Spirituality – Which Room?

The latest edition of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care includes a book review by Brian Owen.  I’d like to share some of his wording to prompt our conversation.  I won’t name the book as I haven’t read it and for this post it doesn’t matter.  The book is about being an apprentice of Jesus.  The focus is on “being with” – a central feature of apprenticeship or, in contemporary terms, mentoring (as opposed to simply “being taught” the basic acts and facts, as discipleship has typically become in our day).

In the reviewer’s critique of the book he writes of the temptation faced by men and women who are “frustrated and discouraged  by the current lack of spiritual transformation in their lives and who might be tempted to view this invitation to a life of training with Jesus in the wrong way.  Instead of perceiving it as a life of participation in what Christ has done and is doing, they might mistakenly see it as an opportunity to deal with their lack of transformation, and the resulting guilt and shame, through their own efforts.”

And here’s the particular paragraph that stood out to me:

“In his legitimate desire to move us away from a solely forensic understanding of the Christian life to one that sees it as a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus, or in his own words, from the ‘courtroom to the bedroom,’ I fear that some readers of this book might inadvertently find themselves in an entirely different room, the gymnasium.  Those who inhabit the gymnasium falsely believe that vigorous spiritual exercise alone will shape up flabby souls and provide a place to hide guilt and cover shame through hard work and spiritual discipline.”

The risk of this approach is either dropping out through exhaustion and failure, or achieving some level of perceived success through our own efforts.  Gymnasium spirituality leads to being either a spiritual dropout, or a smug Pharisee.  But Christian training “involves opening up to a person, not a procedure.”

(Incidentally, the review concludes with a second critique worth mentioning on this site: Owen suggests the book would be “strengthened by suggesting that this journey be pursued in a community with others who are engaged in the same experiment.”  Amen!)

Now, can we take up this idea of trying to move from the “courtroom” to the “bedroom” but ending up in the “gymnasium” and chase that out some more?  Please, you are very welcome to join the conversation . . .


14 Responses to Spirituality – Which Room?

  1. Huw July 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    I know I for one, am an expert at turning even the most helpful things into a list of ‘boxes to tick’ in order to feel smug when I do (or guilty when I don’t). So I can very much relate to what he’s saying here.

    Sadly the gymnasium seems like a far more attractive prospect until you get stuck in there!

    But how to avoid it?

  2. Brian Owen July 6, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Thanks for commenting on my book review. I’ll add a few more thoughts to your post later.

  3. Duncan July 6, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

    I love the comment about community. Its harder to be a Pharisee when you’re asking one another which sins you are most struggling with at the moment. Particularly if somebody is asking you how arrogance and pride are going.

    As a blessing to anybody:
    To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
    “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
    “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

  4. Brian Owen July 7, 2010 at 12:24 am #

    It takes some intentionality to avoid “gymnasium spirituality.” Our autonomy is deeply ingrained in us through the fall and through how we have learned to deal with our guilt and shame on our own.

    The Bible can be a place of encountering the Lord Jesus and opening up deeply to our need for Him. Or it can serve as a defense against seeing the trurth of ourselves that His Spirit desires to reveal to us.

    Prayer can be a place of speaking and listening to our great God. Or it can function as a form of impersonal “verbal email.”

    We must pursue these disciplines, and others like them, not as a way to fix ourselves, but as a way to open ourselves to the only one who can transform us, for it is his love that transforms us, not our labor alone. We are invited to open to him, to participate in what he is doing to sanctify us, and to cooperate with the work of His Spirit.

  5. Peter Mead July 7, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    Duncan, thanks for throwing Luke 18:9-14 into the mix, what a great passage! The Pharisee is really praying about himself for others to hear, the exact opposite of what spiritual growth in community should be like. This is a great example of the “verbal email” Brian described in his comment. The Pharisee’s self-description, and his CV of gymnasium achievements (including the twice weekly fast when God asked them for one day per year, as well as his over and above approach to tithing), demonstrate a completely self-focused “spirituality.” Not that I am against gyms, but they typically have big mirrors in them! On the other hand the tax collector views himself as “the” sinner and pleads for propitiation (i.e. make atonement for me because I am hopeless without your help Lord.) It is about a person and not a personal programme!

    Incidentally, have you noticed how this parable introduces the sequence of stories that flow out of it . . . I’m thinking of the next five units? Be worth reading through Luke 18 and into 19 to see how he combined these narratives so powerfully, pointing ultimately to the atoning work of the Person.

  6. Bobby Grow July 7, 2010 at 7:42 am #

    Often, I think, the reason folks fall into a gym spirituality is because they have been taught to think of the atonement in certain terms — i.e. in strictly forensic terms (or transactional). This leads to a “relationship” and spirituality with God that is indeed checklist and pharisaical — i.e. because the whole “relationship” has been framed by a legal relationship and not an intimate/Trinitarian one.

    I think Hugh Binning (a Scottish theologian from years past) hits on how a Trinitarian and relational understanding of salvation looks like:

    . . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose. (Thomas F. Torrance, quoting Hugh Binning, “Scottish Theology,” 79)

    If salvation is thought of in terms like this — that God is love and is seeking a relationship with His creation — then a gymnasium spirituality melts away into the “bedroom” of God’s holy and loving life (the checklist is thrown out).

  7. Huw July 7, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Really helpful comments here! Thank you!

  8. David Dexter July 7, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    What we have here is the Mary and Martha situation at the end of Luke 10. Mary had got it right. Martha was doing a good job until she lost the plot, and starting to look at others. How like us.

