Can You Feel It? Sensing the Spiritual in Life

How to sense the spiritual aspects of life

Recently a team of inspectors visited our hospital. After the meeting, two team members, one older white woman and one middle aged African American woman, came into my office. They admired my models of the War of 1812 frigate USS Constitution and the 1990s US Space Shuttle Endeavor. We talked for a moment, but as they turned to leave, the older woman glimpsed a replica of the ancient Celtic worship and burial site Stonehenge on my table.

“Have you been there?” she inquired, with more than a little excitement in her voice.

“Yes, with my wife and our infant daughter in 1994. How about you?”

“Never, but I would love to go” she replied, both excited and plaintive. She took a deep breath, paused, and looked directly at me. Her face was earnest and anxious, like a novitiate approaching an Archbishop with a question of vital importance.

“Can you feel it? Can you feel the spirituality in that place?”

“Yes,” I replied, instantly knowing what she meant. “You can sense the spirituality at Stonehenge. But there are four things that you have to do in order to feel it.”

Her face lit up, waiting for what would come next.

***

In her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, psychology professor and author Jean M. Twenge writes that Americans are becoming dramatically less religious, but also less spiritual, than ever before. This trend is characteristic of the latest generation, iGen, those born from 1995 to 2012, but is growing in Boomers, Xers, and Millennials as well. Other authors and cultural commentators in the West have noted a dwindling sense of the numinous, the Divine presence, in our increasingly individualistic, hedonistic, and materialistic culture. As the Spirit and Glory of God departed the Temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19), so the Spirit and Glory of God seems to be departing American, and Western, culture. Or perhaps the problem is that we cannot see it.

Whether you believe that such generational characterizations are valuable or worthless, all true followers of Christ have endured times when we could not sense the spiritual. During those times, we feel like our lives are nothing more than a day to day fight for food, for fun, for friends, for family, and for fulfillment. God, if He even exists, seems far away. During such dry spells, Bible reading becomes a chore, and prayers don’t seem to get above our heads. Fellowship with other believers is discouraging, especially if they seem to be living a fulfilled and powerful Christian life. Worst of all, we feel very alone.

I have been endured many such spiritual deserts, and anticipate many more in the years ahead. This is typical of the Christian life. God told Ananias in Damascus “I will show him (Saul) how much he must suffer for my name (Acts 9:16).” Like the King did to Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the Shepherd did to Much Afraid in Hinds Feet on High Places, the Lord will send me through times, places, and situations that are painful, discouraging, and much longer than I think that they need to be.

But bad times are not the only times when we can’t sense the spiritual. Moments of success, satisfaction, and surplus also blind our eyes to the work, and even the presence, of God in the world. Agur in Proverbs 30:8-9 recognized that any state of life, wealth or poverty, can cause us to blind our eyes to our Creator.

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

give me neither poverty nor riches,

but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Or I may become poor and steal,

and so dishonor the name of my God.

Whether in easy times or hard, it can be difficult to sense the spiritual. But God commands His people to be active, not passive, in all areas of life. We cannot merely wait and hope that we can feel Him, but must dwell on His Word (Joshua 1:8-9), trust, and obey. When His people pursue Him, God gives us ways to feel Him even in the hardest times. Paul writes “No temptation (or trial) has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).”  Inability to sense the spiritual, or sensing it wrongly, is part of every trial. In this article I will address the question “How can we sense the spiritual – how can we enjoy the ethereal – how can we have courage instead of cowering – in our lives?”

  1. We must believe that the spiritual realm exists.

As physical beings, we spend all day, every day, in the world of matter (atoms, molecules) and energy (light, motion). Few deny that a physical world exists, and even those esoteric philosophers who claim to deny the physical world must check these “beliefs” at the door when they leave their classrooms and writing closets to face real life.  No matter his wealth, fame, or education, a man who rejected the physical necessity of food and therefore didn’t eat would either change his ways or depart this world in short order.

Unlike the physical world, the spiritual world does not force itself into our consciousness. Many people in the ancient and modern worlds alike have denied the existence of a realm outside of matter. Jains and many Buddhists reject the possibility of non-material existence. These people don’t starve, don’t freeze, and don’t fail to reproduce. They live normal and often moral lives well aligned with their communities. People who deny the spiritual realm often don’t see the need to consider spirituality, and so they don’t. Such folks are the ultimate materialists, believing only in the universe of matter (material). Most are apathetic, while some are hostile, to spiritual things. Many people who claim to follow a religion live their lives as functional materialists.

The spiritual world does not force us, but instead intrigues us, comforts us, and frightens us. Belief in spiritual forces – of angels, demons, nature spirits, and others, depending upon the religion – peaks the curiosity of people bored, and disenchanted, with mechanistic modern life. The idea that these forces are more powerful than humans and work for our benefit reassures us in hard times. Belief that we ourselves are spiritual beings grants us a personhood unavailable if we are only piles of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and trace elements. Ultimately, love, truth, and beauty are meaningless if they are nothing more than electrochemical reactions, and life after death is impossible if we are no more than failing matter. We die, are eaten by bacteria, are recycled by natural processes, and our physical elements end up as part of a tree, animal, or someone else’ body. This process continues thousands of times until the universe winds down and dies. Nothing remains. To deny the spiritual world is to deny anything eternal, and ultimately, anything meaningful, in life.

People who refuse to believe in a spiritual realm, a “universe beyond matter”, will never sense the spiritual. They reject the possibility, closing their eyes to spirituality. In so doing, they close their eyes to the “lovely intangibles” that make present life worth living and everlasting life possible. No wonder the vast majority of people throughout time have believed in a spiritual world as well as a material one.

