Published in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Ed. Glen G. Scorgie, with Simon Chan, Gordon T. Smith and James D. Smith III, Zondervan, 2011, pp. 58-63. Also published in 2016 as Chapter 28 of Renewing the Christian Mind (HarperOne Publisher).
Christian spirituality has at its center Jesus of Nazareth, acknowledged by believers to be both Savior and Lord. To be a Christian, then, is to follow this Jesus. To appreciate what this has involved, and must continue to involve, it may be helpful to consider very briefly the dynamics that explain and shape all human spiritualities. For spirituality, viewed broadly, is indeed a universal dimension of human life. It arises out of the human quest for a place, an identity, and powers that are more than the "mere facts" of human existence. It seeks to make meaningful contact with, and draw substance from, that "more," that "higher power." Such a quest is the source of religions as we find them in our world, but it is not limited to religion. It constantly overflows and renews religion—very often by opposing what religion has become.
In their origin and development religions are profoundly shaped by the spiritual journeys of individuals. In the case of Christianity, this has been supremely the life story of Jesus. In turn each religion, as a concrete social reality, makes a distinct spirituality available to those in significant contact with it, and that spirituality always has two main dimensions. These two dimensions are dependent upon and simultaneously in tension with each other. They are first, the human forms, outwardly recognizable patterns of behavior, events, and equipage, that yield the many different "spiritualities" familiar to us; and second, the transcendental interconnection that lies outside of and within human forms and institutions, inhabiting them but always challenging, correcting and modifying them.
Through the centuries distinctively Christian spirituality has involved the endeavor to conform individual and social life to what Jesus did and said—more deeply still, to who he was and is. He lived out in his own person a spirituality that had both a human and a transcendental dimension. His followers through the ages, in adoration of him, have sought to penetrate to the core of his spirituality and to make it their own. Sometimes this has been a very explicit quest, as in the famous work of Thomas a Kempis on The Imitation of Christ (1471), and in the Imitatio Christi tradition generally, but it has always been an implicit reality of the Christian life.
In its outward dimension (that is, in the part necessarily expressed in human society and culture), the spirituality of Jesus was that of a serious Jewish young man—eventually a rabbi—living in the period of mature, post-exilic Judaism. He was brought up and lived for the most part in outlying areas of the Jewish homeland under Roman occupation; but he was thoroughly immersed from his youth in the teachings, traditions and official practices of the Jewish religion of his day. He lived and died within the outward forms of that religion, even while, as a true son of Israel, he drew from "the law and the prophets" a vision of the whole world under God’s rule (Isa. 49:6; Ps. 46:10).
Freeing human life from the tyranny of certain specific cultural—especially religious—forms was one of the main thrusts of his life and ministry, and a major part of the task his followers inherited from him. Staying, himself, within the Jewish forms of his day, at many points he challenged those forms as practiced around him, but always from within the resources of the law and the prophets. He constantly contrasted the heart of the law, or God’s intent with his laws, to the distortions and misapplications those laws had undergone at the hands of the "power people" or authorities of his day—"the scribes and the Pharisees." They used and abused "the law" to shut people away from God and to impose, for their own advantage, impossible burdens upon the masses of simple people they were supposed to serve. By critiquing them, Jesus continued the ancient prophetic tradition of Israel: that of the insider who is also an outsider, standing among people in the presence and power of God.
The spirituality of Jesus Christ was in that precise sense incarnational. To use that word, however, is not to refer only to the metaphysical nature of Christ, as is usually done. Rather, it is an indication of two different realms coming together to form a unique kind of life, in which human life in the world is an expression of divine life surpassing the world. The fullest expression of this "incarnation" is perhaps given in Jesus’ prayer of John 17: "I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world . . . As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (vv. 14, 21 NRSV). Christ followers are, it is often said, "in the world but not of it." In the words of the apostle Paul, "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20).
The spirituality of Jesus Christ and of his followers is therefore a two-fold life. It is, on the one hand, an ordinary human existence of birth, family and social context, work, and death, shared by all human beings, including Jesus himself. That is what it means to be "in the world." The spirituality of Jesus is not flight from the world. But it is also a life of knowing God by interactive relationship with him as we live in the world. It is eternal living (aionios zoe, John 17:3) here and now. It expresses itself within ordinary human life through understandings, events, and characteristics that cannot be explained by natural capacities of human beings or the natural course of events in "the world." It is accordingly "of the spirit and not of the flesh." This distinction, along with the warfare of spirit and flesh, is a focal point of the spirituality of Christ and the Christ follower, and a direct consequence of its incarnational nature.
