"... until Christ be formed in you." (Gal. 4:19)
"Spiritual formation" is a phrase that has recently rocketed onto
the lips and into the ears of Protestant Christians with an abruptness that is
bound to make a thoughtful person uneasy. If it is really so important, not to
mention essential, then why is it so recent? It must be just another passing fad
in Protestant religiosity, increasingly self-conscious and threatened about
"not meeting the needs of the people." And, really, isn't spiritual
formation just a little too Catholic to be quite right?
We could forget the phrase "Spiritual formation," but the fact and
need would still be there to be dealt with. The spiritual side of the human
being, Christian and non-Christian alike, develops into the reality which it
becomes, for good or ill. Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as
everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a
bad one. We need to take a conscious, intentional hand in the developmental
process. We need to understand what the formation of the human spirit is, and
how it can best be done as Christ would have it done. This is an indispensable
aspect of developing a psychology that is adequate to human life.
The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology into religious
life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done
well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching, and
knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith
to form the inner life and outward behavior of the Christian. But, for whatever
reason, this strategy has not turned out well. The result is that we have
multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously
are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with
Most statistical measures and anecdotal portraits of Evangelical Christians,
not to mention Christians in general, show a remarkable similarity in the
life-texture of Christians and non-Christians. Even among clergy, simple rest in
and obedience to Christ is not something to assume without special indications;
thus, we should look carefully at the whole issue of spiritual formation,
especially to identify the essence of the gospel and the eternal kind of life
that may correspond to it.
Too often spiritual formation is regarded as a catch-all category that
conveys little specific information. Gerald G. May writes, "Spiritual
formation is a rather general term referring to all attempts, means,
instructions, and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and
furtherance of spiritual growth. It includes educational endeavors as well as
the more intimate and in-depth process of spiritual direction."1
It is useful, therefore, to speak of "spiritual formation" by
distinguishing three different meanings or moments. First, identifying certain
activities as "spiritual" work or exercise, one can think of spiritual
formation as training in these special spiritual activities. Certainly, this is
a large part of what is found in many cases to mean "priestly
formation," or the "Spiritual formation" of the priest, as spoken
of in Catholic literature, with the recognition that such formation goes beyond
overt behavior and deeply into the inner or spiritual life of the individual.
Marcial Maciel's Integral Formation of Catholic Priests2 is an
excellent treatment of spiritual formation as it bears upon the vocation of the
The Protestant counterpart is the outward behavior of the successful
minister, pastor, leader, or fulltime Christian worker. Spiritual formation can
be thought of as the training that makes individuals successful in the
aforementioned roles. Although it is recognized that the heart must be right, if
one is successful enough in certain outward terms, very likely no further
inquiry will be made. And, if something is known to be lacking on the inside or
in the private life of the worker, as is often the case among those on a
Christian staff, it may well be overlooked or justified for the sake of the
Occasionally, today one also finds those who think of spiritual formation in
terms of practicing spiritual disciplines. This is a relatively recent
development among Evangelicals. The disciplines are regarded as part of the
process of spiritual formation—which is not an altogether bad idea—or as the
practice of spirituality, and formation is regarded as whatever it takes to
bring us to where we are able to engage rightly in a life of spiritual
disciplines. In any case, one way of thinking about spiritual formation is to
identify it by references to certain specifically religious practices. Often
such practices are spoken of today as "a spirituality."
Secondly, spiritual formation may be thought of as the shaping of the inner
life, the spirit, or the spiritual side of the human being. The formation of the
heart or will (which I believe is best taken as the 'spirit') of the individual,
along with the emotions and intellect, is therefore the primary focus, regardless of what overt practices may or may not be involved. Here, what is
formed is explicitly the spiritual dimension of the self. We speak of spiritual
formation in this case precisely because that which is formed (the subject
matter shaped) is the spiritual aspect of personality. Of course, it is assumed
that there will be effects in the realm of overt practice.
Thirdly, spiritual formation may be thought of as a shaping by the spirit or
by the spiritual realm, and by the Holy Spirit and other spiritual agencies
involved in the kingdom of God, especially the Word of God. We speak of spiritual formation here because the means (or agencies) that do the shaping of the human personality and life are spiritual.
