From that discussion we moved on to a discussion of a contrasting model of biblical spirituality portrayed in Total Church, by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester. It is contrasting because it is rooted in the gospel word and mission, and because it is concerned with the context of Christian community rather than an individual experience. As I said I would last night, I am here providing an overview of the entire chapter to help provide some context. Here are the pertinent excerpts from the book and more questions to discuss…
Under the heading of “Spirituality and the gospel word,” the authors argue that “biblical spirituality is a spirituality of the word” (138). The contrast that’s drawn is to a spirituality that is based on word-less meditation, silence, solitude, etc. In this context they point out that (139-140)
In the mystical and contemplative traditions the goal of spirituality is union with Christ. Union with Christ is attained through a pattern of spiritual disciplines or a series of spiritual stages. The imagery of a ladder is often used. Gospel spirituality is the exact opposite. Union with Christ is not the goal of spirituality; it is the foundation of spirituality. It is not attained through disciplines or stages; it is given through childlike faith.
I should confess that I was once heavily drawn to the kind of spirituality represented by contemplation, silence, and solitude. I still am. But why is this? I believe it is because it represents a spirituality of achievement. It is spirituality for the elite. Biblical spirituality in contrast is a spirituality of grace. Its dominant image is that of a child petitioning its father.
The next heading is “Spirituality and the gospel mission” (140-144). In this section Chester and Timmis contend that biblical spirituality requires passionate engagment and passionate prayer. One quote that gives a flavor of the basic point regarding passionate engagement is this (141):
You do not find Jesus in perpetual retreat, but in the world. Biblical spirituality turns out to be a spirituality of mission.
And in speaking of passionate prayer (143):
People are often encouraged to spend time in silence and stillness before God. When most Christians I talk to try this, they end up thinking about what they watched on television the night before or compiling lists of things they need to do. As a result, they are made to feel “unspiritual”.
In contrast to this (143),
If we are engaged with the world around us, then we will care about that world. We will be passionate about people’s needs, our holiness and God’s glory. We will not be still in prayer. We will cry out for mercy with a holy violence. If we are silent, it will be because in our distress, words have failed us. This is the spirituality of the Psalms - a spirituality in which all our emotions are engaged.
The final section of the chapter is “Spirituality and the gospel community” (144-147). The basic premise of this section is that authentic spirituality must be lived out in community, it is not an individual (the authors draw a distinction between “personal” and “individual”) matter, but a community matter. They articulate a description of the Christian life that is personal (God relates to me personally), but also communal (I am a person of God because there is a people of God). They provide a good description of two stories that can be told about the Bible, which I will not reprint here in fairness to the fair use doctrine of copyright law (this is on pages 144-145). One story is that of individual salvation, the other is that of God redeeming a people and creating a new humanity. Both stories are true, but the first story is incomplete without the second. The authors then draw out three implications - we prioritize prayer with others (over prayer alone); we must not separate our relationship with God from our relationship with others; and we need to exhort and encourage each other daily (145-146). The idea that was most provocative to our group last night was the first implication, so here is the full paragraph for you to consider:
First, it means we should prioritize prayer with others over prayer alone. It is when two agree that Christ promises to answer prayer and when two or more are gathered that Christ promises to be with us (Matthew 18:19-20). Not only does this reflect the communal nature of our relationship with God, but experience suggests that for most people it is easier. On my own my thoughts are soon distracted. Praying with other people somehow seems to sustain my concentration. I meet each weekday morning at 8:30 am, to pray briefly with another Christian. Other people I know read the Bible and pray in the car as they commute together to work. We also encourage people to pray together in the midst of ordinary life. When you are talking about a problem, turn that conversation into prayer. When you are celebrating a success, turn that conversation into praise. I still pray alone for two reasons. First, I need to pray more often than just the times when I am with other Christians. Second, I still fear other people’s opinion too much freely to disclose my heart before them in prayer. It should not be like this, but it is. And so there are times when I need to be more honest with God than I can manage to be in the presence of other people. But I do not rate time alone in prayer over time together in prayer.
So, here we have two competing views of spirituality - Oprah and Eckhart Tolle vs. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. Questions for discussion (remember that Scripture should guide our answers):
1. Do Chester and Timmis accurately portray biblical spirituality? If it is a mixed bag, what do they get right and what do they not?
2. What do you think about prioritizing prayer with others over prayer alone?
3. Is there anything you need to change about your conception of spirituality after considering these things?