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Spiritual Hygiene

Excerpted from Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of  Sin by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

What would a spiritually sound person be like? What sort of wholeness does corruption attack?

A spiritually sound person fits the universal design. She functions properly: in the range of her relationships to God, others, nature, and self we can spot impressive manifestations of shalom. Or, following one line of New Testament usage, we might call them impressive manifestations of hygiene.

Although it sounds as if it might have something to do with the brushing and flossing away of small particles of vice, spiritual hygiene is actually wholeness of spirit—that is, wholeness of what animates and characterizes us. Spiritual hygiene is the wholeness of resources, motive, purpose, and character typical of someone who fits snugly into God's broad design for shalom. A spiritually hygienic person is one who combines strengths and flexibilities, disciplines and freedoms, all working together from a renewable source of vitality. This is a person who flourishes like a fine sapling rooted into the bank of a dependable stream.

What are some features of this flourishing? As Christians see her, a spiritually whole person longs in certain classic ways. She longs for God and the beauty of God, for Christ and Christlikeness, for the dynamite of the Holy Spirit and spiritual maturity. She longs for spiritual hygiene itself—and not just as a consolation prize when she cannot be rich and envied instead. She longs for other human beings: she wants to love them and be loved by them. She hungers for social justice. She longs for nature, for its beauties and graces, for the sheer particularity of the way of a squirrel with a nut. As we might expect, her longings dim from season to season. When they do, she longs to long again.

She is a person of character consistency, a person who rings true wherever you tap her. She keeps promises. She weeps with those who weep and, perhaps more impressively, rejoices with those who rejoice. She does all these things in ways that express her own personality and culture but also a general "mind of Christ" that is cross-culturally unmistakable.

Her motives include faith—a quiet confidence in God and the mercies of God that radiate from the self-giving work of Jesus Christ. She knows God is good; she also feels assured that God is good to her. Her faith secures her against the ceaseless oscillations of pride and despair familiar to every human being who has taken refuge in the cave of her own being and tried there to bury all her insecurities under a mound of achievements. When her faith slips, she retains faith enough to believe that the Spirit of God, whose presence is her renewable resource, will one day secure her faith again.

Since faith fastens on God's benevolence, it yields gratitude, which in turn sponsors risk-taking in the service of others. Grateful people want to let themselves go; faithful people dare to do it. People tethered to God by faith can let themselves go because they know they will get themselves back.

Grateful people overflow a little, especially with thanksgiving and passed-on kindnesses. But they do not therefore lack discipline. In fact, self-indulgence tends to suppress gratitude; self-discipline tends to generate it. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin: oddly, it is an appetite suppressant. The reason is that a person's appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for justice. And they spoil the appetite for God.

The classic longings motivate a sound life; so do faith and gratitude. Of course, all these things fail from time to time. Spiritually healthy people know very well the drag of sloth and doubt. They know about spiritual depression. They know what it is like to feel keenly that the world has been emptied of God. That is why a spiritually sound person disciplines her life by such spiritual exercises as prayer, fasting, confession, worship, and reflective walks through cemeteries. She visits boring persons and tried to take an interest in them, ponders the lives of saints and compares them to her own, spends time and money on just and charitable causes. A person of spiritual hygiene covets the virtues and character strengths that Christians since Paul have always prized—compassion, for example, and patience. She seeks these and other excellences— endurance, hope, humility, forthrightness, hospitality. She then tries to work them into a regular practice routine, always aware that in order to grow in these excellences she needs both to strive for them and to fail in her striving. She needs to persist through striving and failure and growth in order to become a free and joyful contributor to shalom.

Just as in sports and music, discipline in spiritual hygiene has a point. Anybody can play, but only a disciplined person can play freely. Discipline is the basis and presupposition of both freedom and power.

A basketball forward who does a spin move in the lane and a concert pianist who rips off a fortissimo run in octaves needs strength to do these things, but they also need fluidity. They need what we might call powerful relaxation or relaxed power; they need strong fluidity or fluid strength. They are playing, but "playing within themselves." Behind their masterly mix of power and freedom lie hours and hours of painful, sweaty discipline. This is work for play. People who practice spin moves eventually make them part of their game. People who work for years on scales and arpeggios one day begin to play music.

Free and disciplined lives are a kind of music we offer to our parents, to our teachers, to friends and family and colleagues. By offering the music to them, we also offer it to God. As just suggested, the offerings differ from person to person and from culture to culture: they differ at least as much as violins do from saxophones, orchestras from a pair of back-to-back pianos. In any case, what makes them musical is that they bring peace and afford delight, that they please and "glorify" God.

The goal of human life, says the opening of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." This famous claim, filed in language with all the "spareness, strength, and clarity of fine ironwork," was written as a kind of pre-life orientation for children. By writing documents like this, the church was trying to stake and guy a child's life so that it would point toward God: only then could it be sturdy, fragrant, and fruitful. A child must learn God's Word and speak of it tenderly, respect God's reputation and try to enhance it. She must place her very life in the hands of God and trust what those hand might do to it. She must shun emotional and religious junk food that might spoil her appetite for God and her hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Spiritual hygiene includes ends like these—goals, purposes, primary intended consequences. The point of our lives is not to get smart or get rich or even get happy. The point is to discover God's purposes for us and to make them our own. The point is to learn ways of loving God above all and our neighbor as ourselves and then to use these loves the way a golfer uses certain checkpoints to set up for a drive. The point is to be lined up right, to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), to try above all to increase the net amount of shalom in the world.

To glorify God is to do these things and, by doing them, to make God's intentions in the world more luminous and God's reputation more lustrous. To enjoy God forever is to cultivate a taste for this project, to become more and more the sort of person for whom eternal life with God would be sheer heaven.

According to all traditional Christian wisdom, human flourishing is the same thing as glorifying God and enjoying him forever, and human wisdom is an inevitable, and human happiness a frequent, by-product of such flourishing. In the mystery of God's providence, those who do seek the kingdom find that various other flourishings often follow, but not when directly aimed at. Much of what we want in the way of happiness, wisdom, and general self-actualization is like trying very hard to fall asleep or to have a good time. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, these things need to come by the way:

Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.

Eerdmans Publishing, 1996. Reprinted by permission.