Since I wrote the series “Why Jesus Hates Religion“, I’ve felt that I need to follow this up with a piece about true vs. false religion and true vs. false spirituality.
From information I’ve absorbed online and observed/heard in person, I’ve been realizing that much of the “not religious but spiritual” crowd is promoting a false spirituality and poorly describing what bad “religion” is, and that true spirituality is deeply misunderstood by many.
I do consider myself “spiritual” more than religious. That is, I hate what religion has become, and I seek to walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh.
So I want to clarify what I mean when I say that I’m “spiritual” but not “religious”, and to discuss the difference between true spirituality and its counterfeit, as well as true religion and its counterfeit.
True or Pure Religion
True religion is that described in James 1.
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Pure and undefiled religion is devotion to Jesus (which leads to, or produces self-control and careful speech), love for those in need (which is really love for Christ), and hatred of that which is in the world.
True religion can only be lived out by the power of Jesus. Only a saved believer who has the Holy Spirit can live out this “true religion”.
False or Bad Religion
However, many “religious” people in false or self-made religion are in love with the world, and this is often the source of quarrels among them and quarrels between denominations.
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?
Many religious people (or their religious leaders) are friends with the world (the cares, treasures, comforts, and sins of this life).
You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.
Sound anything like the circumstances surrounding the birth of the English Church?
False religion is founded upon the precepts of men, the wicked desires of men, and the works of men (the teaching that good works will get you into heaven, which is a twisting of the scriptures that talk about those practicing lawlessness not entering heaven, and those doing good works entering).
To clarify, I believe that only those who are truly saved are capable of doing the will of the Father or avoiding evil. An unsaved person can strive in the flesh (their own strength) to be “moral” and do good works, but their works will be as filthy rags before the Lord because they do not have the righteousness of Christ in them.
A lot of kind, generous, and religious people will sadly end up in Hell, because they are seeking to please God on their own merit – which is impossible – rather than to be presentable to God based on Christ’s merit.
It is not “people who obey the Ten Commandments” who will get into heaven, but those who believe in Christ – the One who has fulfilled the Law. Those who are living by the Spirit.
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
When we are truly living under the one law we’ve been given in this new covenant – the law of Love – we will naturally (by the Spirit) begin to love the things Christ loves (truth, justice, holiness, mercy) and to hate the things Christ hates (deception, wickedness, lawlessness, adultery, lust, etc.).
And that is true spirituality. We have the Spirit living in us, so our hearts desire the things of God (love, mercy, and grace, as well as truth, holiness, and justice).
Someone who seeks mercy but not truth, or grace but not holiness, is not getting these incomplete and unbalanced desires from the Spirit of God.
One who serves a “loving” – but not holy and just – “God” is worshiping and serving a false god.
False spirituality is what we see in some charlatanic charismatics, witches, those who communicate with demons, or those who claim to interpret the scriptures by the spirit when they are really just twisting the scriptures to say and hear what they want.
Falsely “spiritual” people don’t truly desire the things of God – nor do they know the Spirit of God. They are only well-acquainted with the desires of their flesh, and they throw the “spiritual” stamp on those desires for the sake of their own consciences, profit, or the approval of men.
The religious but unsaved (those in false religion) and the falsely spiritual are really in the same boat.
They are both walking by the flesh rather than in the true Spirit, and they are both susceptible to the doctrines of demons.
God speaks His truth to us in the Spirit.
He gives us discernment.
He gives us a thirst and hunger for His truth, His holiness, and His love.
His Spirit equips us with spiritual gifts.
His Spirit guides us in our reading and study of His word.
Many religious Christians say that you should “use your mind” when interpreting the Scriptures.
I think it’s important to distinguish between the natural mind of the flesh (Man’s reasoning) and the mind of Christ (given to those who are saved – whose minds are renewed by the Spirit).
For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
One is an earthly wisdom, the other a spiritual wisdom from above, which can only come from God.
Many “Christians” – who claim to be either “religious” or “spiritual” – do not have the mind of Christ in them.
They claim that their interpretations of Scripture are correct, but they are, in fact, reading the Scriptures with a natural mind.
This is how they come up with false gods who are only “loving and merciful” or only “just and holy”.
They do not know the real God in their souls, so they cannot see the real God in the Scriptures.
This is also how false doctrines get started. In the Roman Catholic Church, many “Christians” have interpreted Scriptures through their own natural minds rather than with the mind of Christ.
How and why did they interpret the Scriptures through their natural minds? Because they did not have – or they quenched or ignored – the Spirit of Christ.
Some of the “church fathers” were not truly saved, or they were ignoring God’s wisdom and trusting their own.
Many “church fathers” throughout history were merely religious (or pretending to be religious or spiritual in order to accomplish their own goals).
This is how we’ve been handed down doctrines that don’t take into account all of Scripture (doctrines which are both hermeneutically and spiritually unsound).
The Spirit-renewed mind naturally applies hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics weigh all the Scriptures together.
