November 14, 2000
A critic defines a book by saying, “It’s not religious but it is very spiritual.”
So what’s the difference?
Webster says both words are adjectives. Religious means “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.”
It appears that ‘religious’ is about people. They might be Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or pagans bowing before a carved stone statue, but the fact that they are ‘religious’ is measured by the depth of their fervor in relation to whatever they worship.
Webster says “spiritual” can refer to things of a religious nature but it also means “of, relating to, or consisting of: spirit, sacred matters, or supernatural beings or phenomena.”
‘Spiritual’ (by that definition) is not so much people as it is the unseen world or at least a person’s interest in that which cannot be seen. This can be God, but also angels or evil spirits.
The difference between the two words is slight. Some might say a person is a ‘religious’ fanatic but not usually a ‘spiritual’ fanatic, but most are not sure why except that being ‘spiritual’ seems more okay than being ‘religious.’
It is my observation that media often uses ‘religious’ or even ‘religious nuts’ as a put-down of Christians. They suggest it is ‘spiritual’ is better because spiritual people know how to keep their thoughts about the unseen to themselves. I wonder what these critics would think of the biblical definitions for those words?
Scripture doesn’t say much about religion or being religious. The New Testament book of James does make it very practical: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The word ‘spiritual’ is far more common yet narrower by definition than Webster. God’s Word uses it to describe people who are connected to Him in a vital, life-changing relationship through their faith in Christ.
The ‘life-changing’ part is important. Notice Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Corinth. “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ . . . . You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”
In the mind of God, spiritual people are not mere ordinary folks who have an interest in unseen things. Rather, spiritual people are under the control of the Spirit of God. They live as God intends them to live — in humble submission to Him and each other.
Paul defines ‘spiritual’ further. He says God’s people speak spiritual truths taught to them by the Holy Spirit. He adds that people without the Spirit do not accept those words because they are foolishness to them. They cannot understand what spiritual Christians say. He finishes that section by saying that spiritual people are different because they “have the mind of Christ.”
The Bible is clear that being God’s spiritual person means a changed life, a devotion to Christ that is so deep that whatever He says is gladly obeyed, no matter the cost. It also means being misunderstood by those who do not follow Him.
‘Spiritual’ is far more popular than ‘religious’ yet I would like to challenge those who support the one over the other; close your dictionary and instead get your definitions from the Word of God.