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by Jacob Ninan

We may think we are spiritual because we are interested in 'spiritual things' such as reading the Bible and praying, and attending church and Bible studies. But spirituality is not essentially about what we do externally. The Pharisees of the days of Jesus are a bad example to take warning from. They thought they were spiritual because they tried to keep the Law more than everyone else, tithing even the mint and cumin from their garden (Matt.23:23). But Jesus called them hypocrites who kept the outside clean and impressive but whose inner life was rotting (v.25,27).

Spirituality has to do with the condition of our spirit which is the deepest part of our being. What goes on there is what determines whether we are spiritual or not. For example, singing, clapping hands, raising hands, etc., are not true worship if the worship does not come from our heart (Jn.4:23,24). If we are careful about how we behave on the outside with regard to religious activities, others and we ourselves may think we are spiritual. But if we are negligent about what goes on inside us, we are not spiritual at all! Spiritual life starts only from being born again and having a relationship with God as His child. But then we also have to have our heart and mind set on things of God with a determination to please Him rather than ourselves or anyone else (Col.3:1,2). To be born again by itself is not sufficient to become spiritual because such people can afterwards live a worldly life pleasing themselves.

Our God is one who is not fooled by outward appearances but who looks inside (1Sam.16:7). He is One who looks at our thoughts, attitudes and motives (Heb.4:12,13) because these are the indications of who we really are. These are the things that define our relationship with God.

But many religious-minded people, including some Christians, place value on their rituals, practices, religious objects and signs, etc., rather than on their relationship with God. Let me illustrate this from an incident in the Old Testament.

When Eli was the priest among the people of Israel, the Philistines attacked them. Israel got defeated at the end of the first day. When they wondered about why they got defeated, it occurred to them that if they took the 'ark of the covenant' with them into the battle, they would win (1Sam.4:1-3). The ark represented to them the presence of God because while it was in the tabernacle 'the glory of the Lord' appeared above the ark. Israel thought that if the ark was with them God's presence would be automatically with them, and they knew that if God was with them they would win the victory. But what happened was that Israel got defeated that day too, and in addition, the ark was captured and taken away by the Philistines!

What was wrong with their calculations? They thought that keeping a physical thing, the ark, with them, they could guarantee God's presence. This is what many religious people think – they think that if they follow certain external practices of keep certain physical things with them they would be OK. Israel did not realise that the ark was only a symbol God had given them and that His presence with them was not dependent on it but on their relationship with them! They neglected their relationship with God, but depended on a religious object to ensure His blessings!

Isn't this a very common behaviour among Christians too? Let us look at some of the common wrong practices.

Some people imagine that everything would be fine between them and God if they attended church – at least on Christmas or Good Friday! For some people it is about marking attendance – so they walk in any time during the meeting or even hang around outside somewhere. There are others who are physically present in the meetings while their minds are drifting around many other matters; but they consider that they are doing their duty before God. Many others seem to think that if they participated in the 'breaking of bread' (holy communion) the bread and the wine would mystically give them a blessing. And if someone attends the Bible study or prayer meetings they would consider themselves as being especially spiritual!

When we understand that spirituality is a matter of our heart and not about what we do externally, what 'advantage' do we get from such external activities? We should not think that God must be impressed with the 'sacrifice' we are making to go to church or sparing time for Him. God is actually 'angry' with those who merely pay respects to Him verbally or in similar external activities while their hearts are far away from Him (Isa.29:13).

A very common practice is to seek blessings from the pastor or a godly man, thinking that their 'influence' with God will bring them some favour from Him! Instead of "Mother Mary, pray for us," it becomes "Pastor, pray for us." What about those who get someone to pray over their house, sprinkle 'holy water' on it, or walk around it 'sprinkling' the blood of Jesus Christ as a means of protection? Is it right to think that if we go through the motions of having a regular family prayer, sing songs or play Christian music it is going to find some favour with God? Do we think that these things can compensate with God while we live carelessly from day to day? Are these 'arks' going to protect us from the Philistines?

There are some who keep a small crucifix hanging on the wall of their room or on a chain around their neck, keep a Bible under their pillow or wear a chain or thread which has been 'blessed' by a holy man and think that now they will be protected from demonic oppression? Will such things protect them if they carelessly give access to evil spirits in their life? We can even use the name of Jesus or mention 'the blood of Jesus'. In the Book of Acts the sons of Sceva did that but the demons overcame them because Jesus had not given them that authority (Acts.19:13-16). If we have given a place for demons in our life they are not going to just let go because of mere words.

If we look at some of the activities mentioned above, the underlying goal seems to be to earn favour from God by doing some things. The mistake in this case is in thinking that we have to earn favour from God by the things we do. No one can do this. We can only receive blessings from God as an unmerited favour. In some of the other cases, there seems to be an assumption that certain actions, or words or objects have somewhat of a 'magical' power that obtains the presence of God and His protection. This is like carrying the ark of God into the battle.

If our approach to spiritual life is based on external activities or things it shows up a very serious problem. There is a huge chance that we have not yet come into a personal relationship with God but that we are only following a 'religion' that calls for certain types of activities and avoiding some others. When we have a relationship with God and know Him as a Father on a real basis in everyday life, our confidence will come from knowing Him. Then we will not depend on things we do but on Him to take care of us. For example, we will trust God to protect us instead of relying on a crucifix or a Bible to scare demons.

If Israel had a relationship with God when the Philistines attacked them, they could have asked Him for help. If they got defeated they could have asked Him what went wrong, instead of assuming that rituals could handle the situation.

God gave many symbols in the old covenant such as sacrifices, ceremonies, dress, tabernacle etc., before the time came where people could have a personal relationship with Him through faith in the new covenant. Now we are living in days when the reality of our relationship with God takes away the need for depending on any kind of symbols or representations. We can joyfully give up our 'religious' life of following external practices and make sure that it is our heart that we present before God.

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