  9. Bobby Grow July 8, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    I wanted to add that in contrast to “framing” the atonement forensically or legally; that the relational/Trintarian framing emphasizes “union with Christ” (cf.Eph 5, hi, Ron ;-) ) or Paul’s “in Christ” theology. This emphasis does not negate the legal component of the atonement it just reframes it (i.e. thinking of marriage, in general, which is motivated and shaped by the love of the two spouses; but involves the step of “making it legal” by getting a license).

    I think this framing or emphasis provides for the “bedroom” kind of spirituality that Peter is referencing. I was first put onto this kind of thinking by Ron Frost; I think it is a beautiful way of thinking about our relationship to Christ (or our bridegroom). He’s not a cold “law-giver,” but a warm lover of our souls.

  10. Sylvester Odanga July 8, 2010 at 8:17 pm #


    I have really liked what goes on here. I came via Peter Mead’s blog.


  11. Alan Homersley July 9, 2010 at 9:52 am #

    All excellent comments and God has been speaking to me recently on this very matter (which again is amazing) :-). I would have classed myself as being a Gym orientated Christian until some months ago. ” A good Christian goes to church, A good Christian attends the prayer meeting, a good Christian has an hours quiet time every morning”………

    I have been listening to some talks from Capenwray in the north of England by a Dutch chap called Eis Van Dijk on Galatians and how eveything is about Christ and our relationship with him (God). Getting to know God through Christ, being right with God through Christ, just walking with Christ and being in love with Christ in a deeper and deeper way each day becasue of how utterly amazing He is.

    Eis tells a story (several actually) of a Girl who becomes a christian and is full of the life of Christ and can’t help but tell of it. She starts to attend church and gets loaded with a list of Do’s (and Dont’s) and faithfully tries to live them out and some months later meets with Eis and tells of how the life has been sucked out of her trying to ‘perform’, to live out the set of rules and failing.

    Rather, we should focus on Christ and give thanks that we have been forgiven for our inability to live out the rules (Law) and rest in him…(as Mary did) listening to His word and letting our lifes be full of the love that comes from Christ.

    None of the things I listed at the start of this comment were wrong, but I was trying to live them out to be a ‘Good Christian’ to some how fill the hole in my life and be ‘better’ or ‘more right’ with God….. I failed……I now focus on Christ, I talk with him I discuss with him, I cry with him I sometimes even shout at him, and yet ‘his Love endures forever” (psalm 136) he loves me always and shows me just how much when I talk to him about it… as I am reminded of the access I have into the Holy place through the sacrifice Christ has made my heart overflows with thanfulness and I talk to him all the more……

    And slowly I realise that my need for the word is no longer based in a need to try and be ‘better’ with Christ… but as a ‘check’ to make sure I am walking with him, walking closely to him, and not being buredened again with a yoke of slavery, slavery to Sin, Not accepting the lies that satan (and my old self) perpetuate and which I could (and do) get sucked back into and loosing the ‘life’ of Christ in my life. I daily turn to the cross of christ and place my sins there and leave them there, to maintain my walk with the greatest Love my life has ever known and the author and perfector of every thought my mind ever had (and has) and which produces the faith I have to turn to him ….

    I praise God that Christ has torn the curtain in two and I have access back to the most Gracious king, my Lord and my God…… :-) and to quote the phrase at the bottom of the page. being gripped God and sharing His heart….. :-)

  12. DUANE WATTS July 10, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    I Love this question. I rather intimated the bedroom in my blog some weeks ago:

    “Under normal circumstances as a Christian of 30 some years, when I pray, I address Father, who is over and above me, way up in Heaven. That is until recently.

    Now, I begin to know Him as the ‘God who is in your face’. By this I mean He is in my mind, Knowing everything that will occur to me to pray, before I pray it, and beyond that, He knows the motivation behind it, better than I do. He’s in my eyes, seeing the covetousness within, as well as the beauty I see in a spring apple blossom. He’s in my ears, hearing sacred music as I do…. He’s in my nostrils smelling breakfast that hasn’t even been prepared yet, only in my mind. He’s in my breath, every molecule of oxygen in my vessels. He’s in my fingertips, feeling the soft puppy’s ears, and my lips, feeling my grandaughter’s soft face. He’s in my heart, feeling my indignation over the injustice that is committed in the slaughter of the innocents, as well as the compassion I feel for my sick friend (who is getting better :)), and the poor little girl in Haiti, whom we sponsor and pray for.
    HE is in my face, He feels my breath, and I can almost feel His.

    Now, when I pray, He is in Heavenly realms, as He has eternally been, but He is in my face, perfectly attentive to my every prayer. As I remember this, my prayer time [should be] an act of worship, not just telegraphing a bunch of requests to Heaven. The Eternal Maker of all that is, seen and unseen, and my redeemer, who bore the penalty for my sin, is in my face intimate, with every single sensation, thought and intent. Again, we just do not have a clue, the greatness, and now the closeness of our God. But we begin to get…. a clue.”

  13. Chris Wisehart July 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    Great marksmanship requires holding a good sight picture which includes three elements, the front and rear sight blades and the target. Many times I have couched shooters who fire just short of expert where all seems perfect except their rounds fall just in and out of the bull’s-eye. Expert marksmen recognize this problem with ease as what is called “Chasing the Bull” which is caused by a sight picture where the focus is on the target. This is a poor sight picture because a good one is where one focuses on the front sight blade the rear and bull’s-eye are fuzzy. Fixing this small problem by focusing on the front sight blade moves the rounds for the edge of the bull’s-eye to the center making perfect marksmanship much easier. This is similar to being in the right room. Focus on our Lord and the goals though present may not be clear but we won’t miss them. Though it is laudable to work to be like Him if we focus on what we wish to become we will miss the mark. Our goals must be in the picture but to reach them they should not be our focus. He must be our focus.

  14. DUANE WATTS July 12, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Beautiful word-picture Chris!

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