Beware of any definition of spiritual formation that is too clean and tidy. Or one that requires you to buy some expensive membership or a workbook that promises to change your life in 5 minutes a day. Spiritual formation is not a science, nor is it a commodity that can be bought and sold.
With that said, I want to share with you my working description of spiritual formation in the Christian tradition. It’s a ‘working description’ because, well, this is the best way I’ve found to talk about spiritual formation so far. Somewhere down the road, we may come up with a better way of describing it – and that’s okay. Remember, I’m not trying to sell you anything, so I can be honest about the inherently ‘unfinished’ nature of talking about spiritual formation.
So here goes. In a nutshell, spiritual formation is the process of becoming the people that God is calling us to be. Pretty straightforward, right? Now, let’s quickly unpack a few things.
- Spiritual formation is a process because it happens over time. This part is pretty non-controversial – I think most people who approach spirituality of any sort realize that growth, formation, and transformation take place in time and over time. But, looking at the structures of most churches, do our lives together – our worship, our Sunday School, our membership drives –really take the concept of a process seriously? Church membership is one concept where we totally drop the ball. Membership is a pretty strict binary concept – you’re either in or you’re out; there’s no middle ground, and there’s nowhere else to go. Switching from one side to the other takes only a moment, and once you’ve made the switch, there’s not much room for a continuing process of change, growth, or formation.
- Spiritual formation is described as becoming because it is both our work and God’s work. Remember back in grammar school, when you learned the difference between active and passive verbs? With an active verb, the subject does something, but with a passive verb, something is done to the subject. For example, consider “Tom bites the dog.” vs. “Tom was bitten by the dog.” In each sentence, the root verb is the same (to bite), but in the first sentence, Tom (the subject) is doing the biting, but in the second sentence, the biting is being done to Tom. Now, stick with me for a moment: the verb “to become” is kind of an odd duck – it can’t be understood as either fully active or fully passive. Other languages would call this a “middle” verb – ‘to become’ implies acting, but it also implies being acted upon. I think this is significant for the way we talk about spiritual formation because growth, while it requires our participation and effort, is first and foremost the work of the Holy Spirit. Our “becoming” is a collaborative endeavor between us and God.
- Spiritual formation is about people because it is always communal and contextual, as well as holistic and habitual. For too long, we’ve smothered spirituality “in our hearts” and have understood it as primarily a personal, interior, private matter. It’s not. Read your Bible – from the very beginning, God is intimately interested in forming a people for himself. God doesn’t seem all that interested in calling individuals for the sake of individuality. When you think of all the great stories in Scripture of men and women being called by God, there is always a people-purpose behind it. Prophets are called to prophesy to the people of God. Abraham was called to be the father of the people of God. Jesus called his disciples to “go into all the world” to bring others into the people of God. Now don’t get me wrong, here – spiritual formation can’t be wholly reduced to external relationships. God is concerned with the entire person – heart, soul, mind and strength. But the problem is that churches in our day and age have done a pretty good job of slicing and dicing apart our experience of personhood. Christian spiritual formation can’t be done alone, but it can’t be done by merely taking a class about it, either.
- Finally, spiritual formation is about what God is calling us to be because spiritual formation is always oriented towards God’s own purposes and done for God’s own reasons. One thing I really hate is when people talk about that famous Bible verse found in John 3.16 and they tell people to ‘put your own name in there’, making it read: “For God so loved Chris that he gave his only Son so that Chris would not perish but have everlasting light”. Sure, it makes me feel good about myself and reminds me that God loves me, but it’s also flat wrong – God so loved the world that he sent his only son. God’s love is bigger than me. It is bigger than my family and bigger than my church. God’s love is bigger than my denomination or theological position. God’s love is bigger than the United States – even bigger than Christianity itself. The reality is that God desires to draw all of creation into a place where bonds of love are stronger than fear, where justice crowds out selfishness, and where abundant life swallows up the grave. This is the end of spiritual formation, the goal, or the telos, as philosophy might call it. And yeah – it’s a lot bigger than making you feel more ‘centered’ or boosting your self-esteem so you don’t feel as ashamed of your bad habits.
More to come! (Actually, if I wanted to sell a spiritual formation program, I think that would be a darn good slogan…)