Christian spirituality, at the simplest level, is the lived experience of a personal relationship with God. It includes the day to day things we do to express and nourish that relationship, including prayer and the reading of Scripture. It includes the inspiration we find to keep us going, to help us make choices. It’s about developing that trust in God that gives us hope for the future, meaning to the present, and strength in hard times.
Because spirituality is about lived experience, we learn from those who have gone before us. We all have those brothers and sisters we trust who are like mentors in the faith, who held our hand when we took our first awkward steps, and who are still available to us when we find ourselves on rough ground. Books by Christian authors can also be a help—they’re another way we learn from the experience, struggles, and insights of others, a source of wisdom we can apply to our own life.
Spirituality, in the broader sense, then, includes not just our own experience, but this collective wisdom that provides timeless guidance. In his book, We Drink from Our Own Wells, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez said that spirituality starts as a personal experience, but it becomes “the subject of later reflection and is proposed to the entire ecclesial community as a way of being disciples of Christ.” In other words, someone says, “This is what’s worked for me—why don’t you try it?”
Francis of Assisi, for example, heard Jesus calling him to sell all he had, give to the poor and follow him. He was attracted to those Biblical texts that spoke of Jesus emptying himself, becoming a baby in a manger, embracing the shame of the cross. He lived a life of simplicity and humility and poverty; he sang songs praising God’s handiwork in nature; he was the first to display a Christmas crèche, so people could better imagine the humility and poverty of Jesus; and he wrote some guidance for those who wanted to do the same thing—and many through the centuries have been inspired by what’s become known as Franciscan spirituality.
Martin Luther also had an experience of God—he was a neurotic young monk who tried to work his way to God when he experienced God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ; he felt the law to be a heavy weight accusing him, he experienced the gospel as a gracious word declaring him right with God through faith in Jesus. Luther’s reflection on his experience and Scripture led him to critique church practice and to proclaim the good news of justification by faith alone, to write hymns and to translate the Bible into German so that all could read it—these became the basis for a distinctive Lutheran spirituality.
John Wesley was a young Anglican priest who was troubled; “I went to America to convert the Indians,” he moaned once, “but who will convert me?” Then he wandered into Aldersgate Chapel in London, and heard Martin Luther’s preface to Romans read, and he said, “About a quarter before nine … I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death”—he poured out that experience of God’s love in sermons and hymns, gathered others for small groups for study, sharing and prayer, and inspired the heartfelt spirituality that characterizes the various movements called Methodist, Wesleyan, and Holiness.
The early Adventists were of course influenced by those Christians who went before, especially by Wesley and the Methodist movement. But they also had a unique experience of God; they reflected upon it, and from that, and our experience as a people since, has grown a collection of wisdom about our unique approach to living the Christian life. That’s what I’m going to call, Adventist Spirituality.
Rooted in Jesus
Like all Christian spirituality, Adventist spirituality is rooted in Jesus. It’s all about him. In particular, it is rooted in the experience of our pioneers in the Great Second Advent Movement of the early 19th century, who were “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). This was not a “doom and gloom” movement—the Advent Movement was optimistic—it had a positive message that was joyous, and hope-inspiring. Look through the hymns in the “Early Advent” section of the hymnal some time. “How cheering is the Christian’s hope.” “How sweet are the tidings.” “O! what can buoy the spirits up? ‘Tis this alone, the blessed hope.”
They took comfort in the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
This blessed hope of the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the recreation of a new heaven and a new earth is both the fulfillment of what God intended in creation and the completion of the redemption purchased for us on Calvary. It is Christ crucified who is coming, to save those whose sins have been washed away by his blood. We sing with joy, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe; sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” Adventist spirituality is a spirituality of the cross—we glory in the cross—for we know that we are sinners, that we have no claim upon God, that we have nothing to lift up to him except the blood of Jesus.