  1. We must take time, clear our minds, be where we are, and focus.

A tour bus pulled up outside Mycenae in Greece and about 50 travelers disembarked. Chatting wildly, with smart phones in hand, they walked around the ruins of the ancient village, snapping selfies and texting friends. A Greek tour guide fed them a few morsels of history, but few listened. They climbed over 3000-year-old ruins, danced to American pop music, texted, and discussed boyfriends and singers. Within 20 minutes, they loaded back on to the bus and rode off to do the same at a different site.

Though they seemed to be having a good time, such a way of experiencing Mycenae will not likely lead to knowledge about ancient Greece. At a site such as Stonehenge, such an experience will not likely bring spiritual enlightenment. Constant physical stimulation, whether from music, pictures, words, or something else, prevents us from hearing the voice of our own thoughts. An unrelenting stream of stimuli from our phones consumes our attention and prevents us from thinking about past or future. We cannot fully experience where we are. When my daughter Rachel was in middle school, a friend had her smart phone taken away for a week. The friend confided that she was desperate to get her phone back because scary thoughts crept into her mind through all of the quiet.

Fully being in the moment is tough in every age, but smart phones and other new media make it worse. Past and future pains and pleasures, or the anticipation thereof, robs us of our moments – the stuff the life is actually made of. If we do not force ourselves to take time, clear our minds, be where we are, and focus, we will never sense the spiritual.

  1. We must know something about the place we are at.

A wide variety of peoples used Stonehenge over thousands of years as a burial place, a crematorium, and as a site for religious rituals, which probably included ancestor worship and astronomical observations. Archaeologists excavating Stonehenge have found the bones of a teenager from the Mediterranean, a metal worker from Southern Germany, and a man from Brittany in France. Roman coins and other artifacts abound. Historians know little of the specifics of what happened at Stonehenge, but much about life during its heyday; in the millennia before Christ. People lived in wooden shelters, and fed themselves by hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. There was little leisure time, and no one was literate. Violence was commonplace, and life was short for the Celts, Saxons, and others.

Knowing about the lives of the people at Stonehenge helps us imagine who they were, what they thought, and what they did. We can imagine how they dealt with discouragement, disease, destitution, disability, and death – issues common to all humanity, including us. Imbibing part of their sense of the spiritual can heighten our sense.

For the informed Stonehenge is a place of wonder while for the uninformed, it is a pile of rocks.

  1. We must go to spiritual places.

In one sense, God made all of the universe, so no single place is more sacred, more holy, or more spiritual than any other. In another sense, man throughout history has considered some locations more spiritual than others. Events, people, and sensory experiences make the difference in how spiritual we consider a place to be. While God made Los Angeles through the hands of men just as He did Jerusalem, no one considers the former to be as sacred as the latter. Places also become spiritual through the roles they play in individual lives. Cemeteries are the classic example.

Throughout the world, most people die at home. Even in America, until the past century, most people died at home. Death was a common part of life, and virtually everyone had seen a friend or family member pass. The living visited the graves, and celebrated the lives, of those who had gone before them. Pastor Don Davidson of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, noted that funeral services and cemeteries are places where he can best encounter Christ. He and his wife Audrey visit the grave of Baptist Missionary Lottie Moon (1840-1912) every Christmas season.

The natural world feels intensely spiritual. All but the most obtuse of us revel in the glory of the sunrise, and the intricacy of a flower. Who cannot feel tiny and even insignificant when looking at a storm on the ocean, or the immensity of the night sky?  How can we not wonder at the flight of a bird, or the strength of a lion?

To go to Jerusalem, Stonehenge, Lourdes, Mecca, Borobudur, Amritsar, or thousands of other sites throughout the world, is to participate in the great events that happened there and join with the millions who encounter the spiritual there. Office buildings, malls, schools, and stadiums are important places in our modern lives. Manmade structures are man sized, ultimately tailored for us. We spend most of our time in such places, and indoors. In so doing, we shield ourselves from the numinosity of nature, and the spirituality of sacred sites. No wonder we can’t “feel it.”

A Christian Perspective

To know the Bible is to know the spiritual realm, good and bad. Every religion, and many non-religious philosophies, touch the spiritual.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, animists, and pagans have real, and often intense spiritual experiences. Mormons claim that you will know Mormonism is true when you “feel a burning in your bosom.” The important question is not whether a religion generates a spiritual experience – they all do. The real question is whether or not that experience leads one closer to a saving knowledge of Christ, and then growth in His likeness. King Saul had a genuine spiritual experience at Endor (1 Samuel 28), as a later Saul did on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), but only one of those experiences ended in salvation.

Christians need to experience, not flee, experiences in which they can sense the spiritual. Paul did not reason his way to faith – he found Christ through an experience. However, we must test the spirits and ensure that the experiences that we crave lead us to, not away from, our God. The same is true for the non-believers in our lives. Followers of Jesus can help those around us to have genuine experiences in Him.

Conclusion

I do not know if the woman who asked the question was a Christian. Her question, and my answer described in the majority of this article, regarded spirituality, not Christianity. Followers of Jesus should seek to sense the spiritual in accordance with the Biblical testimony. Spiritual experiences are vital to life, but only those that ultimately promote eternal life. Sensing the spiritual is an important skill, but like all other skills, can be used for good or for ill. Eternal life hangs in the balance.

Encountering God

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

Thoughtful people realize that no temporal anchor – job, family, wealth – will hold through the storms of old age and death. The only anchor that can hold the ship of a man’s life steady in these tempests is God’s Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Rock of Ages that can shelter our souls against the storm (Isaiah 26:4). We will find refuge only under His wings (Psalm 91:4).

But how can we know God? We must encounter Him. A lifetime of experiencing His faithfulness will enable us to trust Him for the next life. This article will describe how Christians can encounter God regularly.

Background

Matthew 5-7 highlights one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. He begins chapter 5 with the Beatitudes (Blessed are the …), discusses the role of His followers in the world (salt and light), and ends with a discourse on what it means to be perfect in the eyes of the Father. In Chapter 7, the Lord warns His listeners to judge only as God Himself judges, encourages them to good actions, and concludes telling the crowd to build their lives on His teachings as a wise man would build his house upon a rock.

