Spiritual Formation: What it is, and How it is Done
A few scripture passages point us to the place in human personality that is the focus of spiritual formation:
Proverbs 4:20-24 reminds us to keep the words of God's wisdom "in the midst of your heart," and that
from there "they are life to those who find them, and health to all their
body." (vv. 21-22 NASB) Then comes the exhortation, "Watch over your
heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life." (v. 23)
In Mark 7:15, 20-23, Jesus
teaches about the true source of evil in human life: "The things which
proceed out of the man are what defile the man.... For from within, out of the
heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, acts of sexual immorality, thefts, murders,
adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality,
envy, slander, pride and foolishness."
In Luke 6, he points out that "there is no good tree which produces bad fruit.... Men do not gather figs
from thornbushes...." (vv. 43-44) It is the inner nature of the tree that
determines its outward product. Likewise, "The good man out of the good
treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the
evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which
fills his heart." (v. 45)
Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost
dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or
will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural
expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.
The progression of spiritual formation is outlined in various passages of the New Testament. It is most fully
spelled out in II Peter 1: "Now since you have become partakers of the
divine nature,” the writer says, "applying all diligence, in your faith
supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your
knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your
perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your
brotherly kindness, love." (vv. 4-7)
These New Testament progressions always conclude with agape. Agape is the center, the
linchpin, of it all. Colossians 3 has a wonderful progression that concludes,
"And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of
unity." (v. 14) Romans 5 concludes its progression with the words,
"because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the
Holy Spirit who was given to us." (v. 5)
If you examine these and related passages you will see that they include a passive element and an active
element. And making the distinction between passive and active, and seeing how
they come together, poses--especially for the evangelical understanding--the
greatest difficulty in the area of spiritual formation.
We know, as Jesus says,
"Without me you can do nothing." (John 15:5) And I think everyone here
will agree with that. It is the initiative of God and the presence of God
without which all of our efforts are in vain--whether it is in justification or
sanctification or in the realm of the exercise of power, all our efforts will be
in vain if God does not act. But we had better believe that the back side of
that verse reads: "If you do nothing it will be without me." And this
is the part we have the hardest time hearing.
So I have read the above passages to you. "Keep your heart." Well, that's something for me to
do. I have the keeping of my heart. I am responsible for it. Do I do it
alone? No. If I do it alone, I'll just make bad matters worse. But I have to do
it nonetheless. I am the one who has to "give all diligence to add to my
faith moral excellence and add to my moral excellence knowledge"--I'm the
one. Again: Do I do it alone? No. But if I do nothing, it will not be done.
We have a problem today in Evangelical circles. We're not only saved by grace, we're paralyzed by it. I'm
Southern Baptist, and we often preach to you for an hour, telling you you can do
nothing to be saved, and then sing to you for forty-five minutes trying to get
you to do something to be saved. That's confusing! And, as we look at these
verses (many similar ones could be chosen), I hope we can see within them the union
of passivity and activity because spiritual formation is something that requires
us to take wise steps in accomplishing it. The "old man" will not be
put off, and the "new man" put on, unless I do something--and, indeed,
unless I do the right things. And so the need as we approach the topic of
spiritual formation, is to understand as well as we can what is our part and
what is God's part, and take care of our part that God may be able to work with
us in bringing us to be the kinds of people that we need to be and he wants us
to be. (If the idea that we must do something to "enable" God to do
something bothers you, you have just hit a major barrier on the pathway of
Now, spiritual formation talk has emerged within evangelical circles because of a pervasive felt need--felt on
the part of many people within the laity as well as within the clergy--for
"something more" than the group and individual activities that have
been recognized and encouraged in conservative religious circles in recent
decades. Especially, as Fundamentalism fell away and our contemporary (post-WW
II) version of Evangelicalism emerged, we had a period of great success, and
still enjoy that in many, many quarters; but because of the particular dynamics
of that period, we came to think that, in the language of some Protestants,
"the Word of God is the only sacrament." And what that meant
practically was that the sole means of spiritual growth was being taught and
"preached at"--that we're saved and transformed by hearing the truths
of the scriptures; we're redeemed by the truths which the conservative and
evangelical segments of the church rightly stood for. We're saved by believing
them, we're sanctified by believing them, and all issues of spiritual
growth are dealt with simply by taking the word in through reading it, through
hearing it, through exhortation and ministry from the scriptures. Or so we
thought. But I think that what we found, beginning some years ago, was that this
"method" really does not do everything that is needed or that we
thought it would do. And during the period since WW II, especially, we came to
accept the marginalization of discipleship to Jesus. We came to see it as
something of an option that we might choose to exercise should we wish.
