Can a Christain be too spiritual?
John of the cross thinks we can. In the spiritual classic “Dark night of the soul,” He lists a series of sins that are poison to the Christian life. In it He explains how one vice can turn spiritually into a bad habit.
Beginners in the spiritual life are apt to become very diligent in their exercises. The great danger for them will be to become satisfied with their religious works and with themselves. It is easy for them to develop a kind of secret pride, which is the first of the seven capital sins. Such persons become too spiritual. They like to speak of “spiritual things” all the time. They become content with their growth, They would prefer to teach rather than to be taught. They condemn others who are not as spiritual as they are. They are like the Pharisee who boasted in himself and despised the publican who was not as spiritual as he. The devil will often inflame their fervor so that their pride will grow even greater. The devil knows that all of their works and virtues will become valueless and, if unchecked, will become vices. For they begin to do these spiritual exercises to be esteemed by others, They want others to realize how spiritual they are. They will also begin to fear confession to an other for it would ruin their image. So they soften their sins when they make confession in order to make them appear less imperfect. They will beg God to take away the imperfections, but they do this only because they want to find inner peace and not for God’s sake. They do not realize that if God were to take away their imperfections from them, they would probably become prouder and more presumptuous still. But those who are at this time moving in God’s way will counter this pride with humility. They will learn to think very little of themselves and their religious works. Instead, they will focus on how great and how deserving God is and how little it is that they can do for him. The Spirit of God dwells in such persons, urging them to keep their treasures secretly within themselves.
What is john describing here?
He is describing a Christain who is “too spiritual”. In John’s estimation, Christians can become so spiritual it’s devilish. I think he is right. I even think, being too spiritual is a major problem in the church. It is a subtle and seductive sin. A sin that kills the soul. That’s what John means by capital sin. A capital crime is a crime punishable by death. Pride, as a “capital” crime against God, carries with it a sentence of death. Pride poisons the soul and deadens the spirit.
Being “too spiritual” is pride. But what is meant by pride? Pride is a disordered self-love, which seeks attention and honor by comparison and competition. A prideful person assumes on their own ability and find in themselves the resources necessary to accomplish what they set out to do, consequently they set themselves in opposition to God, by being in competition with God. In this way, the vice of pride is privatized autonomy, which the Bible calls being a “slave to sin” (John 8:34). The devil’s first strategy is always to puff us up and in so doing poison our souls. Dennis F. Kinlaw explains how serving the self is a trap of Satan and the essence of sin.
Satan disguises submission to himself under the ruse of personal autonomy. He never asks us to become his servants. Never once did the serpent say to Eve, ‘I want to be your Master’. The shift in commitment is never from Christ to evil; it is always from Christ to self. And instead of his will, self-interest now rules and what I want reigns. And that is the essence of sin.” (1)
But how can something so dangerous be so seductive? Consider this, everyone has been given a unique set of gifts and talents. God certainly wants us to put them to good use. For many of us, when we’re using our gifts the way God intended, we feel a sense of exhilaration. We feel alive because we’re fulfilling a purpose, in a way, we have found our place in the world. But it’s the moments that follow this exhilaration that matter most to God. If we take those feelings of exhilaration and accomplishment and turn them inward, giving credit solely to ourselves, then we have sinned against God. We walk the path of pride. We may know to give God credit but it’s little more than lip service, credit in name only.
John also brings up the parable of the publican and the sinner revealing another aspect. Spiritual pride can work its way into our perspective, into our judgments, and into the way we see ourselves. Just like the publican in Jesus‘ parable, we see others through the lens of Comparison and competition. A person whose eyes are trained for critical Comparison and a spirit of competition. Such a prideful perspective creates an “us-them” mentality. The good people are like us. the bad people are like them. Scripture tells us the reality of the situation. It’s not us vs. them. True is we are all bad guys and Jesus. Jesus is the only good guy. If we are being lead to somehow compare ourselves to each other, to exalt ourselves over others, we are in grave danger. Because the practice of the gifts that are meant to humble us, meant to keep us close to God, and lead us to grow can become themselves a stumbling block for us.
Here are a few thoughts on avoiding being “too spiritual”.
- Practice gratitude: As I explained above, thank God every chance you get and mean it from the bottom of your heart. This is why over and over in the Psalms we are reminded of our in ability in light of God’s great ability. Now We need to acknowledge inability without relinquishing responsibility. The key to this is gratitude, for it begins with knowledge meant of our inability in the praise of God’s ability. It is the dally countermeasure against our tendency towards self exaltation. However, if we turn our gazes heavenward, thanking and praising Him, for in the end, He is doing all the heavy lifting.
- Practice humility: For every vice, there is a corresponding virtue. Whenever a person struggles with pride, he or she can overcome it by practicing humility. But How? First, look at the gospel with the eyes of the publican. We are never as good as we think we are. We will always need grace and forgiveness. We never outgrow it so we should never forget it. Second, As you move through your day try to think about yourself less. We live in a world captive to social media and Christian social media is a breeding ground for spiritual pride. Everything is filtered through image management and self-promotion, comparison and competition. Social media is not bad in itself but it can promotes spiritual pride by habituating the bad practice of thinking about yourself TOO MUCH. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote “True humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; but it is thinking of yourself less.” that is the goal of practicing humility.
- Don’t lose your sense of humor. People who are too spiritual tend to not have a sense of humor. They lack the ability to make light of their situation or laugh at themselves. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable would never laugh at his own quirks. It is the way pride can rob us of our humanity. In our weaknesses and failures we can feel our humanity. They remind us we are all too human, imperfect creatures tethered to a perfect God by a gospel of grace. Laughing at yourself when you make a silly mistake is a fruit of knowing who you are in the gospel. Such people have a hard time laughing at themselves because they take themselves and their “religion” too seriously. So when you can’t laugh it may be a sign you’re headed down the wrong road.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable took himself way too seriously. Similar to the above point, people who take themselves to seriously are often mortified when they mess up becoming very upset about their failure. Yet it is often for the wrong reason. Aiming to grow and change is different from the aim to be perfect. Perfectionist tend to desire change for what they can get out of it. John of the Cross insightful put his finger on the issue, when he wrote “they want to find inner peace and not for God’s sake.” They take themselves too seriously. Interestingly, the first being to act like that fell from heaven because of it. Being too spiritual and taking yourself too seriously go hand-in-hand.
- Celebrate other people more and God most. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable saw all of life in light of himself. He was self-centered. That is how he could make religious devotion into self-worship. It is why it was easy to compare himself to other without even a prick of conscience. The only way we can resist the urge towards competition and comparison is by the practice of rejoicing in the victories of others. And always allow your celebration of others to roll up into celebration of God. God is behind all of our victories and every good thing is from his hand.
(1) Dennis F Kinlaw This Day with the Master, (Grand Rapids Zondervan 2004) entry of Nov 14.
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