Nestled between is chapter 6, beginning with an admonition against hypocrisy, a lesson on prayer, and a summary of trusting in God. Another look, however, reveals that Matthew 6 tells listeners (and in our case, readers) how to encounter God. Four things about experiencing the Lord are evident from verses 1-18:

  1. We must want to encounter Him.
  2. We must know how to encounter Him.
  3. We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him – physically, personally, and with others.

Keeping these three themes in mind, let us discover how to encounter the God of Creation, the Lover of Our Souls.

We must want to encounter Him.

By nature, man does not want to encounter the real God. We want to find power, knowledge, and beauty, but we are terrified by the blinding purity and the overwhelming holiness of the Lord of the Universe. Our finitude, our mortality, and our love of evil – though we don’t consider our private, favorite sins to be evil – make us afraid and ashamed in His presence. Being face to face with God is a little like being face to face with a deathless angel, a lender to whom we owe millions, and a policeman who has just caught us burning down a house.

Far from being a path to God, most of the religions of the world are attempts to escape the truth about ourselves and our Maker. We pretend that we can put God into our debt by doing good works, when actually every part of our moral nature is corrupt and we are incapable of good works; deeds that share the goodness of God. We pretend that our religious rituals and offerings can force God to act in accordance with our will when in truth our duty is to do His will. We act like we know what is best for ourselves and others, while in reality over the course of our lives, our desires change like the wind. If we finally realize these facts about our nature, we deny that a personal God exists and pretend that we can reach Enlightenment, attaining a state of bliss, by our own efforts.

Jesus described this problem in Matthew 6. The hypocrites (ὑποκριτής hypokritēs – pretender, false face) wanted to convince onlookers that they performed their “good deeds” for God and others, when they actually performed them to glorify themselves before man. They received what they sought – other people were impressed. We do the same thing, both with “religious” and with other actions:

  1. We make money to meet our physical needs, but beyond this we make money to glorify ourselves in the eyes of others (“keeping up with the Joneses”).
  2. We accomplish goals to make money and to do things that we consider “good” for ourselves and others. Often, however, we do so to feel better than our compatriots, to gain their approval, and to “earn ourselves a place in history.
  3. I sometimes make the same mistake. I have a New Testament in English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, and Arabic. Sometimes I read this New Testament to learn languages, not to discover God.

When Jesus says “thy Father will reward thee openly”, He was not talking about money, fame, or power on earth or even “jewels in your crown” in heaven. The Father is the Rewarder and He is also the Reward. God will give more of Himself to those who love and obey Him. To perform any act for any reason other than the glory, enjoyment, and love of God, and secondarily for the benefit of others, is to seek the glory of men. It is also to seek a reward other than the Rewarder. People who do these things do not really want to encounter God, and they will get their wish.

We must know how to encounter Him

Mystics, whether Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, practitioners of Kabbalah, or others, often chant phrases over and over again. These chants do not need to make literary sense in any language, because the mystic hopes that the tone and rhythm will lead to an ecstatic experience; one that overwhelms the body with emotion and a sense of the numinous. The mind, and certainly not reason or logic, is often not involved beyond executing the chant. While there is nothing inherently wrong with chanting, Jesus taught that mere repetition of words does not avail to speak with God. Put another way, chanting, dancing, and other practices can be useful to worship, but vain repetition is not useful. The Lord taught a better way:

  1. Our Father – plural, as if praying in community to the powerful yet close and loving One with authority over us. Note that each member of the community is equal before Him.
  2. Which art in heaven – though He is close to us, He stands in authority over the whole universe.
  3. Hallowed by Thy name – a statement of how we must and will revere Him. It is “your name will be honored” rather than “I hope your name will be honored” or “will your name be honored?”
  4. Thy kingdom come – We want your authority, your protection, your sustenance, and your love upon us on this earth…
  5. Thy will be done – We want your will, not our own, to be done on earth…
  6. On earth as it is in heaven – Your kingdom and will are perfectly in place in heaven, we want them perfectly in place on earth, and they will be perfectly in place on earth.
  7. Give us this day our daily bread – Provide our material and spiritual needs today
  8. And forgive us our debts – We have failed to behave in accordance with your character, and therefore have become morally indebted to You.
  9. As we forgive our debtors – Others have sinned against us, and help us to forgive them as we have graciously been forgiven.
  10. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – Protect us not from hardship but from sin.
  11. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – not found in many manuscripts, this refers to the overarching glory of God.

Note a few other things about encountering God. The use of plural at the onset suggests that many people are praying together. Jesus’ example showed Him praying alone but also praying with others. Therefore we must strive to encounter God both alone and in groups of other believers. We are to honor God, ask for spiritual and physical needs, and consider the desires of ourselves and others.

We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him

Many Christians have a devotional time of prayer and Bible reading but nothing else. This is good, but to most effectively encounter God, we must do more. Consider what Jesus is telling His disciples to do, and how each act corresponds to a spiritual discipline:

  1. Acknowledge God (worship and celebration)
  2. Give to others (service)
  3. Go alone into a closet, a secret place (solitude and secrecy)
  4. Be silent (silence)
  5. Pray (prayer and meditation)
  6. Let the Word of God inform your prayer (study)
  7. Fast (fasting)
  8. Confess and be forgiven (confession)
  9. Forgive (sacrifice and submission)

The Spiritual Disciplines are traditional practices that Christians since the 1st century have used to discover God. In Matthew 6, Jesus is not only warning His followers against hypocrisy and teaching them to pray, He is describing what believers need to do to encounter God to the fullest.