But if we would just like to believe the truth and receive the ministry of the
word, and get on with our life without discipleship, that's okay too. And as a
result we have now come to the place where we can be a Christian forever without
becoming a disciple.
So discipleship was marginalized to something that was a special function. In my circles it always
had to do with soul-winning. In the more liberal wing of the church (you know, Sojourners
and The Other Side, if you are acquainted with those magazines and the
segments of the church they appeal to), discipleship came to mean some type of
"social action." Discipleship in the sense spelled out clearly,
through word and deed, in the New Testament was moved out of the center of the
Christian life. The subsequent rise of talk about spiritual formation occurred
because of the felt (though often unarticulated) need to find something deeper:
something that actually lead to the transformation of life, that actually moved
people in the direction of "the good tree", that looked into the
tangled depths of the heart and said, "There must be a way of doing
something about that."
In the path of serious spiritual formation there is indeed (as there always has been) a real
possibility of meeting this need for transformation. There is a real possibility
of looking at I Corinthians 13, for example, and being able to see that the love
that is portrayed there can actually come to occupy the human heart. People can
really be like that--"Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all
things, endures all things." People can be like that, not because they
do such things, but because agape love has occupied them effectively as a
result of their having learned how to receive it into the deepest part of
Now I think we are at a
crucial point in time, and that the very great promise which currently steps
forward in the "buzz" about spiritual formation has three possible
outcomes, two of them disappointing ones.
One is that spiritual formation will be lost in the sea of humanistic or "new age"
spirituality--in what I am tempted sometimes to call the "Oprahcization"
of Western culture. I think that Oprah means well, and there is much good in
what she does--certainly much more than with many others in her type of public
position. But she is severely misguided on some fundamental points. She now has
on her television program a segment called "attending to your spirit,"
and we should pay attention to what shows up in that segment, asking ourselves
how we could deal with the real needs she addresses. The hunger of the human
heart that is unfed by what is authentic will go for what is inauthentic. If
human beings need something vital badly enough, they may even destroy themselves
trying to get it.
I was raised in southern Missouri where the land is mineral poor. Cows and sheep there will find piles of junk or
refuse out in the fields or woods and eat old dry-cell batteries and rusty wire
and nails to get the minerals that they need, and they die of it. The hunger for
spiritual depth that we see manifested across our culture becomes a threat to a
meaningful and practically effective understanding of spiritual formation as it
should be presented by followers of Christ. And this threat has several forms.
Most are familiar with the Vedic or New Age form, but now secularism itself has a 'spirituality'. Even a
mere "culture" has a spirituality to it now. There is a book titled Spirituality
and the Secular Quest, edited by Peter Van Ness, in the very well known
"World Spirituality" series. And what you have there is simply the
claim that secular people have a 'spirituality' too. Spirituality is taken to be
simply one dimension of the human being. That's the great divide, because, from
the scriptural teachings and the teachings of our traditions in the Christian
communities, we know that that is supposed to be right--human beings are, as
such, supposed to have a spirituality. And in a sense they do. They remain
spiritual beings, with all that implies. But on their own they're dead
spiritually. They're cut off from the source of spiritual life. Yet what we are
seeing and what we will continue to see is an attempt to take the merely human,
dead in trespasses and sins, and make that into 'spirituality', framing
it culturally, artistically, and in other ways. Usually 'spirituality' as a
purely human dimension has to do with commitment, creativity and meaning.
