Spiritual Formation: Caution and Encouragement

My small group has been focused on the principles and practices of Spiritual Formation. We have read through several books on the subject and I believe everyone has benefited from the experience, each in their own way. Sometimes the concepts are embraced with tears of joy, other times I’ve noticed figurative scratching of the heads as they wrestle with understanding and application.

Spiritual formation is for every believer. I believe this. And I want people to embrace intentional Spiritual Formation, because we are all being spiritually formed all the time, even unintentionally.

The one thing I’ve come to understand about teaching Spiritual Formation is that you can’t make someone follow practices or disciplines. It is all on the person, and how they see what God wants to do in their life.

For example, I’ve gone through Fire of the Word by Chris Webb with several groups of people. Some have found the information invaluable and life changing, but others have had trouble warming to the material. What is the difference? I believe it is readiness.

As part of an assignment in Fire of the Word, one must read through the Song of Songs. It’s a tough read with our American, middle class, puritan influenced culture. While some can override their queasiness with the text, others cannot. This time, being my 5th or 6th reading of this book and its section on Song of Songs, I read it differently. I noticed a phrase, which is repeated several times. (Song of Songs 2:7b, 3: 5b, 8:4b)

Do not arouse or awaken love

until it so desires. (NIV)

Before I had attributed this to sexuality: We want to take care how our sexuality is expressed until it is the appropriate time to do so, i.e. marriage. But looking at it in a spiritual sense, I wonder if it might mean that we cannot stir up someone’s spirituality, until it is the right time. Perhaps a time, which is stirred by God.

We are each individual, and some of us progress fast, others of us progress at a steadier pace, and some of us go three steps forward and two steps back. There can be no judgement on this progression, because it is how God made us.

Often, I have talked with women who feel frustration at their husband’s lack of spiritually motivated practices. I thought of this verse and cautioned them against demanding too much of a person, reminding them that it is God who initiates, encourages, and places desires within us towards the maturation process. Certainly, God can use us as models, but pushing someone towards a path of Spiritual Formation often leads to legalism.

I’ve attended churches where they put into place a program where they want everybody to go through a “foundation” study. I suppose there is some merit to this. There are people who need this type of study. But what I often see is there are those who will faithfully do it, but really need something more to stretch their faith. There are those who will join the group because it is a requirement, and they half- heartedly participate, if they participate at all. There are also those who just won’t do it.

It’s like the old adage: You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Reality is that we are all in different places in our walk, and we all need something different to help us grow towards the goal of becoming like Christ.

As a teacher of Spiritual Formation, I don’t want to make people do certain practices, because I don’t want to perpetuate legalism. I do want to provide options and encouragement for people wherever they are in their spiritual journey. It’s a delight to challenge people who are ready to be challenged. I love introducing practices to people who didn’t know they desire these practices. And I want to have the patience to give those who are reticent, time to discover what God is showing them to do in their faith.

Spiritual Formation is for every believer who has a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is nothing wrong with introducing the concept to people. However, discernment is necessary. Give to those who desire to eat. Whet the appetites of those who are unaware of their hunger. Come alongside those who are hungry but are unable to feed themselves just yet.

May God bless you as you journey with the people God has put in your path. And blessings on your own personal journey as you sense the desires God has placed within you, and are able to proceed in the manner that best fits those desires.