Most people are familiar with the term spiritualize. While it has different meanings for different people, it mostly means to give lofty spiritual explanation or input that is no more than an unhelpful, pat answer. It avoids the real issue at hand. Job’s friends were spiritualizers. They tried to tell him what was wrong with him and how to get better instead of just loving him through his process of pain, loss, and trauma. Maybe you have experienced your own versions of that dynamic.
The long and the short of spiritualization is that it does two unhelpful things. First, it stops a person from going through the experience. For example, it’s common for a person going through pain to get spiritualized advice. A well-meaning person will quote Romans 8:28 and say, “Don’t feel bad. God makes all things work out for the good.” Certainly that is true, but for the suffering person, it is also true that whatever has happened might not be good at all and is extremely painful. Another common example is when a death occurs and the grieving person hears, “Don’t be sad. Your (loved one) is in heaven now.” That timing of giving hope may stop the grief process.
So the process is stopped and the person in pain or struggle takes her heart away from the other person (or the group) and is now, from a heart perspective, in it all alone. She might smile on the outside, even sing hymns. But on the inside she is alone with the pain.
Second, spiritualization often misses the real biblical truth that would apply to the person and his pain at that moment. The “God answer” is not at all God’s answer for that moment. For instance, the proper verse for the moment might be “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). The person who is grieving may not need to be encouraged at that moment, but to be connected within his grief.
There is no way to list all the possible ways to spiritualize. The book we mentioned above makes a pretty good start. But even though we cannot list all the forms of spiritualization here, be careful of the main dynamic and know that it is the use of “spiritual language” to avoid dealing with pain or life. It is a way of bailing out of the process. And when we do that, we also cut the person off from experiencing God in the depth of her problem. We shut the door.
Monitor the Balance
While spiritual input is important, and while we desire the proper use of Scripture, be careful with it. Monitor it in your group. Finding out God’s ways is an important element of our ministry of reconciliation. We want people to know what the Bible says about life and learn how to implement his ways. But don’t use Scripture and spiritual truths to keep people from experiencing biblical truth. That’s what the Pharisees did.
Evaluate the Language
Evaluate someone’s “God talk” or “Scripture talk” to figure out its effect. While we cannot often understand the intent of the one who uses it, we can see what it does to the hearer or the process. Does it shut the person down? Does it help her feel loved? Does it give a timely truth or correction, or does it punish? Look at the fruit of the saying in the moment. Realize that some of the talk about God and the Bible was not helpful at the time it was given, but could be helpful later, even moments later. A lot of what is said is good; it is just not the right time. Intervene and say, “Joe, that is helpful to hear. Let’s wait a little while and then share it. I want to hear more of what Susie is experiencing and thinks.”
Get the Group’s Perspective
Ask the members how they feel in terms of whether the group is real enough or is at times becoming more “religious” than “spiritual.” Ask if they think there are more platitudes given than looking at real life.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2010). Making small groups work: what every small group leader needs to know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.