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It’s easy for religious people to confuse spirituality and religion. It’s easy to suppose that because we’re religious, we’re therefore spiritual. This is not necessarily true.

It’s possible to be religious by merely assenting to a particular set of doctrines or by regularly attending a particular church. But this doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be spiritual. It’s possible to live a good life according to the rules and teachings of a particular denomination—or even by the rules and teachings of the Bible—and not be spiritual. It’s even possible to read the Bible and pray every day and not be a spiritual person!

Such religion consists of mere externals. Spirituality, on the other hand, is always concerned with the mind and heart. True spirituality is the relationship between God and ourselves that no one else can see.

In one sense every person alive is a spiritual being. God created us that way. Spirituality involves what we are at the core of our being. Deep down inside, everybody is some combination of good and evil. Does it surprise you that I should use the word evil in connection with spirituality? It shouldn’t. The apostle Paul spoke of “spiritual wickedness in high places.”1 Even bad people are spiritual beings. You and I can’t escape being spiritual any more than we can escape being physical.

However, while everyone is a spiritual being, spiritual people in the sense I’m speaking of it here are those who make a conscious effort to cultivate the spiritual part of their nature. They meditate and make an effort to “connect” with God. They’re eager to be more honest, more caring persons. Spiritual people recognize that we’re all imperfect, and they’re willing to see the worst in themselves in order to improve.

I believe God is far more concerned with spirituality than He is with religion. God told His Old Testament people that He rejected their observance of the very religious rituals He Himself had given them hundreds of years earlier: “Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates,” He said. “They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”2 God was tired of their religion because it wasn’t making them better people, more spiritual people. They were going through the motions of religion in order to look good rather than to be good.

Does this mean that it makes no difference what we believe or whether we attend church? Does it mean we can forget about religion and simply be spiritual?

That’s not what I’m saying.

Genuine religion can be a powerful spiritual force in our lives. I’ve found that true religious experience makes my spirituality deeper and stronger. Religion is an aid to my spiritual growth. My experience in the Christian religion is so bound up with my spirituality that I can hardly distinguish between the two. I could not be spiritual without being religious, and the very idea of being religious without being spiritual seems repulsive to me.

Some people say they want spirituality but not the church. The question is, What’s the purpose of the church? Ideally, it’s a place where people can get together and help each other to grow spiritually. Often, people who reject the church will form their own small groups for spiritual growth. Without realizing it, they’ve created a “church” of their own to provide for them what the existing church failed to supply—or what they thought the church failed to supply.

My response to this is threefold. First, I’m glad such people have found their “church.” I know the value of small groups, because I’ve belonged to several myself over the years. Second, I suspect that many people who failed to find spirituality in their church weren’t actively seeking it. I challenge them to look for it. And third, I challenge the church to provide true spiritual nurturing for such people.

Some people reject the Bible because it’s been used as a club over their heads to “beat them” into religious conformance. I don’t blame such people for rejecting the Bible. However, correctly understood, the Bible is a profoundly spiritual book, especially the teachings of Jesus. When we read the Bible with spiritual eyes—with an honest desire for insight and moral transformation—then it can be an indispensable aid to spiritual growth.

If you’ve been burned out on religion by religious people—well-meaning, perhaps—who were not spiritual, you might like to take another look at religion and the church. Look for the genuinely spiritual people. Maybe they and the church really can contribute to your life the spirituality they’re meant to provide.

Do me a favor—write and let me know what you find out.

1Ephesians 6:12, KJV. 2Isaiah 1:14.

Religious, but Not Spiritual

by Marvin Moore
From the January 2005 Signs