What is spiritual formation? Do we really need it?
Spiritual formation is a term that gets tossed around quite a bit in churches today, but there is a lot of confusion as to what it means. Some are even downright suspicious of the idea. This hesitancy is understandable. In the broader culture, we find a lot of appeals to so-called “spirituality.” There is spirituality in the workplace, spirituality Oprah-Winfrey-style to beat the rat-race, spirituality all over the place.
But as the late Dallas Willard observed, this type of generic approach to spiritual formation is misguided:
Human beings are, as such, supposed to have a spirituality. And in a sense they do. They remain spiritual beings, with all that implies. But on their own they’re dead spiritually. They’re cut off from the source of spiritual life. Yet what we are seeing and what we will continue to see is an attempt to take the merely human, dead in trespasses and sins, and make that into ‘spirituality’, framing it culturally, artistically, and in other ways (from the essay, Spiritual Formation: What it is, and How it is Done.)
In other words, spiritual formation without the Holy Spirit really does not lead to the type of life promised to the believer in Christ.
Earlier on Veracity, we briefly explored some of the basic ideas behind a Christian approach to spiritual formation. When we read Romans 12:1-2, we learn that the Apostle Paul urges us not to be conformed to the values of this world but instead to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. What does this mean and what does this look like in the daily life of the Christian? The answer to this question gets to heart of what genuine Christian spiritual formation is all about.
Here again, is Dallas Willard, from the same essay:
Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.
Transformation: As the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 8:9-11, if Jesus Christ is in someone, then that person becomes spiritually alive. To be in Christ, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, means taking on the character of Christ (Galatians 4:19).
The problem is that many Christians are great at acquiring knowledge, but they are not so great about putting what they have learned into practice. On an intellectual level, we may be able to grasp the theology, but in terms of our day to day experience, our level of spirituality might actually be rather shallow. The challenge is this: practically speaking, what does it mean to take on the character of Christ in your life?
Here I want to try to address some of the misunderstandings Christians often have about spiritual formation. Like any misunderstandings of this sort, there are grains of truth that we should keep in mind.
Misunderstanding #1: Spiritual Formation is Not in the Bible
If you pull out a Bible concordance, you will be hard pressed to find the phrase spiritual formation. Many then abruptly conclude that spiritual formation is alien to the Holy Scriptures. But this is a logical fallacy, as it assumes that because a certain term is not found in the Bible that the concept is not there.
Here is an example where this type of logic falls apart. Does the term Trinity exist in the Bible? You might search vainly in your concordance for it. But does this mean that we should discard the Christian concept of One God in Three Persons? Sadly, there are well meaning religious people, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals, who reject the doctrine of the Trinity in the name of being faithful to the inerrancy of the Bible. But in doing so, these people have cut themselves off of the glorious truth of God Himself revealed in the very person and work of Jesus Christ. Though it is not made explicit, the implicit witness of the Triune nature of God is found all over the New Testament!
So, does the lack of the existence of the term Trinity itself within the Bible mean that we should reject the doctrine? No, not at all. Likewise, we find plenty of mention of what it means to be transformed by the work of Holy Spirit all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Christian spiritual formation, properly understood, is grounded in the Bible.
However, the critics do have a point to make. Because talk about spiritual formation and spirituality is not uniquely Christian, it becomes very easy to uncritically smuggle in non-biblical ideas into the church, such as from the New Age Movement. Just because someone tosses the lingo of “spiritual formation” around does not necessarily make it biblical. What makes spiritual formation particularly Christian is the centering of our spirituality on the unique person and work of Jesus Christ as taught within the pages of the Word of God.
The Apostle Paul taught that us that we are to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, bearing various fruit of the Spirit in our daily lives (Galatians 5:16-25). Are we being transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily Christian life? Are we becoming more loving, more joyful, and more filled with peace? If so, then we are seeing the process of genuine, Christian spiritual formation at work. If not, then perhaps we need to learn about incorporating the disciplines of the spiritual life in our daily habits.
Perhaps the closest word then to spiritual formation in the Bible is sanctification. To be sanctified simply means to be set apart by God for God’s holy purpose (John 17:16-17), where the follower of Christ acts as an apprentice under their Lord and Master, Jesus. As Dallas Willard says:
[Sanctification] is a consciously chosen and sustained relationship of interaction between the Lord and his apprentice, in which the apprentice is able to do, and routinely does, what he or she knows to be right before God because all aspects of his or her person have been substantially transformed… It comes about through the process of spiritual formation, through which the heart (spirit, will) of the individual and the whole inner life take on the character of Jesus’ inner life (Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ, 2014, chapter 12)
Some might object here and say that if sanctification is a perfectly good word describing what spiritual formation is, then why do we need a different vocabulary? This makes a good point. Sticking with the biblical language is indeed sufficient, so there is no need in and of itself for a different vocabulary.