We have seen how encountering God involves a personal devotional time and also involves others. This passage also suggests a physical component to encountering the Lord. Silence and fasting are both physical. Body position, whether kneeling, lying prostrate, or standing with uplifted arms, is physical. Mystics, charismatics, and others chant, dance, and do other physical actions to better feel God’s presence.

How might this apply to the modern day?

A man gets up early and goes alone with his Bible into his prayer closet (silence, secrecy, and solitude).There he confesses his known sins, receives forgiveness, and forgives others (confession, sacrifice, and service). Once his heart is clean, the man reads the Bible silently and meditates on what he has read (Bible study and meditation). He worships God through the passage and through what He has done for him over the past day, week, month, or year (worship and celebration). The man has fasted since dinner last night, or perhaps even since lunch the day before.

Every weekday morning the man runs or lifts weights alone for exercise. Rather than listening to music, he uses the time to reflect on creation, the person of God, and to seek help with life’s’ troubles. The rhythm of his heart beat, breathing, and foot striking the ground capture his attention. The exertion of exercise hinders linear, logical thought and so he listens better to the world around, his body within, and the Lord above.

Every evening the man assembles his family for prayers. Using lists of family, friends, associates, local, national and global prayer needs, he assigns topics for each person in his family. They discuss the prayer issues as a group and then pray, each person sitting up or kneeling so no one falls asleep.

Conclusion

Life is hard; too hard to be anchored in people, things, or any other temporal creation. God the Son, Jesus Christ, anchors our souls in the stormy seas of existence, and He hides our hearts in the cleft of His rock. To anchor in Him, we must experience Him over and over again. We must want to encounter Him, know how to encounter Him, and encounter Him with our whole self; our bodies, our minds, and those around us. Only then will we anchor ourselves securely forevermore.

Spiritual Warfare

Our church recently sent a mission team to Eastern Europe to work with local churches in music, outreach, and Vacation Bible School. As they were returning to the airport, the driver nodded off and the van ran off the road, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Thankfully the injuries were limited to skin lacerations and concussions. As the story of the accident was recounted in church the following Sunday, everyone was shocked, many prayed, and others asked what else they could do to help.

Our family has a young woman from Iran living with us, our “adopted daughter (AD)”, who attends a class of international Christians with many Muslim background believers. On hearing the news, one of the women in that class announced that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare. AD, trained in science, was puzzled. This incident was clearly an accident, caused by a purely natural phenomenon, fatigue. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare, or was that interpretation an example of sincere but misguided faith? Driving home that day, AD asked me what I thought.

This issue is important, because Christians and non-Christians have been misunderstanding each other for centuries over such differences of opinion. Westerners and Easterners, regardless of their religious faith, have also split over such questions. Westerners, children of Modernism, are bewildered as to why Easterners feel the need to add spiritual activity to explain a normal occurrence. Easterners wonder why Westerners fail to see any cause besides mechanical, naturalistic ones. This article explores how spiritual forces participate in events in our world.

Definitions

As with every discussion, our first task is to define our terms. We will use the phrase “spiritual forces” to refer to anything not observable in the physical universe. By this usage demons and angels, as well as the spirit of each person, are “spiritual forces”. Similarly atoms and molecules, as well as the body of each person, are physical. A human being is a hybrid, both spiritual and physical. Though this may seem unnecessarily dualistic to some readers, such a dichotomy is consistent with common usage. “Warfare” is the conflict between good forces, both spiritual and physical, and evil forces, in the universe. “Spiritual warfare” occurs when good spiritual forces such as angels fight evil spiritual forces such as demons.

Had a demon pushed the church van off the road, if that is even possible, some Christians may have considered that spiritual warfare, because Christians believe that sharing the Gospel is the work of God. Were a Muslim to think about the same situation, he may conclude that an angel pushed the car off the road to stop the Unbelievers from doing their work. Either way, spiritual warfare entails spiritual forces using their power to shape events in the spiritual and physical world.

Biblical Examples of Spiritual Warfare

The Fall of Man as recorded in Genesis can be considered the classic example of spiritual warfare in the Bible. In it a spiritual entity, Satan , manifested himself as a serpent and tempted Adam and Eve, physical and spiritual hybrids, to produce a change in the physical and spiritual worlds. Importantly, Satan did not cause a change in the physical world but used humans to do so. The Devil used pride (“you will be as god”), resentment (“god is keeping good things from us”), and jealousy (“god and satan have this knowledge and I don’t”) in the human heart to do his work.

Job is another example. Satan surely incited the Sabeans and the Chaldeans to attack Job, and he undoubtedly got God to supply the winds to destroy the house. The demon possessed people in the Gospels confirm that demons use physical beings, people and animals, to accomplish their purposes. The Bible suggests that spiritual beings cannot directly change the physical world without a physical intermediary.

Spiritual Warfare in Modern Life

Some do not believe in any spirit world at all. They would argue that nothing exists except matter and energy, and even these are interchangeable. Those who believe in a spiritual (non-material) world will often argue that spiritual warfare contributes (but does not necessarily cause) human sin. In this world view, demons might entice an argument between friends, and angels might encourage reconciliation in a married couple. This argument between friends is likely to have some real physical consequences, and those consequences can therefore be reasonably attributed to spiritual warfare.

The Chain of Causation

The woman in the Bible Fellowship class said that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare, so we must now examine what it means to cause something. To cause is to make something happen, and causes are not single events but rather chains of events. Consider the chain of causation of a man who has just died of a heart attack:

  1. Immediate cause of death – his heart stopped
  2. Cause of his heart stopping – lack of oxygen to the heart muscle
  3. Cause of the lack of oxygen – clot in his coronary arteries that prevented blood flow to large areas of his heart
  4. Cause of the clot in his coronary arteries – buildup of atherosclerotic plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, etc.) in the arteries from many years of poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking.
  5. Cause of poor diet – few healthy foods available, never developed a taste for fruits and vegetables, bad examples during childhood
  6. Cause of lack of exercise – violent neighborhood, no sidewalks or bike paths
  7. Cause of smoking – peer pressure, uninformed about health risks, easy access
  8. Factors and events in a causal chain can be traced back essentially forever.