The language Jesus used to express the spiritual side of the two-fold life was the language of "the kingdom of the heavens" or "the kingdom of God." The kingdom of God, which is exercised from "the heavens" around us, is the domain of God’s action: it is where what he wants done is actually done. Jesus worked and spoke in terms of the kingdom of God. He proclaimed or "preached" the direct accessibility to all of life in this "kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15), he manifested the presence of God’s action with him through deeds of power, and he taught about how things were done, what life would be like, for those living under the rule of God. (On this three-fold ministry of proclaiming, manifesting and teaching, see Matt. 4:23, 9:35) Thus one of his most oft repeated phrases is: "The kingdom of the heavens is like . . ." After his resurrection he was in and out among his friends "during forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:3) The message of the kingdom’s presence and availability through faith in Christ was committed to the disciples and carries on through the book of Acts (28:23, 31) and beyond.
So the spirituality of Jesus was a two-fold life; Jewish in outward form, but drawn, on the divine side, from the kingdom of the heavens, as a domain of reality in which one lives now. In the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, his spirituality was characterized by a number of traits that have also been prominent in the lives of his followers.
Independence from Human Authority
That he had authority—that is, the power, and not just the right, to direct thought, action, and events around him—was never in doubt. The effects of his power were obvious, and that is repeatedly brought out in the Gospels. That it did not derive from human sources was also obvious, for human authority was mainly set against him, and eventually caused his death. He was questioned concerning the source of his authority (Luke 20:2), but no one doubted he had authority. His implicit reply to the question was that his authority came from heaven. John the Baptizer had authority from heaven and his "endorsement" of Jesus put the stamp of "heaven" on Jesus.
Jesus was, however, not the disciple of John, or of any other prophet or rabbi. Jesus’ effects in speaking and acting manifestly originated from the God who was "with him" (Acts 10:38). That was an essential part of his spirituality. He endowed his followers with that same authority (Luke 9:1-2; Acts 1:7-8). Independence of human authority—so often exercised, unfortunately, in the name of God, yet in a manner contrary to his character and purposes—is nonetheless a constant factor in Christian spirituality, from Jesus and his first followers up to the present day. Its watchword in this respect is always, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29 NRSV; cf. 4:20).
The Great Inversion
"What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15 NRSV). And, it was also clear to Jesus that what is prized by God is often an abomination in the sight of men. The two sides of the two-fold life offer very different vantage points on what is good and what is important—of what "success" in life really amounts to. This was a note often struck in the OT, but Jesus relentlessly drives it home in every aspect of his life and teaching. He repeatedly emphasizes that "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Matt. 19:30 NRSV). His most remarkable statements on this point—and perhaps the most misunderstood—are the "beatitudes" of Matthew 5 and Luke 6. He himself was among the humanly "unblessables" in his birth, life, and death—as the great "kenosis" passage of Philippians 2:7-8 so clearly spells out. But he was blessed before God nonetheless. Down in the human order (poor, mournful, etc.) may well be up (among the blessed) in the divine order. Up in the human order (rich, popular) may well be down ("Woe to….") in God’s order. Well-being is not at all what humans routinely take it to be. But anyone alive in the kingdom of God, no matter what their circumstances may be, are blessed, well-off. The servant is regarded by human beings as among the lowest of the low. But in the spirituality of Jesus, "The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:26-27 NRSV).
The Practice of The Presence Of God
The spirituality of Jesus is unthinkable apart from the presence of God with him. In the times when he was alone from the human point of view, God was with him (John 8:16, 29, 16:32). On the cross, apparently, he was allowed to experience being forsaken by God, as he "taste[d] death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9). But his oneness with the Father was unbroken. The covenant people from Abraham onward had lived interactively with the God who was with them. That accounted for the manifold types of extra-human effects and accomplishments that characterized individuals as well as the people of Israel together. The tabernacle in the wilderness was an arrangement made in order for God to dwell among the children of Israel and be their God. "And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God" (Ex. 29:46 NRSV). God was so manifestly with Isaac, for example, that his powerful neighbors asked him to move away—and then came to ask him to move back, because "We see plainly that the Lord has been with you" (Gen. 26:16, 28 NRSV). Looking back upon the career of Jesus the apostle Peter explains "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38 NRSV). The "practice of the presence" is today one of the strongest themes in Christian spirituality.
Complete Security and a Worry-Free Existence
Jesus taught and practiced a life of peace and joy in the knowledge of God’s complete nearness and care, and he offered that life to his disciples as well. Such life lay at the very heart of his own spirituality. His mastery over events and people through faith in God, and the presence of God with him, never left Him at a loss, no matter the situation. Though sometimes saddened to tears, or exasperated by the ineptitude of His students, only in the supernatural struggle with evil in Gethsemane, on the way to the cross, and then upon the cross, do we witness his vulnerability—his "passion" (John 12:27). No doubt it was from Him that Paul learned how to be "afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Cor. 4:8 NRSV).
He could enjoy the company of "publicans and sinners." He could continue his nap in the storm, though the boat was filling with water and his disciples were scared out of their wits. After calming the storm he asked them: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40 NRSV) Surely his friends must have wondered at these questions. They simply did not yet see what he saw.
