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Food for Thought - Spiritual Formation

What is spiritual formation?


What is it?

Why is it important?

For many of us, it all started in 1978 with the release of Richard Foster’s book, The Celebration of Discipline. Even though Foster’s book was a consideration of various spiritual practices, the book’s subtitle, “The Path To Spiritual Growth,” pointed to the desired end of engaging with these practices, a deeper spiritual life. When he stated that what our age is in need of is “deep people,” many of us found ourselves longing to be one of those “deep people.” We longed to be men and women who were being spiritually formed at a deep level into the likeness of Christ.

Much has been written over the past thirty years regarding spiritual formation and the practices that accompany it. While that is true, the topic of spiritual formation is still a mystery for many. Basic questions such as, “What is spiritual formation?” and “Why is spiritual formation important?” are still unanswered for many. I hope to answer these important questions in what follows.

What is Spiritual Formation?

It is always good to begin with a definition. Here are a few to get us started:

  • “Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” (M. Robert Mulholland Jr., Invitation to a Journey)
    • Mulholland also states, “Spiritual formation is a loving relationship with God that shapes our being rather than a technique or method or program for self-improvement.”
  • “Spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.” (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart)
  • “Christian spiritual formation refers to the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered)

There are a number of important items that we can highlight from these definitions of spiritual formation:

Spiritual formation is a process empowered by the Holy Spirit.
We live in a self-reliant culture, but there is not a single human being who has the innate personal power to cause himself or herself to act like Jesus long term. None of us can pull this off. We need outside help, and God has provided that in his Holy Spirit. The Spirit empowers and enables us to choose God’s way over our own.

The process changes a person’s inner and outer life.
Jesus was always more interested in what was going on in the inside of people than he was with mere outward activity. He talked of cleaning the inside of the cup first and then the outside will become clean as well (Matt. 23:26). Spiritual formation is about having the inner recesses of our lives touched by God’s Spirit.

The result of the formation process is that the believer’s life will be progressively conformed to the likeness of Christ.
In the life of Jesus we see what true humanity was intended to be. He is what the fully realized image of God in a person looks like. God’s desire is that we be reshaped into his image. As we are reshaped, we will be more and more transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Spiritual formation is a communal activity, not an individual journey.
Our formational journey is never a completely solo endeavor. We need the encouragement, strength, love, and relationship of others as we walk the pathway of formation.

Formation is a process that occurs over a lifetime.
We live in a “hurry up” culture and world. We want a quick fix or accelerated transformation, but that is not how spiritual formation works. It is a gradual, life-long experience of shaping and forming by God’s Spirit. There is no such thing as “microwave formation” and there are no “Easy” buttons either. It takes a lifetime of responding to the activity of God’s Spirit in our lives.

There is an important recurring word in these elements… PROCESS! Spiritual formation is a process. Andrew Murray describes the end result of that process when he says:

“True Christianity aims at having the character of Christ so formed in us that in our most ordinary activities His temperament and attitudes reveal themselves. The Spirit and the will of Christ should so possess us that in our relationships with people, in our leisure time, and in our daily business it will be second nature for us to act like Him. All this is possible because Christ himself, as the Living One, lives in us.” (Daily Experience with God)

Why is spiritual formation important?

Spiritual formation is important because it is God’s desire for every follower of Christ.
People sometimes think that spiritual formation is just for the “really committed, you know, those who are really into discipleship.” Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s intention is that the process of spiritual formation would be an ongoing part of every believer’s life. This desire is verbalized by Paul in Galatians 4:19, “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives.” (NLT). God’s desire regarding formation is also seen in Romans 8:29, “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son.

The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.” (Message)
Spiritual formation is God’s desire for every follower of Christ.

Spiritual formation is an essential aspect of the gospel. While it is really important that because we are “in Christ” our sins are forgiven and we will go to heaven when we die, that is not all that God has intended for us. The invitation of Jesus includes forgiveness and the assurance of heaven, but he also invites us into a relationship of deep rest and trust through which he can teach us to live as he did. As we learn to rest in him, to “make our home in” him, we will find his very life flowing into us and through us to others. When this becomes our reality, we begin to experience the fullness of life and relationship with God that Jesus spoke of:

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NLT)

"Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me. "I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing.” John 15:4-5 (Message).

”A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” John 10:10 (Message)

Spiritual formation is critical in our outreach to others. I believe that what the watching world longs to see is a group of people who not only know the teachings of Jesus, but who also have his teachings incarnated in their lives. They long to see the charity, compassion, and wisdom of Jesus embodied in us.

You might be asking yourself how spiritual formation is different from what most churches are doing in developing believers. Aren’t all Christians being formed into the likeness of Jesus? It is true that believers are being formed into the likeness of Christ, but I have observed something over my 38 years of following Christ, and 22 years of pastoring: Over time most people reach a plateau in their relationship with God. It is not that they do not love God or have stopped serving him, but they often level out in their spiritual development. I know this was true in my life; perhaps it is true in yours as well? Understanding spiritual formation and entering into the practices associated with it has helped me to see that the depth of change and transformation God desires for my life is greater and deeper than I ever realized. Our life in God does not need to plateau. We are involved in a life-long journey “until Christ is fully developed in our lives.”

Now that you understand what spiritual formation is, and why it is important, what might be your next steps?

  • Ask the Spirit to stir up a greater desire for spiritual formation in your life. Ask God to help you catch the vision of how your life could be different if it was formed more and more into the likeness of Jesus. Spend some time journaling about what this vision may be and look like.
  • Use Galatians 4:19, Romans 8:29, and 2 Corinthians 3:18 as a basis for pondering what God desires for your personal life. Notice any resistance that may arise within you and talk to God about what it is, what it may be based in, and what God may be inviting you into in the midst of it.
  • Sit with Matthew 11:28-30, John 15:1-17, and John 10:10. Hear the invitation of Jesus to you personally. Make it personal by inserting your name into the text. Do you feel like your burden is light and that your soul is at rest? Why or why not? Ask God to show you what it might look like in your life to live in Jesus, to make your home in him? What feelings arise within you as you ponder those possibilities? As you hear Jesus’ invitation, interact with him regarding your desires, longings, and any questions or feelings that surface for you.
  • Ask Jesus to begin to show you what it might look like to have his “real and eternal life” released in you and through you. Ask Jesus to be your teacher/ instructor as you give yourself to the life-long journey of spiritual formation.

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