Despite common usage, the phrase “spiritual formation” has wide variance in what it exactly refers to.
“Transformed into Jesus’ likeness” is one prevalent understanding. But what does that mean? If I am growing in the “image of Jesus,” how does it happen?
Character change is another similar concept. How does one grow in character-deficient areas? And is character the primary concern of formation?
What role do spiritual practices play in all this?
I have wrestled through these issues for a long time. In a recent course of study I pushed to hammer out a personal definition. Various sources* were helpful as I wrote and re-wrote and wrestled with wording.
A Working Definition
Spiritual formation is the ongoing process of the Holy Spirit drawing us deeper into the love and life of the Father and Son; which shapes us into Jesus’ image of love for the Father and for the world.
First, communion is primary. Our God is a relational God. Relationship is core, the primary focus. His first and foremost desire is for me to know him, his love for me, his presence, his very person. Jesus’ word to us is “abide in me.”
The Holy Spirit is wooing us to communion with the Father in and through the Son. The Father and Son have been living in loving communion all eternity by the Spirit. The Spirit now unites us to Jesus and in Jesus to the Father. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. I am in you and you are in me.” God is the focus, and my growing relationship with him.
Thus the key marker of spiritual formation is growing in communion with the Triune God.
Second, transformation (being shaped into Jesus’ image, character change, etc.) does happen. But it happens as a corollary of communion. I become like the one I abide with. I am changed in his presence.
Communion first, transformation as a corollary.
Third, change happens by the Holy Spirit, not my sheer effort. Yes, I do have a role, but this is not a self-help project in any way. Spiritual practices do not change me, God changes me.
Fourth, this is not only about me. As I am grown in love for God, he grows me in his concerns for the world. It does lead to “action.”
A word of caution here, though. Usually, in our activistic church culture, this is where we land first. He who is busiest is closest to God, can go the thinking. Actually, not true. Serving God can undermine communion with God. It happens to this in ministry all the time.
I repeat the main point: Communion first, growth and service from that. He overflows our lives as we drink of him.
It’s all about Relationship
So what is being “formed” in spiritual formation? In a nutshell, the person’s capacity to commune with God; an inclination to abide, commune, to be with God in an open and receptive posture. Everything else flows from this.
Communion first, transformation and service from that.
So how are you responding to the Lord’s invitation to abide today?
*Two key books that were very clarifying for me were Gordon T. Smith’s Called to Be Saints and Tom Ashbrook’s Mansion of the Heart. In the early chapters of both these books, a definition and primary focus of spiritual formation is wrestled with.