*This article is from the MB Herald archives, originally published November 14, 1986, in the column “Christian Mind.” Author Walter Unger (1936–2018) served the church as a teacher, administrator, and board member.*
In the past few years there has been a resurgence of interest in the cultivation of the inner life. Writers such as Richard Foster, Richard Lovelace, Jerry Bridges and Gordon MacDonald have done the evangelical community a great service in calling us back to a biblical piety which no longer separates the private and the public spheres of Christian devotion but affirms what David Bosch calls “a spirituality of the road.”
Spirituality always begins in the inner world – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to demonstrate this in our outer world. “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Our public world is more tangible and measurable. Its demands are ever before us and it is run largely by routine, schedule, and necessity.
Our inner world is often cheated because it does not shout as loudly. We so quickly forget that we can only effectively work out in our public world what we allow God first of all to do within us, by his grace. We need constant reminder of the cardinal principle of Christian spirituality: we must be strong and vibrant in our inner world if we want to be effective and fruitful in our outer world.
There are basically two models which have dominated the history of Christian spirituality – the ascetic or mystical model, and the more activistic evangelical model arising out of the reformation. The former stresses withdrawal from the world and a spirituality developed through attention to the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, and fasting. The latter emphasizes combat in the world, or as in the case of Jonah, being sent by God into the heart of t he city with the message of God’s redeeming grace.
The most biblical of the thinkers and devotional writers down through the centuries have sought to com bin e a mystical and an evangelical piety with priority given to devotion to God. Such a synthesis is seen in the Old Testament prophets such as Micah (see ch. 6:6-8) and is evident throughout the New Testament.
Jesus taught that devotion to God takes priority over charity to our neighbour (Mark 12: 30-31). In the midst of his busy schedule of preaching and healing, with crowds of people pressing upon him, Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places to pray” (Luke 5 :16).
John Wesley spoke of acts of piety which fulfilled our duties to God and the church, and works of mercy, which discharged our obligations to our fellow man. Wesley affirmed that works of piety come first, i.e., devotion to God, although piety and mercy must go hand in hand. Piety apart from acts of mercy is empty; mercy apart from piety soon becomes a form of works righteousness.
Many Pietists combined the centrality and priority of Christian devotion with a sense of the necessity of expressing that devotion outwardly. The very strong commitment of Pietism to missions is typified by Zinzendorf’s motto: “My joy until I die: to win souls for the Lamb.” Out of Pietism also arose such charitable instructions as deaconess houses, church hospitals, and church orphanages.
Although our innermost being is anchored in God, our lives must still be engaged in the world. Jesus’ prayer for his followers was not for the Father to take them out of the world, but to protect them from the evil one (John 17:15). Involvement in the world (yet not its evils) leads to a deepening of our sense of dependence on God. As we go deeper in prayer, our burden for humanity will increase, propelling us back into the world to meet human need. In all, we live our life before God, whether we are praying alone in our closet or at work or play in the world. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (II Cor. 10:31).
Our motto is separation unto God and his grace and identification with the world and its woes. This is a spirituality of the road. It sees no dichotomy between personal piety and public action. It doesn’t concentrate on the spiritual realm to the neglect of the human. It loves God and seeks justice and wholeness for man. Our Lord taught that the highest fulfillment of the will of God in our lives is to love God with all our being, and to care for others as we care for ourselves (Mark 12:30–31). This is true spiritually.