The danger of over spiritualizing

over spiritualizing the bible

I have awesome friends that tell me really awesome stories. One such awesome story caused me to burst out laughing and envision funny variations to this already funny story. My friend, who has recently left a very strict traditionalist church that loves to over-spiritualize everything, shall not be named for his safety and wellbeing. As we talked about what he was dealing with, he told me about how strict his relatives are. They have this rule that if a Bible is open anywhere in the room, you cannot sit down. All this, of course, to “respect” the Bible. True story. Though its much funnier to hear it than read it. Reflecting on it now I assume the whole thing started out of some long forgotten desire to respect the Word of God (which is noble). Yet in today’s world this over-spiritualized tradition is nothing more than a laughingstock. A funny laughingstock. That’s all I thought as we talked. We proceeded to contemplate the many possibilities. What if the Bible gets opened when one is already sitting down, must he stand up? What do you do when its only half open, do you stand up halfway? What if his relatives were going to yell at us for this conversation, could we just open the Bible and make them stand up and stop yelling? The possibilities are endless! Why one could make a room full of people jump up and down by simply closing and opening the Bible. It’s hilarious! Now here someone might get mad at me for mocking their “earnest” behavior, if you feel that, this blog is written to help you understand precisely why we can’t excuse such destructive ideas, even if they are done “earnestly.”

WHAT IS OVER-SPIRITUALIZING?

Simply put, the act of ‘over’-spiritualizing is the placing a greater spiritual significance on something than you should.  For example, if you read about how Jesus wore sandals, and you insist everyone wears sandals, and you think sandals are really special and holy, you are over spiritualizing the act of wearing sandals. Or if you take the act of communion up a few notches and treat the communion cup as a most sacred relic you are over spiritualizing the ritual of communion. Or if you see a lunar eclipse and run to tell your neighbors that is an angel warning the antichrist is born you are over spiritualizing events in nature. I think you get the drift. Any time a person takes a thing above and beyond its spiritual meaning, they are “over-spiritualizing.”

WHY IS IT A BAD THING?

1. It obscures the real meaning of Jesus

One of the problems with over-spiritualizing is that you can forget the real meaning of the thing you are over-spiritualizing. An example that might be controversial (which is not my purpose) is the ceremony of foot washing. The Gospel of John shows how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-15). In the ultimate display of humility, He, the only clean one, lowered himself down to clean those who are dirty. He then asked his disciples to also do the same (John 13:14-15). Many people make this into a formal ceremony, where in the church deacons bring out buckets of water and people line up to perform this sacred ceremony of washing feet. In one of the churches I have been to, they ceremonially tie a towel around their waist because Jesus did as well (John 13:4). None of this is bad or sin, but I feel it can obscure the deeper meaning to what Jesus said. Over-spiritualizing can cause people to view this whole passage as a sacred set of instructions for a religious ceremony not a deep teaching about humility. I have seen people who are good at tying the sacred towel and know the parts of the ceremony really well, but then hate and gossip about their brother in a not-so-humble way. It’s easy to be so focused on the outer ceremony that you ignore the inner heart of humility and the act of lowering yourself to meet and serve others. This is what often happens because of over-spiritualizing, you often shoot past the real meaning and the real heart of the issue.

2. It makes Christianity into a laughingstock

Whether we like it or not we live in a brave new world. It is a smart world, where facts and data are quickly verified on the internet, where logic and science has greatly increased. It is also an age where superstition is no longer the rule of law, and many whos grandparents were held captive to superstitions, now scorn such ideas. This causes over-spiritualization to have a devastating impact on the credibility of the church. Where in the past over-spiritualizing might make uneducated peasants afraid of the priest, for he appeared spiritual and knowledgeable of all the mystical ceremonies. Today, the same act of over-spiritualizing will only make people roll their eyes and think Christianity is for the illiterate.  In the past, a group of priests could use religious fear to manipulate everyone into standing up any time a Bible was open. No one would question them because no one could read the Scriptures. And the uneducated people were largely superstitious and fascinated by physical objects, rites, and ceremonies. Today that same statement will only produce laughter, and then a significant mockery of Christianity. It will also portray Christianity as something it is not.

3. It teaches that God doesn’t work through the normal

Another problem with over-spiritualizing is its propensity to narrate the wrong view of God. Those people and groups that excel in over exaggerating and over spiritualizing hardly give God any room in the normal workings of the world. He is omitted and ignored in the daily cycles of life and in simple acts of kindness. Yet Scripture says otherwise, God makes the sun and rain shine and fall on everyone (Matthew 5:45). I know many people that over-spiritualize every sickness and sorrow in their life. They have made a whole system where God punishes people by specific types of sicknesses for specific types of sins. They use it to drive fear into children, saying “obey me or else God will not give you blessing.” They tell horror stories where a child disobeyed and grew up cursed, as if God is a spiritual curse dispenser, available to use at their will. Instead Mat 5:45 teaches that both the righteous and the unrighteous are treated equally in this life, both are given “common Grace.” The whole point is to show that God is working through the normal. Even now it is He who makes the sun rise, using the physical laws He created. It is He who makes the rain fall, using the water cycle He created. The focus is God is the source of all things, even and especially those things that seem normal. He works through the miraculous, but even more so through the normal. He works through miraculously bringing down fire from Heaven in Elijah’s case, but even more so He works through a phone conversation where a Christian gently councils her friend. Over-spiritualizing pushes God out of every single day, into the crazy fringe where few of us live. Over-spiritualizing teaches us to seek God in hyped up ceremonies and strange rituals, but fails to see His hand daily holding the stars in the sky.

2 responses

  1. With regard to foot washing. I know the traditional reading of the text indicates Jesus was showing humility in washing the disciples feet but I’ve always wondered whether there might be something more there that some people might miss, that maybe the writer understands, but left unsaid some of the flock may not have a clear understanding. Throughout the text we are instructed to walk in the way, the way demonstrated by Jesus. He, in fact, is the Way. For clarity’s sake, is it possible that Jesus was demonstrating that we were to wash(clean/correct) the feet(a symbol for how we walk i.e. what we do) of our brothers? It seems to me that in today’s world we refuse to tell anyone else when they are doing the wrong thing even if it is in their best interest and or the best interest of society as a whole. But His demonstration indicates we need to get down on our knees and do it with humility, not with a pointed finger or from a position of superiority. Is the towel on the waist an indication that He was making this a belt in the armor in our spiritual warfare?

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