Now, we need to recognize that spiritual formation in all of these senses is
not necessarily a Christian spiritual formation. Spiritualities abound on
all sides, and we are fast coming to the point where we have a spirituality of
practically everything. A recent television commercial for a certain kind of
truck starts out with a man saying that a truck is "a spiritual kind of
thing," and he goes on to talk about the special meaning it gives to life.
I believe that spirituality is the arena in which specifically Christian
faith and practice will have to struggle desperately in the coming years to
retain integrity. All other 'spiritualities' present themselves as equal under
such slogans as "interfaith" and "ecumenism," terms that
increasingly apply to all religious cultures, not just to the branches of
The 12-step programs, often the bearers of great good from the viewpoint of
obvious human need, are currently doing much to place anti-Christian, or at
least achristian, spiritualities solidly in the midst of Christian congregations
and lives. Also, the push for inclusivism presupposes that all cultures are equal, and how can that be unless the corresponding religions are too? Moreover,
if lifestyles are equal, must they not be equal morally? And how can you
fault whatever religion is practiced in them if they are morally equal?
How, then, are we to think about spiritual formation that is faithful to the
gospel and to the nature of that eternal life which is present in Christ and
given to us with him?
Let us begin with practices, overt behavior. Spiritual formation in Christ is
oriented toward explicit obedience to Christ. The language of the Great
Commission, in Matthew 28, makes it clear that our aim, our job description as
Christ's people, is to bring disciples to the point of obedience to "all
things whatsoever I have commanded you." Of course, this assumes that we
ourselves are in obedience, having learned how to obey Christ. Though the
inner dynamics are those of love for Christ, he left no doubt that the result
would be the keeping of his commandments. "Those who have my commandments
and keep them, they are the ones who love me. And they who love me shall be
loved of my Father, and I will love them, and will manifest myself to them"
Much of the current distress on the part of Western Christianity over how to
conduct our calling as the people of Christ derives from the fact that the goal
and measure of Christian spiritual formation, as described previously, is not
accepted and implemented. This has long been the case, of course, reaching back
for centuries. But it may be that the modern world's challenge to the Church has
not been equalled since its birth.
In the face of this challenge, I know of no current denomination or local
congregation that has a concrete plan and practice for teaching people to do
"all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Very few even regard
this as something we should actually try to do, and many think it to be simply
impossible. Little wonder, then, that it is hard to identify a specifically
"Christian" version of spiritual formation among Christians and their
institutions. As we depart from the mark set by the Great Commission, we
increasingly find it harder to differentiate ourselves in life from those
who are non- or even anti-Christians.
Now, of course, spiritual formation in this sense cannot be done by focusing
just on actions or practices. That way leads to legalism, failure, and death, as
Jesus made very clear in his "Sermon on the Mount" (Matt. 5:20). But
this does not mean we must surrender the behavioral aim set up by Christ
himself. We teach people to do "all things whatsoever" by shaping
their hearts to love Christ and his commandments, and by training their entire
personality (soul, mind, body, and to some degree even environment) to side with
their new heart or spirit, which is the creative element of the self that we
also call the will. To will (thelein; Rom. 7:18) is important, if
not crucial. But the person acts, and more is involved in action than
Indeed, the 'spirit' or heart may even be eager (Matt. 26:41), but unless the
flesh or embodied personality as a whole is trained to go with it and support
it, the follow-through in action will not occur, or will not reliably happen, or
may even be in direct conflict with the spirit or will: "What I hate I
do!" (Rom. 7:17). While the spirit or heart is the ultimate source of life
(Prov. 4:23), we do not live there. We live in our body and its world.
Christian spiritual formation works from the spirit or will and from its
new life "from above." But its work is not done until we have put off
the old person and put on the new (Eph. 4; Col. 3).
This is an active, not passive, process, one that requires our clear-headed
and relentless participation. It will not be done for us; however, we cannot
obey Christ, or even trust him, by direct effort. What, then, are the indirect
means that allow us to cooperate in reshaping the personality—the feelings,
ideas, mental processes and images, and the deep readinesses of soul and body—so
that our whole being is poised to go with the movements of the regenerate heart
that is in us by the impact of the Gospel Word under the direction and
energizing of the Holy Spirit?
