Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright provides a framework for evaluating culture. In his context, he is providing a helpful framework for understanding the cultures of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, but this tool can also be used to understand our culture – or how culture works more generally.

His framework is simple. Any culture will have stories, questions, symbols, and practices that serve as entry points to understanding what that culture is all about. Noting that humans use stories to make sense of the world around us, Wright argues a fundamental function of culture is to provide just such a narrative. He goes on to say,

… from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution? All cultures cherish deep-rooted beliefs which can in principle be called up to answer these questions. (pg. 123)

In any culture, this story (and the way it answers fundamental questions) is embodied in cultural symbols, into objects or practices that serve as touchstones to reinforce and root us in the story, values, and practices of the culture. For instance, in Christianity, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist serve as symbols. They are embodied retellings of the narrative that fundamentally makes us who we are. In the same way, from the earliest days of the church, the cross has been used as a symbol in Christianity to call us back to our identity and values. These symbols serve to root us in our narrative, to remind us of the sorts of things we should value, do, and be. Holidays, ceremonies, family traditions, rites of passage, flags, statues, and memorials all serve within a culture as these kinds of symbols – and as such, they are formative.

All this is to suggest that our symbols are never “just symbols.”

Good or bad, they are never amoral “parts of our history.”

They are meant to communicate something about what a culture or people group holds valuable or sees as the way forward in the world. This is precisely why such symbols are created in the first place.

Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

Being Human – Part 3

We’ve been talking about what it means to be human. In the past two posts (here and here), we’ve focused on how we might read Genesis 1:26-28 in its original context. Here, let’s come at it from a slightly different angle to help us continue fleshing out this idea of being human.

In the creation narrative of Genesis 1 there are three sorts of living beings:

First, there is God. Although we often forget it, we represent God as image-bearers, but we’re not God.

Second, there are the “living creatures.” These merit a little more explanation. In Hebrew, the phrase is nepes hayya. It is used four times in Genesis 1: twice in reference to sea creatures and birds (vs. 20-21); once in reference to land animals (vs. 24); and once in a summary fashion for everything that has the “breath of life” (vs. 30). The precise theological term for the nepes hayya is “critter.”

It is important to note the phrase is also used twice in Genesis 2. It is used in verse 19 when Adam named all the critters. It is also used in verse 7: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and, the man became a living being.” That is, God created man as a critter just like all the other animals. This fact creates a tension in us as we don’t like to be reminded of our creatureliness (an interesting example here) but we are nepes hayya nonetheless.

But at the same time, isn’t it equally clear we are more than critters? Which leads us to …

Third, there is humankind. Humans clearly aren’t God, but they have been given the vocation of representing God – they bear his image. At the same time, while humans are “living creatures” like all the other critters, our image-bearing vocation sets us apart from them as well. We’ve already looked at Genesis 1:26-28. Psalm 8 also speaks to this tension:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Humankind is “a little lower than God” and “over the works” of his hand. Humanity, as God intended, lives in the tension between those two.

One way of thinking about dehumanization and sin is to say they happen when we get that tension out of whack, either supposing we are gods or acting like we’re nothing more than critters. For example, some sins – like pride or the impulse to subjugate others – are sins because we forget we are “a little lower than God” and overreach, generally wreaking havoc as we go. Other sins are abnegations of our humanity in that we cast off our image-bearing role to act as though we were nothing but animals. Whenever we find ourselves dehumanizing another human, using them for the sake of fulfilling some urge – whether it be to feed some sexual hunger or commit violence to calm some primal fear – this is the move we make. Of course, many times our dehumanization and sinning is a little bit of both at the same time. Sticking with the examples we’ve already given, there are always those primal acts of sex or violence foisted on others in an attempt to exert god-like control over other humans.

(At this point in the conversation, you may have noticed I have yet to engage what makes humans different than animals other than their image-bearing vocation. What sets humans apart from animals? Souls? Free will? A capacity for self-reflection or abstract thought? You will note the Scripture is largely silent on the issue – and this is especially the case in the creation narratives of Genesis, which are [again] much more concerned with why God created us than how he created us and out of what. I would argue that whatever ways we might discover that humans differ from their fellow nepes hiyya, those ways are rooted in our carrying out the God-given vocation to bear his image. They are tools given to do the job we were created to do.)

