Christian Spirituality: Theology in Action

by Dr Alex Tang

1.                  Definition of Christian Spirituality

The word spirituality has become popular to describe those attitudes, beliefs, practices that animate people’s lives and help them to reach out towards the supra-natural realities. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality notes that ‘ Christian spirituality is not simply for the ‘interior life’ or the inward person, but as much for the body as the soul, and is directed to the implementation of both the commandments of Christ, to love God and our neighbors.’

Christian Spirituality is the process of spiritual formation of a disciple of Jesus Christ for an authentic and fulfilled Christian life in the present world; involving bringing together the fundamental tenets of the Christian truths and the experience of living in God’s presence, grace and love in our daily life. It is Trinitarian, incarnational and grace-filled living. It is theology in action.

Christian spirituality as defined by others:

“[Spirituality] is a useful term to describe how, individually and collectively, we personally appropriate the traditional Christian beliefs about god, humanity, and the world, and express them in terms of our basic attitudes, life-style and activity”

Philip Sheldrake, Images of Holiness

“Whatever else may be affirmed about a spirituality which has a biblical precedent and style, spiritual maturity or spiritual fulfillment necessarily involves the whole person – body, mind, soul, place, relationships – in connection with the whole of creation throughout the era of time. Biblical spirituality encompasses the whole person in the totality of existence in the world, not some fragment or scrap or incident of a person”

William Stringfellow,  The Politics of Spirituality

“Spirituality is a lived experience, the effort to apply relevant elements in the deposit of the Christian faith to the guidance of man and woman towards their spiritual growth, the progressive development of their persons which flowers into a proportionately increased insight and joy”

George Gauss, Ignatius of Loyola: Exercises and Selected Works

“Spirituality has to do with our experiencing of God and with the transformation of our consciousness and our lives as outcomes of that experience”

Richard O’Brien, Catholicism

“…we are to love God, we are to be alive to him, we are to be in communion with him, in this present moment of history. And we are to love men, to be alive to men as men, and to be in communication on a personal level with men, in this present moment of history”. (italics his)

Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality

Hence our spirituality begins with God. It begins with a divine call, rebirth and conversion (John 3:3-8; Acts 2:38-39) and continues with sanctification or spiritual formation. It requires divine grace and our willing co-operation. It involves our inner and outward lives. It involves the integration of ours lives as we are being restored by the Holy Spirit. The goal is to become more like Christ (Eph 4:13-16).

2.                  Essentials of Christian Spirituality

2.1              Knowing God, not just knowing about God.

2.2              Experiencing God to the full.

2.3              Transformation of existence on the basis of the Christian faith and truths.

2.4              Attaining Christian authenticity in life and thoughts.

3.                  Characteristics of Christian Spirituality

3.1              Christian spirituality is about totality of the whole person.

3.2              Christian spirituality is about the Trinitarian God of love and grace.

 It is a prophetic spirituality.

3.3              We are sustained in the journey of faith by grace.

 It is an empowering spirituality. It is a self-affirming, aware, and grateful for God’s gifts to us giving us a healthy self-esteem. It is also mutually empowering, affirming other people and facilitating their blossoming.

3.4              The spiritual life is a journey from achievement to rest.

It is a contemplative spirituality. It emphasizes moments of reflection, meditation, and contemplation – being present to the Present, a constant awareness of the absolute within us, who is the inexhaustible source of joy, love, and energy and makes us committed but carefree.

3.5              Christian spirituality is a healing spirituality.

It is a process of healing one’s own wounds and using one’s own experience to heal others.

3.6              Christian spirituality is Christian spiritualities.

Christian spirituality is not monolithic. As each person is different, even with the identical theological beliefs and emphasis, his or her spiritualities will be influenced by his or her temperament, social, financial, educational, denominational and cultural context. Hence on one hand, we can speak of Christian spirituality and on the other hand, we speak of Christian spiritualities.

3.7              The cauldron of an enduring spirituality is suffering and conflict.

3.8              We are not alone on the journey.

3.9              Christian spirituality is an Easter spirituality.

It is a spirituality that transcends Good Friday and is infected with the fearless joy of Easter. It resists the forces of death and promotes the enhancement of life. It feasts more than it fasts. It is not so much control as surrender. It is not cold asceticism but a celebration of life.

4.                  Biblical Basis of Christian Spirituality

4.1              The Spirituality of the Word.

“Contemplation, far from being opposed to theology, is in fact the normal perfection of theology. We must not separate intellectual study of divinely revealed truth and contemplative experience of that truth as if they could never have anything to do with one another. On the contrary, they are simply two aspects of the same thing. Dogmatic and mystical theology, or theology and ‘spirituality’ are not set in mutually exclusive categories, as if mysticism were for saintly women and theological study were for practical but, alas, unsaintly men. This fallacious division perhaps explain much that is actually lacking in both theology and spirituality. But the two belong together. Unless they are united there is no fervour, no life and no spiritual value in theology; no substance, no meaning and no sure orientation in the contemplative life.”

                                                                                     Thomas Merton,  Trappist monk

4.2              The Bible in Christian Spirituality

(a)                Any Bible exposition must pays close attention to the correct interpretation of the passage.

It is very important that any passage in the Bible must be interpreted correctly. The common error is to take a passage or a verse out of context to support our ideas. Someone said that ‘ a verse out of context is a pretext’.

