Donald Whitney on Spirituality

Donald Whitney on Spirituality December 27, 2011

What Whitney says here is precisely how all spirituality, and kingdom talk, needs to be focused:

I’d like to see a bit more about the creative power of the Spirit and freedom, but his emphasis on spirituality being Christ-shaped and -focused is right.

How do you define and understand “spirituality”?

As you’ve surely noticed, everyone is “spiritual” today. I saw a USA Today survey that found even a majority of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” people. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’m just not a spiritual person.” Perhaps for many, spirituality simply means spending time occasionally in personal reflection. For others, maybe it means consciously trying to live by certain principles or attempting to be thoughtful on important issues such as the environment or homelessness.

However, the common perception of spirituality is not the biblical one. I’m writing from the perspective that spirituality includes — but transcends — the human spirit, and involves the pursuit of God and the things of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with God’s self-revelation (that is, the Bible)….

So how do Christians practice a gospel-centered spirituality? First, practice the right disciplines — those personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines found in the Bible. A gospel-centered spirituality is a sola scriptura spirituality. For individual practice, the most important personal spiritual disciplines are first, the intake of Scripture, and second, prayer; all the others relate to these two. The interpersonal spiritual disciplines we’re to observe are primarily those biblical practices related to life together in a local church.

Second, practice the right disciplines with the right goal. Consciously practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus — pursuing intimacy with Christ and conformity (both inward and outward) to Christ. To put it more succinctly, seek to be with and like Jesus by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines.

Third, practice the right disciplines the right way. Emphasize the person and work of Jesus in each one. Through them learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy who Jesus is and what He has done. Let your faith be restored through the truths of the gospel. Engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture so that you are continually shown your need for Christ and the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Him.

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  • Wow. I do not agree. The writer manages to be both completely non-specific and come across as rigid at the same time. Being a spiritual Christian means being open to God’s work in your life – both internally and in your dealings with other people. Which is almost by definition very fluid and moving, not rigid and constrained. How about this:

    To be spiritual is to live as if you really believed that spiritual matters were more real and more important than this physical world. Jesus told us this is true. “Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be given unto you.”

    To develop spiritually we must spend time with God in prayer. Jesus went off often to pray by himself. And he is describes as praying “with loud cries” (hebrews?), so these were no pious, mealy-mouthed prayers Jesus was saying.

    To stay faithful in our spiritual walk, we must be guided by scripture. This means we must know scripture. I happen to think that reading a couple of chapters at a time in order to become familiar with the material is a perfectly fine way to do this.

    We must also meditate – in prayer with God. The ancient Hebrew practice of meditating was to take two seemingly contradictory ideas and hold them together until they made sense. (Can you imagine how the church would change if we all did this with hard scripture verses instead of relying on the approved answers?) No doubt Jesus used this Hebrew practice.

    We must open up all areas of our lives to God – not just the religious or righteous ones. Psalms say, “where can I go to escape your presence?” God is present with us all the time. If we live with an awareness of that, the spiritual will permeate everything we do.

    To be spiritual, we must cultivate an inner quiet. I love the story of Elijah at Horab; God is not in the shaking of the earth or the fury of the storm or the blazing fire. God was in the quiet – a still, small voice. We must also cultivate unner quiet if we are to hear God’s voice and be spiritually alive beings.

    Those are just a few off the top of my head.

  • Insofar as it goes, okay. I prefer primascriptura, or scripture first in order. I agree with Rebecca that I’m wanting specifics when he mentions spiritual disciplines. Also while he mentions the church, the disciplines that need mentioned and much more discussed today are the “one another” disciplines. To love one another, forgive each other, put up with each other, encourage/exhort, pray for, etc.- the one another’s. This seems missing in spiritual discipline books. Good on what we can do in solitude, which is valuable, but usually not so good with reference to community. Of course that’s hardly workable in today’s church culture, and certainly not in the air, so to speak.

    Good, his emphasis on Christ, and on knowing God in and through Christ.

  • Paul W

    I found the sola scriptura reference as odd too. The only people who can be spiritual are those who embrace a rather nuanced doctrine of the bible? Really?!?

    I think of the spiritual (pneumatikos) person largely in terms of the Spirit of God. So I too would have liked to have seen a little more about the Spirit’s creative empowering presence in his discussion.

    On the other hand, what Whitney calls ‘spiritual’ practices and disciplines I tend to call ‘religious’ disciplines, practices, formation. I do recognize that (for whatever reason) many have negative associations with the term ‘religious’ but I find it both good and helpful.

  • I agree. Especially re: #2 “practice the right disciplines with the right goal. Consciously practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus — pursuing intimacy with Christ and conformity (both inward and outward) to Christ. To put it more succinctly, seek to be with and like Jesus by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines.” This fits neatly (as I understand) with Dallas Willard’s mantra “What would Jesus do if he were me.”
    After all, Christ IS our life (Gal 2:20; Col 3:4)

  • DRT

    I think spirituality is loving god and loving others. Many athiests even have a version of god they use for this.

    Much like the gospel is not soteriology, I believe spiritual Christian practice is not always trying to be like Jesus. Perhaps it is assumed, but I find great benefit in meditating on, engaging in, figuring out what Jesus is and is about. If I knew this gospel, what Jesus is and what he is about, it makes it much easier to strive to be like him. This is the loving god part.

    But the spiritual practice of loving others is not well developed in this article. Sure it could be implied through the emulation of Jesus, but I think it deserves to be called out. Actively taking care of the poor and the marginalized, helping others is spiritual training!

  • JohnM

    Christians should stop using the terms spiritual & spirituality at least for a while. Vague, used too causally, and not generally understood as having to do specifically with Christianity.

  • Robin

    I concur with John M. A quick search on “spiritual” came back with 25 NT references, almost none of them referring to people, the few that did were juxtaposed with “carnal people” and none of them really even bordered on the discussion we are having here.

    The discussion here is about the proper use of terms that really have very little relation to the bible, so I don’t see where it matters if you use Whitney’s contrived definition and standards or some random atheist’s. It is kind of like debating over the true meaning of “systematic theology” or “epistemology” they may be useful frameworks for discussing the bible, but who really cares about the definition on frameworks.

  • Joel Wood

    One should read Whitney’s 200+ page work on disciplines, if their truly looking for further definition. These are simply large hooks to hang our thoughts on and get the juices rolling.

    I really appreciate TDG’s comment above about the “corporate” disciplines… I think that’s a fitting term?!? We’re seeing a shift back to the extra-biblical monastic “spirituality” (perhaps why DW mentions sola scriptura here), and need that growth in biblical disciplines (i.e. disciplines God has talked about.) We must remember that Scripture was inspired by the Spirit, the writers carried along by that Spirit, so we’re not limiting our spirituality by shoving it through that Scripture grid.


  • TJJ

    I agree with the point about the focus being on fellowship with Jesus and process of becoming more like Jesus. I agree that he got the focus right, many get it wrong.

  • Rick

    Joel #8-

    “We must remember that Scripture was inspired by the Spirit, the writers carried along by that Spirit, so we’re not limiting our spirituality by shoving it through that Scripture grid.”

    Well said.

  • I’m not sure, Ted #2, that Whitney is missing the community/”one another” disciplines you name so much as he referenced them in a different, more general, way. I’d have to read more of his writing to be sure, though. In the section Scot quoted, I read about the interpersonal disciplines which surely are community-related and one another-related. The interpersonal spiritual disciplines we’re to observe are primarily those biblical practices related to life together in a local church. I like your emphasis through scripture, first. Whitney’s “interpersonal spiritual disciplines” could be more specifically outlined, as you did well.

    God knows how difficult it is for us to die to ourselves, to love one another, build up each other, confess and forgive our own & others’ sins. We certainly need to remind ourselves through individual spiritual disciplines of the love of the only One who is able to make us stand before we enter community with all its uncomfortably rough and harsh edges rubbing against one another.

    Rebecca #1, your 2nd paragraph stumped me a bit. I agree spiritual matters are “more real” than what we can see (physically). Yet, Jesus’ words about seeking the kingdom, first, seem to me to be about maintaining spiritual focus throughout life within the physical realm, rather than separating spiritual from physical, or subjugating the physical to the spiritual. I’m trying to discern where your disagreement w/ Whitney is, because honestly, I am not getting such a sharp distinction between yours & his words. (Note: I’m recovering from a nasty cold, so maybe my thoughts are as congested as my nose! 😉 )

  • Scott, I often disagree with you but here I am with you 100%. Spirituality (life in the Spirit in Christ) is the result of biblical disciplines pursued with a biblical goal – to know Christ. Knowing God in Christ is now and will be eternally our greatest joy.

    I rejoice in my justification but I am saddened when some Christians seem to rejoice more in their justification than in Christ. Anything, even any good or great aspect of our salvation, that we rejoice in more than Christ is idolatry. God has made Christ the focus of all adoration and so must we. When we feed on him in all his multifaceted glory we are changed into his likeness and know ‘glory’.

  • LFDS

    All of life is spiritual. The question is: To whose spirit am I surrendered in any particular dimension of my human life (physical, emotional, relational, etc)?
    THAT question convicts me! THAT question helps me to identify false Gods.
    I think that Whitney is wanting us to consider how disciplines help us create an environment where we better cooperate with the work of Christ. The disciplines are our response to God’s initiative. They are a way of embracing God’s divine embrace of us.