And so we have not only the Old Age, viz. the Vedic, which is now called the New Age, but we also have
secularism as a direction in which the drive to "spirituality" may
develop. We could almost speak of "culturalism," because culture is
now generally assigned to the area of the spiritual. And I think that in many of
our Christian congregations there already exists in the minds of many people a
hopeless mish-mash of these two tendencies, the Vedic and the secular. It has
already almost totally captured some mainline churches--and some not so
mainline, as you find when you begin to talk with people about what they
actually think about spirituality and spiritual formation.
Now all of the spiritualities
address, of course, the deep human needs of identity, righteousness
and power. They must do so to have any appeal, and recent failure to show
how the Christian way deals with those needs is largely responsible for their
widespread appeal today.
Who am I? And the culturalisms
etc. that pose as vital spirituality, as well as other forms of group identity,
step up and say: This is who you are. But in these responses you don't
get the sense that what we are meant to be is children of the heavenly Father,
with a life that transcends everything that can be found in human culture or
actual human nature.
Am I okay? Am I a good person?
You will see that all the spiritualities address that issue. Am I strong? And
you will see again, the longing for power ("empowerment" is the usual
term now) is what is back of all these forms of spirituality, what gives them
Well, that's one thing I think
we are in danger of seeing happen with the current interest in spirituality and
spiritual formation: It may be taken over by these kinds of Vedic or secularist
Another possibility is perhaps
more dangerous for those of us here today. It is that spiritual formation will
simply become a new label for old activities--for what we are already doing:
worship, hearing the word, community, quiet time, plus a new twist or two such
as spiritual direction and so on. Now all of these things are very important.
But if spiritual formation merely becomes a new label for things we are already
doing, it will leave us right where we are. And the issues of deep inner
transformation will remain untouched. And I say with trepidation that there is a
real danger of spirituality becoming a field of mere "expertise," of
academic competence, focused upon "religious activities."
I myself am sometimes introduced as an expert in the field of spirituality. I want to fade into
the wall at that point. Spirituality and spiritual formation isn't that kind of
thing. And I think that one of the greatest dangers for the cause of Christ
today is that we Evangelicals will not understand our need for genuine
repentance: repentance, not about what we aren't, but about what we are. Our
problem is not caused merely by the fact that we don't do certain things, like
love our neighbor as ourselves and so on. It's the very things that we teach and
practice about the spiritual life that leave us in the position of not doing the
things we should.
Haven't we been told that
judgment begins at the house of God? That means, first of all, it begins where I
am. I am a man of unclean lips who lives in the midst of a people of unclean
lips. I have to own this. We have to own it. And sometimes the
uncleanness of our lips simply comes from the fact that we use the language of
our culture, and sometimes our religious culture, which may in fact be full of
unperceived godlessness. We need to recognize that fact. What are we as
Evangelicals, as religious Conservatives, or as Christians generally doing to
bring about the kind of deepening called for by the turn to
"spirituality" in our times? And is it really true that we just need
to do what we are already doing, but more or better? Or do we need to do
something different?….We need to do something different.
Now the third possibility is
that "spiritual formation" could become a term for those processes
through which people are inwardly transformed in such a way that the personality
and deeds of Jesus Christ naturally flow out from them when and wherever they
are. In other words, it can be understood as the process by which true
Christlikeness is established in the very depths of our being. Thus multitudes
of men and women could be brought forth from generation to generation to be,
unapologetically, Christ's redemptive community: the true "city set on a
hill," of which Jesus spoke, established in the midst of the earth now, as
it shall be for eternity in the midst of the cosmos. (Eph. 3:10; Rev. 22:5) We
could become a true "society of Jesus." We could be the
life-transforming salt and light in a darkened world which God has always
intended his covenant people to be.
Spiritual formation could and
should be the process by which those who are Jesus' apprentices or disciples
come easily to "do all things whatsoever I have commanded you." What I
call "the great omission from the great commission" is the fact that
Christians generally don't have a plan for teaching people do everything that he
commanded. We don't as a rule even have a plan for learning this ourselves, and
perhaps assume it is simply impossible. And that explains the yawning abyss
today between being Christian and being a disciple. We have a form of religion
that has accepted non-obedience to Christ, and the hunger for
spirituality and spiritual formation in our day is a direct consequence of that.
