Spiritual formation is the buzzword these days. And I am all for it. Yet, when I speak with others I hear all sorts of descriptors of what formation is to be about. Let’s ponder this for a moment.
In short, spiritual formation is the growth into our union with Christ. The Father’s deep desire is that we walk in our core identity as his child. This reality is experienced in our daily, dynamic engagement in the life of Christ. To put this in a negative way using popular terminology, the aim of spiritual formation is not better spiritual practices or even character development. Those are indeed desired realities in our life, but those are not meant to be the primary focus of spiritual formation. Why is that so?
Different New Testament authors use different lingo to describe this dynamic of our relationship with Jesus. Paul writes of the “in Christ” life. John uses the word “abide” in Christ. The author of Hebrews uses a really different phrase of “entering into our rest.” A spiritually mature person is ever growing in their capacity to commune with Christ by the Spirit. And that is the aim of spiritual formation. Character development, or being more like Christ, is a corollary or derivative of that relationship. As we commune with Christ, we become like him. As we become more like him, our capacity is increased to commune deeper with him. If we focus on character development then the danger is to pour our energies into our own transformation and that leads to a moralistic spirituality that is all too popular in today’s Christian world. Moralism is our effort to live to some perceived standard. Too often what I am reading today on the subject of spiritual formation is that I am to practice spiritual disciplines asking God to strengthen me or help me. God is not our assistant to help us shape our own lives by our efforts.
So here is a litmus test when reading or listening to teaching: to where is your gaze being drawn? Does the teaching cause you to become more introspective, drawing your gaze in upon yourself? Do you find your thoughts wrestling over what’s wrong with you and what do you need to do to make it right? That will always lead us to a frustrating effort in personal morality. This is not the Christ life. Or, is your gaze lifted up and toward God? Are you encouraged to contemplate Jesus, his model to you, and his teaching in the Word? Do you find yourself leaning more into deeper dependency on the Spirit to work in your heart? This is where we want to be drawn – to ever increasing dependency with our gaze fixed upon Jesus and not on ourselves.
Yes, there is place for human agency. We are to examine ourselves, confess sins, and make wise, godly choices. And spiritual practices are ways and means of facilitating our communion with God. But the key here is the starting point. God is always the initiator. Our metamorphosis is always his work in our life. We are not self-developed, self-initiated, or self-matured. We are always responding to the invitations and works of God. When I engage in a spiritual practice, for example solitude and as we meditate on Scripture, it is to allow God to use that time and space to draw us to himself. As we carry that communion into our active lives, he is always active, present and shaping us. We incrementally become more like Jesus. That transformation is overflow of communion with God.
In summary, spiritual formation is about union with Christ. Abiding in Christ is the Father’s supreme desire. A spiritually mature person is not becoming more independent of God but growing in dependency on God.
Caregivers: As we engage people we can lean into this subject regularly. Having a question on hand such as, “how are you communing with Jesus in recent months” is essential. As shepherds, we guide sheep toward pasture and our pasture is always the Person of Christ. And we can be quick to offer helps on how people can learn to grow in abiding with Christ. All of our life is to be an overflow of his life in and through us. Most cross-cultural workers can use some mentoring and coaching on how to grow deeper in their constant, dynamic communion with Jesus and entering more deeply into the Life of God by the Spirit. Everyone is on a life long process of personal maturation. A shepherd’s primary responsibility is to not aid people in managing their life better. We are to aid people in growing in their walk with Jesus. The Apostle John makes it crystal clear that we are being invited into the life of the Father by the Son through the Spirit. This is what the world is longing to see – ordinary people living mundane lives in ever growing communion with the True and Living God.
Gordon T. Smith’s book Called to Be Saints is a crucial read on this subject. It is not a light fluffy read, but not theologically overbearing either. It will give you plenty to ponder in your own walk with God and your care of others.