Spiritual Formation as “Becoming More”

Rooted and Grounded
by Sara Joseph

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?


6 thoughts on “Spiritual Formation as “Becoming More”

  1. Hi Nick,
    This is a timely and appropriate essay. All too often churches are consumed with winning more and more people into the kingdom (which is important, of course) but seem to overlook the fact that without spiritual growth the new members are doomed to either a superficial existence as Christians, or they fall away completely ..or as you suggested “are in danger of being uprooted at the slightest trial.”
    I’d like to add that as our spiritual walk becomes fueled by desire, it also becomes marked by joy, which to me is not only irresistible, but also inescapable! What an amazing God we love and gladly serve!
    PS I’m happy you thought that the art was appropriate for your page…of course you are welcome to use it. Thank you for linking it to my site. I wish you much success with your writing.
    May you be the witness that God intended you to be, reaching those that only you can reach!

    1. Thank you, Sara. That’s a very good point that I had not thought of before – a spiritual walk that is based on desire is also marked by joy. It makes sense, though. Our desire is actually a gift from God and sign that his Spirit is at work in us, so if he is giving us the desire for more of him, he will meet that desire, bringing joy into the life of the believer at having the desire met… and probably also bringing the desire for even more intimacy. Thanks for sharing those thoughts.

  2. Nick, I am reminded of a talk you did at UCM what seems like eons ago (probably late 90s since I was still a student). The topic was Paul’s prayer to the Philippians, and your main point (at least the one I remember) was that knowing God and loving God is like a helix. The more you know God, the more you love God, the more you want to know Him, the more you love Him. When that happens, spiritual formation happens. So how do I go about doing it in my life? Simply being in the Word and trying to live out His truths I am learning.

    1. Hi Carolyn! Thanks for reading and commenting. I remember talking about that. 🙂 One thing I’ve been learning lately is that a big part of knowing God is simply awareness. Being aware of his loving presence in the daily rhythms of life, whether they be working, exercising, changing diapers, or sleeping. I think we can encounter him daily, even in the mundane, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear. So for me, that starts by asking him to help me be aware of his presence and love in the daily. Sometimes my awareness comes after the fact, at the end of the day, when he says “I was there when you… Did you notice me?” Sometimes awareness dawns on me in the moment. But when it comes, I am always comforted by the fact of his love, and it helps me to know his care and interest in me.

  3. Hi Pastor Nick,
    Thank you for this writing. I was browsing the SCC website and decided to check your blog and I am glad I did. Recently the words ‘tap root’ have been coming to my mind regularly and I am not sure yet what it means spiritually but I know it is the Lord prompting me to think about the analogy of the Christian to the tree. The 3 points you have written as a summary of spiritual formation is very profound to me in this season of my life. Jesus wants us to produce fruit and that can happen only if we abide in Him according to the scriptures in John 15. A gauge for how a person’s spiritual formation is progressing or not, which is true for me, is how I handle/respond or react to situations and people specially the difficult ones that come our way. It’s a life journey and not easy at times. I agree that loving the Lord and our neighbours is key to our spiritual formation. It’s the 2 commandments that Jesus mentioned “love the Lord with all your heart mind soul and love your neighbour as yourself. Building a relationship with the Lord to understand how He would want me to live my life and actually doing it are 2 different things. Obedience is a key factor that plays into our spiritual formation. If we set ourselves on a course to know the Lord because we desire to, then it will produce much fruit, more fruit and remaining fruit.

    I’m still pondering over the ‘tap root’! Please let me know if you have any insight into this. Thank you.

  4. Hi Rochelle –

    Thanks for reading and more so for your thoughtful response! I don’t have any insight into the words echoing around your spirit, but you sure hit upon a truth with the John 15 analogy. We are to be a tree, but unless our roots dig deep down into Christ, we will not bear fruit upward. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that the deeper downward our roots go into Christ, the more fruit upward we will bear. But roots come from abiding in him, in his love, in his Word, and from obeying his will.

    Another “tree” verse I appreciate is Jer 17:7-8. The one who trusts the Lord is like a tree planted by water, with roots that reach the stream that does not cease to bear fruit.

    Anyhow, thanks again for reading and commenting. I’m glad you did.


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