Jun 17

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

by Leave a comment

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

...

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.

Posted in Blog, Defining Spiritual Formation | Tags: / / / /

More Less
Apr 29

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

by Leave a comment

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

...
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.

Posted in Blog, Defining Spiritual Formation | Tags: / / / / / / / /

More Less
Apr 21

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

by Leave a comment

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

...
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.

Posted in Blog, Defining Spiritual Formation | Tags: / / / / /

More Less
Mar 31

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

by Leave a comment

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

...

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

Posted in Blog, Defining Spiritual Formation | Tags: / / / / / / / / /

More Less
Mar 18

Defining Spiritual Formation: The Reality (Part 2 of 7)

by Leave a comment

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.”

...

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.

Jesus washes disciples' feet

**Jesus washes disciples’ feet–MAFA–CC NC SA 3.0

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:

  1. The Process
  2. Being Conformed
  3. The Image of Christ
  4. For the Sake of Others
  5. By the grace and power of the Holy Spirit

As always, I welcome your input.

**Featured Image Photo Credit: These hands like kneading  by Claricethebakergardener / CC 2.0

Posted in Blog, Defining Spiritual Formation | Tags: / / /

More Less
12
Back to top

Sign Up

Nam ut dolor at erat dignissim pellentesque. Aliquam erat volutpat.