As we begin to tie together the various strands of what the Genesis creation narratives say about humanity, we will want to make several observations. There are a few more strands to consider before looking at many of those, but let’s make an initial observation now:

Scripture has a high view of humanity. Human is what God created us as and to be human is to take up the task of bearing God’s image. In moments of failure, we often times say, “I’m only human!” but I hope you are starting to see this is a misrepresentation of humanity. The effect of sin (which we’ve only begun to hint at) is not to demonstrate our humanity but to strip us of it. Sin is dehumanizing. It makes us less than human.


Being Human – Part 3

Being Human – Part Two

This is the second post in a series asking what it means to be human. In the first post, I argued that Genesis 1 defines humanity in functional terms – that being human is more a vocation than anything else. Genesis 1:26-28 sits at the heart of this claim:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

Two times in these verses, God holds the creation of humankind together with the vocation of ruling as his representatives: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” It is in living out this vocation of ruling over creation that we serve as God’s image-bearers.

Here, let’s think a little more about what that might mean. Namely, we can find three relationships in the idea of being God’s image. I want to argue (and will do so at greater length past this post) that human flourishing is found in tending these relationships as God intended.

First, bearing God’s image necessitates a proper relationship with God.

This is the easiest, most difficult, and most important of the three relational dynamics involved in being human. We are created to represent God, to rule over what he has made, on his behalf. As such, our humanity is always connected to his being.

I’m going to lay this out without much explanation here, but we’ll come back to it later and give it more attention: Image-bearing language functions as priestly language. In ancient Israel, the notion of a priesthood was larger than the Levitical priesthood that officiated at the temple, conducted sacrifices, etc. In one sense, the Levites served as Israel’s priesthood, but in another sense, the entire nation was called to serve as priests (cf. Exodus 19:6). Israel’s call to be a “royal priesthood” is tied to God’s determination to make them his “treasured possession out of all the peoples” and a “holy nation” (vs. 5-6). Belonging to God, Israel was tasked with representing him by embodying a different way of life – God’s way of life – before a world that had rejected him. In the context of the Exodus narrative, Israel’s call was really a call back to the original human vocation rejected in Genesis 3. God was calling Israel back to what he had always intended humans to be.

Being with God and representing him in our way of life. This is the fundamental task of image-bearing, the fundamental task of being human. When we are as God created us to be, the human vocation is to reflect God’s character, glory, and purposes into the creation he has placed us over. Everything else flows from this dynamic.

Second, bearing God’s image necessitates proper relationships with one another.

This shows up in an obvious way in Genesis 1:26-28. The human vocation includes the call to “be fruitful and multiply.” That would necessitate human interaction. (This is a contender for understatement of the year, I suppose.) More broadly, however, God has more than marital relations in mind in this text. In Genesis 1, the creation of humankind is not an individual event and the call to bear God’s image is not an individual mandate. That is, God does not establish a human as image-bearers, but all humans. The task of representing God – filling, subduing, holding dominion – is something we do jointly.

Put another way, God intended humanity to be played out in community and for human flourishing to occur, the way we tend relationships within those communities is crucial. Succinctly, if our task is to represent who God is in every aspect of our life, this begins with the way his character and purposes shape the way we treat one another as we go about the human vocation together. After all, Jesus tells us the greatest commands are to love God and love neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:34-40).

Third, bearing God’s image necessitates a proper relationship with our environment.

Again, this is a summary post outlining themes we can take up in more detail later. But, the third relational dynamic in the human vocation is the way we relate to the world around us. (Depending on where you stand, you may have to do some work to disassociate this notion from political agendas on the right and left of the American political spectrum. It’s tricky! But this was a biblical topic well before it was a point of contention on talk radio.)