Sometimes Christian trinkets
can be very instructive. There is a map that is sold in Christian bookstores.
One of these hangs in the foyer of a large church in the San Fernando Valley. It's one of those old-fashioned maps that has monsters drawn around the edges
and everything is out of proportion to what we now know to be true of world
geography. Under the drawing of the continents it has the words, "Go ye
therefore and make disciples of all nations." This is a Charismatic church,
so it continues, "baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy
Spirit." And then what comes next? An ellipsis, "...."! Then,
"And lo, I am with you always."
You have to ask yourself what
kind of a thought context that Christian trinket came out of. The people in that
church--and it is a good church--walk by this map every week. No one has
ever noticed the problem.
When we talk about spiritual
formation we are talking about framing a progression of life in which people
come to actually do all things that Jesus taught. So we are obviously going for
the heart. We are aiming for change of the inner person, where what we do
originates. I have already indicated my view that, biblically and
systematically, it is appropriate to identify the heart and the spirit
of the human being and the will as roughly the same thing. The spirit is
that part of the human being that has the capacity of moving without being
moved. It is the depth of the human being where freedom really exists. It is
that part of us that is self-determined. That's the heart. That's why evil and
good come out of the heart, it's because that's the part of us that is really
us. It's really ours. And spirit is of that intensely personal nature.
God is spirit. God is wholly self-determined. We are self-determined only in a very small way. And this part
of the human being--the spirit, the will, the heart--is the place where the work
of spiritual formation has to be done. You remember the words of Samuel:
"Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart." And
functionally the will is the executive center of the self. When it comes to life
in God through the new birth, its task is then the re-formation of the whole
self in co-operation with God. Will is not exactly character, but is formed into
character as it becomes habitual and automatic.
Now I must discuss will a bit further. You find human will in three dimensions or conditions. First of all
there is what I call vital or impulsive will. This is a willing that is
outwardly directed and moved by and toward things that are simply attractive.
You see this in a baby. A little baby very quickly begins to be attracted to
things, to reach for them, and move in relationship to them. And that's all
there really is to will in the baby. If the will does not develop beyond this
stage, it threatens to be identified with the person, and in our culture modern
thought encourages identification of the person with the will rather than
subordination of the will to the whole person living in God's world. Thus,
"I want to" and "It pleases me" are now widely regarded as
overriding reasons for doing something in our culture, when in fact it should never
function alone as a reason for action. The meaning of the cross of Christ in
human experience is that it stops any mere "I want to" from
functioning as an adequate reason for action. The cross is therefore central to
the moral life of humanity.
But there is also reflective
will. The reflective will is oriented toward what is good for the person as a
whole, not merely to what is desired. And so we have the conflict that we all
know too well, as human beings, between the good and the bad, and the good and
the not so good, and the good and the better. This conflict goes on constantly
in our lives, and it trips up people at all levels of life in our Christian
circles. That happens in cases where, for whatever precise reason, the
reflective will has not effectively guided life.
Now when you bring the reflective will to life in Christ and add the instruction of the law and the
person of Christ, along with the fellowship of his body, you then have the
wherewithal to live in such a way that God is glorified in every thing that you
do. The anticipation of this is reflected in such great passages as Colossians
3:17: "Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord
Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him." That becomes a
real possibility. Inward transformation toward inner likeness to Christ makes it
increasingly actual. Reflective will is the will oriented toward what is good
for the person as a whole, not toward the merely desired.
So I'm hoping that you now
have these two ideas: vital or impulsive will, where you simply choose what you
desire, and reflective will, where instead of just doing what you want, you
choose for what is good--and especially, as Christians, what is good under God,
in the kingdom of God. Now I have to add the idea of embodied will. Embodied will is where one
of the other two has sunk down into your body to such an extent that you
automatically do what they dictate. And this is the standard situation for most
human beings on earth. Their body is running their life from choices that have
formed their will and positioned it in their body.