Clearly a chain of events and contributing factors led to this man’s death. A doctor completing his death certificate would probably write “heart attack” for cause of death, but could logically pick any factor or event in the chain. In fact, death certificates in America require the physician to identify the immediate cause of death and any secondary causes. These documents also include a narrative section to include other contributing factors. Researchers who conclude that “smoking causes death” or “obesity will kill you” and public health educators who shout such messages from the mountaintops do precisely that. Every event has a chain of causation which can be examined in exactly the same way.

Spiritual Warfare and the Accident in Eastern Europe

If we consider the chain of causation and the accident noted above, it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was the driver nodding off. With the available information, we can go no further, and our conclusion might be that the accident was a natural occurrence and had nothing to do with spiritual warfare. If we learned that the driver was intoxicated or using drugs before the accident, and we know that spiritual problems contribute to substance abuse, we might reintroduce spiritual warfare as a possible cause. If we discovered that the driver had had a bitter argument with others in the van and they were all in sullen silence, not helping him stay awake over the long miles, we would probably admit that spiritual warfare was a contributing factor.

Conclusion

Those who attributed the van accident of the mission team in Eastern Europe to a physical cause were certainly right. The woman who attributed the accident to spiritual warfare may also have been right, but we don’t have the information to say definitively yes or no. No event happens without a chain of causes, and the conclusions one reaches depend upon where he looks in the link in the causal chain. The best response is the accept the physical causes, acknowledge the likelihood of spiritual forces acting in every situation, be humble, and act accordingly.

Physical Beauty and the Christian

My recent travels led me to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a conversation with Felicity, a Boyce College undergraduate studying the Bible before she moves on to a degree in cosmetology. A beautiful and engaging young woman, Felicity believes that her call in ministry is to help others be beautiful and engaging. Helping other coeds with hair, makeup, and the like is a joy to her, and a source of some badly needed cash.

Yet there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Felicity has a wonderful Christian role model who works in the industry, and she has reported to Felicity that cosmetology is hard for people dedicated to Christ. Many people involved, both workers and clients, act as if physical appearance is all that matters. Youth and vanity, already lauded in much of American culture, become idolized in the walls of the salon. Should a committed Christ-follower even be in such an environment? If so, how can she keep her heart pure? Felicity asked me what I thought on this issue, and I have written some thoughts below.

What does the Bible say about work?

The most important question for a Christian on all issues is “what does the Bible say.” God’s Word is our ultimate source of moral truth and we must obey its commands. What are His instructions regarding work?

First, God does not judge professions the way that humans do. Yesterday I was talking to a discouraged young soldier. She had been a non-commissioned officer for many years and had later become an officer. Everyone in her new organization dismissed her opinions with the flippant “you’re just a captain.” Such arrogance is never permitted for a Christian. The church is a body, with some people serving as mouths and others as elbows, but every role is equally important. Other organizations, including business and the military, should be the same way. The call of the Lord, not money or prestige, is the only factor that matters.

Second, God does not call people to do things that are clearly wrong. For example, neither being a hit-man (assassin) nor being a porn star are acceptable professions for a child of God. The Bible encourages most other occupations, whether that of businessman, teacher, cab driver or housewife.

What does the Bible say about physical beauty?

Physical beauty is valued in the Bible. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are all described as beautiful. While godly character matters far more (Proverbs 11:22), and physical attractiveness is fleeting, (Proverbs 31:30), as exemplified by women from Abishag the Shunamite to Zibiah, mother of King Joash, beauty matters.

Physical beauty can also be a trap. Peter admonishes Christian women to not let their beauty be merely outward, but to cultivate the inner beauty of good character (1 Peter 3:3-4). Ezekiel 28:17-18 warns that beauty can lead to pride. While physical beauty has mattered in all cultures since Adam, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, physical beauty is not everything.

Medical Notes on Beauty

Physical beauty is only partly in the eye of the beholder. Across all cultures and all times, symmetry is beautiful. The S curve and similar shapes are thought to be beautiful. People deem good health more beautiful than poor health, and accordingly consider full hair and nails to be markers of beauty. Cultures often value certain attributes associated with reproduction, such as sizable and shapely breasts and broad hips in women. In men, cultures often regard attributes associated with the ability to hunt and fight, such as a tall stature and large muscles.

The ideal for skin color and body mass have differed from between cultures and over time. Cognoscenti in Los Angeles may consider extremely thin women beautiful, but the Masai in Africa may consider such thinness ugly and evidence of poor health. Rural people in Thailand may sharpen their daughters’ front teeth to a point to make them more comely in their society, while pointy teeth would have the opposite effect in New York City. Beauty differs between cultures, but not completely. Felicity’s work will be different in Chicago than it would in Cairo, but not entirely.

My primary medical practice is sports medicine, and exercise by itself improves peoples’ appearance. A small portion of my practice, however, is aesthetic medicine. Aesthetic medicine strives to improve the appearance of a patient. It includes restoring someone’s appearance to normal, such as removing a body mole (nevus) or providing rehabilitation to a partially paralyzed face. Aesthetic medicine also includes trying to improve an otherwise “normal” appearance, such as smoothing wrinkles with Botox or skin fillers. Most Christians would not object to the first examples but might object to the second. The distinction, however, is smaller than we might expect. Acne is a nearly universal condition but can be disfiguring. Should Christian physicians treat it because it can cause ugly scarring, or not treat it because it is vain to try to improve the appearance?

The problem arises when women and men define themselves by their physical beauty. Some patients get treatment after treatment, or even surgery after surgery, striving for an elusive look that exists only in their mind. The problem is not in their body, but in where they put their hope. Felicity may encounter the same problem in her career.

