So, what does spiritual formation look like in the life of the Christian? I think of it as having the right tool for the right job.
I am in the process of making some repairs to our backyard deck. Over the years, a number of the nails holding the deck together have corroded. This time, I plan on using galvanized screws instead of nails. To do the job, I broke down and bought a Dewalt impact drill. It is like a screwdriver or a power drill, but it has a unique design. An impact drill increases the efficiency in driving screws into wood by applying a stronger rotational and downward force than a normal drill.
(Hey, I am engineer. An engineer likes his tools).
Here is the point: When you are trying to make home improvements, like repairing a deck, it is important to get the right tool for the right job. In much the same way, spiritual formation is about getting the right tool for doing the right job.
What is in Your Spiritual Tool Chest, Driving You to Go Deeper with Christ?
In a previous post, we introduced some of objectives behind spiritual formation and addressed some of the misunderstandings associated with it. But what is the connection between spiritual formation and the use of various spiritual disciplines within the Christian life?
The idea of spiritual formation seeks to go back in Christian history to find ways where believers over the years have utilized certain practices that encourage growth in their Christian life, including spending time in solitude and silence, memorizing verses of the Bible, fasting, and slowly meditating on passages of the Bible, like the Psalms. Incorporating practices like these in our life takes discipline, which is why these are called spiritual disciplines. God has raised up faithful followers of Christ over the centuries who have discovered helpful patterns of spiritual discipline that can become part of our daily or otherwise regular habits.
One of the best biblical analogies along these lines is Paul’s teaching on running a race. To be an athlete requires discipline, incorporating well-proven practices developed over the years that must be applied on a regular basis. You simply can not run a marathon if you never bother to train and exercise on a regular basis, have bad eating habits, or fail to do what you can to get enough sleep. You do not just magically become a great long distance runner. It takes effort! Likewise our growth in Christ requires the same type of discipline, which gets to the meat of a biblically-based approach spiritual formation.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (I Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV)
It is one thing to learn about the right strategy and the foundational principles that guide us to be an athlete. But if we fail to implement disciplines in our life that help us to practically run that race, what benefit is it? In other words, the art of spiritual formation from a Christian perspective is simply working on developing certain spiritual disciplines that help us to run that race and run it well.
Going back to my tool analogy, the first thing we need to do is to figure out what type of job we are trying to accomplish. We might be using the right tool but using it for the wrong job. For example, using a small paper stapler works really well to staple pieces of paper together. But you would not want to use a stapler to try to bond pieces of a wood deck together. For that, you need something like screws and an impact driver!
Likewise running the spiritual race requires us to have a clear understanding of what the objective is. What type of race are we running? Where is the finish line? We may have a lot of great practices for training, but if we are not clear as to what type of race we are running, we are then using the right tool but for the wrong job! For example, if we are training to run a marathon, running short sprints all day probably will not do the trick to help you succeed in building your endurance. This is where good theology comes into play. Solid teaching from Holy Scripture gives that clear understanding of the job objective and the type of race we are running. There is no substitute for that!
Once we know what we are trying to accomplish, we need to ask if we are using the right tool. For example, if taming your tongue is something that is tripping you up, then maybe establishing a discipline of silence at times will help. I remember doing this several years ago at a Christian retreat for two evenings. I was there with a group of other people doing different types of spiritual retreats, but I had a sign on my shirt, “SILENT.” It was kind of odd being around people who were speaking, and it is amazing how difficult it was at first for me to keep from speaking. But after two nights of not speaking, I found myself more conscious of what I was saying after that.
Taming the tongue was not the only benefit of silence for me. It helped to me pray, as I was focused more on listening to God as opposed to coming to him with a grocery list of things that were on my mind.
However, a discipline of silence may not be the right thing for everyone. If someone is struggling with not being able to communicate well with others, times of self-imposed silence might not be the right tool to use to further better communication. Instead, learning how to better use good communication skills is probably what will be most useful. You have to use the right tool for the right job.
Misunderstanding #3: Spiritual Formation is about “Works Righteousness”
This leads me to address a common misunderstanding about spiritual formation, namely that it promotes a form of “works righteousness.” Because of the emphasis on discipline and work, some are concerned that spiritual formation encourages a mindset that you have to work your way to sanctification. There are a couple of things to say in response to that.
First, the Apostle Paul is clearly a messenger of God’s grace, teaching us in the New Testament the principle that we can not save ourselves, whether that be in terms of our justification; that is, our immediate right standing before God, or our sanctification; that is, our being made holy before God on a progressive basis. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV) is clear:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Christians are fond of quoting these verses, but sometimes we fail to read the very next verse (Ephesians 2:10 ESV):
For we are his workmanship,created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Good works are not contrary to Christian faith. Rather, they come as a result of that faith working in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual formation, if properly understood, encourages us not to be passive in our sanctification, but rather, to be active in seeking after that which is good and leads to life. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:13 (KJV), through the Spirit we are to mortify the deeds of the body. We should not be afraid of spiritual disciplines that encourage us to work hard to mortify, or put to death, the bodily passions that take us away from God. As one of our pastors in our community of faith, Travis Simone, recently said (and I am quoting him loosely), “the fact that we do not earn our salvation does not mean that we should be opposed to effort.”
Secondly, the reason why this misunderstanding comes up is due simply to not using the right tool to do the right job. If I try to pound a stack of screws with a hammer, the chances are very high that I will get frustrated with the hammer. It is making me work too hard! Well, yes it is, but then things get a lot better if I learn how to operate that screwdriver or impact drill! Likewise, the way to avoid falling into the same trap spiritually is to make sure we evaluate if the type of approach we are taking to spiritual formation is really well-grounded in God’s Truth. Even if it is well-grounded, it is still possible that the way we are approaching a particular spiritual discipline can be misguided.
This is why it is really important to have some accountability in how we are progressing in terms of growth in our spiritual formation. For example, if you are trying to develop a spiritual discipline of learning to memorize Scripture, then it often really helps if you have a friend who will memorize the Bible verses with you. Memorizing passages of Scripture with a friend can help in better planting the Word of God in your heart, and it can assist in avoiding a sense of memorizing as merely doing some “religious activity.”
Remember: Spiritual Disciplines are Just Tools, They are Not Ends in and of Themselves
The tools, or disciplines, associated with healthy spiritual formation as they have been practiced by Christians down through the ages were designed to be helpful. But if a particular tool or spiritual discipline gets misapplied or misused, the results will not be what we expect, which can get frustrating. Then, if people over-spiritualize the use of the tool, it will lead to inappropriate expectations along with disillusionment.
I remember being in a discussion group some years ago where Christians were talking about why it was so hard for them to get up early in the morning to spend some time with the Lord. Some even complained that their failure to get up early was the result of some “demonic” attack. After a good ten minutes of this type of discussion, I will never forget the wise counsel of an older, godly man in the group, “Are you having trouble getting up early to meet with the Lord? Then try this: Get an alarm clock!” That pretty much ended the discussion!
If we really get the point regarding the purpose of spiritual formation, the tools or disciplines are not spiritual cure-alls that will somehow magically solve all of your sanctification problems, but neither is it some insidious heresy propagated by Satan to deceive God’s people, as some critics suggest.
In our next and last installment in this series, we look closer at one particular spiritual discipline commonly associated with spiritual formation. We will consider how it might be helpful for some and not so helpful for others, along with looking at one final misunderstanding.
Be mindful of God’s Truth regarding our sanctification. Be realistic. Do not over-spiritualize. Use the right tool for the right job.