Dear Theophilus: Being Religious vs. Spiritual

person outside reading

Dear Faculty,

What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?

Sincerely, Theophilus


Dear Theophilus,

In our day these two words get used interchangeably. However, there can be a great fundamental gap between them. In order to clarify these, there are two important terms that will help to explain this.

The first is “syncretism.” It is to combine the beliefs from different places to develop your own belief. The best way to explain this is to look at it as the “buffet approach” to faith. If you go to your local buffet, you take all the food you like and leave the food you do not. So, you can have waffles, a burger, cheesecake and spaghetti. I have yet to meet someone who goes to the buffet place to have veggies and a soy burger. Just as when given the opportunity, we like comfort food and just want what we want how we want it. So to live a syncretistic life is to gravitate toward beliefs that suit us. However, the source of all of this is we are our own god.

The second idea is “universalism.” It states that all beliefs will eventually end up with God. As long as you are sincere, you are okay. Everyone has to work out their own lives and their own issues the best they can. This is hoping that God grades on a “curve” and that the bar is set low enough that anyone who wants to be in heaven will get there somehow.

Okay, back to the original question. A person that is “spiritual” is one who reflects effort in spiritual matters. The theologians will debate the nuances, but we are either body and soul (with the spirit as part of the soul) or body, soul and spirit. Suffice it to say everyone has a spiritual side. This spiritual side may lie dormant, may be ignored or may be nurtured, but we all have it.

From a Christian perspective, it is not merely enough to be spiritual. We may engage our spiritual pursuits, but it is to be focused in the right direction. When God gave us free will he allowed us to believe in who we want, but never gave us permission to be believe how we want. This is why Jesus stated, “Whoever wants to be called my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Not a lot of room for personal opinion with this. So as we explore the inner architecture of our spiritual self we are created to see the void, the lack and need for a Savior. That is why Jesus freely gave salvation to us with all grace and mercy.

To be “religious” is to be devoted to a deity. This is the trajectory on which we should aim. However, there is also a danger of getting derailed here. James said, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongue deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James. 1:26). So we see from this that it is not just religion, there has to be something more! I cannot just pick what I want when it comes to faith, just hope I am good enough to get there or just follow laws. So, what do I do?

The heart of the matter is God wants a relationship with us through Jesus Christ. It is not about what religion we practice, it comes down to Jesus Christ. Jesus himself warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Jesus wants your heart, just as you are. He is looking for those who will surrender to him and when you seek him you will find him. It is not just spiritual or religious. It is a profound relationship with your Creator walking with you daily. So give Jesus a chance in your life and when you go to the buffet, eat some vegetables!

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.