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.
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.