These means are, primarily, the disciplines for life in the Spirit: solitude
and silence, prayer and fasting, worship and study, fellowship and confession,
and the like. These disciplines are not, in themselves, meritorious or even
required except as specifically needed. They do, however, allow the spirit or
will—an infinitesimally tiny power in itself that we cannot count on to carry
our intentions into settled, effectual righteousness—to direct the body into
contexts of experience in which the whole self is inwardly restructured to
follow the eager spirit into ever fuller obedience. This is the second meaning
or moment in Christian spiritual formation.
The processes of spiritual formation thus understood require precise,
testable, thorough knowledge of the human self. Psychological and theological
understanding of the spiritual life must go hand in hand. Neither of them is
complete without the other. A psychology that is Christian, in the sense of a
comprehensive understanding of the facts of spiritual life and growth, should be
a top priority for disciples of Jesus, particularly those who work in the
various fields of psychology and who consider it an intellectual and practical
discipline. No understanding of the human self can be theoretically or
practically adequate if it does not deal with the spiritual life.
Of course, spiritual formation in the second emphasis only works because of
the third and final moment: formation by the Spirit of God in Christ.
This comes initially and mainly through immersion in and constant application
(John 8:31; 15:7) of the word of Christ, his gospel and his commands that
are inseparable from his person and his presence: "The words that I speak
to you," he said, "are spirit and life" (John 6:63). But it is
the movement of the Spirit in the spiritual formation of the individual
personality that transforms the roots of behavior throughout the soul and body
of the believer which goes beyond simply hearing and receiving this word. Thus,
when we have put on the new person—and we must act to do this, as it
will not be done for us—we find the outflow of Christ's character from us to
be, after all, the fruit of the spirit.
The movements of the spirit of Christ in the embodied personality are often
identifiable, tangible events. Frequently they come in the form of
individualized 'words' from Christ to his apprentices who are involved in
kingdom living. He is our living teacher, and we are not asleep while we walk
with him. Spiritual formation in Christ is not simply an unconscious process in
which results may be observed while the One who works in us remains
hidden. We actually experience his workings. We look for them, expect
them, give thanks for them. We are consciously engaged with him in the details
of our existence and our spiritual transformation.
However, it is not the immediacy of such experiences that tells us that it is
the Spirit of God in Christ by whom we are being formed. Rather, the proof, if
not the comfort, lies in the persons we become and the deeds that flow from us.
The tree is known by its fruit. When the Spirit who forms us causes us to love
Jesus Christ above all and to walk in his example and deeds (1 Pet. 2:21-23),
when it upholds us in obedience, then we know that he is the Spirit by
which we are formed (2 Cor. 3:17). And with this knowledge as our framework, we
may also take comfort in the immediate feeling of the movements of the Spirit in
our personalities, lives, and surroundings.
Spiritual formation in Christ is accomplished, and the Great Commission
fulfilled, as the regenerate soul makes its highest intent to live in the
commandments of Christ, and accordingly makes realistic plans to realize this
intent by an adequate course of spiritual disciplines. Of course, no one can
achieve this goal by themselves, but no one has to. God gives us others
to share the pilgrimage, and we will be met by Christ in every step of the way.
"Look, I am with you every instant," is what Jesus said; and it is
also what he is doing.
We must stop using the fact that we cannot earn grace (whether for
justification or for sanctification) as an excuse for not energetically seeking
to receive grace. Having been found by God, we then become seekers of
ever fuller life in him. Grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort. The
realities of Christian spiritual formation are that we will not be transformed
"into his likeness" by more information, or by infusions,
inspirations, or ministrations alone. Though all of these have an important
place, they never suffice, and reliance upon them alone explains the now common
failure of committed Christians to rise much above a certain level of decency.
At the core of the human being is will, spirit, and heart. This core is
reshaped, opening out to the reshaping of the whole life, only by engagement.
First, engagement is to act with Christ in his example and his commands:
"If you love me, keep my commands," he said, "and I will ask the
Father to send you another strengthener, the Spirit of truth" (John
14:15-17). The engagement must come first, followed by the helper insofar as
obedience is concerned; as we try, fail, and learn, we engage with the spiritual
disciplines. We add whole-life training to trying. We recognize that religious
business-as-usual, the recommended routine for a "good" church member,
is not enough to meet the need of the human soul. The problem of life is too
radical for that to be the solution. We enter into activities that are more
suited to our actual life condition and that are adequate to transform the whole
self under grace, allowing the intention to live the commands of Christ to pass
from will to deed.
