As I read the material quoted in the last post, I have two reactions. First, it’s indisputably true that in many churches a portion of the membership is not particularly Christ-like. There are often very few differences between the lost and the saved. It’s not an impressive “transformation” for many. And so, I certainly agree with Willard and Foster that we need to deal with that problem.
However, I just don’t see the Willard-Foster version of spiritual formation as a sufficient solution or even quite the right solution.
I’ve already quoted Willard saying,
Public and private worship, study of scripture, nature, and God’s acts in human history, prayer, giving to godly causes, and service to others, can all be highly effective elements in spiritual formation. But they must be thoughtfully and resolutely approached for that purpose, or they will have little or no effect in promoting it.
Service to others becomes, for Willard, a means to an end — a discipline that helps us attain the Holy Grail: being like Jesus or, as he sometimes says, learning to obey all that Jesus commanded. And that’s almost right, but not quite. According to the scriptures, the reason we should serve others is because we love them. If we serve others as a step toward self-improvement, then we are really serving ourselves, which hardly makes us like Jesus!
It’s not so much that Willard is wrong as Willard asks Christians to focus on changing who we are — changing our character. It’s all very internally focused. It’s very navel-gazing.
And the scriptures certainly talk about our being changed, but the goal — the end — is never who we are. It’s what God does through us. In other words, Christianity is not about creating good people with high moral character. Rather, it’s about creating good people with high moral character who participate in God’s mission. And the spiritual discipline approach seems to leave us a step short. Indeed, it’s not so much wrong as it puts the emphasis in the wrong place — which can lead to some serious mistakes.
Notice that nowhere do the scriptures tell us to go participate in spiritual disciplines. We aren’t commanded to fast, to seek solitude, or to be silent. Rather, we are given a mission and we are to accomplish that mission in Godly ways.
Look again at the Great Commission —
(Mat 28:19-20) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus doesn’t say “Go contemplate” or “Go change”; he uses a series of active verbs to describe what we are do with respect to others. “Make disciples,” “baptizing them,” and “teaching them.” We have a mission, and the mission isn’t that we are to be changed but that we are to do some very important things.
But, of course, to do the mission, we have to change. We have to become people on a mission. And as we’re on God’s mission, God changes us. They go together. It’s not “once you’ve journaled and meditated and prayed and fasted enough, go make disciples.” It’s “I’m with you. Get out there and make disciples”!
Regular readers will be familiar with the next few passages, but I have to mention them again because they are so close to the heart of God’s message to the converted —
(Mat 5:14-16) “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
(1 Pet 2:12) Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
(Eph 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Willard and Foster claim, with considerable justification, that people don’t see Jesus in many Christians. They prescribe meditation, journaling, silence, contemplation, fasting, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. I’d prescribe good works.
Good works do two things. First, they make us look like Jesus to the world. But, of course, we can do good works as part of a hypocritical life, which is certainly not the goal. Fortunately, doing good works changes us. We often become what we do.
As we feed the hungry, serve the poor, and help the needy, we are transformed. By acting like Jesus, we allow the Spirit to show us the joy of living this way. And we are changed in ways that far exceed what any amount of study or contemplation can ever do.
How do you turn a college graduate into a lawyer? Law school doesn’t do it. But learning the rudiments in law school and about 10 years of experience actually doing law will do it (for most).How do you make a boy into a soldier? You train him for several weeks and then you send him into battle.
When we turn students into lawyers, we do so in law firms, surrounding them with more experienced attorneys with an interest in bringing the young attorneys along in the profession. Boys become soldiers in a platoon led by officers with far greater experience, who know that their lives depend on maturing the young men quickly and well.
And yet Foster and Willard prescribe largely individualistic exercises: journaling, praying alone, solitude, silence, meditation, fasting, and such. These aren’t going to get it. They aren’t so much wrong as woefully inadequate. We learn by doing, not by contemplating doing. And we especially learn by doing along with others more experienced and mature than us. By doing God’s mission within a community, we allow the Spirit to shine all the more brightly. By doing God’s mission in community, we allow the Jesus-likeness that many already have to spread to those who need it.
A common prescription is to form formal mentoring relationships, and there’s a lot of merit in this. But it’s extremely difficult to do when we are mentoring for abstractions, like being generous or being loving or being like Jesus. But if we decide we want our members to be people who do good works, then it’s not so hard. It’s natural and easy for an experienced Christian to train a younger volunteer on how to teach the Bible in the mission field or how to tutor students struggling in school — as they do it. See the difference?
For years our campus ministry has sent mission teams into Fiji. The students studied for months on how to relate to students in that culture and how to teach the scriptures. When they arrived, experienced missionaries were present to help with questions and struggles. The entire team supported each other. And as the students taught, they became missionaries. Indeed, they became more like Jesus! Many have since gone into the mission field after graduation.
They certainly prayed and studied in preparation for the task — but they didn’t pray and meditate in order to become more like Jesus. Rather, by being concerned foremost with the lost — with others — the Spirit was enabled to powerfully transform them. It doesn’t work so well when your focus is on yourself. After all, how can you be like an others-focused Jesus by being self-focused?