Alienation from God
Recently, there has been talk about spirituality and Christianity, which has made me wonder what fellow Christians mean when they use the words “spiritual” and “spirituality.” When discussing these topics, it is important to focus on the very heart of Christianity—that we are not “spiritual.” We do not practice spirituality because we have climbed the ladder to God through human means. Rather, Christianity teaches that our alienation from God is remedied by Christ, who absorbs the sin that separates us from God. God came near to us in Christ, so that Christ could consume that which separates us from God, and thereby, draw us near to him.
We are not “spiritual,” but Christ was “spiritual” for us. In other words, without God nothing is strong and nothing is holy. We are weak and unholy. Our natural inclination is to substitute anything for God. We repel the holy and opt for manageable and convenient versions of God.
We tend, by a secret law of the soul, to move toward our mental image of God. In his book, Your God Is Too Small, J. B. Phillips describes inadequate ideas of God. Just looking at the chapter titles can be helpful:
- The Resident Policeman
- The Parental Hangover
- The Grand Old Man
- Meek and Mild
- Absolute Perfection
- The Heavenly Bosom
- God in a Box
- The Managing Director
- Second-hand God
- Perennial Grievance
- The Pale-Galilean
How many of these ideas have become prominent ways of understanding God both in the church today and in our contemporary culture?
The incarnation eviscerates these faulty views of God. Through the incarnation, God disarms us of our self-reliant spiritual efforts. As a result, we have a problem with God. God is morally and spiritually separated from us, and we are separated from God and from one another. Christian spirituality, then, is ultimately created not by reason or emotion, but by condescension. John Calvin uses the notion of accommodation—“God accommodates to our human capacity.” God condescended and became a human. God condescended, spoke our language, and gave us a book so that we would remember the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.
Spirituality Properly Understood
The most fundamental spiritual lesson we learn from this is a caution against the fetish of spirituality itself. Spirituality includes beliefs and practices, theology and rituals, ideas and activities. These are all things that contribute to a rich and vibrant Christian life, both individually and communally. But at the heart of Christian spirituality is a reminder that no spiritual practice or ritual alone can draw us near to God. God must come near to us. That “God-coming-near” is what has happened in the incarnation and that is what we celebrate as Christians. Christian spirituality ultimately rests in God’s condescension to us. It is not that we have risen to spiritual heights, but that heaven has come down to us.