Spiritual Formation

Spiritual Formation

As Christians we are to be in a perpetual process of being shaped into the image of Jesus and reflecting his character into the world. ‘Spiritual Formation’ is the process by which the central part of who we are is shaped. We are all being formed whether we are aware of it or not- the question is “formed into what?”  There are numerous forces that act on us. Our culture shapes us and teaches us, as do our families of origin. What we read, who we spend time with, and programs we watch on television all shape us. These forces effect our desires, our sensitivities, and give us assumptions about the way the world works.

Christian spiritual formation is the process by which the central part of who we are starts to take on more of the character of Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this is that we become people who come under the dominion of Christ’s reign. We become people of God’s Kingdom. We recognize Christ as our king.  Throughout Christian history this process has had a variety of names such as “sanctification”, or “theosis”.

In our baptism we say that we accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour; that we put our trust in his grace and love; and we promise to obey him as our Lord. Jesus is our Lord, or our Master, from whom we learn how to live. To live into such a promise it is important to consider what Jesus and his early disciples taught about how to live.

Some Christians can become nervous when we speak about our efforts in the spiritual life as if we are trying to “earn” our way to heaven by our good deeds. That is not the case at all.   As a very wise man once said, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort” (Dallas Willard). Grace is when God does something for us that we don’t deserve and can’t accomplish by our own efforts. God saves us by grace. We can’t earn our salvation and we don’t deserve it. But, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t expect us to act. We act through thankfulness and in cooperation with God’s will as His people. Faith, or trust in God, will lead us to act. As the letter of James says, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). If we recognize Jesus as our King, but refuse to allow him to guide us, then we really don’t have faith in him. We will stumble, but the overall momentum of our lives should be towards a life more in tune with the guidance of Jesus. Spiritual formation is about the ‘wisdom’ of living the Christian life. It is not necessarily ‘salvation’. Salvation is the door by which we enter into Christian Spiritual Formation. The Christian should resist the urge to be guided in their Christian life only by the idea of what will give or remove salvation. I will on occasion bump into people who will challenge me (for example, when I encourage people to read the Bible) saying, “God’s won’t send me to hell for not reading the Bible.” I don’t know the answer to that statement, but I do know that without the Bible a Christian’s soul is starving. The Christian life is much bigger than salvation. Salvation is the entryway into life with God.    

Our ‘effort’ is our cooperation with the Holy Spirit and leads to transformation.  Just ‘trying hard’ to live the vision of the Christian life is not enough to make it a reality. Similarly, you cannot speak Spanish by ‘trying hard’ without having ever studied it. Neither can you play the piano by sitting down and ‘trying hard’ without taking piano lessons and practicing to familiarize yourself with the notes. It takes ‘discipline’ to learn a language and to learn a musical instrument. You have to memorize unfamiliar words and play scales over and over. Over time with effort exerted in the form of a ‘discipline’ you will learn to be better at speaking a language and playing a musical instrument. A discipline is how we create a skill in our character. In a similar way we cannot love an enemy by just ‘trying hard’. What we need is a ‘discipline’ that will transform our character over time, so that when we are confronted with an enemy our character will automatically produce loving thoughts and actions towards them- Just as someone who has years of practice with the piano can sit down and play Bach. Without inner transformation our good actions will be a continuous and tiresome struggle, which could lead to legalism, dead obligation, and hypocrisy. 

Paul says to Timothy, “Train yourself in godliness…” (1 Timothy 4:7). So how do we do this? What does this training look like?

If we decide that this is the kind of life we want for ourselves and we begin trying to live this way we are confronted by a hard fact. When we try to live according to this vision of the transformed Christian life we soon realize that we fall short of the vision. We still get angry and ‘snap’ at a loved one. We still worry and suffer from greed and judgment. Our mind might still swirl with lustful thoughts. Each of us has our own weakness and we will be confronted by our weaknesses as we train in godliness.    

We are not left without help. God has given us His Holy Spirit to work inside of us to empower us. This doesn’t mean we sit on the couch and are automatically transformed. Instead, the Holy Spirit uses our effort to transform our inner character and the world around us. We are not here “earning” our salvation through works. Instead, we are offering the Holy Spirit our “effort” to produce transformation so that we will be useful to God in the world. The disciplines put us in a position where we can be transformed by the Sprit.  When we are transformed internally so that our character takes on the image of Jesus Christ we will become like the good tree that is incapable of producing bad fruit (Matt 7:17).

What does the Bible say about this?

Here are a few passages of Scripture to study on this topic:

 

Matthew 5-7

1 Corinthians 13

2 Corinthians 3:18

Ephesians 4

Galatians 4:19, 5:16-26

Romans 8:29, 12:2

 

These are only a few passages that express the transformed life Jesus came to bring us. The vision of the Christian life presented in these passages is a life filled with an intimate love for God and our neighbor. It is a life free from the control of anger, lust, worry, and judgement. It is a life marked by joy, peace, patience, kindness, integrity, generosity, and a stability in the face of difficulty.

God is a part of this entire process- Drawing us to himself- Helping us see ourselves clearly- Drawing our hearts into repentance, and working alongside us as we attempt to learn to follow the way of Christ.

 

First we need to see Jesus’ vision of kingdom life

Then we need to decide that this is the best way of life and intend to live it.

Then we need to recognize the divide between our life and the vision of life in the kingdom.

 Recognizing this divide leads us to repentance and we cry to God for help.

 God guides us into the method of the spiritual disciplines to train us.

 This leads to an ever increasing formation into the likeness of Christ

 

 

Spiritual Disciplines

Practicing Christianity involves certain actions (sometimes called “practices”, or “disciplines”). These should not necessarily be thought of in terms of salvation, but rather as ways of wisdom. Spiritual disciplines are actions we choose to include in our lives that train us to better follow the teachings of Christ. Of course, all this is empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit who draws our hearts to God.

Our whole life can be a spiritual discipline if we approach it with the right attitude. For example, we can use a situation with a difficult co-worker to help train us to be more patient. There are innumerable spiritual disciplines we can include in the pattern of our life, but through the centuries the Church has come to highlight some actions that can be particularly helpful as spiritual disciplines. These disciplines are not ends in themselves, rather, they help train the central part of us so that we will become more like Christ and our actions will flow from this transformed internal center. 

The following list might be overwhelming at first. Please, do not be put off by this as if it is a list of things you need to do each week to be a “good Christian”. Think of these disciplines as ways to grow in love towards God and love towards others. Just as light enters a prism and refracts into a rainbow of colours, so all the disciplines are really about one thing- love. The Christian life is really as simple as love towards God and others. The disciplines are really just a way to train ourselves in love.  

In the Book of Common prayer we read, “Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself a RULE OF LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel and the faith and order of the Church; wherein he may consider the following: The regularity of his attendance at public worship and especially at the holy Communion. The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline. Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into his everyday life. The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith in Christ. His personal service to the Church and the community. The offering of money according to his means for the support of the work of the Church at home and overseas.” (BCP p.555). A Rule of Life is a plan for applying certain disciplines to your life with some level of regularity. Human beings are creatures of pattern and we learn best, and keep ourselves at optimal health, in this kind of repetition. Just as you might brush your teeth at the same time each day to keep your mouth healthy, or might have a regular exercise routine, so our spirit can make use of a pattern of disciplines to help us grow. It is good to create a Rule of Life in the midst of much prayer and discernment. Some disciplines will be more of an emphasis for you. Either because it is a particular gift, or because that area is a weakness and the discipline is helping you grow in that area.  Some disciplines will be good to do every day (like brushing your teeth) and others will be done monthly or yearly (much like having a yearly physical, or doing spring cleaning).  Daily disciplines should be prayer and Bible reading, while disciplines like going on an extended retreat might only be done occasionally (yearly or seasonally). Your life circumstances will also effect which disciplines you participate in and how often. For example, you will have to consider carefully the practice of fasting if you are ill. Being a mother with young children, or being recently retired may also effect which disciplines you partake in.      

Other disciplines (sometimes called ‘holy habits’) include: Celebration, Chastity, Confession, Fasting, Fellowship, Guidance, Meditation, Prayer, Sacrifice, Secrecy, Service, Silence, Simplicity/Frugality, Solitude, Study, Submission, and Worship. 

(The following definitions come largely from Richard Foster who wrote Celebration of Discipline- a book in which heexplains their practice in more detail. Indeed, book have been written on each of these disciplines).

Celebration-   Utter delight and joy in ourselves, our life, and our world as a result of our faith and confidence in God’s greatness, beauty, and goodness. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once said, “of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzche when he said that Christians had no joy”. We should be careful that we do not make our Christianity all about noticing and rooting out sin. Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11). The Christian life should be a joyful life. We should take time to celebrate.

Chastity- Purposefully turning away for a time from dwelling upon or engaging in the sexual dimension of our relationship to others- even our husband or wife- and thus learning how not to be governed by this powerful aspect of our life. Technically, chastity is the virtue of keeping sexuality in its context, which is the aim of the discipline rather than the discipline itself. The discipline leads to this virtue. In a way the practice here is like fasting so that we learn to not be controlled by our hunger for food or sex. We learn to make our desires serve us, rather than allowing our hungers to be our master. In our life we have many impulses that push us to action. If we allow these impulses to rule over us our god will be our belly (our bodily desires) (Phil 3:19).

Confession-  Sharing our deepest weakness and failures with God and trusted others, so that we may enter into God’s grace and mercy and experience his ready forgiveness and healing. Sin often flourishes in secret. Exposing our sin to someone we trust can unburden our conscience and can allow for greater intimacy in fellowship with others.

Fasting-  The voluntary abstention from otherwise normal function- most often eating- for the sake of intense spiritual activity.  One consequence of fasting is that we learn to be sweet and kind when we don’t get what we want (Dallas Willard).

Fellowship- Engaging with other disciples in the common activities of worship, study, prayer, celebration, and service, which sustain our life together and enlarge our capacity to experience more of God. For some of us naturally on the introverted side of the personality spectrum we can attempt to lead the Christian life all on our own, but we miss out on a crucial aspect of Christian Spiritual Formation when we are not in intimate relationships with other mature Christians. Being with others also has a tendency to expose weaknesses in our life that need to be worked on.   

Guidance-  Experiencing an interactive friendship with God that gives direction and purpose to daily life. This practice can include a very trustworthy elder who is mature in the ways of the Spirit and can help you listen for God’s voice. Sometimes this is called ‘Spiritual Direction’. Sometimes this means taking time to purposefully listen for God’s direction. Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God is an excellent resource for learning more about this.

Meditation- Prayerful rumination upon God, his Word, and his world.

Prayer-  Interactive conversation with God about what we and God are thinking and doing together. There are many ways of prayer. The book Prayer by Richard Foster is a fantastic resource.

Sacrifice-  Deliberately forsaking the security of satisfying our own needs with our resources in the faith and hope that God will sustain us. Especially our time, talent, and treasure.

Secrecy-  Consciously refraining from having our good deeds and qualities generally known, which, in turn, rightly disciplines our longing for recognition (See Matt 6).

Service- Loving, thoughtful, and active promotion of the good of others and the causes of God in our world, through which we experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service can take place in our homes and communities serving family, friends, or neighbours, but also in in homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. We can serve others by providing needed resources, but also by giving our presence and a listening ear to those who are hurting. We can serve by telling others about Jesus, knowing the good he can do in their life. All Christians should be involved in helping hurting people in some way. And we should always have our ears attuned to needs we have the ability to address.  

Silence-  Closing off our souls from “sounds”, whether noise, music, or words, so that we may better still the inner chatter and clatter of our noisy hearts and be increasingly attentive to God. You may want to read Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart for a good treatment of silence, solitude, and prayer.

Simplicity/Frugality- The inward reality of single-hearted focus upon God and his kingdom, which results in an outward lifestyle of modesty, openness, and unpretentiousness and which disciplines our hunger for status, glamour, and luxury. Richard Foster has a book called Freedom in Simplicity that may be helpful.  

Solitude-  The creation of an open, empty space in our lives by purposefully abstaining from interaction with other human beings, so that, freed from competing loyalties, we can be found by God.

Study-  The intentional process of engaging the mind with the written and spoken Word of God and the world God has created in such a way that the mind takes on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates. When stating the greatest commandment Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37).

Submission-    Subordination to the guidance of God; or within the Christian fellowship, a constant mutual subordination to one another out of reverence for Christ, which opens the way for particular subordination to those who are qualified to direct our efforts toward Christlikeness and who then add the weight of their wise authority on the side of our willing spirit to help us do the things we would like to do and refrain from doing the things we don’t want to do.

Worship-  Expressing in words, music, rituals, and silent adoration the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God, by means of which we enter the supranatural reality of the shekinah, or glory, of God. Especially in the Anglican tradition we would include partaking of the Sacraments (Especially communion).

We could go into much more detail on each of these disciplines. I would, however, like to go into a little more detail on a few practices that are important for being a part of a church. 

Prayer and Bible Study- A church will be as strong as the members that make it up. It is each Christian’s responsibility to develop a strong spiritual life. The primary foundational disciplines in the Christian life are prayer and Bible study.  As Anglicans we have a strong tradition of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer which is a way of training us in the daily rhythm of prayer and Bible Study. The New Testament scholar and bishop, NT Wright, once commented that if you splash a big rock in your backyard with a bucket of water once in a while it won’t shape the rock much, but if you put the rock under a waterfall the rock will begin to be reshaped. Likewise, when we make prayer and Bible study a daily reality it will start to shape our soul.  The Anglican services of Morning and Evening Prayer have been developed to be ‘daily bread’ for Anglicans for a very long time. The words of the prayers include a lot of Scripture and also have a place for reading from the Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament letters, and a Gospel reading. While this is a beautiful and time tested way of prayer we don’t have to be too strict about this. It is perfectly acceptable and encouraged that you pray in your own words. Speak to God as your Father who loves you. You may want to begin your time of prayer by reading a chapter out of the Bible. You may want to start in one book of the Bible and work your way through that book while speaking to God about how what you are reading effects your life. You might find that you pray best in the early morning, or in the late evening. Find a time, or times that work best for you. It is important to be disciplined about it- make it a part of your daily routine. You may want to dedicate 20-60 minutes to this practice in order for it to be effective. These two practices are foundational to all the other disciplines. Without Prayer and Bible Study the Christian soul is starving and cannot be healthy.     

 

Giving- Giving relates to a number of disciplines- E.g. Stewardship, sacrifice, celebration/thanksgiving, submission, service. Giving is an important discipline in the life of the church.  Why do Christians give? Primarily we give because God wants us to learn to be generous people. Giving is a spiritual discipline that trains us to be thankful and to act as if all things are God’s. Financial giving also teaches us to not bow down to money as an idol that has to be protected and served. We learn to trust God rather than money. We learn to use money as a tool, rather than serve it as a god (Matt 6:24).

We should never really give out of a sense of obligation- “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).  As Christians our motivation for giving is rooted in our thankfulness for what we have received from God. We know that everything we have has been put into our hands by our generous and loving Creator- “Everything in heaven and earth is yours. … Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:11,14). We receive from God and in loving response we offer our lives to the one who made us. Our lives are to be “a living sacrifice…to God” (Romans 12:1).  It is a beautiful back and forth like two lovers who continuously seek ways to bless each other. God offers to us and in response we offer to God. This is not out of duty, but out of sacrificial love. The sacrificial love of God is seen most clearly in God’s offering of Himself on the cross. We are called to a generosity that is in response to God’s generosity to us.

One of the ways we respond to God’s generosity is by financial giving. That is by no means the only way we offer ourselves to God. We offer ourselves to God in many ways (including our time and our talent), and God desires us to offer ourselves to Him with nothing held back. Following Jesus is not all about money, but it does include how we spend our money. Money can become a dangerous idol in our lives that promises security and freedom if it is not placed under the dominion of God.   

The church uses donated gifts to build up the church, serve the suffering, and spread the Gospel. For a variety of reasons churches over the last few decades have been faced with decreased revenue. The danger when this happens is that we can begin to use our funds to merely “pay the bills” rather than using the funds God grants us to follow His vision for us. God’s vision includes “paying the bills” but that is really only a piece of a much more exciting picture. The bigger picture is about God’s mission, which is to express His love to the world.  As the church we are a part of that mission. 

Giving also allows us to remove financial obstacles that might stand in the way of the church’s mission.  What could we do if we removed our financial limitations? We read in Luke 8:1-3 that there were disciples who financially supported Jesus and his ministry. So from the beginning the disciples of Jesus have supported the ministry of the body of Christ. The people who gave to Jesus’ ministry believed in what he was doing and wanted to see his work continue and grow and have the greatest effect possible. They also wanted to be a part of what he was doing.

It is also good to think about the effect Christian giving can have in our community. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable about a man who is trusted with his master’s money but then buries the money instead of putting it to use. In an interesting article on tithing it is stated that according to some American statistics, 10-25% of a normal congregation tithes. They state that at present Christians are giving at a rate of 2.5% per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3% percent rate. Then in the article they imagine the impact on the world if American Christians tithed 10%. They estimate there would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Assuming the churches were good stewards with those funds they imagine the global impact:  $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation, and deaths from preventable diseases in five years. $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues (specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day).  $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work. $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.[1] 

Could this be the overall effect of what happens when we bury our talent? I don’t think Jesus is wagging his finger at Christians as much as he is perhaps seeing the wasted opportunity. No doubt we could give reasons as to why the situation is more complicated, and we should never assume that throwing money will solve all the world’s problems. However, these ideas should give us pause. Through financial giving we have the opportunity to contribute to the mission of the Church of Jesus locally and in the world.

If you want to be a more generous giver a big part of that might be looking at your financial situation and developing a plan. I encourage you to look at Dave Ramsey’s Complete Guide to Money, which helps you to create a financial plan for your life. Many people are not as generous as they would like to be simply because they don’t have discipline when it comes to their financial life. Many of us have been convinced to live above our means and are deeply in debt. Dave Ramsey has made it his mission to help people get their financial lives in order. You may want to consider taking his course Financial Peace University online- https://www.fpuonline.com

Again, what are these disciplines about? They are a way of following Jesus- of so focusing on his character and teaching that we begin to take on his character. Someone with the character of Jesus will be marked by the fruit of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). This character is also described in 1 Corinthians 13. Sometimes the Christian life has been described in terms of a lack of the seven deadly sins and the presence of the opposing virtues:

 

Sins

Virtues

Pride

Humility

Covetousness/Greed

Liberality/Charity/Generosity

Lust

Chastity

Anger/Wrath

Meekness/Patience

Gluttony

Temperance

Envy

Brotherly Love/ Kindness

Sloth

Diligence

These moral characteristics are not faked by putting on a show and trying to “be good”. Rather, they are a byproduct of lives lived with a deep love for God and God’s creatures. The disciplines, done wisely, should draw us into a deeper love and communion with God.



[1] Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-would-happen-if-church-tithed#t3McC3gdXlJc2E3z.99