Piety – since I was a boy I have wanted to be more pious and at the same time I have not liked any of the pious people that I know. Have you ever found yourself in that kind of conundrum? I seem to live in that condition a fair amount of the time. Yet the truth of the matter is that all of my attempts to be more pious have ended pretty much in utter failure. You see I grew up in a religious group where piety was highly valued. It was measured by one’s devotion to such things as Scripture reading and memorization, extended times in prayer, attendance at all the services of the church, and service to the Lord. It was also assessed by one’s demeanor, which at least to me appeared to be an austere and unflapableness in the face of whatever life brought across one’s path – “stoic” in a word.
I wasn’t far off for the dictionary defines piety as “marked by conspicuous religiosity” or “dutifulness in religion: devoutness”. I think I have had this desire to be pious, because I have never felt that I have ever been able to live up to the spiritual standards that others set for me. Feeling like a spiritual failure all the time is tough. Maybe you have been there yourself and you know what I mean?
Instead, all I have ever been able to come up with is an honest desire to know the Lord and a living, trusting relationship with Him. Maybe I have never been able to feel all that great about this because when measured against my understanding of piety, I always seemed to fall so short. Where I grew up, piety was called “being spiritual” and if you were not “spiritual” you were carnal: a word that meant that you allowed the baser cravings of your sinfulness to control your life. Where I come from, there is not much worse than being labeled a “carnal Christian”.
You don’t hear that kind of language much any more. I certainly can not remembering hearing it from the pulpit of the church I attend in the last 10 years. It wasn’t really a word I used much in my preaching the 22 years I was in pastoral ministry. But then, by the time I became a pastor, I had grown pretty tired of the labels that were so readily applied to everyone in the environs of the churches I attended as a young person.
Of course now-a-days, the word spiritual is used in a vastly broader sense than it ever was when I was growing up. In fact my first 3 months in chaplaincy training this word spiritual and the word spirituality were used a lot, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were talking about, they certainly were not talking about piety, I knew that for sure.
Now, in the English language at least, there seems to be several legitimate definitions for just about every word. This is certainly true of the word spiritual. The way the word is used generally these days it certainly is not the property of the church. Today spirituality encompasses every belief system from atheism, agnosticism and the practice of every religion in the world as well as philosophical pursuits that are entirely secular. In fact you may be more likely to hear a Wiccan priestess called a spiritual person before you would a Bible thumping Southern Baptist preacher: these days these types are called dangerous fanatics.
I guess we better define this word spiritual. The sense in which it is popularly used these days is legitimate. In this broader sense, spiritual or spirituality are terms used to describe the non-material reality of human existence. Patricia Frain has done a nice job defining it as that part of the human experience that is characterized by the desire to live purposeful and meaningful lives; our sense of connection and relatedness to ourselves, others, the world and the divine; our desire to live with trust and hope in an uncertain universe and our desire to experience a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. In this sense, every human being; regardless of race, religion or culture; is spiritual.
But then there is also a more boundaried definition drawn from the pages of the Bible. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 use the word spiritual in this sense. In the simplest sense it might be defined as “living under the control of the Spirit of God as opposed to living under the control of one’s sinful nature.” But maybe that isn’t as simple as it sounds. In this more boundaried sense, being spiritual must be looked at as a matter of degrees as opposed to a place one has arrived. It must be looked at more as an aspiration that we strive towards than a destination we arrive at. It has to with the degree to which a person decides at any given moment to yield to the will and purpose of God. It is very much a matter of the heart.
Now historically the church used piety as an external measurement of one’s spirituality. Because matters of the heart are nearly impossible to measure, and because part of our carnality is a propensity to need to measure such things and compare ourselves to others, piety became a common means of doing this. I suppose that is why as a boy and Youngman I longed to be more pious. If I could have somehow attained such a status, then when those carnal comparisons were engaged, I would have come out looking “not too bad.
Maybe it is a good thing that I never quite got that piety thing down pat. I get the sense that far more important, in every way, is learning to live in the often confusing, many times lonely reality of trusting God and seeking to loving him from my heart. Nine times out of ten when a person living this way is measured on the piety scale, they come in pretty short. But then, seeking to be a spiritual person means turning our backs on the whole business of trying to live up to someone’s external standard of piety.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing at all wrong with Scripture reading and memorization, prayer, church attendance and service. But when our carnal selves get a hold of these things, they become rules to keep proving to others that we are pious instead of acts of love and trust in relation to our marvelously mysterious, majestic, and “wholly other than who we are” God.
Many that I care for live in a state of spiritual defeat because all their lives they have failed to meet the piety standards of the church they attended. Many have come to live with an uneasy resignation, believing that spirituality will always be beyond their grasp because they could never muster the sheer determination and will-power to live up to those standards of piety. This is tragic because it leave people feeling at a distance from God. It leaves people feeling as if they are second class Christians if they are Christians at all. Yet miraculously, I find that many of these dear folks, without even realizing it, have actually moved towards a more authentic relationship with God: a relationship of trust and love that exists in a heart familiar with brokenness yet constantly amazed by God’s gracious love and care.
This has been one of those pleasant and unexpected surprises in my own quest to be a spiritual person. It is learning that it is in my brokenness, in my inability to pull off “piety” that a real, authentic, relationship with God is to be found. Imagine that!
“The comments expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Southern Health/Santé-Sud Regional Health Authority or the Directors”.