To look ahead a little, Genesis 2 provides another perspective (or perhaps additional information) on the account given in Genesis 1. Here, God is said to place humankind in the garden to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). While those terms – tilling and keeping – beg for more definition, their mere mention calls us back to an obvious truth of Genesis 1:26-28: Humankind was created to steward God’s creation. As with our relationships with one another, this relationship with our environment is built on our fundamental call to reflect who God is.


There’s a lot more than can be said here – and we will want to say more, but we’ll stop with this summary for now. Humanity as Genesis envisions it is about representing who God is in our relationships with Him, with one another, and with our world.

Being Human – Part Two

Being Human – Part One

Let’s pick up and look at some of the big themes in Scripture. First up, what does it mean to be human?

Beginning in the beginning, take a look at Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Put simply, being human is to be tasked with being God’s image-bearer. I say “put simply,” but that notion of image bearing needs some explanation as well. If being human means bearing God’s image, what does it mean to be an image-bearer? In our contemporary context, we don’t use image-bearing language very often, but it was common across the ancient world. For instance, look at the way “image” was used in 2 Kings 11:18:

Then all the people of the land went to the house of Baal, and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces, and they killed Mattan, the priest of Baal, before the altars.

When Genesis records God saying, “let us make humankind on our image,” it invokes language familiar to its original audience because just as God created his image-bearers, everyone else worshiped gods that had “images” or “idols” as well. As the 2 Kings text indicates, these images played a representative role. No one believed the images were Baal – “his alters and his images they broke in pieces.” In the culture Genesis 1 spoke to, images were representatives of divine presence.

To bear God’s image is to represent him.

Second, we need to give some consideration to what “create” would have meant in context of Genesis 1. We want to do this in order to gain some insight into what it means to say God created humankind in his image.

In the post-Enlightenment West, we tend to think of creation in material terms. We naturally read a creation text like Genesis 1 as the account of God making something from nothing. Nearly every side contemporary debates about creation and evolution agree that the discussion is about material origins. For instance, Young Earth Creationists interpret Genesis 1 as saying that God brought the material universe into being in seven days. On the other hand, proponents of evolution will counter that the material universe formed gradually over a huge expanse of time. Both are debating about how all this stuff got here.

However, Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern scholars like John Walton remind us ancient Israel likely didn’t think of creating in material terms. Rather, they thought of it in functional terms. While they didn’t deny that all the stuff of the universe came from God, they thought of creation more in terms of bringing order and function into an otherwise chaotic situation.

We sometimes think in these terms too. For instance, I used to frequent a restaurant in South Texas, grabbing a Coke, reading, or talking to other regulars. Across the way was a strip mall with several abandoned storefronts. The space that businesses once occupied materially continued to exist and several of those spaces contained remnants of those businesses – papers, equipment, displays, etc. However, the businesses no longer existed. While the material space was there already, the businesses didn’t come into being – they weren’t created – until they began to function as businesses. When that function ceased, the businesses ceased to exist even as the material space continued on.

Read Genesis 1 in terms of function and you will see it everywhere. It is a text about ordering and assigning function.

Indeed, on day one the material universe already exists – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (vs. 1-2). (Again, they would have held God materially made this universe as well, but that’s not what Genesis 1 is interested in.) On days one through three, God orders the various spheres of creation. For instance, he creates light by pushing back darkness and establishing bounds for each – “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (v. 5). Days two and three feature similar accounts of separating, establishing, and ordering. On days four through six, God establishes functionaries over these realms: the sun, moon, and stars over the heavens; the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air; the land animals; and, finally humankind.

Function is the primary concern throughout the Genesis narrative.

But, what does all this have to do with being human? Simply put, in Genesis 1 being human is more about vocation than composition. While we think of being created in the image of God in terms of what we are made of, Genesis 1 wants to talk about our creation in terms of why we were made.

Read Genesis 1:26-28 again, but this time in its functional context. God ties our creation as image-bearers with the vocation of ruling over his earth two times in three tight verses. When God created humans, he created them to rule over what he had made – not as sovereigns, but as his representatives. This is fundamentally what the Bible says being human means.