James 3:1

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teaches will be judged more strictly.

God will hold us responsible for how we interprete the Bible. We must allow the Bible, which is the Word of God to speak for itself.

JN 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.

Eugene Nida, executive secretary for translation of the American Bible Society was responsible for shaping 200 translation of the Bible in various languages. He was influential in the translation of Good News Bible (1976), Contemporary English Version (1995) and New Living Translation. He coined the word dynamic equivalence  to describe a ‘meaning-based’ approach – one that looks for functional equivalence rather than formal resemblance in translation. He warns of ‘word worship’. In an interview with Christianity Today (Oct.7, 2002), he was asked, What do you consider your most important contribution to Bible translation, he answered “To help people be willing to say what the text means-not what the words are, but what the text means…Language is part of culture. Therefore, we have to understand the cultures of the New Testament period if we are going to understand what the writers were trying to say…. in most of Africa, sheep are regarded as very bad animals! Goats are greatly appreciated. If a woman were exchanged for a number of goats, she would have prestige. If she were exchanged for a number of sheep, she could never live it down.”

(b)               The Bible has a fundamental unity, which includes the Old Testament and the New Testament.

2 Tim. 3 :16a

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 

There is a strong tendency for Christians to place more emphasis on the New Testament than on the Old Testament. We preach more from the NT, do more quiet time from verses in NT and encourage each other with verses from the NT. We must remember that the NT is the continuation of the OT. It is one book.  The writer to the Hebrews contrasts the ‘many and various ways’ in which “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb.1:1-2). Paul traces God’s dealing with the world through successive stages associated with Adam, Abraham, Moses and Christ. The fact that Jesus quotes from the OT shows that OT is still relevant.

(c)                The Holy Spirit has a fundamental role in understanding the Bible.

1 Cor. 2:10-14

10 but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.  11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.  13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.  14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

(d)               The Bible must be understood in relationship to what it leads us to do.

2 Tim. 3:16,17

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

James 1:22-25

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.  23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror  24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

5.                  Prayer and Corporate Worship and Christian Spirituality

5.1              The Spirituality of Prayer.Prayer is communion, spirit speaking to Spirit. Prayer can be aided by the use of images


5.2              Forms of Prayer

5.2.1        The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer comes to us as a gift of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It was transmitted in its earliest version as lectio divina. The Jesus Prayer is more narrowly focused than lectio divina because it always uses the same biblical words. The words is the combination of the pleas in Luke 18:38 and Luke 18:13.

The first phrase-“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” – comes from the lips of a blind man outside Jericho. The second plea comes from the story of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee in his prayer listed all his pious practices. The publican prayed a simple, heartfelt prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”.

Across the ages, Christians have prayed. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” One of the shorter versions is: “Jesus Christ, have mercy”.

The Jesus Prayer is called a prayer of the “mind in the heart”. In the beginning your body prays the prayer. Your mouth repeats it as your mind concentrate on physically reciting it and the meaning of the words recited. Eventually, after thousands of repetition, perhaps over a number of years, you no longer repeat the words with your mouth but your mind keeps praying the prayer. Finally comes the prayer of the mind in the heart. You no longer consciously think about the words of the prayer. Now your whole life prays the prayer without your thinking about it. Or the prayer prays your life.  Unconsciously, you focus your deepest attention-the attention of your entire life- on God.

5.2.2        Walking Prayer

Walking prayer is prayer in which we allow God to lead us. There is a place for vigorous intercession and laying our requests before Him. But allowing God to speak and place requests before us has a place. It  may leads us to repentance, celebration, intercession, introspection and many other things. Walk with God and let the Holy Spirit  leads you as you pray.

5.2.3        Centering Prayer

Centering prayer focuses on being, and aware of God.

5.2.4        Prayer of the Heart

Prayers that concentrate on emotional attachment or adoration of God.  It develops and matures the emotional faculty of our souls. Its aim is to love God; to have our hearts enlarged so that God owns more and more of us. It is ‘being’ prayer rather than ‘doing’ prayer.

5.2.5        Stations of the Cross

Praying through the Stations of the Cross has traditionally been a popular method of contemplative prayer. Christians simply pray through the various events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion”

(1)   Gethsemane

(2)   the sentence of death given to Jesus

(3)   Jesus receiving the cross

(4)   Jesus falling

(5)   Simon helping Jesus carry the cross

(6)   Jesus falling a second time

(7)   women mourning for Jesus

(8)   Jesus falling again

(9)   Jesus being stripped of his clothing

(10)           Jesus calling out to John and Mary

(11)           Jesus dying on the cross

(12)           Jesus being taken down from the cross

(13)           Jesus being laid in the tomb

5.2.6        Meditative Prayer

Ignatius of Loyola in The Spiritual Exercises talks about the reflection on a biblical text, prayerful reflection of a particular theme or prayerful use of an object (something you can see, taste, touch, hear or smell) and reflection on its particular lessons. Each time of prayer begins with a humble submission to God and ends with a return to God.

6.                  Reflection Questions

6.1              How would you describe your own spirituality? Write out your answer in full. Then review what you have written in six months. Do you expect any changes as you re-articulate your own spirituality?

6.2              How do you think the study of the Word and prayer will influence your spirituality?

Soli Deo Gloria