Practical Spirituality: Do Good
Sometimes I may not be fair to religion when I separate it from spirituality. To me they are quite related, but are not the same. I am certainly not against religion. After all, I tell people I teach it! However, I also find that I am more at home in the arena of spirituality---the spiritual. This is not the place for an extended essay defining both and arguing why I think they are not the same.
Suffice it to say, religion for me (and most folks I know) is first and foremost in some doctrines. For example, people are quick to tell me they do believe in God---or don’t believe in God. Obviously for those who believe, there often is more they believe in, and it may well be the case that their beliefs inform their actions. Spirituality for me is first and foremost experience. I know this can sound wishy-washy. But spirituality is about experience of the Holy One. This usually has implications for actions in our lives.
So it is that I am intrigued by what I believe or what my experience might be and how my actions and life are impacted. This seems to me to be a key factor is judging the worth of both religion and spirituality. I know the biblical tradition assumes a relationship between belief/experience/action. So do the major religious traditions, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.
All this came to mind recently when I was doing some work with Psalm 15. This Psalm is full of helpful guidance if we familiarize ourselves with it and then try to follow it in our lives. This Psalm could be a guide to practical spirituality. And its primary focus is on “doing good.” And in my view, doing good leads to the good life.
The Psalm begins with a legitimate question for those of us with some kind of belief in a Divine Being. The Psalmist asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” Without spending undue time unpacking each verse, let us simply note the real question here is “Who can be in relationship with God?” Belief is not sufficient, although important. Experience is also not sufficient, although welcome. Rather, action is necessary to be in relationship with God.
This becomes clear when we pursue the other verses of the Psalm. The second verse answers the question, Who can be in relationship with God? The Psalmist begins the answer. “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” This is a good trio of things to do. This is practical spirituality that becomes alive by doing good. Walk blamelessly means that we do nothing that would lead to us having to say, “I’m sorry.” Do what is right is simple and clear. Life would be good if we did what is right every time and in every situation. And finally, we should speak truth from the heart. This means more than saying what someone expects us to say---that would be speaking from the head. No, we are to be truthful from the heart---from deep within our very being.
This Psalm continues to develop practical spirituality, as I want to call it. We have three more guidelines to form our actions. The Psalmist tells us that people “should not slander with their tongue.” In other words, don’t lie! Next people should “do no evil to their friends.” Pay attention: it does counsel about “speaking” evil; it says, “do no evil.” Finally, no one should “take up a reproach against their neighbors.”
And at the end, the Psalmist offers three more practical spirituality guidelines. The Psalmist says that people should “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” This one can be a tough one. Basically, it tells us that we need to honor our pledges---be true to our word. If we say that we are going to do something (our oath), we need to do it---even if it hurts us. Obviously, this is not wishy-washy. This one may cost us---and the Psalmist tells us to pay the price!
Next we are told that we should “not lend money at interest.” This one is really difficult. No one told the banks about this one! Now I know most major religious traditions have figured out ways around this one and found ways to justify interest on money. We need take on those arguments. Simply, let it be noted what the biblical tradition counsels us practically to do in order to do good.
Finally, we are not to “take a bribe against the innocent.” For most of us, this one seems quite easy. No one is bribing me---at least in this country. But I realize I may be thinking too narrowly. I may be thinking on money bribes alone. If I expand my thinking, I realize I may be bribed in other ways. Sometimes a person’s good looks bribes people against the innocent who may not be people of beauty. Think about the way you are persuaded. If you are persuaded by something that is a bit questionable, does that amount to a bribe?
I appreciate the clarity and detail of this Psalm. It helps me understand some details of practical spirituality. It offers guidelines that chart what I should do in order to be in relationship with God---the Holy One. Religion is not just a matter of thinking and spirituality not just a matter of grooving with God. Both need to be acted out in good deeds.