He knew that there was no reason to be afraid of those who can kill the body but after that have no more that they can do (Luke 12:4). "Whoever keeps my word," he said, "shall never see death" (John 8:51 NRSV). "Keepers of his word" will have already passed from death to life. There also is no need for them to worry about food or clothing or the material provisions for life (Luke 12:22-31). One has only to devote oneself to living in the kingdom and every provision will be made—though perhaps not to the world’s taste. Provisions for this life and beyond are made by the father, who watches over everything and is always with us. Joy, the pervasive sense of wellbeing, is the condition in which we live the kingdom life.
The early believers knew the secret: "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’" (Heb. 13:5-6 NRSV) Writing to the Philippians from his prison cell, citing the fact that "the Lord is near," Paul echoes the instruction of Jesus (Matt. 6:25-34) not to worry about anything. Rather "in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:4-7 NRSV).
Subversive of "The World"
The picture of Jesus’ spirituality that emerges from the above points naturally leads to appropriate subversion of merely human arrangements, which are largely based on fear. Subversion was the charge that led to the death of those early Christians who would not worship Caesar, and it is the charge that has been repeated through the ages, up to today in many parts of the world. The charge upon which Jesus was crucified was, essentially, that of subversion of the religious and political orders. In his encounter with Pilate, Pilate said to Jesus: "Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus answered him: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:10-11 NRSV). The source of governmental power is the same as the source of the "new birth" (it is anōthen, Gr. "from above").
Then Jesus proceeded through death to destroy the one who has the power of death, and thus to set "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (Heb. 2:15 NRSV). The primary human instrument of repression and control, the fear of death, is set aside by Jesus and his good news about eternal living now in the kingdom of God. He "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:10 NRSV). The Christ follower honors those to whom honor is due, but always "under God." It is because they stand under eternal authority and power that they more than any others stand for what is good, whether with or against those who have responsibility in human affairs. This too is the spirituality of Jesus Christ, and it is radically subversive. The ultimate ‘subversion’ would of course be at the coming of "the day of the Lord," when the "kingdoms" of this world would have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
Death to Self
Unlimited abandonment to God is essential to the spirituality Jesus lived and taught. He did not have to go to the cross. No one made him. It was his choice when there were other paths he could have taken. Choice is sacred to God, but what is best to choose? Faced with options, he saw that "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me . . ." (John 12:24-26 NRSV). Abandonment to God is the fruitful way to experience good under God. It means relinquishing "our way." It means not being angry or resentful when things do not go our way. It means that in God’s hands we are content for him to take charge of outcomes. And in that posture we make way for him to occupy our lives with us, and achieve what is best for us and for others far beyond anything we can even imagine. "I am crucified with Christ." His abandonment becomes our abandonment. "Nevertheless, I live" (Gal. 2:19-20). His resurrection becomes our resurrection—even before our "physical" death (Col. 3:1-4). Death to self is not ultimately a negation, but a rising up into the very life of God (2 Peter 1:4). Thus our life is saved by his life (Rom. 5:10).
The positive aspect of the "if it die" is "bringing forth much fruit." The death he chose was for the sins of the world. It was not just to lose life, but also to give life. This is what prevents his death, and Christian "death to self," from being morbid. It was for the "joy that was set before him" that he "endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2 NRSV). According to the ancient prophecy, he saw the work accomplished by his suffering and was satisfied" (Isa. 53:11). "He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them" (2 Cor. 5:15 NRSV). The mark of his disciples, accordingly, that they "love one another just as he loved them (John 13:34), is simply the outflow of transcendent life that comes through self-giving death.
These are a few outstanding points in the incarnational spirituality of Jesus Christ, which he shares with us today. Many people will find them surprising, because they have come to think of him and his spirituality, roughly speaking, in "monastic" terms. This widely shared vision of him sees him as withdrawing from the world and from "natural" human existence in order to be "spiritual." But for all of the virtues that may be found in monasticism, Jesus and his students were not monastics. Theirs was a spirituality of engagement with the world—a spirituality of stewardship, which hears the words "Do business with these until I come back" (Luke 19:13 NRSV), and rises up, in the face of all opposition, to conduct normal human affairs in the power of God.
To succeed with this indeed requires a life disciplined under grace. We learn to follow Jesus by entering into the activities he practiced. Effectual spirituality in the manner of Jesus demands wise, non-legalistic spiritual disciplines that nurture spiritual formation in Christ. But practicing spiritual disciplines is not itself spirituality. Spirituality is the life from God flowing through our life, which spiritual disciplines, rightly used, can help to facilitate. Indeed the kingdom walk with Christ is no life as usual among human beings, but an intelligent and spiritually informed course of regular activity that maximizes interactive relationship with the Trinity in the twofold life.
For Further Reading
Barclay, W. Jesus as They Saw Him (1978).
Edersheim, A. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2 vols. (1993).
Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers, Legends, and Lauds, trans. M. Wydenbruck (1947).
Muggeridge, M. Jesus: The Man Who Lives (1984).
Pelikan, J. Jesus Through the Centuries (1985/1999).
Ratzinger, W. Jesus of Nazareth (2007).
Willard, D. The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988).
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God (1997).