In Part 1 of our search we discussed how spiritual formation should be holistic. What this means, at least for me, is that we talk about human nature and the human experience in a more biblical manner. The Bible assumes the physical and spiritual realities of humanity in a unified, indivisible way; seeing no contradiction between the two. What is even more interesting to me is that in the person of Jesus we are confronted with a divine person who took on flesh and became like created man. The mystery and profundity of this could take an eternity to explore.
In essence, what I am trying to say is this: Spiritual formation is not just about changing the heart at the expense of holiness; nor is it about changing behavior at the expense of having our spirit’s renewed. Both are necessary realities and both must be addressed in whatever plan is implemented within the local body to foster, promote, and produce spiritual development among the members of the church. To this end, we will explore the three remaining principles that, I will argue, serve as the necessary components of any spiritual formation process. Without each of these present it will be difficult to achieve any spiritual growth as we see demonstrated in the Gospels among the disciples and in the books of Acts in the early church. I would like to offer one rationale that drives my conviction. Whatever it was that Jesus did with the disciples, it must be something that can be repeated by us, even today. If we cannot reproduce what Jesus did for the first disciples in the lives of those God calls us to disciples, then what Jesus commanded was doomed to failure from the start. Therefore, it is in our best interests as the church and as disciples of Jesus, to learn–as quickly as we can–what Jesus was doing and do that. I know there may be some saying that churches today are doing what Jesus did. I offer two rebuttals. First, the level of nominal Christianity that pervades the religious landscape in America is staggering. There is no way that this is what Jesus envisioned when He told the disciples to go and make disciples of the nations. Second, there are characteristics of deep spiritual formation that are not present in the church in America that are present in other parts of the world among those claiming the name of Christ. Characteristics that were seen in the early church among the first converts of the Apostles. I will identify one that may help to support what I mean. The passionate reversal of selfish priorities was a key indicator that something had changed in the hearts, minds, and lives of Christians through the ages. American Christianity is marked by a such a spirit of selfishness and self-importance that it defies an accurate description. We must be very careful that we do not flaunt a false sense of maturity and turn from the path of righteousness.
Biblical Theology as the Ground of Spiritual Formation
The ground of true spiritual formation is a commitment to biblical theology. This idea has been defined in a myriad of ways. Therefore, it is important to define what I mean by this phrase here. The essence of what I am meaning is that the church determines to know nothing except what the bible says, regardless of how we may feel about it. There is far too much emotionalism creeping into the study and interaction with God’s word. Our affections are not to be dismissed or denied, but they should be leading the charge into our understanding of what God has revealed about himself. This trend can be seen when certain aspects and attributes of God character are championed and emphasized above others. The lack of balance in our approach to the bible has led accept a distorted view of God, the human condition and the reconciliation of both. The reality of our present time is that we have created as many idols of God as there are people who claim to seek after him. If spiritual formation is to take hold in the life of a disciple of Jesus, we must make every effort to stay true to the bible’s message. The question we must answer is how is to done? There are two points to keep in mind.
1. The Bible’s Intent must be understood.
Biblical theology is not merely an approach to the bible, it describes a fidelity to its intent as well as its content. There have been many interpretive approaches used throughout the history of biblical studies. Each generation, informed by the ones that came before, finds new wrinkles to iron out. There is not inherently wrong with this. It is important to explore the depth and breadth of God’s word. What tends to happen however, is contemporary approaches tendency to unseat any and all previous understandings of the bible. The arrogance of the present dismisses the wisdom gained by the past. As a discipline of study, biblical theology has become enamored with the excitement of the new and has paid not honor to the truth of the past (in the sense of chronological awareness, because truth has not expiration date). Our cleverness seems to have gotten the best of us. As a church, I believe, we should go back to a far simpler way of interacting with the bible. We should read it the way it was written. What this mean is that we are not interested in some gnostic notion of secret or hidden knowledge, but in understanding the plain, clear and present message of the bible. We must re-contextualize the writings of the scripture in their original, historical context and then interact with the scripture on its terms. Any presupposition we bring to the reading must be analyzed and evaluated prior to rendering any interpretive work. To read the bible as it was intended is an attempt to remove as much of the anachronistic influence our current context imposes on the scripture. The bible is not a manual, rule book or road map. These images are far to trite and simplistic to be useful. There is an image that can serve us far better. Those of us who were glasses understand that the purpose of the lens is not to be look at, but to be looked through. The Bible’s primary intent to be looked through. Without the bible I cannot see anything for what it truly is. Sin has distorted our vision to such a degree we need it corrected by the influence and power of the Word of God to bring everything into its proper focus.
