The Good and Bad of Spiritual Formation (Being Formed within God’s Mission)

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?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to The Good and Bad of Spiritual Formation (Being Formed within God’s Mission)

  1. Nick Gill says:

    I think you might be obsessing over one quote and perhaps missing the overall direction, which is captured in such passages as Romans 12:1-2.

    Jesus doesn't command us to pray or read Scripture, either, Jay. He just ASSUMES that we will. Notice how he speaks of it in the SOM – WHEN you fast, WHEN you pray, WHEN you give to the needy.

    The purpose of Spiritual Formation is not self-focused, but God-focused. The Disciplines are ways that we participate with God in the "renovation of our hearts." The principle of indirection is important here.

    When we engage in the Spiritual Disciplines we are seeking the righteousness of the kingdom of God through “indirection.” You see, we cannot by direct effort make ourselves into the kind of people who can live fully alive to God. Only God can accomplish this in us. Only God can incline our heart toward him. Only God can reprogram the deeply ingrained habit patterns of sin that constantly predispose us toward evil and transform them into even more deeply ingrained habit patterns of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). And God freely and graciously invites us to participate in this transforming process. But not on our own.

    "We do not, for example, become humble merely by trying to become humble. Action on our own would make us all the more proud of our humility. No, we instead train with Spiritual Disciplines appropriate to our need. In this
    particular example that would most surely involve learning numerous acts of service for others which would incline us toward the good of all people. This indirect action will place us—body, mind, and spirit—before God as a living
    sacrifice. God then takes this little offering of ourselves and in his time and in his way produces in us things far greater than we could ever ask or think—in this case a life growing in and overflowing with the grace of humility. It is, to repeat, the righteousness of the kingdom of God by indirection.

    "Now, to move forward in this life we must understand clearly what a Spiritual Discipline is in the first place. A Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort. It is not in us, for example, to love our enemies. We might even go out and try very hard to love our enemies, but we will fail miserably. Always. This strength, this power to love our enemies—that is, to genuinely and unconditionally love those who curse us and spitefully use us—is simply not within our natural abilities. We cannot do it by ourselves. Ever.

    But this fact of life does not mean that we do nothing. Far from it! Instead, by an act of the will we choose to take up disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do." -from the Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible

    I appreciate your military metaphor; let's examine it a bit. You train a boy for 8-12 weeks, give him a rifle, and put him on a front line. I am not up-to-date on the current statistics, but the Vietnam-era statistics suggested that half of the American infantrymen (not troops in general, but rather actual infantrymen assigned to fight) in Vietnam never engaged the enemy. Why?

    They had training. They had equipment. They had opportunity. Why didn't they fire their weapons at the enemy?

    A few were against the war, but most were just plain scared.

    Why does this matter? Because the kind of things God commands us to do, we can't do just by being pointed in the right direction. You've quoted some familiar passages from the Sermon on the Mount. Here are some others:

    But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

    But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

    But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…

    You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew) …Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful (Luke).

  2. In reality if we as congregations or we as Christians are going to make a difference in the world we must begin to focus on the letting Christ live through us and in us. Rather than being Biblical scholars we need to be Christians searching for people in need of what we have. When we do this people will see Jesus living through us.

  3. Jay Guin says:


    My concern with spiritual disciplines isn't so much that they are self-focused as they are individualistic rather than corporate disciplines. And I hope I'm wrong.

    Look at this from the standpoint of church leadership. What does the church struggle with as it tries to be the church that Jesus calls it to be?

    Well, one problem is a lack of commitment, driven in part by a consumer mindset. Members are more concerned with services received than the opportunities to serve within the church.

    This makes it hard even to "do church" — to staff the nursery, to get the prayers led, to find children's teachers. When the church tries to become outreach oriented, the struggle is even greater. The needs are so great, and yet we have so few volunteers.

    We have a huge need for adults to mentor kids who want to attend our church from a very poor part of town. We ask for volunteers and we get none.

    Now, Willard says we aren't teaching people to be obey Jesus in all things — and I think he's right. He says the solution is spiritual disciplines, and I'd love for him to have found the solution!

    But as I read the literature, there's next to nothing about serving brothers and sisters in the church or participating in church-sponsored efforts. Rather, it's all very individualistic, focusing on a personal relationship with God but not on using one's talents within the body.

    You see, I don't see Christianity as primarily about our being good people. I think it's more about our being on a mission together, and I don't see the disciplines as being about that. But, again, I'd love to be proven wrong.

  4. Jay, some of the folks who are knocking themselves out to serve others – not to be good people, but because there are so many unmet needs – often benefit the most from spiritual disciplines, both private and communal.

    Many do so in an environment where they receive little support and great criticism, even from among those who purport to follow Christ.

    Drawing closer to God through spiritual disciplines – and especially with others – helps prevent "Elijah syndrome," that myopic conviction that "I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."

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