– Rebecca Preston, MA, Spiritual Director
Spiritual Formation has become a buzzword in the Christian Church. Churches are now sitting up and taking notice, and in some cases, bringing it in as a curriculum to the church. The idea may seem like a new one, but it is really an ancient concept with deep roots in the New Testament.
I’m often asked, what is Spiritual Formation? My answers can go from the profound to the lame depending on the day or the audience. While the premise is actually quite simple, there are many nuances that make it seem complicated, and maybe a little mystical. But the basis behind Spiritual Formation is sound and, even, compelling.
We are all being formed in one way or another. Sometimes our formation is unconscious through the way we are raised, the influences of peers, and/or our education. Other times we are intentional in how we are becoming formed. Look at the popular magazines and listen to the TED talks. We are bombarded with better ways to live our lives. We can learn beneficial eating habits, incorporating exercise into our routine, and/or bringing into our lives healthier ways to cope. This is all a part of how we are formed into who we are and who we want to become.
But before any changes can be made in our lives, we often have to sense a need. We desire to become healthier whether it be in our bodies or our relationships. We have an inner compass telling us that something is out of kilter, and we want to address it.
Our being is composed of body, soul, and spirit. We are whole persons, not meant to be broken into parts. You can address the body issues, but sooner or later the spirit and the soul will cry out for attention, because the body issues often run deeper than simply the outward appearance. The same runs true when we emphasize the soul over the body or the spirit over the soul.
We long for wholeness. We know something is lacking. We instinctively know we were made for more.
Spiritual Formation meets those needs of the body, soul, and spirit which seek wholeness or completeness. Spiritual Formation can take us from the place where we have recognized the deficiencies of our life to the place where we make the choice to live as God has intended for us- in constant relationship with Him and recognizing His continual presence in our life.
Consequently, the idea of Spiritual Formation is a conscious decision to be deliberate in who we are to become. And really, down deep, we desire to become more like Christ. Actually, this is the goal in Spiritual Formation – to live our lives as if Jesus were living it in our place.
None of this occurs without some action on our part, just as a new diet or exercise regime requires our active participation and attention. Dallas Willard says: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to works.” Spiritual Formation is not an exercise of works, although there are practices associated with becoming formed into Christlikeness. We need to understand from the onset that the practices we incorporate into our life are not to gain some kind of advantage from God – He does the saving through grace, not on anything we can do. The objective in the practices is always to train ourselves to acknowledge God – His presence and His help through His Spirit in anything we do. More and more we learn to rely on Him for our spiritual growth. The byproduct of the practices produces the characteristics of Christlikeness that we have longed for in our lives.
For example, I decided one year for Lent to practice fasting. In my case, I decided to fast from desserts and sweets. It is a long period of time, and in my life, there are several birthdays in the spring months which encompass the Lenten period. I gave myself grace, knowing that there might need to be exceptions for the birthdays, including my own. What I found was that I didn’t need desserts or really want them. In fact, my needs were extended to many things. I found that I didn’t need quite as much food as I thought, or my need for ‘things’ diminished. I found, I could in fact, lead a simpler life. I came to realize fasting also led to a kind of patience in delaying my needs. This practice of fasting became much more than simply not eating certain foods, but an identification with the words of Christ:
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24.)
Just one more comment, I see Spiritual Formation as the journey a Christian makes into maturity. A lifelong journey. So, it requires a bit of patience and grace towards ourselves. We are becoming, it is not a quick process.
And this concept of Spiritual Formation is found throughout the New Testament. Paul talks about it as the method of transformation in Romans 12: 1-2. In Colossians 3, he refers to the process of being renewed day by day. Spiritual Formation is the activity involved in training ourselves to be able to ‘run the race’ as Paul encourages in Philippians 3. This is for our benefit, and makes us strong in body, soul, and spirit to live well in this world. But it isn’t only for us, it is for living well with our neighbors, and for the strangers who come into our lives. Living well means we become the bright lights which attract others to the One we follow.
Spiritual Formation takes us from bystanders in our faith to participants – apprentices – disciples – who follow Jesus into the world as He called for us to be.
In subsequent blogs, I hope to focus on my experience of Spiritual Formation.