After the disappointment in 1844 the Adventist pioneers delved more deeply into Scripture to understand why Christ had not come as they expected. They saw in 2 Peter 3:9, that “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” They saw in the book of Hebrews, chapter 4:14, that he is our “great high priest,” “passed into the heavens”—“not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
Do you sometimes feel that your prayers go no higher than the ceiling? Do you sometimes feel that God has turned his back? This Scripture should clear away all such doubts. Jesus lives, and intercedes for you. Hebrews 7:25 promises that “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
Do you wonder if you’re praying the right way? I’ve seen books on prayer that emphasize different techniques, how you breathe, how you sit, words you say; some say you should use your imagination, others say you must clear your mind; some want candles, some want beads, some say to walk in circles in and around a labyrinth. None of that matters—prayer is not a matter of what you know, it’s who you know. And we know Jesus.
Prayer is not a technique, it is, as Ellen White said, “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend.” And what a friend he is. He is “not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” We know him—but just as importantly, he knows us. He’s walked in our shoes. Because of this, he can be not only an intercessor who knows us, but an example we can seek to imitate.
In recent years, it has become popular for young people to wear bracelets with the letters, W.W.J.D.—“What Would Jesus Do?” The phrase was coined in 1896 by Charles Sheldon, in his novel, In His Steps. The minister in the story, Henry Maxwell, preaches on 1 Peter 2:21, “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” He challenges the members of his congregation:
I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be.
In 1989 a group of 35 high school youth at a church in Holland, Michigan, who had heard their youth minister, Janie Tinklenberg, refer often to this story, got an idea. “What if we made bracelets with this saying on it, to remind ourselves to ask this question whenever confronted with a choice?” The bracelets became a fad that hasn’t yet died out. This wasn’t an Adventist youth group, Sheldon wasn’t an Adventist author—but we fully embrace this idea as central to what it means to live a Christian life.
Rooted in the Biblical Understanding of Man
Adventist spirituality is rooted in Jesus, as savior, as intercessor, and as model, and in the blessed hope that this same Jesus shall come again in glory, that we may be with him forever.
Adventist spirituality is also rooted in the biblical understanding of man. God formed Adam out of the clay and breathed into him the breath of life, and made him a living soul. God made Adam a wife, and told them to be fruitful and multiply. And then God said, “It is good.” Our physical body, and marriage, and sexuality are things that are part of the original order of creation, before sin entered.
In many other religions, however, the body is a problem—indeed, it is the problem. For the ancient Greeks and the Gnostics, it was a prison, something to escape. Many Christians have embraced that view. They see salvation as just a matter of getting the soul to heaven. But the Bible says God created us whole people, and he showed his interest in the whole person by giving us his son, to live as one of us, and to suffer and die as one of us. He still bears our flesh—and the scars—in heaven. And he intends to raise this body, and transform it, in the earth made new.
The material world isn’t a mistake, and so God isn’t just interested in getting the soul to heaven. We see this clearly in the ministry of Jesus, who gave sight to the blind and made the lame walk. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25, the sheep, who are commended, are those who cared for peoples’ physical needs: “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
Adventist spirituality is concerned for the whole person. We take to heart 3 John 2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.” That’s the reason for our health message, including our preference for a vegetarian diet, and our abstinence from tobacco and alcohol and other harmful substances. It’s not intended to be a long list of dos and don’ts; rather, it is intended to be guidance to help us live the kind of life God intended from the beginning.
Our health message seemed eccentric once, but the world is catching on. It used to be you had to go to the Adventist Book Center to get vegetarian food—now there are health food sections in major chains like Kroger and H.E.B., not to mention Whole Foods Market. Smoking used to be a sign of glamour, was once even promoted as a cure for lung cancer—today, there are fewer and fewer places where smokers can light up. The problems associated with the typical American diet are illustrated in books and movies like “Super-Size Me” and “Fast Food Nation.”
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 RSV
That’s different from the attitude of the world. “It’s my body, I can do whatever I want with it.”
This principle extends to our whole person, calling us to a lifestyle of simplicity.
“Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” 1 Peter 3:3
We’re not the first and only Christians to see the Christian life as one of simplicity, following the example of Jesus—indeed, some others have taken it much further than we have. St. Francis of Assisi wore a single rough tunic, bound with a rope, and no shoes. The Anabaptists of Switzerland and Germany, and their descendants, the Mennonites, the Brethren, the Hutterites and the Amish, have so emphasized simple living that people forget the Anabaptist faith that is the reason. We lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years, and could sit on our front porch to watch Amish buggies traipsing by on their way to the store. Adventists don’t go that far, but we do seek a graceful simplicity that doesn’t get caught up in the fads and fashions of the world—for our minds are set on things above.
