Tag Archives: spiritual formation

Review: James Bryan Smith’s, The Good and Beautiful God

Spiritual formation author James Bryan Smith has the right aims in mind, but he delivers a "so-so" message in a way that can confuse evangelical readers.

Spiritual formation author James Bryan Smith has the right aims in mind, but he delivers a “so-so” message in a way that can confuse some evangelical readers.

Our small group in our church recently completed a multi-week study on James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God. To put it in a nutshell, we made the best of it. While having some excellent teaching points scattered here and there, along with some helpful practical examples regarding spiritual discipline, at best the book was rather “so-so” in its presentation, and at worst, for some, spiritually dangerous.

James Bryan Smith belongs to that class of writers focusing on the dynamics of spiritual formation, standing within the tradition of reviving lost spiritual practices that writers such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have sought to recover for the contemporary church. I remember reading Richard Foster’s classic A Celebration of Discipline in the 1980s, and I was encouraged by Foster’s desire to remind the church of the great wealth of spiritual disciplines throughout the history of the church that has helped believers down through the ages to draw nearer to God. Christians can learn much from the positive examples set by evangelical, charismatic, liturgical, contemplative, and socially-concerned expressions of faith within the Body of Christ. It was from this sense of taking the best of various approaches to Christian spirituality, instead of just having a narrow focus on one tradition alone, that has provided the impetus for the various Renováre conferences that have been held across the United States for years.

On the positive side, James Bryan Smith seeks to take some of the teachings laid down by Willard and Foster and make them available to readers in an even more accessible manner. The real treasure of The Good and Beautiful God are the various “soul training” exercises at the end of each chapter. Best done in a small group like ours, it really helped to go through different spiritual practices, such as silence, solitude, having an awareness of God’s creation, counting our blessings, praying through a passage of Scripture like Psalm 23, developing an approach to meditating on Scripture like the ancient practice of lectio divina, reading a book of the Bible straight without depending on commentaries and the notes of a study Bible, and creating space or “margin” in our lives and slowing down so that we can be receptive to the activity of God’s Holy Spirit working within believers.

Quite a lot of has been written on the Internet associating the “spiritual formation movement” with what are perceived to be the “dangerous” tendencies associated with the “Emerging Church” trend of the first decade of the 21st century. Just google for “spiritual formation movement,” and you will see what I am talking about. The critics cite, that in “spiritual formation” lingo, you will find suggestions towards mysticism, tinged with the worst of medieval Roman Catholic asceticism, or even more towards New Age spirituality, along with a “works-righteousness” approach to faith. Granted, you can find extremes like this, just like you can find extremes in just about any teaching within the church.

Folks, you simply can not trust everything you read on the Internet as being accurate. I have tried before to set the record straight here on Veracity (#1, #2, #3), showing that much of the negative attitude towards “spiritual formation” is based on well-intentioned, yet seriously misinformed theological analysis of various approaches to the biblical doctrine of sanctification. I need not go into that here. But if James Bryan Smith was hoping to “put things down on the bottom shelf” for people to easily grasp the great depths of Christian spirituality, while disarming the critics of “spiritual formation,” he did not succeed. Continue reading

Lectio Divina: Spiritual Formation #3

Imagination. Is there such a thing as a godly imagination in the life of a believer in Christ?

Lectio divina: An ancient spiritual discipline of “divine reading” of Holy Scripture that is being revived among evangelicals today. Yet some Christians fear that such practices could be dangerous.

Over the course of my spiritual journey, I have often had trouble reading the Bible. Not only do I find some things difficult to understand from what the text is saying, I also have struggled with something closer to home. Does God still speak through the Bible to people today? Am I trying to read the Bible merely to gain information, or am I reading it to try to meet with God in a personal relationship?

It has been said that the ultimate objective of reading Scripture is not simply to know the Word of God. Instead, it is to get to know the God of the Word, to move beyond the Sacred Page to have an encounter with the supreme Author of the text.

Yet for some Christians, there is a danger associated with moving beyond the Sacred Page. There is a temptation, critics argue, even for Christians to view the reading of Scripture as some sort of talisman, a type of magic book where merely reading the words of the text will somehow subconsciously restore our soul. The imagination of the reader can easily get caught up in inventing one’s own private, personal interpretation, thereby introducing confusion between understanding our own thoughts and wishes and desires with God’s supreme and objective revelation that calls us to face reality.

The critics are right to have their concerns. I have sat through innumerable Bible studies where people have brought forward a cacophony of opinions of “what the Bible says and means to me.” I even have known people who simply opened up to some random page of the Bible, put their finger somewhere into the page, and then read that verse believing that God might speak to them through that verse. I remember opening up my Bible once to Genesis 41:46. There I read that “Joseph served in Pharoah’s court.” As I was struggling with my tennis game at the time, I could have easily mistaken the words of Scripture as God’s way of coaching me on my backhand, but I sincerely doubt that this would have been the proper use of Scripture!

These are some of the issues that we can encounter when we think about spiritual formation, particularly in terms of developing spiritual disciplines focusing around Scripture. One of the classic spiritual disciplines in this area is something called lectio divina. Some might even call lectio divina … dangerous…
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The Right Tool for the Right Job: Spiritual Formation #2

Dewalt Impact Driver. You can drive some screws with this baby? Are you using the right tools to help you in your spiritual growth?

Dewalt Impact Driver. You can drive some screws with this baby!! Are you using the right tools to help you in your spiritual growth?

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.
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Do We Need It?: Spiritual Formation #1

Dallas Willard.  Pioneer for the renewal of spiritual formation in the contemporary church.

Dallas Willard. Pioneer for the renewal of spiritual formation in the contemporary church.

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.
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