I’ve encountered many souls who, learning that I am a Christian, will respond with something that I’ll paraphrase like this: “I’m not religious–like you—I’m just spiritual.”
The message, when decrypted by my own spirit, is that they believe they are spiritual enough to have no need for Christ or his salvation. They imply that they are more spiritual than I am because they need neither a Savior nor the doctrines of any faith teaching. Maybe they sense a spiritual connection to nature or see being spiritual as tapping into the universal ocean of love and harmony. They seem to believe their own goodness sufficient to guide their path in life. Though they don’t deny God’s existence, they are unwilling to commit to any existing religious system that might make demands upon them.
In these conversations, I explain that I’m not very religious either; I’ve simply decided to follow Jesus. I’ve chosen him over other gods, other teachers, and other loves, and therefore I align myself to his teachings and values as best I can. This is the source of my spiritual empowerment.
I don’t despise people who choose not to believe in Christ as the Redeemer and Savior. I don’t claim to understand how Christ will deal with them when he sorts things out in the end. I know that some people either ignorantly or arrogantly reject Christ because of a cultural bias against Christianity that has taken hold in Western cultures for several generations. This is a great tragedy with serious ramifications for the health of those individuals and those cultures.
In the first century Roman Empire, Christianity started with Jews who were taught and led by Christ’s apostles. Many Gentiles soon came to the faith also as the Jewish Christians fanned out, delivering the gospel message. God made it clear to them in supernatural ways that his salvation and deliverance were for everyone. The price of admission was and still is simply to acknowledge his Son as Lord, and to believe in his resurrection from the dead. Despite lots of resistance then and now, there are always some who hear the message and are ready to believe it.
There is a category of persons mentioned in Scripture called “God-fearers.” These were Gentiles who were drawn to the God of the Jews and Christians or had an unusual sympathy or affinity for God’s people.
Cornelius the centurion is a great example. He is described as a “devout man, and one that feared God with all his house.” He gave generously to the poor, and “prayed to God always” (Acts 10:1-2). God recognized his humility and openness to new information. Holy Spirit orchestrated a miraculous plan for him to meet Peter and hear the good news about Christ the Messiah. Before Peter even finished his speech, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who had heard the message.” They spoke in tongues, prophesied, and were baptized into the faith. A God-fearing man was saved and transformed, with his entire household (Acts 10:44-48). They became spiritual.
Ironically, sometimes the God-fearers in the book of Acts were sympathetic toward the religious Jews and joined them in persecuting the “followers of the Way.” In Pisidian Antioch, “the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region” (Acts 13:50). I guess it can go either way with God-fearers.
In this case, because they were not Jews, the God-fearers were better accepted and listened to by the secular authorities. And because they were sympathetic to the Jews, the Jewish leaders exploited them. Some of the God-fearers were people of power and influence who pulled others away from the God they claimed to reverence. Even so, as one sources states, “the fact that Christianity continued to grow and prosper suggests it was a fight they were losing.”1
Paul and Barnabas typically preached the word in synagogues before venturing out amongst the Gentiles. Some in those synagogues may have been proselytes, Gentiles who practiced the Jewish religion. Others were God-fearers, allowed to attend synagogue meetings, but not fully embracing Jewish law or doctrine.2
On one occasion Paul addressed his teaching to the “People of Israel, and…devout Gentiles who fear the God of Israel” (Acts 13:16). In his conclusion he said, “Brothers—you sons of Abraham, and also all of you devout Gentiles who fear the God of Israel—this salvation is for us!” (v. 26). It evidently was just as important to Paul—and to God—to acknowledge the God-fearers, those who might be hungrily seeking greater truth. Scripture tells us that “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10). Through the preaching of the word these folks were starting to wise up.
Later, Luke recounts Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica, where after three weeks of preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, “some of the Jews who listened were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with many God-fearing Greek men and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4). With persistence and dedication, the apostles and defenders of the faith reached some Jews, some Gentiles, and some God-fearers.
My focus on the God-fearers has challenged me to look for them in my own life, and I hope to challenge you to do this also. These are people that have a hunger for God, however pagan, esoteric or muddy their concept may be. If people say that they are not religious, but spiritual, this shouldn’t stop us from saying more about our God. Maybe they are God-fearers. They know that there is something or someone that is drawing them, and maybe it is you or I assigned to invite them to come closer.
I know this because I was one of these people. My father was a secular Jew, and my mother a disillusioned daughter of a Presbyterian minister who took my sister and me to the Unitarian Universalist Church. When I look back at the path that led me to my love for Jesus and his church, I recognize that I was a God-fearer! Something was drawing me (the Holy Spirit, I now know) to the God of the Bible, long before I had any understanding of religion. It was a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. When I put my trust in him, he made me truly spiritual by imparting his Spirit to me. Holy Spirit then began teaching me the deeper things.
If that could happen to me, I know it can happen to other God-fearers also. Let’s find them and love them into the Kingdom.