The Core of Intentional Spirituality

November 4th, 2019
This article is featured in the Intentional Spirituality (Nov/Dec/Jan 2019-20) issue of Circuit Rider

This article is a prelude to Steve Harper's forthcoming book in 2020 by Abingdon Press, Life in Christ: The Substance and Shape of the Spiritual Life.

When I entered the guesthouse at the Abbey of Gethsemani for my first retreat at the monastery, I passed under two words: "God Alone." Although I was familiar with the historicity of the phrase, going back into the Bible itself, I walked into the Abbey with much yet to learn about that phrase. In fact, I am continuing to explore their meaning decades later. Experiencing them as a Christian, I have come to see that they describe what we call "life in Christ"—a life that has many manifestations on the circumference, but one with a singular core. "God Alone" describes intentional spirituality, but however it is expressed, it is life in Christ.

It is the core that Jesus lived himself. Multiple times in the Gospel of John, Jesus said that he came for only one purpose: to do the will of his heavenly Father (4:34, 5:19, 5:36, 8:26, 8:28-29, 8:38, 12:49-50, and 14:24). As the incarnation of the eternal Christ, Jesus recognized in his humanity that he had one vocation—the one we pray for in the Lord's prayer: to do the will of God "on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).[1] His entire life, not just his three-year ministry, was one lived for "God Alone." As such, Jesus is the example of intentional spirituality, whole-life devotion to God.

This is why we call the Christian life one of Christlikeness. It is a life named in the Christian tradition as "the virtuous life" and identified by the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We can read the gospels and see each of these words lived and taught by Jesus. He is our example of intentional spirituality.  Intentional spirituality is establishing Christ as our example and following him.

But there's more. As the Risen Christ, he is the engine (means) for intentional spirituality. The fruit of the Spirit is our confirmation of this power, just as it is a definition of Christlikeness. Jesus called it abiding in him (John 15) and said that as we do so, we will bear much fruit. Paul carried forward the same idea, describing intentional spirituality as the fruit (result) of being filled with the Spirit. The incarnate Christ is our example; the excarnate Christ is our enablement.[2] The interior existence of the fruit of the Spirit fuels our external behaviors relative to them.

With Christ as the example and engine of our spirituality, we have the pattern and the power to "go and do likewise," offering ourselves to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) and using our natural talents and spiritual gifts in God's service—living a life of "God Alone." This is an intentional spirituality which is simultaneously personal and communal. The personal dimension specifies our discipleship, the communal dimension sustains it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together, beautifully models these dimensions and does so within the larger context of Christo-centrism.[3]

Intentional spirituality is a great need in our time. We live in a fragmented world where the human family is all circumference and no center—and worse, where the fragments fight against each other. I am convinced that God is at work today to effect a New Pentecost, one that will bring us together in the way Jesus prayed for in John 17. It is a radical vision, one that requires both pattern and power.  Christ is both. We live by Christ, to Christ, with Christ, in Christ, and for Christ. We are called to raise our sails and allow the fresh Wind of the Spirit to move us in ways that further realize the Reign of God on earth, even as we await its consummation.[4]

I spoke about this at a men's gathering at an Episcopal Church in Orlando. After I finished, I noticed that a man stayed behind. I figured he was designated to turn out the lights and lock up, so I gathered my notes and headed for the door. He followed me, and only then did I realize he had stayed behind to visit with me. As we moved out of the room where the meeting had been held, he introduced himself briefly and then cut to the chase: "I have been a member of this church since I was confirmed. [Assuming he was about 50, that would mean about 38 years] But tonight, is the first time I have connected being a disciple of Jesus with being a lawyer. [He was a member of a large firm in the city] Tomorrow, I have two appointments: one, a divorce settlement and the second, a bankruptcy. Tomorrow, for the first time, I will practice law as a servant of Christ." By then, we were at the parking lot. He thanked me for coming and headed for his car. I have not seen or heard from him since.

But I'm telling you, he grasped (or better, was grasped by) intentional spirituality—a life in Christ which included the practice of law. Who are you? What do you do? Do it intentionally. Do it with Christ as your example and your engine. And as you do so, be assured that you are living in sync with the mission of Christ, the will of God, and the trajectory of the cosmos (Ephesians 1:9-10).

[1]The eternal Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, expressed the same singularity (as does the Holy Spirit). John described the Word as "with God," which in Greek means, "facing God"—a phrase which means beholding in a way that creates a corresponding behavior. 

[2][2] I use the terms incarnate and excarnate with reference to Christ due to the influence of E. Stanley Jones on my Christology. These are the ways he distinguished between the two manifestations while maintaining their unity.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, first published in German in 1939, and since then in multiple languages and editions.

[4] I have written about this in my book, Fresh Wind Blowing (Cascade Books, 2013).

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