Jun 17

Defining Spiritual Formation: For the Sake of Self and Others (Part 7 of 7)

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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

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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.

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Jun 02

Defining Spiritual Formation: To The Image of Christ (Part 6 of 7)

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This is Part 6 of the series: “Defining Spiritual Formation.” A camera company once used this phrase in their ads:  “Image is everything.”  That slogan was used for many years.  It obviously touched a nerve in our culture. What matters most is how we come

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This is Part 6 of the series: “Defining Spiritual Formation.”

A camera company once used this phrase in their ads:  “Image is everything.”  That slogan was used for many years.  It obviously touched a nerve in our culture. What matters most is how we come across to people.  It starts with how we look, then how we speak, then how we act.  What we wear, how we groom, what we accomplish, and how polished we are become the focus.  Nearly every magazine on the rack at the checkout stand is a testimony to this.  Headlines scream:  “How to get your bikini body ready in 2 weeks,” or “Clash Your Prints, Pop Your Colors” or “Be the Best Dressed Man at Every Wedding” or “The Sexiest Three-Minute Hairstyle.”  That last one came from a magazine titled, Allure.

When it comes to image obsession, one of my favorite examples is the line heard repeatedly on the Red Carpet as the stars are interviewed:  “So, who are you wearing?”  Not what, but who.  This is because we have been led to believe that if we are wearing the best designer’s clothes we, somehow, become fabulous.   Though I am critical of the way in which the advertisement (“Image is everything”) was intended I do not disagree with its point.  Image is everything.  Trying to put on an exterior appearance, however, is not everything, and in fact, is nothing.

Let Us Make Humankind in Our Image

The word image comes from the Greek word, eikon.  We learned in Genesis that each of was made in the image of God:  “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen. 1:26).  Every single person is an image, or Eikon, of God.  The image of God is not physical.  We do not look like God, nor does God resemble us.  Even though Jesus took on a human body and looked like us, the image of God in him was not a physical likeness.  The image of God is spiritual in nature.  The image of God is not something we can create or destroy.  It is deeply embedded into us, and cannot be avoided.

What is the image of God?  We learn from the Christ-event (incanation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus) that God is Father, Son, and Spirit.  We learn from this revelation that God is love.  At Jesus’ baptism we see this:

baptism of Christ

**Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrochio and Leonardo da Vinci

“And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)

When Jesus emerges from the river the Spirit gently descends on him, and the voice of the Father declares he is the beloved Son.  The early church fathers used two important Greek terms to describe the nature and character of God:  perichoresis and kenosis.  Perichoresis means mutual interdependence.  The Father loves and cares for the Son and the Spirit.  The Son loves and obeys the Father and the Spirit.  The Spirit points us always to the love between the Father and the Son, and never to himself.

I also love the fact the perichoresis also means “dance.”  When you see two people doing ballroom dancing you see a perfect image of two working perfectly in harmony with another.  Unless it is me you see dancing, as I have two left feet as they say.  Perichoresis means mutual self-sacrifice.  The second work, kenosis, speaks to this directly.  Kenosis means to sacrifice for the good of another.  At the heart of the Trinity is the desire to give, love, forgive, and reconcile.  The Christ-event illustrates that beautifully.

What is the image of God in us?  It is our longing to be in intimate, authentic relationship with God, ourselves, and one another.  God has planted both perichoresis and kenosis into our very nature.  The heart of the universe is silently and invisibly pulsing with perichoresis and kenosis.  Adam and Eve experienced this kind of life with God, naked and unashamed, intimate with God and each other.  The story of the Fall explains that need inside of the human person to turn from God, to go on one’s own, to be one’s own god.  It is the basic temptation behind all temptations.