There’s a danger with externals like diet and dress, of course. Our perspective can be warped if we focus on them. They can be an occasion of pride. They can be things that set us over against others, and cause us to focus inward. That’s what turns off so many young people—they see only the rules, not the reason; they see the letter, not the spirit. That’s why we have to be very careful, to show that this, like every other aspect of our spirituality, grows out of our relationship with Jesus.
We must always remember that our concern for the whole person isn’t just about us, it extends outwards in mission. Our spirituality reaches beyond us; we have something we think worth sharing. We have a message that is good news, both for eternity and for today. This is why we not only have evangelistic crusades and television and radio programs, but also hospitals and clinics, medical missions, Five Day Plans and cooking schools.
But early Adventists went further; they wanted not only to heal the wounds caused by society, they sought to reform society itself. They were active in the temperance movement, which was devoted to eliminating the evils associated with alcohol abuse. They were abolitionists, and worked actively for the freedom of slaves, helping them escape through the Underground Railroad. But engaged in civil disobedience against the Fugitive Slave Law that demanded the return of escaped slaves. Adventists fought for religious liberty for all.
It’s paradoxical, in a way. Our Adventist pioneers believed in the soon return of Christ, and they avoided the pleasures and concerns of the world, but they nevertheless engaged the world on issues of importance to themselves and to the larger society. That should cause us to pause and reflect on our own city, and state, and nation. What are the issues facing us? What are the things we should be concerned with? What kind of a witness might we be able to give?
Rooted in the Distinction between the Creator and the Creature
Adventist spirituality is rooted in Jesus, and in a Biblical understanding of man, and—this is my last point—in the realization that there is a distinction between the two. We aren’t God. Seems like a basic point, doesn’t it? But much of what is called “spirituality” today blurs the line between the two, telling us to worship what is divine in us, telling us to celebrate our own potential.
But Scripture calls us out of ourselves.
Revelation 14:6-7—“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.”
This was the issue in Eden, it was the issue at Sinai, it was the issue Jesus faced in the wilderness, it is the issue before us in these last days. Who will you worship, the Creator or the creature? Will you follow a spirituality that points you above, or one that says you have everything you need?
We gather each week not to hear useful advice, not to hear things that make us feel good, not to celebrate our own accomplishments. We gather to give God the glory, to give him the praise, to give him the honor. Our music takes us out of ourselves, to magnify his name. Our prayer brings us on our knees, lifting us to him.
The great symbol of the kind of worship God seeks is the Sabbath. It’s not something we offer to God—it’s something he gave for us. He just asks us to remember it, and by it, to remember him. To remember that he is both our Creator and our Redeemer. The Sabbath is both a sign of the difference between us and God, and of what God wants to do with us and through us. “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13).
One of my favorite movies is Fiddler on the Roof. I’m especially moved by the scene of the lighting of the Sabbath candles. The mother gathers the family about the table, and with a veil over her head, and her hands over her eyes, she leads the family in prayer. Dressed in their finest clothes, the thoughts and arguments of the week put away for twenty-four hours, together they welcome the Sabbath. Throughout the village of Anatevka all families, rich and poor, large and small, unite in this act recognizing the holiness of this time.
Through my years away from the Adventist Church, I treasured my memories of Sabbaths past. The arrival of the Sabbath was announced by the flaming colors of the Friday sunset and characterized by a hushed atmosphere of holy expectation. We were exhorted to “guard the edges of the Sabbath,” making sure our work was done well before the start of the Sabbath, and treasuring the last moments of the sacred time. The Sabbath was marked not merely by an absence of work and of the blare of the television, but also by special meals and special guests, gatherings for prayer and song, and leisurely strolls through the woods or along the seashore admiring the handiwork of the Creator, who left this holy time as a memorial of his work of creation.
Here’s where it all comes together—our relationship with Jesus, our spirituality that includes the body, and our worship. Here we see again that we aren’t God, but we belong to him.
Seventh-day Adventist spirituality is rooted in Jesus, in our understanding that God is interested in our whole person, and in the affirmation through our worship that we belong to God.