What does it mean to be spiritual?

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” -Matthew 21:5

Dear members and friends,

The term “spiritual” is cited and used in a variety of ways these days. Something that I heard quite often is “I am spiritual, but not religious.” This could mean a few different situations. One of them is to indicate that one believes in God, but refuses to join an institutionalized organization. This is understandable due to the fact that Christian institutions in the West have done many cruel things for nearly 1,500 years, especially in the name of God. Notwithstanding, the term “spiritual” seems to be used in a much larger and secular context these days. I am concerned that people seem to think of spirituality as a casual way to improve their quality of life. For example, this is what I found on the web page of a university: “Ways to Improve Your Spiritual Health: explore your spiritual core, look for deeper meanings, practice yoga, travel, think positively, meditate.” In my understanding, optimizing our mental and physical health to increase the quality of life on earth is not exactly what it means to be spiritual. 

In the Bible, the word “spiritual” is first used by Paul in Romans. In Romans 1:11, we read, “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” The Greek word for spiritual is pneumatikos, which is from pneuma, meaning spirit, which again is from pneo, meaning to breathe. There is another Greek word that is often used to mean “mind” or “spirit,” which is psyche. In its root, psyche also means to breathe. However, ancient Greeks used pneuma and psyche differently, because for them “there were two kinds of breath: the kind necessary for life, the pneuma, and the kind necessary for love, lust, and relationships to the self and others, the psyche.” Interestingly, in the New Testament nearly all words for spirit in Greek are pneuma, not psyche. In a way, this is an indication that what is essential for life itself is from God, and not from this world and our relationships in it. Therefore, being spiritual means to be in relation with God, which, according to the Bible, is to denounce the pleasures of this world and to cultivate the delights of heaven. Therefore, optimizing mental and physical health in order to improve the quality of life on earth could at its best be supportive to a spiritual life, but cannot be the purpose or the sign of a spiritual life.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee