Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality

by Jared C. Wilson June 27, 2016

My friends tell me the story of a Christian sister from their church past who would agonize in the mornings over which shoe to tie first, for fear of violating the will of God.

This is serious business. So let me tell you a serious story from my own church past:

When I was in the ninth grade, some of my fellow youth group members and I were a part of something called the “student ministry team” at our Baptist church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One weekend, our youth pastor took us into the beautiful Sandia Mountains for a spiritual retreat, and on that Saturday our assignment after lunch was to get away by ourselves somewhere and listen for God and not return until we had heard from him.

Late that night we all sat around our cabin living room floor and shared what God had allegedly shared with each of us. I write “allegedly” there, because I wasn’t sure I’d heard anything from God. But that didn’t prevent me from coming up with something to say, the gist of which I’ve completely forgotten but which I’m sure was expressed in such a way as to demonstrate the exemplary quality of my “spirituality.” One by one, every member of the team shared the sweet nothings God had whispered in our ears. But one girl, just a sophomore at the time, became more and more visibly upset. By the time it was her turn to share, she was weeping.

“I didn’t hear anything from God!” she blurted out. “I never do.”

To the best of my recollection, we were all sympathetic, to our credit. Sometimes God just holds back, we assumed. Or sometimes we’re not listening well enough.

Our distraught teammate continued: “What’s wrong with me? I talk to God all the time. And I beg him to talk to me. But he never does. I really want to hear from him. Why won’t he answer me?”

I don’t remember what our youth pastor said in response to this startling honesty. But that moment has haunted me ever since. I don’t know if any of the other students actually heard something specific from God; I suspect more than a few just made things up, as I did. We were all afraid not to hear from God, not to fulfill the assignment. We didn’t know what that might mean for our personal faith and for our spiritual credibility within the group. We were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the youth group. Surely God would talk to us. But only this one girl had the courage not to care about her credibility, which of course is what made her all the more credible. She was hurting and desperate, and she was bold enough to clear the haze of our spiritual self-congratulation with her brokenness.

Nearly twenty years later I found this girl again thanks to the social network morass of MySpace. From her profile I could tell she was not exactly “ministry team” material any more. She’s now a thirtysomething year-old "goth girl." She’d changed her name to that of some Hindu goddess and listed "vampire porn" as one of her interests. She is also very proud of being an “out” bisexual. But she remembered me and our time at church, and we spent some time catching up.

I asked her about that moment at the retreat. “I’ve never forgotten that,” I said.

But she had. She said she didn’t remember that at all.

What she did remember, though, is that all during those days, her stepdad was sexually abusing her. Her stepdad was a recognized leader in the church, a Sunday School teacher and occasional deacon. The whole time we were holding up as virtuous some vague notion of “real spirituality,” this young girl needed someone who took the gospel more seriously (not less) to rescue her.

The tyranny of hyper-spirituality our church culture had foisted on us set us up for disappointment because it held up religious experiences as the means of God’s grace, rather than the finished work of the cross. I can only imagine how crushing the disappointment of my friend’s spiritual inexperience felt in light of the sin being inflicted on her. I don’t know if anyone could be blamed for not knowing about the abuse, but I do know that holding out something unattainable to someone in the pit of despair is evil. The gospel of grace on the other hand, is far more impossible than religious experiences, but far more attainable simply through faith.

Our brand of super-Christianity claimed too much and not enough. It failed her, where Christ would not. It is no wonder she gave up on the whole thing.

What is Hyper-Spirituality?

The best way I can illustrate hyper-spirituality is like this:

Imagine I give my daughters a new dollhouse. It’s a beauty. It’s four stories tall, ornately detailed, equipped with working lights and windows that slide up and down, and contains ample room for all their many dollies and dolly accessories. I give it to them and tell them I love them. But for some reason they think I don’t really expect them to play with it, but rather to spend any awareness they have of the dollhouse standing before me, thanking me for it. They somehow get it into their heads that to go into another room and play with the dollhouse is ingratitude, that I won’t feel properly thanked (or even pleasure in giving them the gift) except in their direct thanks to me. They don’t ever enjoy the dollhouse; they just show how much they love the gift of it by thinking of ways to thank me other than actually playing with it.

This is the view of God that belongs to the hyper-spiritual.

In the illustration—hypothetical, I assure you, since my daughters would be exponentially more enamored with a new dollhouse than with their lame ol’ dad—my daughters are zealous for something good: thanking their dad for the gift. But they have missed the point of both the gift and my relationship to them as a loving Father who gives good gifts. Echoing Romans 10:2, they have a zeal, but not according to knowledge.

Hyper-spirituality is what happens when we (usually implicitly) think that obedience to God and giving glory to God is about payback. We turn astonishment over the gospel into fuel for measuring up. We assume God requires a nearly monastic attention from us, a focus so self-consciously rigorous it must understand the concept of freedom in Christ in ways that don’t sound much like freedom.

We may think that obedience to God is how we fill up the standard for his approval. We may think we are filling our time with God’s glory when we are really filling it with self-righteousness. My friend Ray Ortlund writes about this well:

Zeal is good.  It’s the pure heart of God, moving all of history toward final redemption (Isaiah 9:7).  But our zeal is mixed.

Our zeal can be of the Spirit or of the flesh.  We shouldn’t assume, just because we’re considering a virtue (zeal) and not a vice (complacency), that our zeal must be okay.  To quote Jonathan Edwards, “There is nothing that belongs to Christian experience more liable to a corrupt mixture than zeal.”

What was wrong with the zeal of the Jews?  It was “not according to knowledge.”  Verses 3-4 [of Romans 10] explain that.  The Jews were zealous for their own righteousness.  Paul is saying, “You have to hand it to them.  They’re not complacent.  They’re passionate.  But their zeal doesn’t understand justification by faith alone.”

That helps me.  It gets me asking myself, What’s going on inside my own zeal?  If it’s really about my own righteousness, to show how radical I am, how rigorous I am, how I am not a slacker, then my zeal is self-justification.  It’s of the flesh, by the law.

The idea that every spare minute we’ve got must be filled with some explicitly spiritual thought or exercise is a burden hardly anyone can bear, and it's a burden nobody needs to bear. The Spiritual work that covers every second of our lives has been more than accomplished by Jesus.

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