Nevertheless, I still think there is a good answer to this question. Sometimes, we can get so accustomed to using a particular biblical term, like “sanctification,” that we lose the sense of its meaning and what to do with it. As Steven L. Porter, a professor of philosophy and theology at Biola University, puts it, spiritual formation is simply the doctrine of sanctification in a new key. Spiritual formation is really an attempt to approach sanctification from a different angle, which can be particularly helpful for people who find themselves stuck in trying to make progress with sanctification in their lives. Getting bogged down in a spiritual rut is not healthy. For many of us in many areas of life, all it takes is singing a song in a different key or looking at something from a different angle for us to experience a breakthrough.
Misunderstanding #2: Spiritual Formation is about Mystical Intuition.
If I had but one criticism to make of the contemporary movement revitalizing spiritual formation within the church, it would be that sometimes the movement’s advocates invite criticism by not being careful enough theologically. There is a very real tendency to split our experience with God, our spirituality, from our understanding of who God really is, our theology. It is very easy to become so focused on having a particular experience that we forget the identity of the God who is the object of such genuine Christian experience. When that happens, some critics then draw the conclusion that spiritual formation is nothing more than an appeal to mysticism or to the subjective narcissism of mere human intuition.
Here is popular Southern California pastor, John MacArthur on the subject:
Criticisms such as these are not without some merit. I have been to more than one workshop on spiritual formation where the topics were not well-grounded on Scripture. There are some supposed “spiritual disciplines”that can come across as sounding rather lame. Now, I happen to have an appreciation for various spiritual disciplines, but let us be honest. Sometimes, people can go overboard on the latest spiritual fad. A lot of times in our pursuit of correcting against one deficient approach to sanctification, we end up adopting a different, but just as faulty, approach to sanctification. When that happens, it can leave us with a few red flags regarding spiritual formation (if after reading this blog post, you still find yourself skeptical about spiritual formation, you should go back and read this essay by Credo House’s Michael Patton. I actually agree with a lot of what Patton is saying). I think that is what John MacArthur has in mind when he “disses” spiritual formation. So given what John MacArthur describes, sure, I would not want to have anything to do with that kind of spiritual formation either!
But just like anything else in the Christian faith, our understanding of sanctification can get twisted sometimes away from its real Scriptural foundation. Prayer can easily become simply bringing to God a type of shopping list of things for Him to do. Memorizing Scripture verses can sometimes feel like a type of contest, trying to one-up your Christian neighbor on how much Bible knowledge you have. Going to church can slip into becoming just another religious activity or ritual. Spiritual formation can get decoupled from biblically-based sanctification. We can find plenty of examples where things can get distorted or taken to an extreme. But just because we can find such distortions or abuses does not that mean that we should stop praying, refuse to memorize Scripture, or sleep in on Sunday mornings!
So, with all due respect to Pastor MacArthur, it is not accurate to label all practices of spiritual formation as an imposition of ” forms of mysticism, and self-help, and spiritual intuition imposed upon the Bible.” Frankly, that is a bit over the top. Rather, just the opposite is true. A biblically-based approach to spiritual formation is deeply rooted in the reality that God is speaking to us through His Word. The question that genuine spiritual formation is asking is, “Are we listening?” Do we not believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us (2 Timothy 1:14)? Have we incorporated into our daily lives practices that enable us to respond to what God is communicating? Have we adopted a posture where we can honestly say, “Lord, I want to hear from you. What do you have to say to me?”
A healthy spirituality need not be crippled by a bad theology. Yet on the other side, a good, robust theology should serve as the basis for an enriching spirituality. Genuine Christian spirituality is marked by transformation as Dallas Willard says, not some ill-conceived notion of self-help.
If you struggle with that and find that you are not making much progress in taking on the character of Christ in your own life, then perhaps looking more into the practices associated with spiritual formation is what you need. God is calling out to his children. But as His children, do we have ears to hear what God is saying, and is our life being changed in the process? So, do we really need spiritual formation? If it is grounded in God’s Word, then it all depends on how well we are listening and being transformed by that Word as the Holy Spirit works within us.
Next time, we will look at what type of practices, or tools, spiritual formation provides to help us along the journey of towards sanctification, and some of the issues resulting from the misuse of those tools, thus raising other misunderstandings about spiritual formation.
After reading this blog post, you might still have some questions as to whether or not spiritual formation is something a Christian should pursue. I would just encourage the Veracity reader to not let misinformation about what spiritual formation really is dissuade you in your own assessment. For more articles about spiritual formation from a scholarly Christian perspective, please consult this list of topics by Dallas Willard.
The rise of the vocabulary of spiritual formation among evangelical Christians in today’s churches stems back mostly to a popular book written by Quaker theologian, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Foster was a student of Dallas Willard. The message of the book eventually led Foster to develop the ministry of Renovaré in 1988. Renovaré promotes conferences that build on the ideas found in Foster’s ground-breaking book.
In the final analysis, one need not take my word for it, nor Dallas Willard’s, nor Richard Foster’s. Some of the ideas presented by Willard, Foster and others might be helpful. Some may not. Ultimately, one must take whatever one finds and place it under the scrutiny of the Word of God given to us in Holy Scripture.