I have long had an interest in spiritual formation. It has helped me to become rooted in Christ and love him and others more deeply.
Even though it has a rich and ancient history, the Protestant (especially Evangelical) church relegated discussion around “spiritual formation” to a few cautious words whispered here and there, and instead chose to lace its dialogue of spiritual growth and depth with the terms “discipleship” and “maturity.” However, “spiritual formation” (the phrase itself) has once again become a mainstream topic of discussion and writing. More and more, spiritual formation is “in thing” to talk about and do.
But what is it, exactly? And is it really that important?
Dallas Willard calls it “the process by which true Christlikeness is established in the very depths of our being.” Sounds good. Sounds much like discipleship, actually.
I often steal the image of the tree from Isaiah 37:31, which speaks of the tribe of Judah (or you, or me) taking root downward and bearing fruit upward.
But if I were to sum up spiritual formation, I would use the phrase “becoming more.” Specifically, spiritual formation is:
- Becoming more aware of the love and daily presence of God in our life
- Becoming more open to receiving his love, and
- Becoming more able to love him and our neighbour in return
In other words, spiritual formation begins with a clear “seeing” of God’s love, for everything we do on the path of spiritual formation needs to come from a response to the already present loving invitation for more. Spiritual practices and disciplines are simply aids to help us see and know.
However, seeing God’s love and receiving God’s love are two different things. Fears, self-worth issue, lack of trust, and hard-heartedness often attempt to block our reception of love and grace. Thus, a part of spiritual formation is the Spirit’s gentle removal of these obstacles to reception.
Finally, once we see and receive God’s love, the natural and rightful response is to love him and our neighbour in return. Thus, loving actions toward God (worship) and others (compassion) are a natural part of spiritual formation.
When all three of these criteria are at work in the life of a pilgrim, our spiritual walk becomes fuelled by desire rather than guilt, duty, or obligation.
With this understanding, it becomes apparent why spiritual formation is so significant to the Church. A local church built on its three pillars would be a worshipping, deepening, discipling, serving, evangelistic community that offers freedom and restoration in Christ as an ancient but potent alternative to the world’s offering of fear, anxiety, and hurriedness.
Beyond this, spiritual formation helps communities and individuals remain in a place of “God-awareness” in daily life. It opens up the romance between Christ and Bride. Without spiritual formation (or another term you may want to use for seeing, receiving, and responding to Love), at best we live in the shallow end of life with Christ; at worst we are in danger of being uprooted by the slightest trial.
The Church needs spiritual formation.
I usually run as far away as fast as I can from anything that smacks of “church fad du jour.” In that sense it saddens me that spiritual formation has become such a faddish term. But since the church and her leaders desperately need it, I’m OK to continue to talk about it, write about it, and, most importantly, do it.
I would be interested in hearing from you on this topic. What does spiritual formation mean to you, and how do you go about doing it in your life?