The Epistles of John as a Spiritual Guide
There is today a widespread interest in spirituality. This may seem a recent concern of the church—almost a fad. Certainly the word itself is relatively new to Protestant vocabularies, but the issue has always been part of the life of Christians. In every century of the church’s life there has been the need to bring Christians closer to God, to help them find joy and new life in their faith. A few centuries ago we would have termed this piety, but now piety often seems to mean concern for the outward trappings of faith rather than the inner substance with its life-changing power. This is why the term spirituality is often preferred.
The Epistles of John were written to encourage deeper, more meaningful faith, and therefore they speak to us just as much as they spoke to congregations 20 centuries ago. In fact, Methodism founder John Wesley believed that 1 John was truly the heart of the Gospel message. He even wrote that it should be the model for all young preachers because its message was simple and direct, and contained the essence of the Christian message. Its intent was to increase the spirituality of believers.
The Epistles of John warn us against three common misunderstandings of spirituality that existed then and still exist today.
The first such misunderstanding is to see the spiritual as the opposite of the material or worldly. That is not the case in John’s writings. In fact, he warns his readers against thinking of spirituality in those terms. If we think that God is only interested in nonworldly or nonphysical things, then it is very easy to separate our piety, our spirituality, from the needs of neighbors, which can be very material indeed. These neighbors—even those who are far away but caught up in disasters—are physical, material beings created by God. Their needs are material: food, shelter, medical attention. It is too easy to think that these are of only secondary interest to God, and that God is more concerned with our prayer life and religious experience. But John knows that is not the case. God wants those in need to be part of our prayers and part of our actions. Our experiences should increase our love for others and our concern for them. God has created a very material world, and therefore we cannot separate the material and the spiritual. And God’s love for the material world has been shown both in the very act of creation and in the incarnation of God in the physical man Jesus.
The second misunderstanding is to confuse spirituality with doctrine, as if merely holding to particular doctrines were the true mark of spirituality. While John considers doctrines very important, they are not the sum total of the Christian life. In his day, there were many—as there are today—who felt that true doctrine was what the church needed to stress, and actions were of less concern. In his epistles, he wishes to make clear that doctrine and action are related: If we know the truth we will love all the more. The truth is not a matter only of the intellect; it is a matter of the whole life—heart, mind and will. To know the truth—the heart of which is God’s love for us and our thankful, loving response—is to love our neighbors with God’s love.
The third misunderstanding is to take spirituality as an absolutely individual matter. For us, spirituality may seem a very personal matter that we should not discuss with others—private prayer, private meditation on Scripture. For the early church—and clearly for the writer of these epistles—the stress is on the spiritual growth of the congregation as necessary for the growth of individual members. Certainly, personal devotions and prayer are an important component of spirituality. But true Christian spirituality—the sort of spirituality that John proposes in his epistles—is communal. It is not only my spirituality that is important, but also our spirituality as a church, as a body of believers. In this regard, John Wesley declared that there is no such thing as a Christian holiness that is not social—a view that manifested itself in the emphasis of Methodism both on worship and on social action.
As we then enter our study of the Epistles of John, let us do so not only as an intellectual study but also as a spiritual exercise—as a spiritual exercise that will lead us to greater love for God, for our community of faith, and for all creation around us.