Religion or Spirituality?

Text: John 4:5-15

A few years ago, the Associated Press carried this story:

By Day 2 in the blazing Utah desert, Dave Buschow was in bad shape. Pale, wracked by cramps, his speech slurred, the 29-year-old New Jersey man was desperate for water and hallucinating so badly he mistook a tree for a person.

After going roughly 10 hours without a drink in the 100-degree heat, he finally dropped dead of thirst, face down in the dirt, less than 100 yards from the goal: a cave with a pool of water.

But Buschow was no solitary soul, lost and alone in the desert. He and 11 other hikers from various walks of life were being led by expert guides on a wilderness-survival adventure designed to test their physical and mental toughness.

And the guides, it turned out, were carrying emergency water on that torrid summer day.

Buschow wasn’t told that, and he wasn’t offered any. The guides did not want him to fail the $3,175 course. They wanted him to dig deep, push himself beyond his known limits, and make it to the cave on his own.

I see this story as a metaphor. People are thirsty today. They are longing for meaning to life, for a connection to something greater than themselves. And they are not always finding it in the churches in which they grew up. They are tried of religion, they say, but they crave “spirituality.” They go to workshops and seminars, read books and magazines, practice yoga and meditation, all in the name of this spiritual quest. That’s what led Dave Buschow to take that fatal course. It was a spiritual quest for him, not just a physical challenge. He once wrote a poem that included the lines, “Nothing exists alone. All things thrive and whither in confluence with one another.” He knew he needed others on his spiritual quest. But they weren’t there for him in his hour of greatest need.

But here’s a question we need to answer. People may say they want “spirituality” rather than “religion”—but what is “spirituality”? How is it different from “religion”?

For many people, talk of “spirituality” assumes a separation between the physical world and the spiritual world—they believe that those things which cannot be seen or rationally understood are superior to the things which can be grasped with the senses. They assume the flesh will die, but the spirit will live on because it is part of God—it is, they believe, the divine spark within us, connecting us to all other living things.

Christians should have a problem with that, because the Bible’s worldview is very different.

The Bible doesn’t speak of a world that’s divided between spirit that is good and matter that is evil—it says that God looked on his handiwork after each day of creation and said, “It is good.” The Bible doesn’t speak of natural immortality—that was the lie of the serpent in the garden: “You shall not surely die.” The serpent also said, “Ye shall be as gods”—but the Bible says there is a God, and we are not him; he’s the creator, we are the creature.

And here we see the root problem of our existence, and the reason for our spiritual thirst. We are disconnected from God, from each other, and from life itself. We sense this disconnect in the deepest fibers of our being. We long for life, but find death around every corner. We long for the divine, but cannot for all our striving and searching find it. And too often we have been burned and bruised and broken by those who might be companions on the journey, and especially by those who claim to have answers to our questions. Our would-be guides are as broken and disconnected as we are.

I think when people say they want “spirituality” rather than “religion,” they are expressing this disappointment. They want a real encounter with the divine, but they are skeptical of rules and traditions that seem disconnected from the real questions of life.

In that context, let’s look at John chapter 4. A woman comes to a well to draw water, and Jesus is there. She is startled when he says, “Give me a drink.” But he responds, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to thee, Give me a drink; you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water. … Whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”

What is Jesus offering? He’s offering that experience of the divine we crave, and he says we find that experience in him—the answer to our thirst is a life-giving relationship with him that begins now and reaches its fulfillment in eternal life.

You want to know what Christian spirituality is? This is it.

It is the lived experience of a personal relationship with God. It’s the day to day things we do to express and nourish that relationship. It’s the inspiration we find to keep us going, to help us make choices; it’s what gives us hope for the future, meaning to the present, and strength in hard times. It’s not something different from religion—it’s in fact the practical element of religion. It’s authentic religion that quenches our thirst and satisfies our hunger. And it begins and ends in a living relationship with Christ.

