The Problem With How-To Spirituality

I love being productive. That same desire can easily become the focus of my spirituality, making spirituality a means to greater personal productivity. I call that focus How-To Spirituality. Here’s the problem with How-To Spirituality with a nudge to embrace Whole Spirituality. 

There’s a growing interest in spirituality, even while adherence to organized religion is in decline. This trend isn’t surprising. It’s follows as a result of more people practicing a How-To Spirituality.

How-To Spirituality is a technique for self-improvement, goal attainment, and greater personal fulfillment.

Here are 3 examples of How-To Spirituality:

  • While walking an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain, I met a woman who told me why she walked. “I don’t believe in God or anything, I’m walking in order to find myself, who I really am. On the Camino the clutter is disappearing and I see more clearly.”
  • A university student attended church because the girls were cute and nice to him.
  • A pastor studied the Bible and quoted it as a manual for living a successful life.

To a degree, these desires are a benefit of spirituality. I’ve wanted each of those benefits too, however, they are side benefits and not the main thing.

The Problem With How-To Spirituality

By making How-To the main thing, we commoditize our spirituality and transform it into the same type of me-driven hedonistic pursuit we seek to purge from our lives through our spirituality.

  • How-To Spirituality is about me. Me being happy, being successful, and living well with others. That’s all fine, but it’s too narrow of purpose. Spirituality is so much more than little ol’ me.
  • How-To Spirituality is pragmatic. How-To Spirituality is a problem-solving tool. This pragmatism focuses on what works and benefits us personally, while missing other things that are true and right.
  • How-To Spirituality is individualistic. All people have a spiritual nature, it’s one mark of humanity. That’s why spirituality through the ages, and in its many forms, is communal. How-To Spirituality ignores the community with its self-improvement navel gazing.
  • How-To Spirituality is about looking good. Having the “right” answers and being a part of the right group benefits us. We gain respect, social status, clients, and friends. Yet, many of the saints we admire were persecuted for not compromising in order to fit in.
  • How-To Spirituality picks and chooses. It’s far too tempting to eliminate that which we find uncomfortable or don’t like. In doing so, we miss a huge element of spirituality. We are nurtured through the uncomfortable and inconvenient.

The Practice of Whole Spirituality As Relationship

Whole Spirituality acknowledges that the physical world is not all that there is. There is a spiritual dimension to life that operates in tandem with the physical world.

How-to Spirituality is a transaction – if I do this, I get that. Whole Spirituality is multi-dimensional, like a relationship. Let’s look at spirituality through three relationships:

1. Relationship With God

Christian spirituality is a relationship with God himself. I used to study the Bible to learn about God. I wanted to know what Jesus taught, what the New Testament said about how to live, and to find quotes to use in my writing and speaking. That’s How-To Spirituality in action.

Today, I still read the Bible, but for an entirely different purpose. I’ve moved from How-To to relationship. I don’t want to increase my understanding as much as I want my relationship with God to deepen. I don’t want to know about Him, I want to know Him. I don’t want to read the words written to others, I want to hear His voice speaking to me. The activities may be similar, but the purpose and applications are entirely different.

2. Relationship With Other People

Whole Spirituality forms us through community. Independence appeals to our self-centered nature. Interdependence takes faith, trust, love, forgiveness, and grace. Each of these traits are accompanied by experiences of pain and disappointment. How-To Spirituality builds independence from others to avoid discomfort.

Relating to others is part of our humanity. We are whole only in community. I am part of a group of people who meet weekly to engage together in spiritual practices. There has been little change in any of our lives through what we do at those meetings. The changes have come because we do them together.

Living in community with others allows us to confront our contradictions, extend grace, go deeper, forgive and be forgiven, and most of all to love.

3. Relationship With Ourselves

Whole Spirituality enables us to relate as our true selves. I’ll mention just two aspects.

Whole Spirituality helps us find our Why. “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why,” wrote Mark Twain. What’s your purpose, your calling? Why do you exist? How-To Spiritual leads us to an inward-focused answer: life is about our own happiness. Whole Spirituality inevitably reveals an others-focused purpose that leads lasting fulfillment.

Character development is another way Whole Spirituality enables us to find our true selves. How-To Spirituality seeks self-improvement in the areas we choose. Character development is about the growth we need. The change process is rarely efficient. And it’s often painful. That’s why we so quickly run from from it and turn to more pleasant things.

How-To Spirituality is a short-cut that looks attractive but doesn’t get us to where we really want to go. The longer, sometimes more difficult, road is to practice relatedness through Whole Spirituality.

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    3 thoughts on “The Problem With How-To Spirituality

    1. Dear Keith, you just hit the nail on the head. Very insightful, very helpful. May God help us to mature and embrace the truth that we are much more than people in need of self-help from a self help God. Unfortunately, many of us are wired to seek first the self-help variety of spirituality. Thankfully our God draws us further in together and to Him.