“We cannot equate moral formation with spiritual formation….Spiritual formation is not synonymous with virtue or character development. While it includes these, they are not the heart of the matter….the heart of the matter and the all-encompassing and defining vision [is] union with Christ…a dynamic participation in the life of Christ – in real time.”
Gordon T. Smith in Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity (p. 22, 35).
I hear it in nearly every conversation. Often it is very subtle, yet it is still there. Our common lingo of “spiritual formation” is rife with varying shades of moralism. When people speak of their growth it is often phrased with “I have to….” or “I have to figure out how to_______”; fill in the blank: be more patient, deal with sexual struggles, pray, etc.
Moralism has crept into the very fabric of our spirituality. The consequences are exhausting. I recently told a brother who repeatedly said “I have to” that that felt like so much pressure. It was all on him. Worse, it stifles relationship. Our gaze is drawn away from the God and what he is inviting us to and places it on ourselves, all that is wrong with us, and the litany of what we need to do to be better.”
Thou shalt not inflict moralism upon thyself!
A Necessary Reorientation
Gordon Smith in his wonderful book Called to be Saints, addresses this issue of moralism.
He reminds us that what we are dealing with today is similar to something the church dealt with in the fifth century called Pelagianism. Pelagianism’s core argument is that humans can become holy through practice and personal effort.
No we cannot. As Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.”
So how does holiness come about? Relationship. Communion. Abiding.
The focus of spiritual formation is union with Christ. From that, as a corollary, comes character development and personal formation. My daily invitation from the Father is to be enfolded into Christ by the Spirit. It impresses me how I need that daily reorientation.
Relationship first, formation as a corollary. Thus being like Jesus is not the focus. The focus is being with Jesus, abiding in him, communing with him. In time, I become like the One I commune with. Yes, character development is important. But that must be seen as an overflow of the life of Christ in me by the Spirit.
So What of Spiritual Practices?
Spiritual practices do not make me holy. God is holy. Holiness is a person. Holiness makes me holy.
Spiritual practices are the means by which I respond to the Father’s constant invitation to abide in Christ and commune with him by the Spirit. Practices do not change me (that is behavioralistic moralism), God changes me.
When I take my wife out for dinner, the entree I eat doesn’t make our marriage stronger or me a better husband. Our engagement of one another’s hearts makes our marriage stronger. The dinner just facilitates the opportunity for heart sharing. When I engage the word, either reflectively or exegetically, I always want to allow that to then move me to a time of engagement with God. I quiet myself, sit still, and enjoy his presence. This can be enjoyed throughout the day as I desire to abide in Christ.
Shepherd, thou shalt not inflict moralism upon the sheep!!
Do not inflict yourselves with moralism and you will be less inclined to inflict it on others. We as shepherds do not harass the sheep with admonitions of doing better and trying harder. Yes, there is responsibility in our actions, but that is not the starting point. We direct other’s gaze off of themselves and their circumstances back to their Savior encouraging them to be responsive to his initiatives in their life. God is always the initiator, everything we do is a response to him.