Question: "What does it mean to be spiritual?"
Answer: True spirituality is not something to be achieved or conquered. It is better understood as a progressive journey throughout the Christian life. The first step toward being spiritual is to be born of God’s Spirit by accepting Jesus Christ as Savior. Before salvation, we are spiritually dead. But once our spirits are made alive in Christ, we begin the process of sanctification—of being made holy—until Jesus comes or until the day we die (Romans 8:11; Ephesians 2:5; 1 Peter 3:18–19; 1 Corinthians 15:22).
The “spiritual” person is contrasted with the “natural” person in 1 Corinthians 2:14–15 (ESV). In this context, being spiritual means being born again, that is, having the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the natural person, who is unregenerate. Galatians 6:1 contains a command to “you who are spiritual” (ESV) to restore a sinning brother. In this context, being spiritual means walking in the Spirit—living under the Spirit’s constant influence.
Following a list of “do’s and don’ts”—refraining from certain immoral taboos and performing a set of godly duties—does not necessarily make one spiritual. The Pharisees were good at keeping rules. Spirituality is not attained through outward works or obeying laws. It is the inner work of the Holy Spirit as He renews the mind and conforms the heart of the believer into the image of Christ: “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:21–24, NLT; see also Romans 12:2).
When we focus on letting God transform us from deep inside, in those areas we often try to hide from ourselves and others, the result will be outward transformation as well. Being spiritual means desiring and seeking change in our inner selves (Ephesians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 4:16; 1 Peter 3:3–4). It requires re-training our minds to stay locked on what the Spirit desires: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:5–9).
Spiritual growth occurs as we starve our sinful, fleshly desires and nourish the spiritual aspects of our being. Paul described this as “putting to death” or “crucifying” our old, sinful nature: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24; see also Galatians 2:20).
We must die to the desires of the flesh daily: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14; see also Romans 6:4, 6, 12, 14). The reality of following Christ means taking up our cross every day, losing our lives to find them in Him, and saying no to any attitude of the heart that is in rebellion to our Savior (Matthew 16:24–26).
Being spiritual requires living by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross: “When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10–11, NLT). By faith, we are to live now as though we have already died, been to heaven, and been raised to life again in the fullness of the Spirit in the presence of God: “Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Romans 6:13, NLT).
It is impossible to cultivate true spirituality by our own works, energy, or strength. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we put to death the sinful nature: “Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:12–14, NLT). Our job is simply to place our faith in God’s promise to bring forth the fruit of His Spirit in our lives.
Our spiritual lives develop and grow through daily, moment-by-moment, ever-increasing fellowship with our heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Spending time in prayer, reading God’s Word, and memorizing and meditating on its truths are all part of nurturing our relationship with the triune God. The more we know Him, the more we become like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18). And to be like Jesus Christ is what it means to be truly spiritual.