When you have the Spirit (the living Word) within you – and you know the written word of God, you naturally (by the Spirit-renewed mind) begin to apply hermeneutics.
You desire – and are able – to weigh all truth together, rather than simply to cherry-pick convenient parts of Scripture or glean convenient interpretations from the Word.
When you truly have the Spirit of Christ, you desire and come to know all the truth.
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.
Religious Pitfalls and Misconceptions About Spirituality
Many people think being “spiritual” or “not religious” means being a Christian without responsibility, maturity, or morality.
This is an unfortunate misconception.
True spirituality (leaning into the Spirit of God, who gives you the strength to follow Him and live by His standards) equips people to live according to God’s will.
True spirituality is not a new-agey, emotional, contrived experience – it is an authentic encounter with the living God – with His Spirit, whom Christ said the Father would give to those who ask.
True spirituality is not the unfounded, godless lifestyle that Michael Knowles portrays it to be. True spirituality is centered around the Person, Power, and Presence of Christ.
Michael Knowles: “It seems to me spirituality is at least as performed or enacted as religion and usually moreso.”
Tyler Blanski (being interviewed by Michael Knowles): “Through trial and error, through a lot of hard-won lessons, I learned that spirituality – being spiritual but not religious – almost always ends up in disappointment if not loneliness.”
They are speaking about a false spirituality – one that is not actually centered around knowing the Spirit of Christ.
They are talking about a purely emotional, experiential spirituality (which, unfortunately, is primarily what many self-proclaimed “spiritual” people practice or seek).
(Spirituality/religion discussion starts around 13:30 on the video.)
Around 19:40, Knowles and Blanski both essentially admit that Catholicism is a cult.
“There’s no culture without the cult. Cult and culture come from the same word. And the spiritual but not religious types – they spurn cults and religious organization.”
And a cult is exactly what Roman Catholicism is.
To borrow from CARM.org:
For a group to be a cult in the social sense, many of the following characteristics would have to be present. For a group to be a cult in the doctrinal sense, essentials (in this case of the Christian faith) would have to be violated. Some of the characteristics are listed below.
- Complete, almost unquestioned trust in the leadership.
- Leaders are often seen as prophets, apostles, or special individuals with unusual connections to God. This helps a person give themselves over psychologically to trusting someone else for their spiritual welfare.
- Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.
- Their group is the only true religious system, or one of the few true remnants of God’s people.
- Persecution complex
- Us against them mentality. Therefore, when someone (inside or outside of the group) corrects the group in doctrine and/or behavior, it is interpreted as persecution, which then is interpreted as validation.
- Control of members’ actions and thinking through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of salvation, or a place to live, or receiving curses from God, etc.
- Minimizing contact of church members with those outside the group. This facilitates a further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.
- Love Bombing
- Showing great attention and love to a person in the group by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
- Special Knowledge
- Instructions and/or knowledge are sometimes said to be received by a leader(s) from God. This leader then informs the members.
- The Special Knowledge can be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of sacred scriptures such as the Bible.
- The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around Special Knowledge.
- Salvation from the judgment of God is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its Special Knowledge.
- Group Think
- The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
- There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion and acceptance by the group.
- Cognitive Dissonance
- Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
- Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.
- Those who do not keep in step with group policies are shunned and/or expelled.
- Gender Roles
- Control of gender roles and definitions.
- Severe control of gender roles sometimes leads to sexual exploitation.
- Appearance Standards
- Often a common appearance is required and maintained. For instance, women might wear prairie dresses, and/or their hair in buns, and/or no makeup, and/or the men might all wear white short-sleeved shirts, and/or without beards, or all wear beards.
Evidently, some of these characteristics – such as sexual exploitation – are, in theory, less applicable to the Roman Catholic Church.
However, a cult can still be a cult if several but not all of these characteristics are present.
In the Catholic and English/Episcopalian Churches, we often see the characteristics of Submission, Exclusivity, Persecution Complex, Control, Love Bombing, Special Knowledge, Indoctrination, Salvation, Group Think, and Cognitive Dissonance in the senses in which they are described here.
Works (Religion) Cannot Save Us
It’s sheer arrogance to think that we can please God by our own works apart from the Spirit and power of Christ.
Our works are not what make us pleasing to God. It’s the presence, purity, and power of the God who is behind those works.
In other words, works are only pleasing to God if they have the righteousness of Christ behind them – if they are done by the power of God through someone who knows God – someone who is already saved.
Spirituality – true spirituality – is not about throwing God out the window in favor of some emotional, self-gratifying experience.
Rather, it is all about God and not about Man.
True spirituality is not coreless – it centers around the core of Christianity – Christ – and acknowledges Him alone as the source of salvation and all good works.
True spirituality acknowledges the futility of religion in pleasing God.
True spirituality is not subject to the whims of Man but the wind, wishes, wisdom, and will of the Spirit of God.
For this reason, true spirituality does not change in principle (love, truth, holiness, mercy, justice, selflessness, self-control, patience, peace) – though it may change in practice (custom, tradition, action, works) according to the needs of the moment.