Take the case of Peter's
denial as an illustration. That was an exercise of his embodied will. Peter did
not reflect on the situation and then decide what to do. When he was faced with
the accusation of association with Jesus he blurted out the denial. That
is embodied will for evil. Peter reflected after the fact and discovered what he
was really like inside.
To take another example, when
people are reviled, what do they normally do? They revile in return. When they
are hurt, they hurt back. That's embodied will as it exists in a fallen world.
When you are driving on the freeway and you don't do what someone thinks you
should, they may honk their horn at you, or they may give you the one-fingered
salute, or they may do all sorts of things--they may shoot you. They do that in California. Well, the responses that then arise are expressions of embodied will. When
someone "disses" another person, the other person does not say,
"Hum. I have been dissed. What shall I do?" No. It's WHOOSH!
Just like that. That's what I call an "epidermal response," because it
lies right at the surface of your 'skin'--your thought and feeling.
If you've got that picture, I
hope I can now say very clearly what it means to have been spiritually formed in
Christ, for spiritual formation in Christ transforms your embodied will. It
transforms your embodied will so that what comes out of you automatically are
the words and deeds of Christ. Now we never get to the point where we can stop
thinking about our responses. We will always have to reflect. We will always
have desires we should not act upon. There's nothing wrong with desires in
themselves. It's when they become our masters that the wrong comes, which is the
common circumstance in human life.
So let me say to you very
formally: Christian spiritual formation is the process through which the
embodied/reflective will takes on the character of Christ's will. It is the
process through which (and you know Gal. 4:19) Christ is formed in you and me.
Think of Paul's magnificent statement: "The life which I live in the flesh
I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for
me." Not faith in, but the faith of. I have taken his faith
into me. I am now being inwardly the person that Christ has called me to
be, and this inward faith has now spread throughout my socially embodied self.
Let me be as clear as
possible. When we speak of spiritual formation we are speaking of the formation of
the human spirit. And the spirit is the will or the heart and by extension, the
character. And that, in practice, lives mainly in our bodies. The one reason why
the idea of spiritual transformation through being merely preached at and taught
doesn't work is because it does not involve the body in the process of
transformation. One of the ironies of spiritual formation is that every
"spiritual" discipline is a bodily behavior. We have to involve the
body in spiritual formation because that's where we live and what we live from.
So now spiritual formation is formation of the inner being of the human being,
resulting in transformation of the whole person, including the body in its
social context. Spiritual formation is never merely inward.
Now contrast that. Many people
will speak of spiritual formation with reference to a particular tradition. For
example, there's a Benedictine tradition in the Catholic church, and a
Franciscan one. And I assure you that with reference to every Protestant group,
there is a "spiritual formation" that qualifies those in that group to
be one of that group, no matter if the language, "spiritual
formation," is used to refer to the process involved.
I got on a plane in Chicago some time back to go to Louisville to speak at the Southern Baptist seminary there, and I'll tell you almost
everyone on that plane looked like a Southern Baptist. Now you say, "What
does a Southern Baptist look like?" I couldn't tell you if I had to, but
they sure look that way, whatever it is. And I believe you will recognize that
for such groups there is a set way of acting, speaking, doing things--of course
this involves doctrines and church order and so on as well--and one way of
speaking of spiritual formation is to say that people are being formed to do that.
They're being formed in _____ group culture. You fill in the blank.
And this is where culture becomes tremendously important. Please don't understand me as saying there's
anything wrong with culture. It is absolutely essential to human beings to be
socially embodied. This is a part of the "vessel" that contains the
treasure (II Cor. 4:7), and none of us escape it. We are all shaped is some such
way. But that isn't spiritual formation in the sense in which we speak of
Christ being formed in you and in which Paul could say "I was determined to
know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." We go beyond
all those group differences in genuine spiritual formation in Christ, and this
is the true ecumenicism of the Christian church across the ages and across
faith-and-practices. We reach the unity of obedience to Christ from the inward
formation of "Christ in us, the hope of glory."