Christian spiritual formation understood in this way is automatically
ecumenical and inclusive in the sense that those thus formed, those who live in
obedience to Christ, are thereby united and stand out as the same in their
obedience. The substance of obedience is the only thing that can overcome the
divisions imposed by encrusted differences in doctrine, ritual, and heritage.
The lamp that is aglow in the obedient life will shine. The city set on
the hill cannot be hid. Obedience to Christ from the heart and by the
spirit is such a radical reality that those who live in it automatically realize
the unity that can never be achieved by direct efforts at union. It is not by
effort, but by who we are: "I am a companion of all those who fear
Thee" (Ps. 119:63, 74).
Some years ago, ecumenism attempted to center around the confession of Christ
as Lord. Little came of it because, in the manner to which we have been
accustomed by history, the attitudes and actions of real life were left
untouched by such a profession. But actual obedience to Christ as Lord would
transform ordinary life entirely and bring those disciples who are walking with
Christ together wherever their lives touch. Christians who are together in the
natural stream of life would immediately identify with one another because of
the radically different kind of life, the eternal kind of life, manifestly
flowing in them. Their mere non-cooperation with the evil around them would draw
them together as magnet and iron. Any other differences would have no
significance within the unity of obedience to the Christ who is present in his
Now, unfortunately, the other differences (cultural, social, denominational,
and even personal) are the ones that govern the disunity of those who
nevertheless identify themselves as Christians. Usually the power of these
differences are tangibly at work when professing Christians from different
groups are together. I cannot really imagine that this disunity would continue
if all were centered in actual obedience to Christ. Set the clear intention and
implementation on this aim, and all else follows. Without that, what else really
matters? Heaven matters, of course, and attaining it surely does not depend upon
attaining maturity in Christ. But to plan on that as a course of action, or to
teach it as the normal Christian pattern, is quite another matter, one hardly to
be recommended by anyone who actually has confidence in Christ.
The proper Christian exclusiveness will also be largely taken care of,
I believe, by Christian spiritual formation centered on obedience to Christ from
transformed personality. This will have the exclusiveness of "the God who
answers by fire." Let the other spiritualities be equal to that which
flowers into obedience to Christ if they can, and let the others themselves be
the judges. "Their rock is not like our Rock, our enemies being the
judge" (Deut. 32:31).
The real issue relating to exclusiveness is whether or not the Christian
actually has a relationship with God, a presence of God, which non-Christians do
not have. Apart from Christian spiritual formation as described here, I believe
there is little value in claiming exclusiveness for the Christian way.
The realization of this may be what is reflected in the current mass
abandonment of the exclusiveness of Christianity that is going on among Western
Christians now, especially in its academic centers. Why should one insist on the
exclusiveness of Christianity if all it is is one more cultural form? But let
the reality of Christian spiritual formation come to its fullness, and
exclusiveness will take care of itself. If the homosexual, the witch and the
warlock, the Buddhist and the Muslim, can truly walk in a holiness and power
equal to that of Jesus Christ and devoted followers, there is nothing more to
say. But Christ himself, and not Christianity as a form of human culture, is the
standard by which 'we' as well as 'they' are to be measured (Acts 17:31).
Perhaps this auspicious occasion in the life of a leading Evangelical training center is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves: Are we seriously and
realistically about the business of Christian spiritual formation as measured by
unqualified love of Jesus Christ, and as specified by the 'job description' of the Great Commission? How does our work, what we really do, actually relate to the charge he has left us. How much of what goes on in ourselves, our local assemblies, our denominations, and our schools is dictated only by "vain conversation received by tradition from our fathers and mothers"? (1 Pet.
Suppose we were to engage in ground-zero planning—planning which, armed with the best theological and psychological understanding, considers only the aim
without attempting to salvage or justify what is already in place through
previous efforts. How much of what we now do would then be omitted? How much of what we now omit would then be done, if all we were trying to do was bring ourselves and others "to do all things whatsoever I have commanded you"? This question is surely put to each of us individually, as well as to all our institutions and programs, by the one who said: "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things I say?" (Luke 6:46).3
1See p. 6 of May's Care of Mind, Care of Spirit (Harper 1982).
2New York: Alba House, 1992. (back
3For further discussion of the matters discussed in this article, see
my The Spirit of the Disciplines, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1988.