All of us have a spiritual muscle. For some it is exercised with great intensity and these persons grow with enlarged hearts full of wisdom and compassion. They are not sentimental, they can offer “tough love”, speak the truth in love to those who need such words. These women and men do not confuse compassion with enabling. And yet their spiritual muscle is stronger because something inside them has gained a softer touch, a more nimble approach to those in pain around them. I consider such people “saints” and they inspire me and strengthen me to grow.
Not everyone sees their spiritual muscle grow. For some they have one muscle that gets very big while the other muscles are left to grow flabby and strained. I see people who have great spiritual love for their own but not much for the other. There is a remarkable and deep love for one’s own kin and like-minded friends but for others there is judgment and resentment. And this spiritual imbalance perpetuates a blindness that criticizes others for the very things one does, a kind of naming the wood in the other’s eye why forgetting the log in your own eye. You can do that when the only people in your orbit of care are people who think and live like you.
So you can have very, very clever people who excel in the worlds of finance, academia, medicine and law but in the world of spirituality they remain limited to one muscle. Theirs is the God of personal buddy who rewards them when they are good and pokes them when they are less than good. As long as their God remains consistent with their very personal God all is well. But if someday a bad thing were to happen to this clever person that could not be easily explained then the person will either become spiritual bereft or come up with an elaborate explanation of “testing” that only makes sense to her or him.
I find it so curious that a person who is a genius in a number of complex fields can buy in to a type of spirituality that pretends there is no undeserved suffering, no pain for the innocent, no experience of the other that is not like mine. How such clever people can use their academic muscles with such discipline and creativity but limit their spirituality to concepts first given them when they were 5 is beyond me.
Mature spirituality does not lead to one destination. I know evangelical, catholic and mainline Christians who all end up in a spiritually well-developed place but use radically different methods to get there. I am not saying that to develop your spiritual muscle to its greatest strength requires my type of theology. What I am saying is that to develop one’s spiritual muscle requires engagement and experience with people and beliefs that are different than one’s own. Moreover, it requires us to think about the complex and challenging circumstances of our lives that don’t neatly fit into our spiritual imagination that we gained when we were 5.
Not everyone who develops their spiritual muscle becomes a liberal or a conservative or a catholic or a humanist, rather what all these mature spiritual people have in common is curiosity and a desire to integrate the varied experiences of ourselves and others into a narrative that speaks to a broad spiritual landscape. If my God is too small for my whole life, for my neighbor, for the person who lives in India and begs on the street or runs a bank in Switzerland than what kind of God is the one I can home?
People developing their spiritual muscle want to make sense of all of this. They are driven to give all of their lives meaning, all of the lives around the world, especially the ones unlike their own.