Ruth Haley Barton on How the Old Testament Tells It All

Ruth Haley Barton is founding president of the Transforming Center, a seasoned spiritual director, and author of Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (IVP Books).


Iam not an Old Testament theologian, but I have loved the Old Testament for a long time.

I had quiet times before I knew they were a requirement for Christian living, and during such times I found myself naturally and inexplicably drawn to the Old Testament. I would take my Bible and a journal—and sometimes a Bible study guide or a book of poetry—and lose myself in it all.

The Psalms in particular were amazing to me. They were full of the same rampage of emotions I was experiencing as an adolescent: anger and sadness, loneliness and questions, yearning and passion, worship and awe. When I was immersed in the Psalms, I felt understood and comforted—as if someone really got me. When I read David’s confessions of sin or his seething imprecations against his enemies, I knew there was nothing I couldn’t name in God’s presence. Nothing was out-of-bounds. For a passionate, melancholy young girl and pastor’s kid in a conservative religious environment, this was no small thing! The Psalms gave me a place to be and to breathe; I loved God because of what I experienced with God there.

I realize now that I was learning how to pray not so much from the teachings in the New Testament (valuable as they are) but from actually praying along with the great pray-ers of the Old Testament. To me, it wasn’t old at all; it was fresh and new. The psalm writers gave me words when I had none, jump-starting my own prayers. This was my earliest experience of being shaped spiritually by the Old Testament.

What Is Christian Spirituality?

What do we even mean when we talk about being “shaped spiritually”? The term spirituality is a rather ambiguous and ubiquitous term in today’s culture. If we listen carefully, we might hear it used to describe everything from meditation to mountain climbing, from the “flow” an athlete feels on the basketball court to the unselfconscious state of the artist caught up in his or her art, from going on a silent retreat to worshiping in a cathedral, from practicing yoga to simply paying attention to one’s breathing. The language of spirituality can seem like an ill-defined, amorphous, soft-around-the-edges sort of thing, signifying an otherworldly sentimentality with a bent toward the mystical that often has little to do with any deity or religious affiliation.

But let’s reclaim this term and put it to good use, shall we? Simply put, spirituality is all the ways in which human beings reach for God, for truth, for personal significance, and for ultimate meaning. All human beings have a body, soul, and spirit, and the spirit is what animates us. When the concept of spirituality is coupled with the word Christian, however, an even clearer perspective emerges. Bradley Holt, in his book Thirsty for God, clarifies that, in the Christian tradition, the term “refers in the first place to lived experience.” “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:25 (ESV). “The starting point is the Spirit of Christ living in the person,” Holt says.

Within a Christian framework, then, the words spiritual and spirituality signify being “of the Holy Spirit”—the third Person of the Trinity, the one sent by God at Jesus’ request to be our advocate and our counselor and to guide us into truth as we are able to bear it. As Philip Sheldrake argues in A Brief History of Spirituality, a “spiritual person” (1 Cor. 2:14–15) in Paul’s letters was simply someone the Spirit of God dwells in who lives under the influence of that Spirit.

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Source: Christianity Today