What should a Christian do?

The short and simple answer is that every believer is called by God to serve a particular function in the Church and in the world. Every believer must fulfill their function. Physical beauty is valuable and should not be eschewed by Christian men or women. I see no reason in Scripture why Felicity should not become a cosmetologist. It is a wonderful way to support herself and minister to people who may never darken the doorway of a church.

Once in the profession, it is her job to help her clients gain physical beauty. Even more, she will help them see themselves as Christ sees them. Improving one’s appearance – making the best out of what a person has been given – is a fine thing to do. Regardless of the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. A cosmetologist who enhances her clients’ physical beauty while nurturing their spiritual beauty is doing the most beautiful work she can do.

Third Date Sex?

The Unrecognized Tragedy of Extramarital Sex.

As family physician, minister, father or friend, I am privileged to talk to a wide variety of people. I recently met a young woman, not long divorced, who is struggling with past abuse, present financial difficulties, and future uncertainty. We talked many times about the challenges she faced. Shortly after her divorce became final, she started dating another man. This young woman wanted to see if they could have a future, but worried that he didn’t seem interested in her work and other key parts of her life.

Years ago I was the team physician for the US military women’s soccer team at an international competition. One of the players came to me for a gynecological exam, concerned that she might have contracted something from her new boyfriend. We had long and personal discussions about her and about their relationship. She wanted to share her most intimate feelings with this man, but did not dare for fear of losing him.

In both cases intelligent, successful, and attractive young women went to bed with these men within weeks of starting a new relationship. They freely offered themselves in the height of physical intimacy without intimacy in other areas like emotion, commitment, and trust. My college-aged daughter told me that such happens on campus, terming it “third date sex.”

Some gnostics believe that matter is evil and the body is no more than a tent enclosing, and limiting, the human spirit. They may feel that what one does with the body doesn’t matter. Some people believe that sex is only for pleasure and that no one should deny themselves pleasure. They may feel that having sex without limits is good. Some women believe that since many men push for sex without commitment, they should have that right also. They may see no need for other forms of intimacy to coincide with physical intimacy. Yet none of the women with whom I have spoken wanted sex without love; physical intimacy alone.

The word “intimacy” suggests closeness, attachment, affection and confidence. In human life, there is no greater expression of physical intimacy than sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. This intimacy is unique because it alone can result in the ultimate human creative act, the creation of children. This intimacy is binding because with children comes responsibility, a responsibility that only ends with death.

There are many kinds of intimacy between people. To have mental intimacy is to share information but also to share and enjoy thoughts; scary thoughts, unique thoughts, and incorrect thoughts. To have social intimacy is to recognize each other as special, and you as a couple, in the presence of others. To have spiritual intimacy is to agree on the most profound questions in life, including the source, purpose, and end of life, to rejoice in the answers to those questions, and to understand and accept each other on lesser questions. To have emotional intimacy is to cry together, to laugh together, and even more to cry and laugh at the things that make your beloved cry and laugh. To have physical intimacy is to enjoy touch with your partner, first non-sexual and later non-sexual and finally sexual. Sex without non-sexual touch is not physical intimacy. All intimacy presupposes trust between the partners; that the bonds of love which create intimacy will not be broken by the inevitable conflict, whether insensitivity, misunderstanding, the intentional slight, or even betrayal, once repented.

The love which supports intimacy, however, is not a feeling, which is as fleeting as dry leaves in a breeze. Rather it is a commitment, which is as steady as a tree with deep roots in the same breeze.

God brings all people together. His plan is that, at the proper time, a man and a woman will meet, and like the oak tree, their intimacy will grow. They will share thoughts and emotions, hopes and dreams, fears and trials, and innocent touch. The man and the woman will talk of ultimate things, such as purpose in life, and begin to see their role, together, in these things. They will become a couple in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Their feelings will grow as their commitment does, and they will decide to love. In the presence of the most important people in their lives, they will commit to one another for a lifetime. Finally, in the ultimate physical expression of their love, their intimacy, and their lifelong promise, they will share sex, the ultimate physical experience.

How many people, in their heart of hearts, do not long for such a relationship? How many used to long for it, but in their disappointment at the vicissitudes of life, have given up in anger and despair? How many are bitter? How many have simply resigned, settling for far less than their best? Imperfect people cannot have a perfect relationship, but imperfect people can align their intimacies with their commitment and have a more wonderful marriage than they ever thought possible.

Ultimately, it is “not good that man (or woman) should be alone”, and a person’s relationship in marriage reflects their relationship with God.

“Third date sex” may be the best Western culture in its current state can offer, but our Creator intends for us to have so much more. The fault lies at least as much with men as with women. So often in relationships, we demand more than the women we say we love are willing to give…and yet they comply.

Society bears a large part of the blame. We call on people to marry late, preferably after age 25, and tempt them ceaselessly with stories and images during their teen and early adult years, and so we tolerate or even encourage pre-marital sex. People lose much when they have sex outside of its proper context, but if the “societal standard” is sex on the third date, most couples will follow.

Perhaps one day we will understand that maturity, not age, is the key factor in marriage success, help the young to be mature, and encourage couples to marry when they are ready. Perhaps families and friends will help each young couple put boundaries around their physical intimacy. Perhaps older people will teach the truth, and exemplify it. Perhaps men, young and old, will learn to treat women with the love and respect of a husband, not a chattel. On that day “Third date sex” will be a memory, like many ill-advised flings, which we try to forget.

Worship, Foot Washing, and Spiritual Formation

Being a 20th (and now 21st) century, individualistic, “everyone is equal” American, I had long been uncomfortable with the idea of worship. Worship is derived from the English phrase “worth-ship” which bears the idea of acknowledging the worth of something. Expanded as it refers to God, worship includes acknowledging Him, adoring Him and serving Him. I knew that God was great and powerful and I had no trouble acknowledging His greatness and power just like I might acknowledge the power of the ocean or the greatness of a mountain. However, the idea of God sitting in heaven and demanding that His followers constantly worship Him, giving Him adoring praise and service forever, seemed vain and even insecure. Actually, it was my own vanity and insecurity which caused my discomfort.

My thinking was poor on many levels. First, it was based on a misunderstanding of God. He is infinite and therefore has infinite power, knowledge. God also has infinite glory. Nothing that I do can ever add one bit to it. The angels in heaven, the planets in the universe, the trees of the field and even the rocks on the ground declare His glory (Psalm 19:1, Luke 19:40). Every bit of His creation worships Him. God is neither a boastful tyrant trying to puff Himself up at the expense of His subjects nor a famous actor now past his prime and desperate to regain past glory. God is the everlasting source of everything, the fount of every blessing and the center of all Creation. If we spent every moment of every day praising Him, adoring Him, and obeying Him, we could not come close to acknowledging His true worth.

My second misunderstanding was about Creation. When we see a lovely flower or a majestic sunset our natural reaction is to praise it (“How magnificent!”) and thereby acknowledge its worth. When a scientist makes a great discovery or an Olympic athlete wins a gold medal we praise that person (“What insight!” “What skill!”). If something truly strikes us as remarkable, we have a psychological need to remark on it. It is almost as if we cannot fulfill our appreciation of what we are admiring unless we praise it; we publicly, usually verbally, acknowledge its worth. C.S. Lewis wrote “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Thus praise, acknowledging the worth of something, is more necessary for us than it is for the thing or person praised. Flowers and mountains couldn’t care less what we think about them. Even people, if they are truly walking in the Spirit, are ambivalent about others’ opinions unless those opinions accurately reflect the opinion of God.

Additionally, since God made everything, the acknowledgement of the worth of everything that He has made belongs to Him. We can praise a sunset or a man, but ultimate praise belongs to the One who made the sunset and the man.

Spiritual formation can be described as the process begun at salvation (justification), continued through life (sanctification) and completed in heaven (glorification). It involves daily becoming more like Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God the Son. Becoming more like our Lord includes gaining wisdom to see things as they really are and acting accordingly. Thus worship is the key to spiritual formation, and the goal of it. Worship, including acknowledgement of God, adoration of Him, and action in obedience to Him, is foundational. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To borrow an idea from Paul, someday evangelism and disciple-making will pass away, but worship will endure forever.

When modern Christians consider Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13, we know that He was teaching one of the most important lessons of His ministry. However because our culture is radically different from that of first century Palestine, it is difficult for us to grasp the real significance of the act.

The act of foot washing is not part of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament but it is mentioned several times. When Abraham was entertaining his angelic guests in Genesis 18:4 he suggested that they wash their feet, an important part of foot hygiene when walking long distances in a hot, dry part of the world. In Genesis 19:2, Lot offered lodging to those same angelic visitors, allowing them to wash their feet during their stay. When greeting the messenger sent to fetch a bride for Isaac, Laban arranged for him and his men to wash their feet (Genesis 24:32). Genesis 43:24 described Joseph’s brothers being brought into his house and receiving water to wash their feet. In all of these cases foot washing was something a person did for himself and it was done for comfort, for courtesy, and for the practical reason of foot health. Modern soldiers and hikers know the importance of foot care under similar circumstances.

In one instance in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 25:41, someone mentions washing the feet of another. Abigail, wife of the late Nabal, calls herself “a maidservant to wash the feet of my lord’s servants.” In this instance a woman humbles herself to wash the feet of honored guests. It was customary for a rich host in the ancient near east to have the lowliest of servants wash the feet of special visitors in his home, or at least give them water to wash their own feet (cf. Luke 7:44) (Kostenberger 146).

Against this backdrop Jesus acted. Foot washing generally occurred before dinner, because guests did not sit in chairs, they reclined, and in that position one person’s feet might be close to another’s face. In John 13 dinner was already over and no one had volunteered this simple courtesy to the others, even so much as bringing water. Jesus laid aside his coat and, now dressed as the humblest of servants, filled a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

Such an act was puzzling at best and scandalous at worst. There was no Messianic prophecy that Jesus needed to fulfill and no Old Testament precedent or ceremony that He needed to follow; Jesus just did it. That He washed their feet instead of them washing His was unthinkable; no self-respecting rabbi would have washed the feet of his minions; rather he would have rebuked his students for not washing his. The disciples were undoubtedly ashamed that He did it because none of them would. They were also mystified by His humble spirit (Culver 588).

Jesus’ lesson is simply to serve humbly in His kingdom even as He did. Men are constantly fighting for the top position (Mark 10:35-45) while Jesus, in the top position for all eternity, did not strive for it (Philippians 2:6). As JRR Tolkien would have said, we are obsessed with gaining the ring of power and do not want anything that would make it seem that we don’t have it.

There is significance today for believers in this example. Just like James and John, we strive for top position, even if it requires sin for us to get it. Few people want to be second, to be a follower, or to be “behind the scenes”. We all want to be first, be the leader, and be on stage. In our society, which is crazed with the need to measure everything, we want ways to measure our wonderfulness so we can surpass others.

Another important lesson is that believers are to show such love and service even to those who hate and abuse them. Jesus washed all of the disciples’ feet, including Judas. How hard it must have been to wash of the feet of the man who was about to betray Him! We must note that Jesus’ example was for believers to serve other believers; He did not set up a foot washing service in Jerusalem to wash the feet of whoever happened by.

Another important contemporary lesson, although by no means the last, was that Jesus noticed needs and He met them. Oftentimes believers fail to do what the Lord commands simply because we are too self-absorbed to notice what needs to be done.

Bibliography
Culver, R.D. “Foot Washing” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Ed. Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Regency, 1976.
Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Spiritual Formation and the Nature of Man

“Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.” CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

“No single, essential difference separates human beings from other animals — but that hasn’t stopped the phrasemakers from trying to find one. They have described humans as the animals who make tools, or reason, or use fire, or laugh, or any one of a dozen other appealing oversimplifications.” Time Magazine, How Man Began, 14 March 1994

What is man? Is he merely an animal as our friends at Time Magazine would argue, or is he something more? The Bible teaches clearly that man is comprised both of a material and an immaterial part (Matthew 27:50, Mark 9:1-9, Luke 16:19-31, Luke 23:39-43, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Philippians 1:21-24, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12). The material part is the body and the immaterial part includes spirit and soul, but for simplicity’s sake we will use the term spirit. Animals and plants have some sort of animating force, but only man has a spirit which is created in the image of God.

The body is part of the physical universe and includes elements such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen combined into cells and organs. The body inhabits time, has a beginning and an end, and shares these characteristics with animals, plants, and other parts of the physical universe. After each body dies, it breaks down into its component elements until eventually it ceases to exist in the physical world. The component elements are used in other organisms, whether animals or plants. People living today are therefore composed of atoms that once formed the bodies of other men, plants or animals. Elements that we use will be used by others hundreds of years from now. Everything in the universe is accessible to evaluation by our five senses, often augmented by tools such as telescopes, microscopes and others, through the systematic process known as science. As a physician, I have had extensive experience in the fascinating study of the human body and have well seen the promise and the limitations of science in discovering reality.

The spirit is the part of man that many people, and perhaps Time Magazine, deny. It is the “breath of life” that God breathed into Adam after He made his body (Genesis 2:7) and it is the part that remains alive once the body is dead and gone (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). The human spirit had a beginning, for man is not eternally existent, but has no end. It is not composed of physical elements and is not a physical part of the universe. Therefore it is not accessible to evaluation by our senses and can neither be proved, disproved, nor explored by science. God has revealed to many cultures throughout history the presence of the spirit of man but the most accurate and reliable revelation is in His word, the Bible. It is spirit in the same sense that God the Father is Spirit (John 4:24).

The body has a normal pattern of development. Beginning at conception it develops and grows for nine months in utero. After birth it continues to mature and get larger, reaching its maximum physical strength in the third decade of extrauterine life. From that point, it gradually deteriorates until it is finally overcome by death. There are many things that people can do, including healthy eating, adequate exercise, and sufficient sleep, to help maintain health and form their bodies into the best they can be. All the same, while these efforts will probably prolong and will certainly enrich life on earth, they cannot prevent death (1 Timothy 4:8).

The spirit also has a normal pattern of development. When a man accepts Christ his spirit is no longer “dead” in the sense of being separated from God but alive in the sense of being united with God (Ephesians 2:1-7, Colossians 2:13). This moment is roughly analogous to human conception. For the rest of life on earth, the spirit of the Christian grows and develops into the best it can be…the image of Christ (Philippians 1:6, 2:12). Unlike the body, the spirit never weakens and dies (2 Corinthians 4:16) and therefore working to develop the spirit benefits believers in this life and in the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8). The things that Christians must do to develop the Spirit are similar to those necessary to develop the body, including healthy eating, adequate exercise, sufficient sleep, but are in the spiritual realm rather than the physical one. Healthy eating for the spirit might include the classic spiritual disciples of meditation, prayer and study. Adequate exercise for the spirit might include service, fasting and worship. Sufficient sleep for the spirit might include simplicity, solitude and celebration.

When a man seeks to develop his body, he begins with a goal. One goal might be to be able to run three miles, three days per week at a nine minute per mile pace. Another goal might be to bench press 200 lbs, two sets of ten repetitions each, twice per week. A more ambitious bodily goal might be to win an Olympic gold medal in running or weightlifting. When a man seeks to develop his spirit, he also begins with a goal. The goal for all Christians is to become like Christ. Jesus Himself clarified this goal when He summarized God’s commands in the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:30-31);

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

It is in love (ἀγαπάω agapaō – selfless, taking care of, affection), both for God and for others, that Christ-likeness is demonstrated. Spiritual formation is therefore the process by which our spirits grow into the image of Christ, manifest by developing in our love for God and our love for others. The Bible further explains that Christ-likeness is demonstrated by exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:23-24).

The foregoing discussion could suggest that one’s spirit develops independently of one’s body; that the material does not impact the physical. This Gnostic heresy could not be further from the truth. Pope John Paul XXIII observed “Let no one imagine there is any difference between perfection of the soul and the business of life. We are not to abandon the world in order to achieve perfection.” Spiritual development, therefore, does not occur independently of the physical world but through the physical world. The classic disciplines intended to develop the human spirit; meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration, must be done with the body as well as the spirit. Westerhof takes this so far as to say that all life is spiritual, with material and immaterial dimensions. He goes on to say that life is sacramental, (outward/visible and inward/invisible), communal (personal and social), and liturgical (ritual and routine). The Bible teaches that man is united, physical and spiritual, in all aspects of earthly life.

What then, is spiritual formation? It is the development of the spirit of man through the activities of the total of man, material and immaterial, for the purpose of becoming like Jesus Christ. It begins at salvation, continues during earthly life, and is perfected in glory with the Lord. It is manifest by agape love for God and for others, and the Fruits of the Spirit. It is facilitated by the classic spiritual disciplines. Finally, it is one of the main purposes of the Christian journey on earth.

Bibliography
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Lemonick, Michael D., and Dorfman, Andrea. “How Man Began.” Time (March 14, 1994). http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,980307,00.html (accessed March 26, 2011).

Lewis, Clives Staples. The Screwtape Letters. New York: Collier Books, 1961.

Westerhoff, John. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.