The too-narrow gospel (“You are a sinner, but God will forgive you if you confess and believe in Jesus”) leaves out any message about the image of God, which is the heart of the matter.  This is precisely why the limited gospel most people hear has failed us.  It tells you that salvation is getting your sins forgiven, that God is really mad at you for your sin, but that Jesus stepped in and took the blame, and that if you confess that he is Lord then God’s wrath is averted and you get to go to paradise when we die—regardless of how you lived.  The content of our character and the wellness of our soul is irrelevant.  This narrow gospel has led to failure and frustration—the failure of Christians to lead vibrant lives of moral goodness, and the frustration of living in what I call “Romans 7 Hell,” the place where we fail to do what we know is right, and end up doing what we know is wrong.

Our problem is that we are, to use Scot McKnight’s wonderful term, cracked Eikons.[1]  We are broken.

downtown through broken stained glass

**Downtown through broken stained glass, by Paul Sableman / CC 2.0

We cannot simply take off our sin like we can a jacket.  The problem is much deeper.  The problem is not outside of us; our brokenness is us.  That is why Christian spiritual formation is so important, and it begins with the right gospel.  Mcknight points out that we cannot start with a gospel message of salvation that centers on hell aversion.  We must begin with a gospel that begins with the Trinity—a community of joyful self-sacrifice.  Viewed in this way, spiritual formation becomes not merely the hobby of sensitive religious types, but the necessary work for all people.

Earlier I wrote about how we are all being formed spiritually.  No one can avoid it.  Every person is engaged in spiritual formation.  The question is, formed into what?  Though made in the image of God, we find ourselves committing the original sin, over and over.  What is that sin?  Most people make the mistake here of defining sin as “breaking a law” or failing to hit the mark.  This is why so many think they can stop sinning by sheer will-power, and fail, which leads to shame.  Sin begins by turning away from God, then oneself, and then others.  Sin is the act of rebellion from our true nature, an act of supposed freedom, wherein the focus, like that of Narcissus, is ones own self.  Once we turn from God, that original sin spreads like weeds, expressing itself in myriad ways.

Our true self, the one made in the image of God, longs for mutual interdependence.  It was designed for an intimate relationship with God.  Salvation, or atonement, then, means “to be renewed in the true image of God as women and men in Christ, to have our relationality restored so that our sinful selves, hopelessly turned in on themselves, are set free to be new creations in true divine and human koinonia [fellowship]” as Cherith Fee Nordling put it so well.[2]

Christian spiritual formation is the process in which God restores “cracked Eikons into glory producing Eikons by participation in the perfect Eikon, Jesus Christ” (McKnight).

The Image of Christ Reflected in Our Lives

So, the image of God in us is a longing for intimate relationship with God.  There is within us a capacity to rebel, to turn from God, which is the primal sin.  Of our own strength, we cannot heal ourselves.  There is no wellness of soul via our will-power.  So God stepped in and solved the problem.  In Jesus the un-cracked Eikon emerges, reconciles our sin debt, but more than that, invites us into his shared life.  I often quote a line from Bob George:  “Jesus gave his life for us, so that he could give his life to us, so that he could live his life through us.”  For, to, and through.  Jesus did not come to get us into heaven when we die, he came to bring heaven into us now.

A key verse for understanding Christian spiritual formation is this:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18)

Let me unpack this important passage.  We who have put our confidence in Jesus and have surrendered to him as our savior, teacher, image of christLord and friend, can now see God.  Unlike Moses, we do not need a veil.  Because of Jesus, we see God. As Paul put it, “when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:16).  We are restored relationally.  We stare into the face of Jesus, much like we stare into the mirror and see ourselves.  But the difference is key:  we are not looking at ourselves anymore!  We are looking into the face, the visage, the image of Jesus.  We behold his glory.  Glory (Greek, doxa) refers to the beauty of Jesus.  As Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Col. 1:15).  And we who live as his apprentices, “have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10)

Looking at the face of Jesus is a metaphor for living as an apprentice of Jesus.  We look to him, listen to him, obey him, pray with him, trust in him.  As we do this, we become like Jesus We are being transformed into his image, by degree (remember, it is process).  As Dallas Willard writes so brilliantly, “Spiritual formation is the process whereby the inmost being takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself.”  All of this comes not from our effort to keep some law or avoid some behavior, it comes from the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, as it were, directs our gaze.  The Spirit turns our eyes upon Jesus, as the hymn by Helen H. Lemmel encourages:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

This is nothing other than Christian spiritual formation.

