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Silly Putty[1] was all the rage when I was a kid. It is a soft plastic-type material (actually silicone polymers) discovered by accident. You can shape it into just about anything you want. It can be stretched, bounced, broken, poured, and burned.

Sometimes we use words like we play with Silly Putty – we shape them into just about anything we want.

One of those Silly Putty words is ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’. People use the word a lot, usually describing themselves and how they live. What do they mean when they say they are ‘spiritual’ or have‘spirituality’? 

Gordon Fee makes the point that “the word ‘spiritual’ is an ‘accordion’ word; its meaning pretty much has to do with how much air you pump in or out of it.”[2] 

So what do the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ really mean, and what difference does it make?

What does ‘spiritual’ mean?

From a biblical perspective – and that’s my declared perspective – ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ have specific meanings.

After careful consideration, Gordon Fee concludes:

“in the New Testament … spirituality is defined altogether in terms of the Spirit of God (or Christ). One is spiritual to the degree that one lives in and walks by the Spirit; in Scripture the word has no other meaning, and no other measurement.”[3]

Dallas Willard takes a similar position when he writes:

"Spirituality and spiritual formation are whole life matters.  A ‘spiritual life’ for the human being consists in that range of activities in which, being brought to spiritual birth by God’s initiative through the Word, he or she cooperatively interacts with God and with the spiritual order (‘kingdom’) deriving from God’s personality and action. The result is a new overall quality of human existence with the corresponding new powers. A person is a ‘spiritual person’ to the degree that his or her life is effectively integrated into and dominated by God’s Kingdom or rule. For the ‘babe in Christ,’ much of their embodied and concretely socialized personality is not under the direction of God, and the reintegration of their whole life under God is not yet achieved."[4] 

So there we have it. The Bible declares the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are to be understood as living in the realm of the Spirit of God – the God who has revealed himself as Jesus Christ. 

Biblical confirmation

People often use the word ‘spiritual’ in conversations. They usually cannot define the word, and may even think you’re rude to ask what they mean. When there is a description of ‘spiritual’ from Christians they usually understand it to be set over against ‘earthly’ and ‘physical’ – thus they seem to understand the word as referring to the ‘non-earthly’ and the ‘non-physical’. But this is not accurate, as we’ve already noted.

Let’s look at a few uses of the word ‘spiritual’ in the New Testament and test the proposed meaning.

In Romans 7:14 Paul writes, “we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” Here’s Fee’s comment on “the law is spiritual”:

The Law belongs to the sphere of the Spirit (inspired of the Spirit as it is), not to the sphere of flesh [i.e., “sinful nature” as it is rendered in the NIV]. And this, despite how the flesh has taken advantage of the Law, since, even though the Law came through the Spirit, it was not accompanied by the gift of the Spirit so as to make it work in the hearts of God’s people.[5]

In 1 Corinthians 14:37 we read, “if anyone thinks that he is … spiritual ….” This has the meaning of “if any of you think of yourselves as a Spirit person, a person living the life of the Spirit.”[5]

Followers of Jesus, those that are “in Christ,” have the Spirit of God (also called the Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit) dwelling in them. To the extent that they live in the Spirit they are Spirit-people, people living the life of the Spirit.

Paul also writes of spiritual gifts (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12). These are ways in which the Holy Spirit expresses himself in and through his people. More on that in a future blog.

These few references are meant to demonstrate that the biblical use of ‘spiritual’ refers to the presence, power, and expression of the Spirit of the one true God who has revealed himself as Jesus Christ. 

What difference does it make?

Often I have conversations with people who use ‘spiritual’ in a Silly Putty way.

One way in which this ‘Silly Putty spirituality’ manifests itself is in the dichotomy of ‘spiritual’ versus ‘secular’.

For instance, it is not uncommon for Christians to talk about ‘spiritual’ vs. ‘secular’ in the context of their occupations. What they are conveying is that ‘spiritual’ is what they do when they read their Bibles, or pray, or go to church on Sunday morning. ‘Secular’ is what they do when they meet a client, go to school, fix a flat tire, change a diaper, drive a tractor, or shop for groceries.

‘Spiritual’ vocations are understood to include pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. ‘Secular’ is every other occupation, including carpenters, fishermen, and tent-makers. 

Is this distinction valid? After all Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3), Peter a fisherman (Mark 1:16), and Paul a tent-maker (Acts 18:1-3). Were they ‘secular’ when they performed those occupations and ‘spiritual’ only when they did other things?

I say ‘no’! For the Spirit-people – followers of Jesus – all of it is (or ought to be) ‘spiritual’!

Most of us have bought into the distortion that our life is ‘spiritual’ when we are attending church, or when we are reading our Bibles and praying, or when we are talking to someone about the good news of Jesus. The rest of the time – most of the time – we are only living second-class secular lives.

Buying into this distortion means living a fragmented life. For instance, if you’re a lawyer your ‘secular’ occupation is practicing law. This probably means that you sense you are being relevant to culture but not necessarily faithful to God. There may be a few hours peppered throughout the week when you read your Bible, pray, or attend church. These are times when you probably sense you are being faithful to God but not necessarily relevant to culture. Whatever your occupation may be, is this pretty close to your experience?

Now, what happens when you begin to realize that the division between ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ is false and crippling? The follower of Jesus is invited and empowered to live in the realm of the Spirit at all times. For a Christian all of life is to be ‘spiritual’ – lived in the realm of the Spirit!

It is this reality that places the follower of Jesus in the wholesome tension between faithfulness to God and relevance to Culture.


How can I move my heart and mind toward embracing the reality that every aspect of my life is to be ‘spiritual’ – lived in the realm of the Spirit? What needs to change in my attitudes and actions to be ‘doing’ my daily activities in the realm of the Spirit?

How are you are wrestling with this common and crucial issue? And what progress are you making? I welcome your comments and e-mails.

In the next couple of blogs I want to explore what it means for Christians to be portals of the Kingdom of God wherever they are. 

Next blog in this series.

Previous blog in this series.

[1] The name Silly Putty is a trademark of Crayola LLC. See (accessed April 2, 2014).

[2] Gordon D. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 5.

[3] Fee, 5. He also examines this issue in greater, and more technical, depth in God’s Empowering Presence(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 14-36.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006), 49.

[5] Fee, 5.



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