Wisdom Journey

Falling in love with God 

What is Christian spirituality?

by N. Graham Standish 


A Thought: What is Christian spirituality? It’s very simple: falling in love with God so we can love others and ourselves. The moment we fall more in love with the Bible, the church, spiritual practices, worship, theology, or anything else that gets in the way of falling in love with God is the moment we lose our spirituality.  

A Reflection: I’ve spent my life listening to deep definitions of Christian spirituality. It’s so frustrating to define. How do you describe something so personal, so experiential, so variable, so mystical?

Much of my life has been spent in the academic study of spiritual formation, and I’ve heard every definition. What’s struck me is that the harder people try to define it, the harder it is to grasp. For instance, how about this lovely definition from Wikipedia: “Traditionally, spirituality refers to a religious process of re-formation which ‘aims to recover the original shape of man,’ oriented at ‘the image of God’ as exemplified by the founders and sacred texts of the religions of the world.” Makes you want to rush out to be part of a 30-day silent retreat, doesn’t it? Not!

Christian spirituality has been so difficult to define because it’s been dominated by Christian theology for the past 200 years. Every time I say this, it gets me in trouble as those who love Christian theology shift in their chairs, screw up their faces, and start defending theology. Nobody needs to defend theology. Theology is crucially important. It sets a foundation for religion and spirituality. Spirituality without a strong theology is like a ship without a rudder. It can sail, but it goes all over the place.

The issue is the dominance of theology over spirituality. People fall so in love with theological concepts that they forget what theology emerges from and what it is meant to nurture. Theology is only as good as the spiritual experiences it emerges from and the spirituality it fosters. When theology becomes so speculative that it no longer connects people with God, then it loses its spiritual foundation and leads people away from God. The paradox is that a strong theology has a solid spiritual foundation, and a strong spirituality has a solid theological foundation.

So what is Christian spirituality? It’s loving God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and loving others as ourselves (Luke 10:25-27). Spirituality is love because God is love. It’s that simple.

The great spiritual mystics of Christianity were never defined by their deep spiritual practices. They weren’t defined by their monasticism, community, or congregation. Nor were they defined by whether they were Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, or Pentecostal. They were defined by love—love of God, love of others, love of self. Any spirituality that doesn’t begin and end in love isn’t really a Christian spirituality.

Too often I’ve heard people complain that spirituality is just introspection and self-adulation, including the pastor who said to me, “Spirituality is a fad. We’ll get over it.” I responded, “Perhaps, but it’s been a 2000-year fad.” Spirituality can never be just navel-gazing because the more deeply we fall in love with God, the more that love pushes us to act with compassion. The natural outcome of falling deeply in love with God is bearing fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

The reality is that religion makes it very easy for people to fall in love with everything BUT God. They might fall in love with their church. Traditional music. Contemporary music. Contemplative prayer. Altar calls. Bible studies. Celtic crosses. Christian radio. Study groups. The 9 am worship service. African mission. Homeless mission. The annual strawberry ice cream social. And. So. Much. More.

All of these can lead us to fall ever more deeply in love with God, and without them we have a hard time immersing ourselves in God-experiences that lead to love. But in the end a real Christian spirituality allows God’s love to flow through us into the world that needs love.

Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish leads the Samaritan Counseling Center in Sewickley, Pennsylvannia. He is the author of several books on Christian formation.