The problem with writing about Theology every week is that, although I think about it constantly, it takes me forever to untangle all my thoughts into manageable chunks. I just received back a paper I wrote for my current spiritual formation class, and it's already broken up into chunks, so I'm going to post it here, serially, for the next few weeks.
Approach to Spiritual Formation
In the aftermath of the announcement of the imminent Seminary closure, I think my understanding of and approach to spiritual formation is being both honed and jumpstarted, as I observe the reactions and responses of people further along in their own spiritual formation than I am yet in mine.
What Does Spiritual Formation Mean to Me?
The term spiritual formation describes the process of being “formed” more into the likeness of Jesus Himself in all facets of life. I see it as a lifelong process of a Christian’s returning to the image of God in which he or she was meant to be before the Fall. In spite of the term spiritual, it’s a holistic concept, encompassing lifestyle but also thoughts, attitudes and speech.
Spiritual formation is not a self-help or self-improvement regimen. It is not a veneer to cover over an unredeemed life. Some not-yet-Christian people I know have argued that the kindest act is always self-serving at its core. They say that even apparently self-sacrificial acts have a payoff. I believe, however, that there is a difference between a so-called “good person” (according to the judgment of the world) and a spiritually formed person. Although the Christian may derive great benefit in the end from acting self-sacrificially, a spiritually well-formed one will have been motivated by love for God and others, and from having “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2.16; 2 Corinthians 10.5) at the core of their motivation, not self-interest.
The process of formation can begin before a spiritual rebirth in Christ occurs, as the Holy Spirit works in a person’s life to woo them to Jesus—kind of like a baby being formed in the womb. Often this work of the Spirit only becomes obvious after a period of time in the family of God. The initiator of the rebirth and of the spiritual formation itself is always God. Once a person is reborn, however, I believe he or she has some choice regarding whether or how much to allow spiritual formation to take place.
Ultimately, the process is somehow something of a joint effort between a Christian and God. Many times, God sets up or allows life circumstances to propel His child into greater spiritual growth. On the other hand, a Christian can also be intentional about seeking growth, and set up disciplines through which growth is likely to happen.
I don’t believe anyone is ever fully spiritually formed in this lifetime. Although there has been some debate about what exactly the correlation is between spiritual formation and discipleship, I tend to think they are the same thing. We are always learning from Jesus as we walk along with Him and until we finally meet Him face to face.