Of course, this idea needs more unpacking. We’ll do that in the next post.

Being Human – Part One

Toward a More Robust Unity

One of the things I love about my Stone-Campbell heritage is its emphasis on unity. I’ve grown up hearing sermons about unity, participating in classes about unity, reading books on unity, articles about unity, and surrounded by people who are genuinely passionate about unity. This is good, after all, as we are quick to point out that Jesus claims the world will know who he is by witnessing our unity.

For all this talk of unity, however, there is one particular danger we have sometimes fallen into. Namely, we are often guilty of promoting unity without first understanding what the New Testament means by the notion, which can lead in some unhealthy directions in spite of our (very) good intentions.

We often want to talk about unity as if it were a horizontal thing brought into being when we agree with one another. This view of unity is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that agreement with one another does nothing to guarantee we’re agreeing on the right things. On the whole, if our view of unity entails us agreeing on everything we’re talking about uniformity, not unity.

For Paul, we didn’t create unity and it was rooted in something rather more robust than fanciful notions of comprehensive agreement. For Paul, Jesus creates unity on the cross and it falls to us to live in light of the reality he created.

This is a major theme in Ephesians. For instance, in 1:9-10, Paul says God is revealing the “mystery of his will … a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and that he is doing this in Jesus. He returns to this theme, discussing it at more length beginning in 2:11-22. Jesus enacts God’s plan by going to his cross. Take a moment and read this text slowly. Take note of the division language in the text (e.g., “… aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise …”) and notice the language of unity (e.g., “For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall …”). Who reconciles? Who makes peace? Who tears down the walls of hostility? Who reconstitutes disparate groups as one new humanity?


On the cross, Jesus unifies his people, tearing down walls and bringing them together in a new reality. In chapter 3:9-10, Paul discusses his role in God’s plan climaxing with the declaration that the very existence of God’s unified people – Jew plus Gentile, plus slave, plus free, plus female, plus male, plus rich, plus poor, plus young, plus old, plus “blue collar,” plus “white collar,” plus Republican, plus Democrat, plus, plus, plus … – is the demonstration of “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” to the divisive powers of the world.

This discussion is prerequisite to understanding the more explicit discussion of unity beginning in chapter 4. (After all, it begins with the crucial word therefore.) Having already established that Jesus creates unity, note carefully what Paul says. With humility and gentleness and patience, we are called to bear with one another in love. In so doing, we make every effort to maintain the unity we have in the Spirit.

This union is not the same thing as uniformity. It is more robust. Notice again that Paul says the sort of unity that Jesus creates among his people will require humility and gentleness and patience with one another. Perhaps even more tellingly, he calls us to bear with one another on the basis of our unity in the Spirit. In Tennessee, we say “bear with one another” this way: put up with one another.

That’s exactly what we’re called to do at times. We are not united because we agree on everything – or even on a smaller number of essential things. (And this is a notoriously difficult list to make, these essential things.) We are united because we are all in Christ – because we’ve each given ourselves to Christ. He is the one who tore the walls down. He is the one who ushered us into a new reality. He is the one who left us with the Spirit that holds us together. That’s perhaps especially true when we are disagreeing with one another. For Paul, unity can’t be reduced to agreement, but it does shape the way we treat one another in our disagreements.

Oh, and about agreement. I think agreement’s fine even if it isn’t the primary way of talking about unity for Paul. If you think about it for a second, when we’ve each committed ourselves to Jesus and we move toward him each day we also move closer to one another. A good many of our disagreements will be worked out over time because of this mutual movement toward Christ. Other disagreements won’t – and some won’t need to be. Either way, Jesus will teach us how to be agreeable and that makes a difference as we maintain the reality Jesus has brought us into.

Toward a More Robust Unity

I’m So Spiritual

In my (admittedly limited) experience spiritual is one of the most meaningless words in the contemporary Christian vocabulary. Anymore, the term is ubiquitous and much of its use leaves us with the nagging notion that we often don’t have a clear idea of what we mean when we use it. Perhaps more troubling, when pressed on its meaning, many of us use it in ways that are contradictory to some pretty major ideas in the New Testament.