2. The Bible’s Author Must Be Allowed to Speak.
Just as important as it is to understand the Bible’s intent, it is important to understand that the Bible’s author is alive and well. I have shared this idea with a number of people and I am surprised at how surprised they are at this idea. The Bible’s author lives and desires to interact with any and every person who reads through its pages. For some reason the knowledge and awareness of the presence of God during our reading of the Word has been lost. We no longer approach the word with the reverence it is due. It has become just another book on our shelves. If we are going to regain a solid foundation for spiritual formation, the Word of God must be cherished for what it is, God’s revelation to us. If you believe that there is a God and that he has spoken. Would it not be prudent to make sure we knew exactly what he has said? I find this to be one of the missing ingredients in many spiritual formation plans. There does not appear to be any connection made between God’s word and its effects in my life. One of the convictions that has taken hold in my own life and ministry is that reading the bible is not about information or even transformation. Spending time in the word of God must become about conversation. We must see our time spent reading the Bible as a new opportunity to hear back from God.
Practical Holiness as the Evidence of Spiritual Formation
The second element of a stronger theology of Spiritual Formation is a call to practical holiness. This describes the reality that what we believe about God must influence what we do in our daily lives. Holiness should be understood as a conformity to rules. That would be far too shortsighted an attitude and approach. The reality is that we should seek to become the people who live what the bible teaches and God expects. We are not talking about compliance. What we, as God’s people, should be looking for is a transformation that is both real and deeply rooted. Paul’s description of what takes place when we are redeemed is vitally helpful here.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)
And again in Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)
Both of these verses help to point to a greater reality and expectation for the kind of people were are supposed to be. It is difficult to describe this aspect of spiritual formation. One of the primary reasons for this difficulty is the our tendency to try to fake our way into holiness. The price we have to pay for living as God requires is too great for many of us to wrap our minds around.
What are you becoming?
I have often found an example from the martial arts to help describe this reality. This may at first appear odd, but it will make sense. One of the most revered accomplishments is the achievement of the black belt. The black belt represents the culmination of years of hard work. It is not something that can be bought or faked. When someone has put in the work and effort to earn the privilege of wearing a black belt you can tell. There is one thing you do not have to convince someone who has earned a black belt about, and that is that they are a black belt. The belt is a symbol of what they have become. You are no longer trying to be a something, you have finally become what you have worked for. The purpose of spiritual formation is to become something, to become the image of Christ. If the discipleship process does not affect who you are, there is something wrong. It is important for us to remember that who we become will serve as the proof of what we say we believe.
We must reconnect what we say with what we do. In the Christian’s life this is of vital importance. Not just to the world that serves as a witness to our lives, but to us as well. We cannot escape our own heads. If we know that what we are doing saying and how we are living our not in agreement, we can lie to others for a long time, but not to ourselves. After a time the incoherence will begin to damage our minds and lives.
We must work diligently to purge from our lives those things that make an inconsistent life possible. Holy living is the evidence that spiritual transformation is taking place.
Intentional Fellowship as the Buttress of Spiritual Formation
John Donne famously wrote these words speaking of the connectivity of the human person in the world: “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.”
One of the primary realities of the human experience was identified in the opening pages of scripture where God told Adam that it is not good for man to be alone. In these simple words from the Creator and in Donne’s poetic style we find the final principle required for spiritual formation: Intentional Fellowship.
We all are designed to be with and among others. Even the most introverted among us needs others to be fully alive. Isolation is not healthy. This reality is illustrated most poignantly in a couple of conversations I have had in recent years. I have had many people tell me that they do not have to go to church to be a Christian. I understand what they are trying to say. They have bought into the ethos of our culture that faith and religion and spirituality are personal and therefore private realities. There are several problems with this mode of thinking. But, for the sake of time I will highlight one. The first is that Jesus said that if we are to experience his presence that at least two or three people must come together for this purpose.
The necessity of the corporate gathering, no matter how small, is a vital reality of the Christian faith. The church is described as a community, a body, a gathering. Most, if not all, of the images of the people of God are corporate in nature. To deny this and to argue against it is to undermine a fundamental truth of our lives as we journey toward heaven.
We are individual travelers on the road, but we are not solitary. There are others walking with us. There are others who are making the same pilgrimage toward the city on the hill. We are the not the only ones journeying toward our eternal rest. There are many others who have undertaking the trip toward glory.
This is a realization that we all must awaken to. God never intended for us to live our lives of faith on our own. If spiritual formation is to take root in our lives, then we must join together with others who are on the narrow path. The path is difficult, but it is made easier when we accept the help of the Lord and those companions we meet along the way. Too many have faltered because they have separated themselves from the protection of the body.
Going back for just a second to those people who say they do not need to go to church to be a Christian. For the longest time I did not have an answer for them, but once I realized my need for others on this journey of faith an answer took shape. Now, when someone tells me they do not need to go to church to be a Christian I say, “You are right. But, you need to go to church to be a good one.”
The principles I have discussed in this essay serve as guides for what we should be looking for when we talk about spiritual formation. When we stray too far from these ideas we may short-circuit the process of growth as followers of Jesus.