And yet another contrast must
be drawn. Sometimes we think of spiritual formation as formation by the Holy
Spirit. Once again: That's essential. We can't evade it--formation by
the Holy Spirit. But now I have to say something that may be challenging for you
to think about: Spiritual formation is not all by the Holy Spirit. None
without the Holy Spirit. But there's always more involved. And here again we run
into the problems of passivity over against activity. Here lies the deepest
challenge to the very idea of obedience to Christ in our times. We have to
recognize that spiritual formation in us is something that is also done
to us by those around us, by ourselves, and by activities which we voluntarily
Spiritual formation in Christ
would, then, ideally result in a person whose reflective will for good, fully
informed and possessed by Christ, has settled into their body in its social
context to such an extent that their natural responses were always to think and
feel and do as Christ himself would. Their epidermal as well as their deliberate
responses are then those of Christ. When you see this and return to the message
we heard previously today about Isaiah, you'll see where the ability to stand
alone comes from. Standing alone comes from Christ in the inner person. When
Christ is there within, even the social context is one where the reflective will
for Christlikeness understands what's happening, makes the right choice, and in
faith sees it through, with love and joy and peace and longsuffering and
gentleness and goodness and kindness and faithfulness and self-control: the
fruit of the spirit. The fruit of the spirit in the inner person expresses
itself in that way.
In such a person, the saying
of the apostle which we all know, "The things that I would not that I do,
and the things that I would, that I do not," (Romans 7:19) is reversed:
"The good that I would I do, and the evil that I would not I do not."
Again: Of this person we no longer have the diagnosis, "The spirit is
willing but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:14)
Now if the Vision of this glorious kind of life is there, then the next step is Intention. I
must decide that I will live that kind of life. And then, finally--and this is
the area of what we call "spiritual disciplines," undertaken in the
effort to actually obey Christ--we have to have a Method.
There has to be method.
Suppose, for example, my intention is to become the kind of person who can
heartily bless those who curse me. Or maybe they don't even curse me. They just
think I am wrong or irrelevant. Jesus said to love your enemies, but how about
those who bug you? That would be a real challenge too, wouldn't it? You see we
have to get real with all these matters. I have to be able to learn what it is
within me that keeps me from being able to do all that and to do something about
it. And perhaps it is that I have not devoted myself sufficiently to being alone
with God, or to the taking in of his Word, so that I can actually trust Him to
bless me when others are cursing me. So what I have to do is to find the
ways--the method--through which I can build my confidence in God's
goodness, and break the power of habit in me of cursing back. Note the wonderful
words from the old hymn, "He breaks the power of cancelled sin, and sets
the prisoner free." Cancelled sin still has people in bondage. To
say it's cancelled doesn't mean you're done with it. And to be "done with
it" requires a method that may involve counseling, certainly involves the
ministry of the word, and certainly involves worship. We're pretty good with
these practices, but the ones that look more "Catholic," like
solitude, silence, and so on, we're not so good with those. And usually I find
they deal with the areas where our deepest problem lies.
So we have to find the ways of
taking our body into solitude and silence, into service, as well as into
worship, into prayer, as well as into study; and we have to plan our lives
around this objective of fulfilling the vision that our intention has set before
us. That, briefly, is how spiritual formation in Christ is done: vision,
intention and method, in that order. In this way we succeed, as Paul says in
Romans 6:13, in "yielding ourselves unto God as those that are alive from
the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God." It can
be done. It can be yours and it can be mine, and we can give it to other people,
if, in the fellowship of Christ, we offer them the vision, exemplify and help
them with the intention, and teach them the method.
One of the things I most like
about flying is when you take off through the clouds and finally break through
them into the sunlight. We had a takeoff like that this morning in Los Angeles. And it is so thrilling to break into the sunlight. Spiritually, in "the
inner man," we are meant to be a different species of human being. (Eph.
2:15) That's the picture, the New Testament picture--a different kind of
humanity. And we can manifestly become that if we will set ourselves to learn
and accept inward spiritual formation from the hand of Jesus Christ. Very likely
we will not become perfect for some time yet; but we can, as Paul urged the
Philippians to do, "become blameless and innocent, children of God above
reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine
like stars in the world." (Phil. 2:15)