(By the way, this includes me. I’m not picking on anyone here – and certainly not condemning. Just this last week, I went on about something being spiritual and wanted to kick myself after I caught it. As contemporary, Western Christians, it’s simply part of the cultural air we breathe.)

So, how can we talk about something or someone being spiritual in a healthier way? Let’s do a little digging.

You might be surprised to know that the word spiritual is relatively rare in the English New Testament. In the NRSV, spiritual appears 33 times in 28 verses that are almost exclusively found in four of Paul’s letters. In fact, 55% of occurrences are in 1 Corinthians alone. The primary Greek word translated spiritual is the adjective pneumatikos. It is related to the Greek word for spiritpneuma – which may be why it is so easy to assume that spiritual is the opposite of physical. (More on that later.)

Here’s how the New Testament uses pneumatikos, with each instance of the word rendered like so:

  1. Romans 1:11 – “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you … “
  2. Romans 7:4 – “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”
  3. Romans 15:27 – “They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”
  4. 1 Corinthians 2:13 – “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
  5. 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
  6. 1 Corinthians 3:1 – “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”
  7. 1 Corinthians 9:11 – “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
  8. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 – “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
  9. 1 Corinthians 12:1 – “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
  10. 1 Corinthians 14:1 – “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
  11. 1 Corinthians 14:47 – “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.”
  12. 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 – “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.”
  13. Ephesians 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …”
  14. Ephesians 5:19 – “… as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts …”
  15. Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
  16. Colossians 1:9 – “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding …”
  17. Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
  18. 1 Peter 2:4-5 – “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

First, let’s make some observations about how Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians, as spiritual is a relatively major topic of discussion in the epistle. In chapters two and three, Paul contrasts those who are “spiritual” with those who are “of the flesh.” Here, spiritual does not refer to something that is spirit, but something that comes from / originates from / or is rooted in the Spirit of God. Conversely, something is “of the flesh” not because it is physical but because it comes from / originates from / is rooted in that which is physical (read: not the Spirit).

By way of illustration, we might remember the way the Preacher talks of things being “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun” was an idiomatic way of talking about life without God. The Preacher had been seeking meaning apart from God and found his purposes thwarted by death at every turn, so he concludes that life “under the sun” is meaningless. In 1 Corinthians 2-3, Paul is working with a similar thought. The spiritual person is the person who’s way of life originates with God’s Spirit. The fleshly person is the person who seeks a way of life apart from the Spirit. Both sorts of life are physical – they are lived out in bodies. Both sorts of life will involve similar things – eat, sleep, drink, work, play, enjoy relationships, etc. – but will go about those things in very different ways, as they begin from very different starting points.

If we begin with this idea – spiritual is that which derives from (or is driven by) God’s Spirit – we will see it makes sense of the majority of the texts in our list – particularly for the discussion in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 10, Paul points back to the time when God miraculously provided food and water for Israel. Their food was spiritual in that it came to them by the power of God’s Spirit. Of course, he connects this to the Christian communion meal. While the bread and cup come from more “material” methods the meaning and power of the meal is driven by the Spirit. (Read 9:11 in this light – even that which is not expressly spiritual [i.e. from the Spirit like manna and water flowing from a rock were] is co-opted into the spiritual life as Paul has described it. For Paul, material things are not in opposition to spiritual things, but are to be used as a part of our life driven by the Spirit of God.) Later, the “spiritual” gifts are embodied abilities and practices that came from the Spirit. In Ephesians and Colossians, the church will sing “spiritual” songs – songs anchored in the life and power of the Spirit. (This is a mark of being “filled with the Spirit” [Ephesians 5:18].)

In our current context, it is important to note that the dominant context for spiritual is an embodied experience that is rooted or driven by the Spirit.

