It is a point always well worth remembering that spirited is not the same as spiritual, though many people get the two confused.
A football game, for instance, is often spirited, with a lot of shouting, screaming, cheering, and even laughter. Football games, however, are seldom spiritual events. Nevertheless, when it comes to worship, its notable how many people assume that a crowd that is yelling, clapping, and cheering indicates a very spiritual audience. But spirited is not the same as spiritual and God is often to be found in the quiet times, the meditative times, and the reverent times.
The prophet Elijah provides two good illustrations of this. In 1 Kings 18, we read about Elijah’s “contest” against the prophets of Baal. The lone prophet of God, Elijah, squared off against 450 of the competition, who were, in turn supported by 400 others (cf. 1 Kings 18:19). The contest was to build two altars and see which deity, Baal or Jehovah, responded with fire. The prophets of Baal had a very spirited exhibition, lasting hours. They screamed, they danced, they prayed loudly. They even cut themselves in their “worship.” But no god answered their prayers. There was nothing actually spiritual about what they were doing. (cf. 1 Kings 18:20-29)
Elijah, on the other hand, had a short, simple prayer, asking God to do a miracle to indicate that Elijah truly was a prophet. The response from God was overwhelming, with a fire that devoured sacrifice, wood, water, and even stone and dust. (cf. 1 Kings 18:36-38). Elijah’s worship wasn’t very spirited, but it was intensely spiritual, representing a legitimate connection between himself and the Divine.
Sometime after this victory over the false prophets, Elijah was fleeing from before the queen, Jezebel, who was rather upset about Elijah persuading the people who had seen the miracle of fire into executing the false prophets. Elijah was led by God to Mount Horeb, where God indicated that Elijah was to wait for Him. As Elijah waited, there was a mighty wind that tore apart the mountain, but God was not in the wind. There was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. There was a great fire, and God was not in the fire. Then finally there was a still whisper, and God, the text indicates, was in the whisper. (cf. 1 Kings 19:11-13)
The earthquake, the wind and the fire were all more “spirited” events, full of action, noise, and visual effects. But they weren’t spiritual events, for God was not there. The still small whisper was not very exciting, from a physical perspective, but it was an intensely spiritual thing, for God was there.
Jesus taught us that true worship was worship that was conducted in the Spirit, and in truth. (cf. John 4:24) To be in the truth, it is necessary to conform to the standards of God’s word, which is truth (cf. John 17:17). To be in the Spirit it is necessary that it be a spiritual exercise, involving the heart and the mind (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15). Too many, however, think that unless a worship is spirited, it lacks spirit, and is therefore unspiritual. The problem is that people crave excitement and mistakenly believe that if something is exciting, then it has spirit, and is therefore spiritual. But that’s not what Jesus was actually teaching.
Serving God is often, in fact, not exciting. Sometimes it can be downright unexciting. For instance, Jesus washed the apostle’s feet. (cf. John 13) He did this as a loving servant teaching a vitally spiritually lesson. But from the vantage point of Jesus, if one is to be honest, one must confess that there seems to be few things in this world less exciting then scrubbing 24 dirty feet, one after another. But it was what God wanted. Likewise, with the cross. There are many words that one could use to describe the suffering Jesus endured for us at the cross, being beaten, crucified and mocked. Exciting is not really one of them. But has there even been a more spiritual service offered by one man on behalf of others?
It is notable, that Jesus calls us to remember the cross, not with an exciting, “spirited” celebration, but with a moment of meditation and reflection as we consume the bread and the cup of the Communion table. (cf. Matthew 26:26-29). It, like all things truly spiritual, is a special time, not because of how excited we are, but because, in that moment, if we are truly partaking with the right spirit, God is with us, and we are with God.
The church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us as we seek to abide in the presence of God, in work and service. Won’t you join us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.