This is the final post of the series: “Defining Spiritual Formation.”
This is the most complete definition I have come up with for Christian spiritual formation:
“Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, through a relationship of intimacy with God, by the power of the Spirit, in order to live a good and beautiful life of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace—a life that will be a blessing to oneself and to others and will glorify God now and for all eternity.”
In contrast to Dr. Mulholland’s definition, I have added some elements I believe are important. In Part III of this series I explained that I included the second and third clauses (“through a relationship of intimacy with God”, “by the power of the Spirit”) because they explain the how of formation.
This final installment will focus on the rest of this definition.
Mulholland’s excellent and concise definition concludes, “for the sake of others.” I have come to believe that Christian spiritual formation is first and foremost about the formation of ourselves, which is missing from his definition. Being conformed to the image of Christ, as is clear from the previous section of this series, makes us peculiar people, people whose lives are defined by perichoresis and kenosis (humility, service and submission). This will lead to an altogether liberating kind of life, first for ourselves, and then for the sake of others.
We sometimes think focusing on ourselves is selfish. The Christian life, we believe, is not about ourselves but about others. Perhaps this is the reason Dr. Mulholland left it out. Or perhaps he left it out because he assumes that if we are conformed to the image of Christ that will, in itself, be a blessing to us, and thus did not need to include it.
But I include it in my definition because I think it is crucial for several reasons.
1) It is the natural order. Jesus spoke often about the importance of the inner life, and how it leads to the outer life. Leaven works its way invisibly through the loaf; the inside of the cup being clean is more important than the outside being clean; a good tree bears good fruit, a bad tree bears bad fruit, etc.
2) The main thing we get out of life is the person we become. Christian spiritual formation is essentially character formation.
- Am I person who tells the truth, or one whose word cannot be relied upon?
- Am I person whose heart is pure, or am I prone to impurity?
- Does anger flow out of me, or does contentment rule?
- Do I naturally bless people, or curse?
If you know me well, you will likely be able to answer those questions. Deception, impurity, anger and condemnation are character defects; they are naturally destructive of human life. If I am successfully being conformed to the image of Christ these kinds of traits will die a slow death. And that will be a great blessing to me, first and foremost.
3) Far from being selfish or narcissistic, being conformed to the image of Jesus will entail dying to oneself. This is the great paradox of Christian spiritual formation (and Christianity in general): we must die to live. The old self, the one driven by desires for success and power and pleasure, is put to death. The new self, which is being renewed through knowledge of the image of its Creator (Col. 3:10) emerges in the process of kenosis. To become a person who naturally tells the truth, or blesses those who curse them, will involve a kind of dying, dying to an old set of narratives that are, in fact, self-centered.
To be conformed to the image of Christ will ultimately mean we become people of faith, hope, love, joy and peace. This is the life we are designed for. If we attain these virtues we will become the best version of ourselves, and it will be a blessing to us. But it will also be a great blessing to those around us.
Jesus was himself sinless, pure, and selfless. He was whole on the inside. To be conformed to his image means we will become inwardly whole as well. Jesus was also outwardly focused on the needs of others. This, too, will become our focus as we become like him.
Our formation is certainly for ourselves, but ultimately for the sake of others. Our formation in Christ’s image is a blessing to us, but it is also a blessing to everyone we meet.
The world, as Richard Foster wrote, is in desperate need of deep people, people who give off the aroma of Christ, people who listen not merely to reply but to understand, people who see with eyes of compassion and with their hands offer help when needed, people who stand for what is right even when opposed, people who give all they have even when it means they have little, people who are not interested in their own glory, but are interested only in the glory of God and wellness of others. These are the people who always have, and always will, change the world for good.
May the grace and peace of our Lord be with you in all that you do.