Moralism v. Spiritual Practices

“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).

Moralistic Creep
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!

FullSizeRenderA 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.

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10 Responses to Moralism v. Spiritual Practices

  1. Elaine Twitchell says:

    This was SO GREAT! Thanks for writing! 🙌🏼👍🏼👏🏼

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Jason Ingle says:

    This post is wrecking my beach vacation in ways both good and bad, but His timing is perfect. Thank you Scott!


    • Scott S says:

      OK, brother, before the blog response, I need to clarify something. Are you on a beach vacation in Alabama? In August?!? Are you still frostbit from Northern China?? Tell me you’re in Maine or something……

      Always love hearing from you. Thanks for the feedback. I’d love to hear the details of what stirs in your heart sitting in chairs together if it were possible. But I’m not coming to a beach. In Alabama. In August.

      Peace and Rest to you. SS


      • Jason says:

        Just got home and saw your reply. If it’s any consolation, we were at the beach in the Florida panhandle in August. It was hot, but also rained most of the time.

        We’ve got more going on than time or space here allows. Short version is a shepherding opportunity in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Longer version is much longer!

        I so appreciate your posts and also picked up the book you referenced. Jesus continues to work through you to grow many, many people.

        Thank you!


  3. Pingback: The Essential Need of Character Growth | Tending Scattered Wool

  4. Jason Ingle says:

    Looks like my previous reply never posted.

    We’re back from the beach now. The short answer is that we’re shepherding now in Tuscaloosa. The long answer is much longer.

    I’m so thankful for your posts! God is really working through you.

    Keep ’em coming!


  5. Pingback: Intentional Character Formation | Tending Scattered Wool

  6. Julie says:

    Scott, I appreciate your visuals when you discuss principles. I can hang on to and pass them on more readily. I also appreciate the topic. The conversation of moralism surfaced in my life a year ago when I began to understand its devastating effects on my relationship with my adult children and their distorted view of our Great God. Please pray for God to be glorified as we walk toward healing together.


    • Scott S says:

      Thank you Julie for your feedback. Knowing that visuals help, helps me as I seek to address other topics.

      May your family know the healing only Jesus can bring, may each of you be enfolded in the gospel reality in the kindness and mercy of the Father shown in Jesus.


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