First, while there are physical things (as in 1 Corinthians 9:11) and purely spiritual entities (as in Ephesians 6:12), God created humans as physical beings meant to live life in a spiritual context. While our underlying Platonism may lead us to think that “material” things – like bodies with all their passions, emotions, and urges – are bad, this is not so in Scripture. God created us to be embodied spiritual creatures and called us “very good.” The problem of sin and death has less to do with the fact of our bodies than it does with the distorted ways we’ve used those bodies apart from God’s Spirit. (Augustine calls these our “disordered loves.”)

Second, this helps us understand the implications of saying things like, “Jesus has a spiritual kingdom.” To my knowledge, the New Testament never makes this claim and it can only be accurate if we understand spiritual as Paul does in 1 Corinthians. The kingdom is driven by God’s Spirit, but it is very much a physical experience that pertains to the ins, outs, ups, and downs of our earthly existence. When Jesus defines the kingdom, he doesn’t define it as a thing that is separate from “the cares of this world” (as we often refer to them in the Churches of Christ), but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). (This week’s readings from the Book of Common Prayer have included Psalm 72 and the language of the poem is striking in its revelation of what God is concerned with as Sovereign.) The spiritual nature of the kingdom is not a dismissal of the world, but a radical reorientation of the way we look at the world.

Third, as we’ve already hinted, Paul’s notion of spiritual doesn’t minimize all the “secular” things we do, but reorients them. Things like prayer or worship aren’t the only spiritual activities Christians are involved in. We are called to see everything as spiritual because the entirety of our life is being reshaped by God in Christ. Shopping is spiritual. Work is spiritual. Eating is spiritual.  Rest is spiritual. Play is spiritual. Politics are spiritual. Our relationships are spiritual. Sex is spiritual. On and on this goes. These are all things established by God to be used for human flourishing within a proper relationship with him. Spiritual is not the rejection or diminishing of these things, but realizing their fullness when we place them in their proper context. (Augustine would talk about this in terms of properly reordering our loves.)

Last, and we’ll have to explore this more later, Paul gives shape to speak of our future hope. In the resurrection, we will be given spiritual bodies. This is not non-physical bodies (an oxymoron), but bodies that are fully plugged into their proper source of life – the Spirit. A common confession for Christians around the world is that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” Confessing this within the larger story of Scripture has some pretty profound implications – both for the future and now. We’ll pick those up in the future.

I’m So Spiritual

Spiritual Formation and James Bryan Smith

Another re-post from an older blog space. From early 2016 as we were beginning to make a push for spiritual formation in the Valley.

James Bryan Smith is the author of The Apprentice Series — three books comprising his curriculum for Christ-likeness. He developed these books — The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community — over a period of years based on his experiences as a teacher and as a student at the feet of men like Richard Foster, Rich Mullins, and Dallas Willard (who personally challenged Smith to write these books).

Since discovering Smith’s books in 2011, his approach to spiritual formation has been enormously helpful to me as a Christian and a teacher. As my 8&H community moves toward a renewal of our commitments to being formed as cruciform, Christ-like followers, I thought it might be helpful to share the basics of his model here.

In the opening pages of The Good and Beautiful God, Smith lays out a model for spiritual formation that involves four main components. As we look toward deepening our culture of discipleship at 8&H, each of these components will find a place in our approach.


The first is story-telling. Smith points out, correctly, that we are story-telling creatures. We use stories to make sense of the world, to pass along what is valuable to us and what is “normal,” and (most importantly) to imagine what the world should be. Stories motivate and shape our decisions, and in doing so shape our character and interactions with one another. With all this in mind, it is no surprise to find Scripture is largely a collections of poems, narratives, and reflections on what those stories might mean for our lives.

As Smith points out, the challenge is we often discover the stories we tell about God, ourselves, and others simply aren’t true, and so long as we live out of these false narratives, we will be essentially malformed. As such, one of the primary tasks of spiritual formation is to learn to tell better stories. For example, it will matter enormously over time whether one speaks of God as an “angry God” or “a loving God that sometimes gets angry.” To those who’ve grown up believing God is looking for an excuse to send them to Hell, it is life-changing to discover the truer biblical story of God’s love and grace.

