What is spiritual formation, anyway? What does spiritual formation mean and why is it important? This is the fourth post in a series (Part 1: The NeedPart 2: The Reality; Part 3: The How) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what we mean when we say “spiritual formation.”

One of the things I struggle with is impatience.  I like things to be done when I want them done.

The problem is that growth in Christ-likeness is a slow process.  I want my formation to be like a microwave—hit a few buttons and in seconds pull it out and it is ready to eat.  Unfortunately for me (and you) formation in Jesus is more like a slow-cooker.  Put in a lot of ingredients, and wait patiently.

One of my favorite Dallas-isms is this:  “The soul is massive and grows slowly.”  The person I have become is the product of years and years of development.  All of my experiences, each of my times of engagement with the disciplines, all of the people who have rubbed off on me, and all of the leadings of the Spirit have formed me over several decades.  It stands to reason that if it took that long to be formed, it will take a long while to be transformed.

That is because formation involves so many moving parts.  Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc.

There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process.  It is not, as I used to think , a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.  This is why we cannot approach spiritual formation as a simple, three-step movement into bliss and virtue.century oak

Virtue Takes Time

I wish it were not this way.  I would prefer to have a magic pill that I could swallow and within an hour or two feel love, joy, peace, patience and kindness flow from my heart.  It is not that simple.  That is because God will not override our consent and cooperation in the process of formation.

Even though I say I want that pill, in truth, I am not ready for such a change.  Our hearts need to be prepared for virtue.  As strange as it sounds, it takes more strength and courage to deal with success than with failure.

Vice is easy and common.  Virtue demands fortitude.

When the Apprentice series of books came out a close friend of mine took me aside and asked, “Is your heart prepared to handle success?”  I asked why he wanted to know this.  He said, “I believe the books will have a great impact, and will be very successful, and with that will come a temptation to lose your focus.  My suggestion is for you to take their success lightly.”

I wrote down those words even before the first books were sold.  I prayed about what he said for several days, and felt the Spirit saying to me, “You are now ready.  Your many years of laboring outside of the spotlight has made you grounded.”

When you see a young actor or athlete become famous quickly you watch them lose focus.  They have not been properly formed to handle the weight of success.  It is not their fault.  They have simply not engaged in a process of formation, over time, that would allow them the maturity and wisdom to “take it lightly.”

So, when I lament the slow nature of formation, when I complain about this being a long process and not an instant transformation, I am reminded once again that God’s way is always the right way.  Christian spiritual formation is a process.  It takes time.  And I am glad.