The image of Christ, according to Mulholland, is the “the ultimate reality of human wholeness.”  The restoration of cracked Eikons is not simply to get people into heaven when they die.  The restoration of cracked Eikons into the glorious Eikon of Jesus is two-fold:  first, we become whole—not in heaven, but here and now in this life, and second, we become missional, willing and doing the good of others.  That is the subject of the last part of this discussion:  for the sake of self and others.

 

[1]   Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2007), Ch. 3

[2]  Ibid, p. 22

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Apr 29

Defining Spiritual Formation: Of Being Conformed (Part 5 of 7)

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airplane cabin

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 Need; Part 2: The Reality; Part 3: The How; Part 4: The Process) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance

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airplane cabin

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.

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Apr 21

Defining Spiritual Formation: The Process (Part 4 of 7)

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tree sprout

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 Need; Part 2: The Reality; Part 3: The How) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what

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tree sprout

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.

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Mar 31

Defining Spiritual Formation: The How (Part 3 of 7)

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

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

So far we have a working definition of Christian spiritual formation, coming from the wise writing of Robert Mulholland.  He defines it as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  I find it accurate, clear, and brief.

It is complete in terms of a definition, but I find it to be missing a few elements, namely, the how dimension of the definition.

So, a few years ago I began working on my own definition:

“Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed into 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.”

My definition is simply an expansion of Dr. Mulholland’s definition.  It explains how formation happens—through a relationship of intimacy with God, by the power of the Spirit.  This is important because it emphasizes two key elements of formation:  relationship, and grace. We are transformed by having relationship with God.  This implies knowing and being known.

Paul asks the Galatians this question:

“Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Gal. 4:9)

Relationships require knowledge.  As we come to know God, and God comes to know us, we are changed. 

I was changed through my relationship with Dallas Willard.  I came to know Dallas, and Dallas came to know me.  In that interaction there was an exchange of ideas and emotions, of laughter and tears.  Though Dallas has gone on to glory, he is still alive in me.

The same is true in my relationship with God.  I come to know God—God’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, narratives, character, etc.  These things live on in me.

This relationship is one of intimacy.  Intimacy requires self-disclosure.  God is not interested in making a bunch of pious robots; God longs for a relationship of intimacy.  I find that the more I nurture that relationship, the more I am transformed.

That relationship is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit invites each of us into this intimate relationship with God.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3)

When I first came to the realization that Jesus was, indeed, Lord, I did so by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Flesh and blood did not reveal this to me (Matt. 16:17).  The Holy Spirit revealed the nature of the love between the Father and the Son.  The beauty of the Christ-form jumps off the pages of the gospels, but can only be seen when the Spirit is at work.

Holy Trinity

**Holy Trinity Icon, Andrei Rublev

The Holy Spirit reveals the Father and Son to us, and invites us into a relationship of intimacy.  That relationship is based on grace, but nurturing that relationship also requires effort on our part, as any relationship does.

Formation happens when we create space for God, classically known as spiritual disciplines or spiritual exercises.  I cannot have an intimate relationship with God if I do not create space for it.  So through slowing down and creating margin in my life, I can have times of solitude in which I pray, read, contemplate, and listen to God.

So far in this series, we have seen the great need for a working definition of Christian spiritual formation.  Also, we are all being formed all of the time, but the question is, formed into what kind of person?  That kind of person is one who reflects the image of Jesus.  Here,I have expanded the definition to include the relationship and grace dimensions of formation.  My definition also expands upon Mulholland’s definition in regards to what “for the sake of others” looks like.  We’ll explore that later in the series. Next up in the series, the process of spiritual formation.

**Featured Image Photo Credit: Negative Space by Paul McCoubrie / CC ND 2.0

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