How do we learn about spirituality? How do we learn about prayer, and trusting God, and what it all means in daily life? We learn from others who’ve gone before us. We talk to or read the writings of experienced Christians. We learn from their experience, their struggles, their insights, and we seek to apply that wisdom to our own life.

That leads me to a little fuller definition of what Christian spirituality is, and here I’m indebted to a Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez. He has 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.”

Francis of Assisi had an experience with God—he 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, and he wrote some guidance for those who wanted to do the same thing—and many through the centuries have been inspired.

Martin Luther had an experience of God—he experienced God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ, he reflected upon it, and those reflections led him to critique church practice and to proclaim the good news of justification by faith alone—and it inspired others.

The early Adventists also had a unique experience of God; they reflected upon it, and from that, and our experience as a people since, has grown our unique approach to living the Christian life, which I’m going to call, Adventist Spirituality.

I’m not going to tell you anything new. What I want to do is just look at some old things in a new way. I want to try to make sense of some of those aspects of Adventist faith and life that are distinctive. They are distinctive because they are rooted in our experience as a people.

Our spirituality as Adventists is rooted in the experience of our pioneers in the Great Second Advent Movement of the early 19th century, “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Some folks who preach about the second coming of Jesus today portray it as something negative, frightening, and dreadful—but for them it was a positive, 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.”

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 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? 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.”

I’ve seen books on prayer that emphasize different techniques, how you breathe, how you sit, words you say. None of that matters—prayer is not a matter of what you know, it’s who you know. I find myself continually coming back to Ellen White’s definition of prayer in Steps to Christ: It is “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend.”

Another aspect of Adventist spirituality is rooted in our understanding of man. We are not souls trapped in physical bodies; our bodies are good, and creation is good, and that means God is interested in the whole person. Jesus didn’t just teach a way to get to heaven. He gave sight to the blind and made the lame walk. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25, he commends the sheep 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.”

Because of this, 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 why we are interested in social ministry, and why we have hospitals, and why we have a health message. That’s why we teach it’s best to avoid tobacco and alcohol and other harmful substances, and why we prefer a vegetarian diet. These things are not intended to be a long list of dos and don’ts, but to help us live the kind of life God intended from the Garden of Eden.

And as we reflect on Eden, we see ourselves as creatures, in relationship with our Creator. Much of today’s spirituality blurs the line between the Creator, telling us to worship what is divine in us. 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.”

The last great question of earth’s history is this. Who will you worship, the Creator or the creature? Will you follow a spirituality that points you outside of yourself, or one that says you have all you need. Dave Buschow was told to “dig deep, push himself beyond his known limits, and make it to the cave on his own.” That’s the essence of all false spiritualities—they make grand promises, but leave us dying of thirst.

Only God can quench our thirst—and we aren’t him.

That’s the point of worship. We gather here not to hear useful advice, not to learn how to be rich and prosperous as the world sees it, not to hear things that make us feel good. We gather here to give God the glory, to give him the praise, to give him all worship. Our music takes us out of ourselves, to magnify his name. Our prayer brings us on our knees, taking our concerns to him. Our sermons should lead us to his Word, to better know that we are his, that he has forgiven us, and that he has a plan for us.

The great symbol of the 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 movie musicals 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.

During the many years I was away from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, those images never failed to bring back memories of Sabbath celebrations. The Sabbath’s arrival was distinguished by the flaming colors of the Friday sunset and 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.

Are you hungry for spirituality? Are you hungry for an experience of God? You don’t have to look all over the world for it. Just take a new look at some of the old things we have done for a long time. Look at them in a new light. Look at them in the light of what they tell us about Jesus, and his desires for us.  Don’t throw them out because some people practiced them in a legalistic or shallow way—instead, seek to find their deeper meaning. Seek to find what they say about Jesus.

And realize you aren’t alone. We aren’t here to tough it out and find water on our own. We need each other. We can learn from each other. We can lead each other to water. And when we are too weak to carry on, we need to be able to lean on each other, trusting that our brothers and sisters won’t let us down. No Christian should experience what Dave Buschow did.