Telling better stories — first, about God, and then about ourselves and the world — is the primary task of preaching, teaching, and much of our small group discussion from the vantage of spiritual formation. These are tools used to expand, transform and calibrate what I call our “holy imagination,” as we learn to tell (and live out of) good stories about who God is and what he is doing in the world. Once again, the notion is that as we give our stories and our imagination over to God, our lives will follow (cf. Matthew 6:19).


We cannot stop with stories, however. As the theologian James K.A. Smith points out, Christianity is an embodied faith. It does not exist purely in our head as some abstract, intellectual exercise. Cruciform living requires every part of our body. The challenge here is that even as our stories begin to change, our bodies have become habituated to the older stories, and habits are harder to change than stories. This is where the ancient practice of Christian disciplines come into play. (Smith calls them soul training exercises.)

These disciplines are embodied practices that help us bring our bodies, “second nature” reflexes, and ingrained responses on board and form new habits. Much like working out to increase strength, flexibility, and mobility for real-life tasks, spiritual disciplines help us learn to respond in Christ-like ways. The discipline of fasting helps us learn to say “no” to ourselves and be content in a world that thrives on the stories of consumption and excess. The discipline of being silent draws us back to God as the source of our identity and worth in a world enamored with popularity and co-dependency. The discipline of hospitality challenges the many judgments we automatically make about those around us on a daily basis.

Learning new stories is essential, but the disciplines help us reattune our entire beings toward God and what he has in store for us. This is why each week, our small groups will focus on introducing a discipline to help embody the new stories we are learning to tell.


Third, Smith emphasizes spiritual formation must be done in community. We need encouragement. We need support. We need accountability. We need to learn from each other. We need to be challenged by each other. As we often say in Celebrate Recovery, Christ-likeness is never a solo sport.

The apostle Paul loves to talk about the church as the “body of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 12, he points out that each follower of Christ is unique and makes up one part of larger body. Each part is essential for the body. Each part depends on the body. So for instance, an eye, no matter how sharp its focus, cannot be all it is intended to be apart from a body. In the same way, a heart, no matter how strong, cannot survive detached from its body.

It is only in the context of a body that individual members are able to grow and thrive as disciples. As such, Smith argues that formation must be done in community — hence our focus on consistent, intimate small groups that provide a context for real formation to happen.

The Spirit

Last, Smith points out the Spirit is essential to spiritual formation. The presence of God’s Spirit permeates every facet of the discipleship process.

When we think of spiritual formation, we understandably focus on what we need to do, and to be clear, we do have a part to play. Following Christ is a relationship and those are always two-way things. So, we need new stories and we do play a role in seeing those come to fruition. We do have to engage the hard work of forming new habits, and this can be an intense and difficult task. At the same time, there is a larger picture we must always remember: it is God who forms us.

Here, I find the language of Romans 8:29 helpful. Succinctly, God’s purpose for us is Christ-likeness — that we would be conformed to the image of his Son. Yet, note a few things. First, this is an artist’s language, drawing to mind a sculptor working with hunk of granite or clay. Second, as followers of Jesus, we are the recipients in this text. It is not “conform yourselves,” but we will be conformed. Paul pictures us as God’s work of art. He is forming us. Anything we do is merely yielding to his artistry.

A helpful way to show how this looks practically is to look one more time at the practice of the disciplines. Occasionally, those who aren’t familiar with the disciplines will assume they are meant to garner some favor before God — “Look at how righteous I am! I fast twice a week!”- and, of course, this can be true. Yet, this is not what the disciplines are really for. Those most familiar with the disciplines will point out they are not done to impress God, but to yield one’s life to God’s transforming power and work.

For instance, the discipline of simplicity clears clutter out of one’s life, making room for God to do his work in us. The practice of silence may still our own voices long enough to discern what God intends for us. In this way, the disciplines become a way of opening ourselves to what God wants to do with us through his Spirit. It is developing a life rhythm that makes room for God to work in, on, and through us.

As we enter more intently into the world of spiritual formation, we will want to make sure we maintain an awareness of how God is working on us.

Spiritual Formation and James Bryan Smith