English, thousands of years later, popping up in words like “pneumatic”.

The adjective pneumatikos appears 26 times in the Bible:

1.  It qualifies the word “gifts” once (Romans 1:11) and is used as shorthand for “spiritual gifts” twice (1 Corinthians 12:1, 14:1).

2.  It is contrasted with the idea of “carnal” 9 times in the New Testament:

– Being “spiritual” is contrasted with being carnal; (sold under sin) in Romans 7:14

– “Spiritual” blessings contrasted with “carnal” blessings (namely, money) in Romans 15:27

– “Spiritual” truths (divine revelation) are contrasted with human wisdom (human knowledge) in 1 Corinthians 2:13

– The “spiritual” man (the man of regenerate mind) is contrasted with the “natural” man (the man of unregenerate mind) in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15.

– “Spiritual” people are contrasted with “people of the flesh”, which is further explained to mean “infants in Christ” in 1 Corinthians 3:1

– “Spiritual” things (i.e. the teaching of the gospel and the word of God) is contrasted with “material things” (namely, money) in 1 Corinthians 9:11.

– A “Spiritual” body (post-resurrection body) is contrasted with a “natural” body (pre-resurrection body) in 1 Corinthians 15:44 & 46.

3.  It is used in a metaphor (“spiritual food” and “spiritual drink”) that means something along the lines of “divine sustenance” or “divine preserving power” in 1 Corinthians 10:3-4, and it appears in a similar way in 1 Peter 2:5, which speaks of the assembly of believers in the body of Christ and the sacrifices offered via Christ (i.e. the acceptable “sacrifice” of obedience, only possible through the imputed righteousness of Christ.)

4.  It is used in parallel with the term “prophet” in 1 Corinthians 14:37 as a general term referring to someone who is a highly mature believer , and in Galatians 6:1 it is used as a shorthand term for someone who is a mature believer.

5.  It is used adjectivally to describe all the various blessings given to believers in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), songs believers sing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) and wicked forces aligned against believers (Ephesians 6:12).

6.  It is used as a shorthand for “divine” in Colossians 1:9; referring to “divine” knowledge (i.e. revelation) that believers have in parallel with wisdom.

So there you go.

There’s every usage of the term “spiritual” (pneumatikos) in the New Testament, categorized by usage.  As you can see, a majority of the usages basically are contrasts with “carnal”, and the “spiritual” person in the New Testament is the person who is a mature believer that walks in obedience to the Lord.  Not that complex.

A “spiritual” person is someone who is instructed, empowered, gifted, blessed, and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

Talk of “being spiritual” is synonymous with talk about “being a mature Christian”.

So, the next time someone tells you that they’re into “spirituality”, I’d suggest responding “Oh?  I’m struggling to be a mature Christian too!”  Then, when they protest and start talking about monism vs. dualism or their inner light, you can say “Oh…you said ‘spiritual’ but you meant ‘nominal Hindu’. Gotcha!  I was thinking more about how the term is used by God, not Mike Meyers…” and then make a beeline for the gospel and help them understand true spirituality.


Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him somewhere...you didn’t.
  • xiqtem

    I can really identify with your sentiments towards the claim of being spiritual, and how it comes without context or definition. It has been driving me nuts for years. Thanks for the backup.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the support xiqtem. I hope to help…

  • pearlbaker

    Whoa, Nelly! If this topic was discussed anywhere else, there would be a “spiritual” WWIII. The words “spiritual” and “spirituality” were perfectly good words until the enemy decided to supplant Christian and Christianity with what are now vague and nebulous, nay meaningless, catch-all terms for any and every cockamamy “spiritual” theory out there…whether connected to an “Other”, or not. I pray for myself and all of us that we are careful about the way we use those words and that we are careful to define what we mean, especially when speaking with people of whose salvation we are not certain. Thank you for this forthright issue, Lyndon, now take a deep breath…there, aren’t you feeling more spiritual? :-))

    • Lyndon Unger

      What would a “spiritual” WWIII be? I laugh just thinking about what a strange idea that is!

      I definitely share your prayers though Pearl; I tend to annoy people that I talk with because I tend to ask them what they mean more and more. People assume that they’re always using words properly but often allow careless words to smuggle in careless thoughts.

      • pearlbaker

        Yes, I agree, my phraseology was weird, all right. 🙂 What I meant was a battle royal over the differing views of how “spiritual” and “spirituality” are used (and abused.) These words are the darlings of people who believe in all sorts of decidedly non-spiritual stuff, that is things that have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. Many people I know do toss those words around carelessly, applying them to themselves and others who they believe to be, well, uh, “spiritual” in some sense, but who really just espouse whatever tickles their fancy and then expound ad nauseum on their aerie-fairy ideas. Sorry for the silliness, but I enjoy a good laugh (even at my expense!)

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  • Love it!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Glad you found it lovable Melissa!

  • Ray Adams

    If the adjective – spiritual – derives from the noun – spirit – shouldn’t the usage of the noun have at least some influence in deciding both the overall perspective and the specific interpretation of pertinent scripture – such as those referred to in your light-hearted and enjoyable discussion?

    • pearlbaker

      You know, it “should” reflect that…but even in the Thesaurus supplied with my Mac software (not sure if it is Roget’s), the meanings and inferences we who are in the Spirit give to the word “spiritual” take a back seat to that which the world gives to it:


      1 your spiritual self: nonmaterial,incorporeal, intangible; inner, mental,psychological; transcendent, ethereal, otherworldly, mystic, mystical,metaphysical; rare extramundane.


      2 spiritual writings: religious, sacred, divine, holy, nonsecular, church, ecclesiastical, faith-based, devotional.

      For the record, I did not see Lyndon’s discussion as light-hearted, but rather filled with holy anger and deep pain for the tortuous manner in which the world (led by it’s prince, the enemy) has distorted what used to be perfectly descriptive and well-understood words. It’s a sad, sad, sad, sad world.

      • Lyndon Unger

        Thanks Pearl.

        I should have been more overt in the article, but the main thrust of “spiritual” in the Bible isn’t one of “immaterial” or “religious”. The main thrust has to do with the Holy Spirit. A “Spiritual man” is a man regenerated by, or acting under the influence of, the Holy Spirit.

        It’s true that our language has been taken captive. We, as Christians, need to retake our vocabulary one word at a time. That’s a far larger part of spiritual warfare than I used to understand.

        • pearlbaker

          Thank you, Lyndon, and I do understand that. It certainly is not just a matter of semantics.

    • Lyndon Unger

      I wasn’t discussing “spirituality” in general, but the actual adjectival form of the word, hence my two questions. Answering the first question is a book, but answering the second question is a realistic blog post.

      I could have walked through the whole “pneuma” word group, but that would have been 15x the work and 4x more writing.. Feel free to do that for me, and I’ll gladly retweet you and sing your praises!

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