Many people think that a spiritual life, the kind of life that leads us to heaven, consists of piety, of outward holiness, and of renunciation of the world. In fact, though, piety without caring, outward holiness without inner holiness, and renunciation of the world without involvement in the world do not make our life spiritual. What does make our life spiritual is piety that comes from a caring heart, outward holiness that is a manifestation of inner holiness, and renunciation of the world that goes along with involvement in the world.
Piety is thinking and speaking reverently, giving ample time to prayer, having a humble attitude when we pray, attending church regularly and listening attentively to what is preached, observing the sacrament of the Supper several times a year, and performing the other ceremonial acts the church prescribes.
A life of caring, though, consists of having goodwill toward our neighbors and doing good things for them; basing all of our actions on what is right and fair, and what is good and true; and applying the same principles in all our responsibilities. In a word, a life of caring consists of being useful. This kind of life is the primary way to worship God; a life of piety is only secondary. This means that if we separate the one from the other, if we lead a pious life but not a caring life at the same time, we are not in fact worshiping God. We may be thinking about God, but this comes from ourselves and not from God, because we are constantly thinking about ourselves and not at all about our neighbor. If we do think about our neighbors, we regard them as worthless if they are not like us. Further, we are thinking of heaven as our reward, so our mind is preoccupied with self-love and taking credit. Being actively useful is something we either neglect or regard with contempt; and that is also how we treat our neighbors. Yet at the same time we believe there is nothing wrong with us.
This shows that a pious life apart from a caring life is not the spiritual life that is needed within our worship of God. Compare Matthew 6:7, 8.
Outward holiness is similar to the pious behavior just described (it consists primarily in seeing all worship of God as a matter of the sanctity we experience when we are in church); but this is not holy for us unless we are holy inwardly. This is because our inner nature determines our outer nature—the latter comes from the former the way our actions come from our spirit. This means that outward holiness apart from inner holiness is earthly and not spiritual, which is why it can be found just as readily in evil people as in good people. Furthermore, people whose worship is nothing but external are for the most part empty; that is, they have no knowledge of what is good or true, even though goodness and truth are holiness itself. Goodness and truth are what we are to know and believe and love because they come from the Divine and there is therefore something divine within them. To be inwardly holy, then, is to love what is good and true because it is good and true and to love what is right and honest because it is right and honest. The more we love these things for their own sakes, the more spiritual we become. Our devotion to God becomes more spiritual, too, because we become more and more eager to know what is good and what is true and to put them into practice. On the other hand, as our love for these things diminishes, we become more earthly, our devotion to God becomes more earthly, and we become less and less interested in knowing and doing these things.
We could compare outward worship apart from inner worship to having living breath without having a living heart, while outward worship prompted by inner worship is like living breath that is joined to a living heart.
As for renunciation of the world, many believe that renouncing the world and living for the spirit and not for the flesh is a matter of casting aside worldly things (primarily wealth and status), going around in constant devout meditation concerning God, salvation, and eternal life, and spending our lives in prayer and in reading the Word and devotional literature, not to mention self-affliction. This, though, is not at all what renouncing the world means; it means loving God and loving our neighbor. We love God when we live by his commandments, and we love our neighbor when we do things that are useful. If we wish to receive the life of heaven, we must by all means live in this world and be involved in its responsibilities and dealings. A life withdrawn from worldly concerns is a life of thought and faith, and yet is completely separate from a life of love and caring. In that kind of life, having goodwill toward our neighbors and doing good things for them ceases altogether; and when our goodwill and our good actions come to an end, our spiritual life is like a house without a foundation that gradually sags into the ground, cracking and splitting, then leans to one side, and finally collapses.
From the Lord’s own words we can see that doing what is good is how we are to worship the Lord:
Everyone who hears my words and does them I will liken to a wise man who built his house on the rock; but anyone who hears my words and does not do them I will liken to a foolish man who built his house on the sand or on the ground without a foundation. (Matthew 7:24–27; Luke 6:47, 48, 49)
This now makes it possible for us to see that a pious life is effective and is accepted by the Lord only to the extent that a caring life is joined to it. The latter is primary and determines the nature of the former.
Likewise, outward holiness is effective and is accepted by the Lord only to the extent that it comes from inward holiness, because the nature of the latter determines the nature of the former.
And again, renunciation of the world is effective and is accepted by the Lord only to the extent that it takes place in the world, since we renounce the world when we lay aside our self-love and our love for the world and do what is right and honest in every office we hold, every item of business we transact, and everything we do, doing so from within and therefore from a heavenly source. This source is present within our life when we do what is good, honest, and right because doing so accords with divine laws.
from New Jerusalem, Sections 123-128