“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I’ve heard this little phrase hundreds of times, but I’m not convinced. After years of working as a pastor, of trying (though often failing) to put Jesus first and truly trust Him, I have come to the conclusion that spirituality needs religion.
When I say spirituality needs religion, I am not talking about doctrine or theology, although they are important. What I mean is spirituality needs to be structured.
“I’m spiritual but not religious” is like saying I don’t want to follow any rules or patterns in relation to God. This is an attractive idea because we get to be in charge. We can do what we want, when we want. I can be “spiritual” while drinking a latte at Starbucks, while biking, while sleeping in, or while watching Netflix.
For most of my life, this was the kind of spirituality I practiced. It was an “I believe in God but I don’t really want anyone or anything to tell me how to connect with God—I’ll do it my own way” kind of spirituality. This, of course, meant not really connecting with God at all.
Spirituality needs structure because human beings need structure. You already have structure in your life. You naturally gravitate toward certain behaviors and habits. You brush your teeth, you shower, you make coffee, you drive the same route to work, you take the kids to dance lessons. We all know that we are creatures of habit, yet for some reason we struggle to build healthy spiritual habits.
People like the idea of a spirituality that they choose, but the problem with that is that most of us don’t make the choice for spirituality at all. Rather, we let other things determine our life, and we simply say we’re “spiritual” or not. Whether we claim the spiritual label or not, we often miss out on God, and miss out on the best life available to us. We miss out on a freedom and a joy unavailable anywhere else. Not structuring our spiritual life is a big mistake.
Saying “I’m spiritual but not religious” is a bit arrogant, really. Ignoring religion is ignoring centuries of wisdom about organizing the spiritual life around particular practices. Doing away with religion in favor of your own personal spirituality is elevating your own ideas above millennia of reflection about the spiritual life.
There is another way to think about being religious. When someone is religious about something, they are the truly committed.
If someone is religious about their exercise routine, that means they do not miss a day. Let’s stick with this analogy for a minute. If you are trying to get in shape, you exercise, but there were will be a lot of days when you don’t feel like it. There will also be days when you stop caring about your fitness or your weight loss goal. You will probably at some point lose faith in the whole process.
Those who say they are all about fitness, but haven’t cultivated the habit of working out, end up quitting. But the ones who are religious about their exercise routine, stick with it even when it is tough. Not only do they persevere, but they also tell others about their workouts, posting about them on social media, or just talking about it over lunch with friends. They have people who they work out with who hold them accountable. They take their running shoes with them on vacation so they don’t miss a day. They are all in. If only we were that religious about the fitness of our spirits.
Imagine if every follower of Jesus starting living out their spirituality religiously. Imagine if we all stuck with it even when doubts crept in, or when it didn’t seem to be “working.” Imagine if you got religious about your spirituality.