In-Sight: The Purpose of the Spiritual Life

Earlier today, I read a comment from one of my mentors, who said that the purpose of the spiritual life is not to change the world, but to change ourselves.

At first, that sounded very self-referent and another “me-and-Jesus” accommodation to our individualistic culture.  But then… I stayed with the assertion….it dawned on me that he is exactly right.

As long as we think we are on the earth to “change the world,” our ego will allow us to bypass our own failures and concentrate on the sins of others.  Jesus called it paying attention to the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own.  He told us that true spirituality is to first pay attention to the log, and then we will be able “to see clearly.”

Thomas Merton long asserted that purity of heart (living with an undivided heart) was the goal of the monk.  I had that confirmed again yesterday through reading John Cassian’s Conference One.

But both writers are not commending self-centered spirituality, but rather a  self-surrendered life.

So….how is paying attention to ourselves not selfishness?  Precisely in the fact that as we allow the Spirit to deal with us, we are given perspective into the world beyond us. Also, our spiritual formation includes ascetic practices (e.g. repentance, fasting, almsgiving)—what Dallas Willard has called the disciplines of abstinence.

In these dimensions of the spiritual life (perspectives and practices) we experience the formation of conscience, which then leads us to become people of compassion.

And that is precisely how attention to ourselves saves us, and others.  If we come at it from the other direction, we may do much good, but our own hearts will have been left to fester under the poisonous effects of neglect and egotism.  We will come to the end having done some good things without ever having actually become good people.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to In-Sight: The Purpose of the Spiritual Life

  1. Undivided heart and surrendered life… Easier written and discussed than lived out. However, community at home and within the Academy support this goal. Thanks for the perspective in this post.

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