I don’t know about you, but everywhere I turn in Christendom, I’m hearing more and more about “spiritual formation.” Church employees with the title “Director of Spiritual Formation;” websites and books instructing us in the practices of “spiritual formation;” speakers and conferences dedicated to helping people along the journey of “spiritual formation.” And, to be honest, I’m loving every minute.
Because the idea of spiritual formation and its repercussions have influenced me dramatically in the last 7 years or so, I thought I’d write a little series about it, especially as an introduction for those who haven’t really heard of it yet.
What is it?
Spiritual formation encompasses the how, the why, and the normative trajectory along which people grow spiritually. Yes, each person has his/her unique personal spiritual journey, but as in physical, cognitive, emotional growth, there are predictable patters of spiritual growth among people.
What is its goal?*
Let’s start with what its goal is not.
The goal of spiritual formation is NOT:
Biblical knowledgeability. The Bible is awesome: deep, paradoxical, simple, beautiful. But it is only part of our fullest revelation of who God is. Sheer memorization won’t get us very far on the journey. And what about illiterate people or people without access to the written Scriptures or people who just don’t like to read very much? Are they no longer on-track? Are they no longer being spiritually formed?
Sinlessness. Sure, I suppose I’d agree that God would be glad if our sin-propensity showed a sudden, downward trajectory. What if the point is not really to try really hard to sin less; what if the point is simply to bring sin out into the light more? What if God actually prefers genuine inner transformation to shallow outer modification? And what about when periods of growth – i.e. trying circumstances – bring our ever-present hidden pridefulness, anger, and addictions to the surface? Are we no longer on-track? Are we no longer being spiritually formed?
Usefulness. We are a called people – invited into His mission and ministry to the dear humans around us. But what happens to our spirituality when poor health or colicky babies or fatigue or an obsolete skill set renders us largely useless to energetic kingdom advancement? What are we to do when we can’t do anything? Are we no longer on-track? Are we no longer being spiritually formed?
Wholeness. God is definitely invested in our becoming increasingly functional human beings in order to better serve and care for the people around us. But what happens to our spirituality when our circumstances or work or relationships drive us to borderline – or full-throttle – insanity? What about commonly experienced seasons of mental illness: depression, eating disorder, anxiety, etc. where being psychologically healthy feels light-years away? Are we no longer on-track? Are we no longer being spiritually formed?
Emotional enthusiasm. It is all good and well to ‘feel the presence of the Holy Spirit,’ or to get a little ‘spiritual high’ during a great worship set or sermon. But what happens to our spirituality when we go through a dry time – as all of the biblical saints and post-biblical saints did? What about when we experience such isolation or pain or suffering that we just can’t conjure up emotional fuzzies any more? Are we no longer on-track? Are we no longer being spiritually formed?
Passion. We need people in this world who are passionate and visionary. But what happens to our spirituality when God strongly calls us to a place or a ministry that feels fruitless, ineffectual, and to be moving at a glacially slow pace? What are we to do when our passionate, whole-hearted vision keeps running into dead-end after dead-end? What are we to do when apathy inevitably sets in; when we can’t seem to get any traction with the calling we’re sure God gave us? Are we no longer on-track? Are we no longer being spiritually formed?
While none of these are wrong or detrimental in and of themselves, they can become so when they are made, singly, the goal of spiritual formation. They can become a replacement god for the One True God, an idol (a good thing turned ultimate thing), when they are sought over the actual Real Person of God.
So, here’s the goal, plain and simple: intimacy with God. Knowing and loving God – and others – more. No surprise, right? But so refreshing when you encounter the failure of all of the above wrong goals, right?
How does this sound to you?? Want to hear more??
More to come….
* I have leaned heavily on some of Thomas Ashbrook’s Mansions of the Heart, adding my own observations along the way.