How can we recognize a spiritual person? What might we look for in ourselves as a sign of spiritual growth or maturity? In what way should religious beliefs influence the quality of a person’s life?
As I reflect on these questions, I look to my own spiritual and religious heritage as a Christian. As I consider spiritual growth and maturity, I am drawn to reflect on a passage from the Bible about which we actually know very little: the letter to the ancient Galatian church. There’s no original copy of the text. The oldest surviving version is estimated to date at least 150 years after its original composition. While the text is addressed to a particular group, no one is sure who that group really was other than being a small community in modern day Turkey. Yet, scholars agree that the Letter to the Galatians was most likely written by the Biblical figure called Paul. While it could have been written at any time between 40 and 70 CE, most scholars estimate it was written around the year 50.
As I reflect on this letter in terms of spiritual growth and development, I’m drawn to a particular verse that’s probably familiar to many people — whether or not they are Christians. In the fifth chapter of this letter, Paul writes in verse 22: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Then he makes a bold statement: against such things, there is no law.
When I consider this text, I remember apple trees that grew in my family’s yard. I played in the shade of those trees and would attempt to climb their gnarly branches. They flowered with sweet blossoms in the spring and dropped down small pieces of fruit in early autumn. When the trees were healthy and tended, they quite naturally budded and produced wonderfully tart apples. It was just what they did. I can still remember apple pies made from those apples and how I enjoyed their crisp flavor.
I’ve come to understand spirituality and our growth and our integration as people in much the same way as apple trees bearing fruit: when we care for, tend, and nurture the spiritual dimension of our lives, we naturally bear fruit. Paul listed the fruit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things well up within us quite naturally. No one can stop it from happening if we’re taking the spiritual dimension of life seriously.
While growth is a gradual process, it does occur. We grow in our ability to love, find joy in life, experience peace within our selves, patience with others, and be kind….so on down the list. We transform into becoming the great people we were meant to be.
This kind of transformation makes sense to me. It seems to me that it’s the way it should be. Because of that, I become distressed when I see many purveyors of religion and spirituality not acting out of love, joy, and peace but out of hatred, prejudice, and bigotry.
In the news on any given day, we are confronted with the stories and images of so-called religious people demonstrating hatred, intolerance, and discord. Such attitudes and actions are the antithesis of maturity and spiritual growth.
- Christian groups in the United States not only oppose marriage equality but state that homosexual people should be killed. A ballot initiative in the state of California is proposing such a measure.
- Espousing their own form of Islam, members of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda maim and kill other Muslims who do not share their religious views.
- Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and their rabbis have attacked buses and have used violence to prevent women’s participation in Jewish prayers
- Buddhist monks have attacked Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka as part of a Buddhist supremacist group called the Buddhist Power Force.
As I read the ways in which religion is used as a façade to draw people into political struggles, I have to wonder: where is the love that is meant to characterize Christian life? Or the sense of justice and equanimity that’s the ethical foundation of Judaism? Or the charity that is the hallmark of Islam? Or the compassion that is central to Buddhist enlightenment?
Some political leaders and media commentators insist that Muslims in Europe and Asia do more to take a stand against terror groups like the Islamic State. But the problem of terrorist groups using religion is not limited to Islam. Instead, it is a pattern found in every major religion of the world. In this global reality, the problem is not with religion. Instead, when politically motivated leaders recruit others to join causes with questionable ethical foundations, they use a façade of religion to draw their followers and turn them into militants for a cause.
It seems to me that the task of discerning authentic spiritual growth and development from a pseudo-spirituality that manipulates people and power is found by examining what Paul referred to as “the fruit” of spiritual living. To the degree that love, joy, and peace characterize the lives of people, to that degree the spiritual dimension of life is taken seriously by individuals. This fruit is manifested in compassion toward all and a sense of justice and equanimity. Such people’s lives are genuinely charitable: giving what they have and of themselves to others. But when people are living lives characterized by the oppression of others, judgementalism, ridicule, and even outright hatred, something is tragically wrong. No matter how they dress, what their title may be, or their level of education, the fruit of the spiritual life is not present in them or their lives.
While we are all on a journey toward wholeness and none of us perfectly embodies the fullness of the spiritual fruits listed by Paul in his ancient letter, yet all religious and spiritual traditions call us to grow toward the same quality of integrated, whole life which manifests good will and compassion toward ourselves and others. The authentic practice of religion and the growth of the spiritual dimension of self lead to lives characterized by love, joy, and peace. It’s as natural as apples growing on trees.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.