What is spiritual formation, anyway? What does spiritual formation mean and why is it important? This is the second post in a series (Part 1: The Need) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what we mean when we say “spiritual formation.”
Last time I wrote about the need for a good definition of spiritual formation. In this post I want to talk about the reality of spiritual formation. Some of the things I commonly hear people say about spiritual formation are:
- “I really want to engage in spiritual formation.”
- “Our church is just now getting into spiritual formation.”
- “I don’t like all of this spiritual stuff; sounds mystical to me.”
The common theme in all of these is the notion that spiritual formation is something we do, or do not do.
The reality is: all of us are being spiritually formed all of the time.
We are spiritual beings and each day, for good or for ill, we are being formed. We are being formed by what we think, what we do, and with whom we associate.
As I write, my friend and colleague, CJ Fox, is in the middle of a nine-month training session with the National Guard. There is no doubt that he is being spiritually formed in the process. He is learning new ideas and skills, and is around new people while doing it. It is shaping him.
So let’s be clear on this matter. Spiritual formation is not something we do or do not do, it is what is happening to us all the time. Our spirits are always being formed, whether we know it or not, or like it or not.
Spiritual formation does not only happen when we do spiritual things, as is commonly assumed. In fact, there are no non-spiritual things. The good Dr. Willard loved to tell people, “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”
That is simply the reality.
Having this understanding as a preliminary to our definition will help us avoid the trap of isolating spiritual formation in terms of specific practices, such as solitude, silence, lectio divina, and prayer. Those can be highly formative practices, but so can waiting in line at the DMV, or watching a movie that opens you to a new understanding, or being overlooked at work. All too often when I engage in a discussion about spiritual formation people want to steer the discussion into talk about certain practices that will mysteriously transform us.
We are always being formed. The question is, “Formed into what kind of person?”
The Next Step
What I write and teach about is Christian spiritual formation. So the answer to the question, “Formed into what kind of person?” is, “Into the image of Jesus.” Everyone is being formed at every moment, but not all are being formed into the image of Christ.
CJ, mentioned above, is being formed into the image of a soldier (he is also a committed Christ follower who is continued his conformity into the image of Christ). He is doing certain things, learning specific ideas, and with particular people who are shaping his entire person, mind, body and soul.
Our aim is to be formed into the image of Jesus.
The reality is that we are being formed into something, and I can think of no better something to be formed into than Jesus. He had real love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness. He walked with integrity, faith, and hope. Spiritual formation happens with or without our consent, but if we choose to be actively involved, and if we choose Jesus as our aim, we are ready for a definition. The best definition of Christian spiritual formation I know comes from Dr. Robert Mulholland:
“Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” (Invitation to a Journey)
I have used this many times, but would like to add one clause at the end: “by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.” I will explain this addition later. So for now the definition I want to begin unpacking would be this:
“Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.”
In the next four posts we’ll explore the five components of this definition:
- The Process
- Being Conformed
- The Image of Christ
- For the Sake of Others
- By the grace and power of the Holy Spirit
As always, I welcome your input.