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Spiritual Intelligence

When Steve got home from church, he found his dad lying on the floor gasping his last breath. Someone had beaten his father to death. A week later, the police arrested Steve’s mother. She had hired the hit man who killed his father.

Steve’s mom was then sentenced to die in the electric chair. He had lost both of his parents in the same week.

Steve was only twelve.

He went on with his life, trying to forget. For twenty-three years, he didn’t write or visit his mother. Then, one day, a church worker told him that his mother had been attending a bible study in prison. Steve should go see her, the man suggested.

For over a year, Steve walked through the greatest spiritual struggle of his life. The Scripture says to forgive, but how could he forgive this betrayal of everything a child should be able to count on?

To make a long story short, Steve finally reconciled with his mother, and she was eventually pardoned. You can read the entire story in Steve’s book, which friends and church leaders finally convinced him to write.

I know this story because Steve, his wife, and his mother were all in our church last Sunday.<a href="[/embed]" target="_blank">


What I want to share here is how their story affected me.

The preparation of my heart to hear Steve’s story began the prior Wednesday evening in our weekly Bible class.

We had been discussing the third chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians when Mike Garner, a retired missionary and doctor of theology, made a comment.

Didn’t Paul’s instructions in this chapter constitute a form of “spiritual intelligence?”

Sometimes, a new label can utterly reshuffle one’s thoughts. That’s what happened to me. Mike’s comment led me to recall something I studied in graduate school — the theory of “multiple intelligence.”

Dr. Howard Gardner came up with the idea in 1983. In some ways, it was just a common sense observation. Common sense isn’t really that common however, so Dr. Gardner gets the credit for something we should have recognized all along.

In brief, Gardner said that the IQ test, which educators had used to categorize children and offer vocational counseling, was too limited.  As it turns out, what we have called IQ describes only a certain type of intelligence, namely the ability to process abstract ideas. However, very successful people often have rather ordinary IQs. And, some people with very high IQ sometimes fail to make much of a mark in the world.

Dr. Gardner said that educators should broaden their assessment of intelligence to include things like relational, visual–spatial, musical, linguistic, and other types of skill sets.

Gardner never mentioned “spiritual intelligence” though. What could that even mean? Would it not mean the ability to recognize and move toward those things that encourage heath for the soul and to recognize and move way from those things that create dysfunction and illness in the soul?

Was that what Paul was teaching?

St. Paul was a rabbi. He studied and taught Torah, a word we often translate as “law” but which many Jewish scholars say would be better understood as “instruction.”  Studying Torah forms one’s attitudes, habits, and behaviors. These, in turn, form all aspects of one’s relationships and vocation. Studying Torah therefore involves far more than merely learning abstract concepts. Torah is a deliberate and conscious formation of one’s entire being. That is the essence of Jewish spirituality.

As Jews have often proved, this living relationship with Scripture develops one’s mind in a unique and extremely productive way. Because of that relationship, Jews routinely distinguish themselves in the arts, the sciences, and by displaying a financial acumen at percentages far beyond what their population would otherwise suggest.

So the formation of spiritual intelligence involves the intellect, surely. However, from a scriptural standpoint, it involves far more. It requires real interaction with others – sometimes it even involves passionate disagreement that pushes the limits of our relationships until they stretch but not until they break. It requires us to develop the ability to question the very text we study. For example, Job bluntly asks whether it is possible for a dead person to live again or whether it is true that God rewards good people and punishes bad people. Abraham, dismayed that God would destroy an entire city cries out, “Won’t the Great Judge of the whole earth do what is right?” Scary questioning is part of the process.

Questioning the text, questioning others, and questioning ourselves push us past familiar boundaries and comforting conformities.  It moves us beyond our childhood certainties into an adult world, filled with nuance, paradox, mystery and difference.

Sometimes, Christian communities suppress this process. Professing fidelity to Scripture, they actually obstruct the purpose of Scripture. Robbed of its treasure of metaphor, poetry, simile, play–on-words, hyperbole, humor, playful allusions to other parts of the text, and other aspects of its unspeakable literary power, the Bible becomes a dead book, filled with concrete rules.

Jesus and Paul warned us of that danger. “Since you think eternal life comes from the Scriptures, go ahead and search through them,” Jesus said. “You will discover; however, that they are pointing to Me.”

“We don’t worship a dead letter,” Paul says, “We worship the living God.”

Colossians 3:1-17 tells us to take off our old life, like some out-of-fashioned clothes. We must stop using filthy language, stop lying, give up our wrath, and, as the New Testament tells us again and again, we must forgive those who offend us.

Then, Paul adds, we must put on love, kindness, and the ability to endure difficult things. We can learn all these things by studying Scripture and by singing hymns and praise choruses, he says. However, we must also actually start practicing what we have learned in everyday life.

That sounds like spiritual intelligence to me.

I was thinking about all of that Sunday as Steve Owens told his story. Then he asked his mother to come and stand with him. All of these thoughts suddenly coalesced.

I suppose the best way I can explain what I felt is to recall what the Apostle John said about Jesus, about how our Lord was “the Word In-fleshed.”

There are times when Scripture is no longer a book — when it becomes a living, pulsating, thing — something we must either accept or reject. God gives us the Book so we will recognize the Living Word when it appears before us in everyday life.

“Search the Scriptures,” Jesus says, “you will see they testify of Me”.

In other words, the Bible is God’s outstretched finger. It is not meant to draw attention to itself. It is meant to direct our attention to the Source and Preserver of Life.

St. Paul says when that happens, we become like living bibles in the world, known and read by everyone we meet.

Steve and his family were that for me this Sunday. Their lives have embodied redemption, the path to transformation, and a God who is not willing that any should perish.

Dr. Howard Gardner failed to recognize the reality of spiritual intelligence. However, for a believer, it is the indispensable core of all other forms of human growth and maturity. Indeed, it effectively leads our soul through this world and then, ultimately, beyond it.

It is the sort of intelligence that survives all things. It is the pearl of great price. It is the thing for which a wise person will give up everything, including his own life if necessary, to obtain it.

When you see it in the real world, it is like listening to the greatest symphony you have ever heard, reading the greatest book you have every read and eating the best food you have ever eaten. You know immediately that it is the way to life and that whatever else you do or fail to do, you must walk that path all the way home.