What is spiritual formation, anyway? What does spiritual formation mean and why is it important? This is the fifth post in a series (Part 1: The NeedPart 2: The RealityPart 3: The How; Part 4: The Process) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what we mean when we say “spiritual formation.”

Robert Mulholland says that spiritual formation in Christ-likeness happens precisely in those areas of our life that are the least Christ-like.  It is in those moments when our un-Christ-like behavior surfaces and tells us reminds us that we are not, perhaps, as fully developed as we would like.

Here is a recent example of an area of my life that is still learning to be Christ-like: being inconvenienced.  I was on a plane from Houston to Seattle.  I was seated in the window seat (I don’t like the window seat—it’s worse than the middle seat).  The person who plopped down in the middle seat was a a large young man—tall, with broad shoulders.  Immediately upon sitting down his large shoulders invaded my space.  Then the flight attendant came over the speakers and said, “Our flying time is 4 hours and 20 minutes.”  I thought, “C’mon, I have to sit in this cramped seat for over four hours next to the Hulk, and I have an important essay to finish writing.   Give me a break!”

I had planned on using this time in flight to finish something important.  When I got out my laptop and began to type my arms and hands were unable to move.  What is more, my mood was decidedly sour, which makes it difficult to write with grace and dignity.  My plans had been thwarted. 

The Hard Work of Being Conformed

According to Robert Mulholland, it was precisely here that my work in Christian spiritual formation would be.  Not in my recent wonderful experience with a group of like-minded Christians in which I experienced real community, support and love.  Not in my wonderful marriage in which my wife and I are in a season of deep love, friendship, and mutual support.  No, those areas and experiences are not where it is hard is for me.

The hard work of Christian spiritual formation for me is in the areas of struggle in which my impatience, my fears and insecurities, my petty pity parties, and my doubt and lack of courage come through.  It is on cramped airplanes, and in interpersonal conflict, in the challenge to be authentic when it would be easier to hide.

Why is this work hard?  Because it involves being conformed.  To be conformed involves surrender.  It requires letting go of our need for control, of our need to have things go as we think they should.  It demands that we let God mold and shape us, and this kind of surrender is difficult.

The image of a potter and her clay are a beautiful example.  The clay exists in a form—a lump.  Left alone it will remain a lump of clay.  It will be of little value, but it will be allowed to stay as it is.  When the potter takes the clay and places it on theThrowing Pots wheel, turns on the wheel, and pours waters upon the spinning lump, the clay is about the be formed into something new.  It will actually be conformed into what the potter desires.  The clay must be pliable in order to be conformed.  Should it resist (here is where the metaphor breaks down because clay is lifeless and cannot resist) it would not be conformed.  It would never become the beautiful bowl or vase or cup or plate that the potter had in mind.  Ultimately, it would never be useful.

One of my pastors, Wendy Mohler-Sieb, preached a sermon the other day about becoming the person God desires us to be.   She said she has begun a new soul training exercise that has been of great help to her.  Each morning she goes to a quiet place in her home, wraps herself in her favorite blanket, lays down on her couch, and looks to God in prayer, saying, “God, transform me into the person you want me to be.  And if I am not totally ready, help me to want to be the kind of person you have called me to be.”

I thought it was brilliant.  It felt to me to be the exact kind of prayer God wants from us.  God does not want us to be conformed to his plan for God’s sake, but for our sake, and for the sake of others.  God was not scrutinizing me in that cramped airplane, saying, “Let’s see if Jim will pass this test.”  Rather, God was with me, offering me an opportunity to practice freedom.  That is what God was wanting for me: to become the kind of person who can say, “Well, this is not ideal, but this is what it is.  And my little plans are not as important as learning to accept, with serenity and even joy, the way things are.”

Somewhere during the second hour of the flight I got there.

Oh, and the Hulk turned out to be a very nice fellow.