Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12, NIV)
If you read the context of this quote, it is obvious that Jesus is not talking about physical sickness. He isn’t talking about a virus, or broken bone, or anything regarding our physical bodies that requires medical attention. He is instead talking about a very specific kind of sickness.
The kind of sickness Jesus is talking about is spiritual sickness. And the doctor he is referring to is himself. He is stating quite plainly that there are people who are spiritually sick. He is the one who can cure their spiritual sickness. And the one who was spiritually sick can be made spiritually healthy.
Maybe this is something you really need to hear. Perhaps you would say I feel like I’m far from God or I feel like I’m not growing spiritually… it’s like I’m in a spiritual desert or I want to have a relationship with God but I don’t know how. If so, know this: You can become spiritually healthy. You can cultivate a genuine, rich relationship with God.
If you ask ten strangers off the street what it means to be ‘spiritual,’ you will likely get ten different answers. To prove my point, The Barna Group did exactly that. But they asked far more than 10 people and got far more than 10 answers. Barna identified a growing population of people who consider themselves “Spiritual but not Religious.”
People who identify themselves this way are not sure what counts as “God.” God could be a particular god like Buddha or Allah, or God could be the light or a higher power. Have you ever heard someone say “I feel like the universe is trying to tell me something.” Furthermore, they as a group believe that being spiritual is deeply personal and private. It’s a practice of looking within and defining myself by what I feel on the inside. Many don’t claim any faith at all. You won’t hear them say that they are Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Jewish – but they still consider themselves spiritual people.
With that background, I think it’s best to start with an explicitly Christian definition of Spirituality: “Spirituality – life with God – is life with the Spirit.”  When we Christians talk about spiritual health, we mean that we have a relationship with the Triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit. We have made a decision to follow Jesus Christ, and his death has paid the penalty of our sin. We are open to the Holy Spirit guiding us, convicting us, stretching us, and prompting us.
Developing a healthy spiritual life does not happen in a day. But it does require us to take small steps every day so that this relationship with God is natural.
Becoming Spiritually HealthyThe Apostle Paul, in writing Romans 8:5-6, gives us a path to follow towards spiritual health.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5–6, NIV)
Here’s the path, and where we see this in the text:
Spiritual Habits lead to Spiritual Desires Spiritual Desires lead to Spiritual HealthThose who live according to the flesh (FLESHLY HABITS) have their minds set on what the flesh desires (FLESHLY DESIRES); but those who live in accordance with the Spirit (SPIRITUAL HABITS) have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (SPIRITUAL DESIRES). The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace (SPIRITUAL HEALTH).
To “live according to the flesh” means that your thoughts and actions are completely controlled by whatever you think or feel is best in the moment. The word flesh in this text doesn’t refer to our skin, bones, or blood. It is referring to my natural desires, the things we all want by default without any dependence on God. The environment you grew up in, the influences you’ve had in your life, the things you’ve been exposed to – those are the things that lead to you living the way you do. Many govern their lives completely based on things of the flesh, or the environment they inhabit in this world.
But the writer shows us a completely different way of living. There are those who live “according to the flesh,” or they live every moment of their lives influenced by what they have seen, or heard, or felt on this big rock we call Earth. And then there are “those who live in accordance with the Spirit.”
Those who are spiritual have a completely different influence. There is a supernatural influence that also guides them – the Holy Spirit. Hopefully you are reading this because you want to be in this second camp. You want to be a spiritual healthy person, guided by the Holy Spirit and not guided by your flesh. Let’s talk about how to get there.
Spiritual Habits lead to Spiritual DesiresIvan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a physiologist who became famous for his experiment with dogs. In short, he placed a dog on a table and fed it food. Each time he gave the dog food, he rang a bell. He did this repetitively until the dog became accustomed to hearing the bell every time he ate the food.
Eventually, he started ringing the bell before he brought any food to the dog. Interestingly, the dog began salivating when it heard the bell ring. The bell was not edible, the bell did not smell like food, and the bell did not even look like food. Yet when the dog heard the bell ring, its body got excited for food.
What is significant about this experiment? Pavlov turned a habit into a desire.
You have habits that have turned into desires, too. Perhaps you’re a runner. Nobody enjoys jogging the first time they do it. But let’s say that you got up early four days per week and went jogging. Eventually you will probably get to a point in which you enjoy your morning jog. The habit has led to desire.
Maybe you started a habit once you got your first smartphone. Every morning, the first thing you do when your alarm goes off is check your phone – you look at social media, you open your email, you check the news, etc. This doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. How many of us really want to start work the second we wake up? Or how many of us are dying to find out what has happened in the world over the last 8 hours as soon as we wake up? None of us. But we’ve established a habit of unlocking our iPhone and opening apps the moment we wake up, therefore that habit has led to a desire to check emails or read the news.
Here’s my point: Spiritual HABITS lead to Spiritual DESIRES. If you begin practicing spiritual habits, you will eventually have spiritual desires. If you develop a habit of reading your Bible every morning, you will eventually find yourself pouring coffee and then subconsciously looking around for your Bible, desiring to dig into God’s word. If you develop a habit of worshipping with your church family every week, you will find yourself craving to be in the pews again. Craving to sing your heart out, craving to give to the church’s mission, and craving to be taught spiritual truths. If you develop habits of serving other people, you will find yourself more willing to help another person. You’ll crave opportunities to give back.
