“Spirituality” and “Intimacy with God”: screwed up?

eugene petersenWhat is the most misunderstood aspect of spirituality?

That it’s a kind of specialized form of being a Christian, that you have to have some kind of in. It’s elitist. Many people are attracted to it for the wrong reasons. Others are put off by it: I’m not spiritual. I like to go to football games or parties or pursue my career. In fact, I try to avoid the word.

Many people assume that spirituality is about becoming emotionally intimate with God.

That’s a naïve view of spirituality. What we’re talking about is the Christian life. It’s following Jesus. Spirituality is no different from what we’ve been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading Scriptures rightly. It’s just ordinary stuff.

This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong. There is an intimacy with God, but it’s like any other intimacy; it’s part of the fabric of your life. In marriage you don’t feel intimate most of the time. Nor with a friend. Intimacy isn’t primarily a mystical emotion. It’s a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency.

Doesn’t the mystical tradition suggest otherwise?

One of my favorite stories is of Teresa of Avila. She’s sitting in the kitchen with a roasted chicken. And she’s got it with both hands, and she’s gnawing on it, just devouring this chicken. One of the nuns comes in shocked that she’s doing this, behaving this way. She said, “When I eat chicken, I eat chicken; when I pray, I pray.”

If you read the saints, they’re pretty ordinary people. There are moments of rapture and ecstasy, but once every 10 years. And even then it’s a surprise to them. They didn’t do anything. We’ve got to disabuse people of these illusions of what the Christian life is. It’s a wonderful life, but it’s not wonderful in the way a lot of people want it to be.

Yet evangelicals rightly tell people they can have a “personal relationship with God.” That suggests a certain type of spiritual intimacy.

All these words get so screwed up in our society. If intimacy means being open and honest and authentic, so I don’t have veils, or I don’t have to be defensive or in denial of who I am, that’s wonderful. But in our culture, intimacy usually has sexual connotations, with some kind of completion. So I want intimacy because I want more out of life. Very seldom does it have the sense of sacrifice or giving or being vulnerable. Those are two different ways of being intimate. And in our American vocabulary intimacy usually has to do with getting something from the other. That just screws the whole thing up.

It’s very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel. Our vocabulary has to be chastened and tested by revelation, by the Scriptures. We’ve got a pretty good vocabulary and syntax, and we’d better start paying attention to it because the way we grab words here and there to appeal to unbelievers is not very good.

Looks like Eugene Peterson, pastor and lecturer, and famous author of Bible paraphrase “The Message” and other notable books, is passionate when talking about how the church’s language has been held captivity by the culture it finds itself in. He has even more to say in the full interview with him done by Mark Galli for Christianity Today(30th June 2010) titled, “Spirituality for all the Wrong Reasons”

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  • My own personal understanding of “spirituality” is simply how I live out my “Christian” life ie putting what I know (theory) into practice (praxis). I sometimes forget that other people’s “spirituality” is not like mine. That’s when I am naive I suppose.

    Thanks for this piece, Blogpastor.

  • I’m starting to explore the kind of so-called intimacy I see some charismatic Christians talk about. For example, people from Bethel or IHOP or other Christians who seem to have an extremely close fellowship and intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

    Sometimes I ask if I’m missing out on anything. Maybe it’s just terminology or maybe I’m missing out on something?

    On the other hand, I’ve been in a conference that’s full of mainly non-charismatic Christians. They don’t speak the way some charismatic Christians speak, but I also wouldn’t want to say they don’t have that intimacy.

  • Eugene Peterson is wise about Christian spirituality and is careful that people do not abuse the term. He wrote about the use of language in spirituality in his 2008 book, Tell It Slant.

    Hi Stillhaventfound,

    I believe that spirituality is about intimacy with God and is available to all Christians-both charismatic and non-charismatic alike. It is a relationship, not an emotion. I hope more Christians are able to differentiate between the two.

  • Hi Alex,

    Definitely intimacy is available to both charismatics and non-charismatics. For me personally, I’m exploring the role of hearing God’s voice in relation to intimacy. Also, I think as in any relationship, emotions and feelings are of utmost importance. Emotions and feelings doesn’t take the place of a relationship, but a relationship without them is not much of a relationship. Not that they ought to be above everything else, for after all faith is still required at times when we don’t feel anything.

  • I live a very intimate life with God, day in and day out. Whether I like it or not, God is with me and I am with “Him.” I am always strangely struck by those who claim to have a personal relationship with God, but, if you were to say “I am with God!” you are coined a heretic or delusional.

    I am friends with the life I lead. That life, whether I like it or not, is a blessing–a divine daily gift I shroud sometimes with an illusion of being all by my Self. That is lie…I am not alone….have never been alone and will never be alone. This is why I claim with depth and certainty…I am with God.


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