All spiritual works and wisdom of God will be compatible with His Truth, Love, Justice, Holiness, and Wisdom.
True spirituality recognizes that true righteousness does not come from man-made religion, works, or self-generated morality.
True righteousness comes from the blood and Spirit of Christ alone.
His death on the cross – His resurrection – was the final rite.
We participate in communion and baptism as signs of our faith and commemoration of what Christ has done.
But the substance of salvation belongs to Christ, not to the elemental things of this world.
The Catholics forbid spilling or touching of the “host” in communion.
But we have been told not to enforce such self-made religion which forbids the tasting or touching of elemental things.
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to
food or drink
or in respect to
a festival or
a new moon or
a Sabbath day—
things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in
self-abasement and the worship of the angels,
taking his stand on visions he has seen,
inflated without cause by his fleshly mind,
and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as,
“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”
(which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?
These are matters which have, to be sure,
the appearance of wisdom
in self-made religion and
severe treatment of the body,
but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
True spirituality recognizes that the substance and security of salvation – the meaning of the Christian life – do not belong to elemental things, but to Christ.
When Christ died in human flesh, He put human flesh (sin and the elemental and elementary things of this world) to death.
Those who are saved have died in their flesh (are crucified) with Him (their sinful flesh and the elementary things of this world become meaningless and powerless), and they now have eternal life in the Spirit.
We are saved through Him, not through bread or wine or water (temporal, elemental substances). Not through sacraments or good works.
Christ’s blood was already shed once for all our sins.
For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
1 Peter 3:18
For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,
“And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all our sins for all time. We don’t need priests, because Christ is our High Priest. We can’t keep atoning for our sins through communion. We don’t have to “keep shedding” Christ’s blood every Sunday. (Catholics essentially keep crucifying Christ, and they seek to atone for their sins during Mass.)
Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ,
let us press on to maturity,
not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
of instruction about washings and laying on of hands,
and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.
And this we will do, if God permits.
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened
and have tasted of the heavenly gift
and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,
and have tasted the good word of God
and the powers of the age to come,
and then have fallen away,
it is impossible to renew them again to repentance,
since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
Forced, stale morality (dead religion) can provide a false sense of security for religious people, but true righteousness comes from Christ alone.
True regeneration and holiness through His Spirit and blood are what make us pleasing to Him – and these things come entirely from Him, not us.
Our hearts must be turned from stone to flesh, and this can only happen by the power and work of the Spirit.
Spirituality is not some fluffy, pie-in-the-sky, new-age mumbo-jumbo.
Spirituality is about being truly connected (through salvation) to the substance of Christ.
It is about being transformed by the power of God through the Holy Spirit.
Spirituality is substantial.
And true spirituality only comes through salvation – through connection to God by cleansing from our sin.
To sum it up:
False spirituality leans on the wisdom of Man and is still carnal. It caters to the desires of the flesh and often involves demonic activity (although its demonic connections are, perhaps, rarely perceived as such by the participants).
True spirituality leans on the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of Man.
I believe at least one reason for the vagueness of some scriptures is that we cannot simply rely on the teachings of unsaved men to understand them. We have to actually dance with God. We have to personally know Jesus to begin to understand the scriptures.
An academic, “educated” but unsaved theologian will not have the same understanding of the scriptures as a saved and eager but novice student of the Word.
Many heard Christ’s parables, few understood them. Only those to whom it was given to understand.
It wasn’t the most educated who generally understood the truth of God. In fact, Christ revealed the truth to many who were uneducated – the “infants” of society – while the “scholarly” religious leaders of the day remained hopelessly blind to the truth of God.
At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”
The wisdom of God is not perceived by the most scholarly or learned “religious” people – it is only perceived by those who know God in their souls, and therefore learn from God directly.
Those who begin to see are those who realize or acknowledge their blindness.
Those who believe they are not blind apart from God are blind – or become so.
And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
I don’t believe God closes the eyes and ears of somebody who would want to understand Him. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, so He would not hinder someone who is seeking Him from returning to Him.
Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’
Rather, He closes the eyes and ears of those who would rather be blind and deaf. And He reveals Himself to those who seek Him.
You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.
“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.”
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
Examine All Things
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
2 Peter 2:1
These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.
1 John 2:26-27
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.
True spirituality and true religion (like that of James 1) are the same thing. They are both incredibly simple in nature, and they both are all about the power of God which equips us and not about the natural “power” or “works” or “merit” or “wisdom” or “reasoning” of Man.
False spirituality and false religion are the same thing. They just manifest differently.
They are both complex and convoluted in nature.
They are both subject to the whims and wishes of men rather than to the steady voice of the Spirit, even though they of course claim to be reliable and “of the Spirit”.
They both require the maintenance, execution, organization, and/or wisdom of humans – rather than God – to keep running.
The main difference is that one appeals to more systems-oriented people, and the other to more empathic people.
But apart from true inward regeneration (salvation), they are just different sides of the same coin – death.