Spiritual Habits lead to Spiritual Desires Spiritual Desires lead to Spiritual HealthA steady diet of spiritual habits will transform you. To get you started on creating spiritual habits, I recommend the following books:
- Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton
- The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg
Spiritual Desires lead to Spiritual HealthReturning to our text, Romans 8 reads this way:
…those who live in accordance with the Spirit (SPIRITUAL HABITS) have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (SPIRITUAL DESIRES). The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace (SPIRITUAL HEALTH). (Romans 8:5–6, NIV)
James Smith wrote this in his book Desiring the Kingdom: We aren’t “pushed by beliefs” we are “pulled by desire.”
Desire is so much more powerful than belief. When I was a kid, I was terrible at reading. My dad got this reading program on his computer and made me practice reading for hours on the weekends. I hated it. I was bad at reading, and hated being forced to read. But then one day I was introduced to the Wayside School series. I devoured every word from Louis Sachar. Later I picked up the Redwall series. Then eventually Harry Potter caught my imagination. All of a sudden I loved reading. And guess what also happened? I became competent as a reader.
We aren’t pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by desire. Pushing yourself to accomplishments will only go so far. But desire? Desire has a much stronger pull. Spiritual disciplines, once they become habits, are the practices that whet our desire. And that desire pulls us into spiritual health.
What does spiritual health look like?In his book The Emotionally Healthy Leader, Peter Scazzero unpacks different aspects of spiritual health. Below is a chart that can show different ways one can evaluate his or her spiritual health. Take a few moments to read the different responses and give some attention to your own spiritual health.
Spiritually Healthy Response
- I wait to say “yes” or “no” to new opportunities until I have sufficient time to prayerfully and carefully discern God’s will.
- I offer God full access to my decisions and plans.
- I am comfortable and accepting of my limits (my time, my physical abilities, my skills, my weaknesses).
- I feel free to be real and transparent with other people.
- I am being transformed by the Holy Spirit to become the right kind of person.
- Stress, disappointments, and trials prompt me to learn how God will use this situation for good.
- I have daily and weekly habits that help me live with Jesus.
- I prioritize spiritual disciplines and serve God as an outpouring of my relationship with Him.
- I can discuss my values and opinions without becoming adversarial and have the capacity to respect the opinions of others and resolve conflict.
Spiritually Unhealthy Response
- I feel the pressure to please others or validate myself, saying “yes” or “no” to new opportunities too quickly.
- I make strategic or rational decisions, and then ask God to bless my endeavors.
- I often overextend my limitations, becoming preoccupied with myself, defensive, or pouty.
- I am accustomed to not being fully transparent; people often see a façade with me.
- I am learning the right things to believe in, but knowledge acquisition doesn’t usually result in life transformation.
- I unravel quickly from stress, disappointments, and trials.
- My habits of living with Jesus are haphazard or irregular at best.
- I do more activity for God than my relationship with God can sustain; I’m chronically overextended.
- I interpret disagreements as personal offenses, am easily hurt, and avoid conflict.
Getting StartedYou will not live this out by sheer effort. You need the Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform you so that you so you live this way. In his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg recognizes this. He writes “Following Jesus simply means learning from him how to arrange my life around activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the spirit.” How do we arrange our lives like this? The answer is to practice spiritual disciplines. Ortberg defines a spiritual discipline as “any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.”
There are two options to choose from when it comes to becoming spiritually healthy. You can try hard, or you can train hard. I recently spoke to a friend who was headed out of town to run a marathon. It was a 26.2 mile run in Pittsburgh, filled with difficult hills. I confessed to him “Man, I could never run that far.” He responded in this way: “Sure you could. You just have to train for it.”
In a way, both of us were right. I cannot run a marathon. I could be laced with the best running shoes, prepped with the best workout music, and carb’ed up. I could be the most enthusiastic person in the race. I may even try harder than anyone else on the track. But trying will not get me to the finish line; only training will. I need to position myself so that I’m ready to run a full marathon.
If you don’t know where to start in this training for spiritual health, let me leave you with two habits you can begin tomorrow.
1. Wake up just a little bit earlier tomorrow and spend 15 minutes with the Lord. Read Psalm 1, think about what you’ve read, and then pray that God would begin shaping you into the kind of person who lives out the values represented in that text. Tuesday read Psalm 2, think about it, then pray. Simply keep this practice up until it becomes a habit.
2. In the evening, try a Prayer of Examen. Here’s how: Close your eyes and pray “Holy Spirit, guide me through the past 24 hours.” Then replay your day in fast motion, allowing the Holy Spirit to pause wherever he wants to. Whenever the Spirit pauses to review something about your day – a feeling you had, a reaction you had, a response you gave, an opportunity you did not act upon – reflect on that moment. This will get you slowly accustomed to inviting God into your everyday moments.
 Barna, “Meet the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious,’” Barna Group (blog), accessed July 21, 2021, https://www.barna.com/research/meet-spiritual-not-religious/.
 Barry D. Jones, Dwell: Life with God for the World (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2014), 67.
 See "Excursus: The “Flesh” in Romans in Craig Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 97. There are two similar GK words: “Soma” means body and “Sarx” means flesh. Sarx is our “physical desires, which have a legitimate place, but not in ruling life” contrasted with “thinking dominated by the Spirit.”
 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 54.
 Chart was adapted from various themes in Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).
 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Zondervan, 2009), 44.
 Ortberg, 47.
 Ortberg gets this idea of training from 1 Timothy 4:7, where Paul instructs Timothy to “train yourself for godliness.” See chapter three of Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted.