What is Spiritual Formation?

I’ve written on this before, but the question is coming up again. Simply put, spiritual formation is a new buzzword and perspective on the one thing the Church has been doing since the very beginning, discipleship. However, this new perspective (some may even argue an old perspective) is not the kind of discipleship that you may find in many mainline churches. The discipleship programs that I see most often involve getting you to commit to attending church weekly, go to Sunday school or join a small group, tithe (can’t forget to get our money!), and commit to personal Bible study. To me, this feels a lot like the “Gospel of Sin Management” that Dallas Willard talks about in The Divine Conspiracy. True discipleship is not about ticking the right boxes and saying “I am a disciple of Jesus.” Rather there is something different that is called for. Enter the perspective of spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation asks a simple question, “What is it that forms you?” James KA Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, argues that it is our habits that form us into the people that we are. If Smith is right, then discipleship is more about forming particular habits that lead us towards Christlikeness. I believe that it is necessary for us to meditate daily on one simple question, “How am I not like Christ?” The answer may astound us, and it may take forever to actually get to that answer. But this is the most critical part. It isn’t until God communicates with us what needs to change, that we actually know how we are to change. For instance, maybe you do spend time in prayer and Bible study every day. You are a good, upstanding person. You have the fish are your bumper and everyone at work knows you as the person who always has a Bible verse ready to go for any situation. During your prayer time, God suggests to you that you have a tendency to rush and not live with His timing. What would you do?

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.

James KA Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

In the case above, it would be logical to then ask, “How do I learn to live within God’s timing?” I’m certain that most of us have felt this way at some point and have even received 2 Peter 3:8 as help from a friend or pastor. But if we look at the habits of the person described above, they may be running their lives off of a checklist and attempting to fill every moment with something to do. Maybe a schedule for Sunday looks like this: get up and go to church, head out to lunch, do grocery shopping, do meal prep for the week, go for a run, make sure the kids are ready for school over the next week, mow the yard, start a work project early so you can have some traction on Monday, get a shower (maybe), then finally go to bed. If this is one day of the week, I’d almost hate to see what the rest of the week looks like. If every day is this jam-packed, where is your time for rest? This person has more trust in themselves to get everything done, but no trust that God will care for you even if you do not accomplish everything. Yes, it is important to manage your responsibilities well, but even God had to rest. Jesus didn’t go pedal to the metal all 3 years of his ministry, he took regular breaks and found time to be secluded in prayer. The spiritual formation perspective of discipleship would ask this person when they took the time to rest and practice Sabbath.

Suppose our failures occur, not in spite of what we are doing, but precisely because of it.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God

I suppose what I’m getting at is that spiritual formation is not like most discipleship programs. When you see discipleship in most churches, it’s a cookie cutter response that requires you to get on a path to “success.” Spiritual formation wants to take a deep look at your life and find the tension between living a life oriented towards God and a life oriented towards earth. Spiritual formation asks you to seek the practices and habits that bring you closer to God. I could go down the list of spiritual disciplines, but that would make this no different from the regular discipleship programs. Spiritual formation is about taking the life you are living now, and turning it, focusing it on Christ. I suggest that these turns be taken a baby step at a time. If you’ve never fasted before, do not start fasting all day on Sundays because you can. You cannot build up habits if you think you are failing. Find the step that is just a little outside of your comfort zone and reach for it. Maybe instead of spending five minutes in meditation, you spend six. Find the habit that God is leading you towards, break it into pieces and begin the work of developing it within yourself. That’s spiritual formation. That’s the work of discipleship. That is how you ultimately become the person God created you to be.

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