The Good and Bad of Spiritual Formation (Introduction)

I’ve been thinking about spiritual formation for quite a while. It’s all the rage in evangelical circles. Many churches have hired ministers of spiritual formation. We did for a while.

Type “spiritual formation” into Google, and you get lots articles about how to do it and just as many websites of people anxious to sell their services as experts in spiritual formation. And you get lots of folks who think it’s heresy. Interesting stuff …

Part of what’s happening is that people are just calling all sorts of things “spiritual formation.” It can mean “making converts” or “maturing converts” or “learning certain spiritual disciplines.”

The same is true of another buzzword: “disciple.” Spiritual formation is often described as the process of making converts into “disciples.” But different authors have different notions about just what a disciple is. Does it mean demanding drone-like obedience, as some have taught? Or learning all you can about Jesus, as some have taught? Or being a diligent evangelist, as others have taught? Or maybe it means any Christian at all?

For some, a disciple is a Christian who practices spiritual disciplines. For others, a disciple is a Christian who has attained to a high level of maturity, being very much like Jesus. For others, a disciple is simply a Christian who very much wants to be like Jesus. It’s all so confusing ..

And by now you’ve noticed that this idea of “spiritual disciplines” is a part of this conversation. Increasingly, the idea is that Christians practice “spiritual disciplines” to engage in “spiritual formation” with the result that they become “disciples.” But every author has a different list of disciplines.

You see, nowadays, you can hardly attend a seminar or read an evangelical website or periodical without running across some mention of these terms, and yet there is little common understanding as to just what they mean. It’s a strange phenomenon.

For the next little bit, I’ll therefore deal with the terms as used by two popular authors — Dallas Willard and Richard J. Foster. Willard says in his essay, “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done”

Spiritual formation in Christ is accomplished, and the Great Commission fulfilled, as the regenerate soul makes its highest intent to live in the commandments of Christ, and accordingly makes realistic plans to realize this intent by an adequate course of spiritual disciplines. Of course, no one can achieve this goal by themselves, but no one has to. God gives us others to share the pilgrimage, and we will be met by Christ in every step of the way. “Look, I am with you every instant,” is what Jesus said; and it is also what he is doing.

Now, we see here several key thoughts in the spiritual formation movement.

* It’s about fulfilling 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.”

However, it’s not so much about converting the lost as what happens after they’re converted. They are to be taught “to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Willard notes (and I most heartily agree) that churches of all stripes often fail to create converts who are particularly obedient. They feel saved. They may be regular in their attendance. But they aren’t transformed into Christ-like people.

And it’s true that we have a very serious, very significant problem with converts who aren’t very much like Jesus at all. We have members who’ve attended for 20 or more years who are just as worldly as before they were baptized. That’s a problem. A big problem.

* Willard prescribes for this condition a dose of “spiritual disciplines.” He and Foster make a point of trying to recover practices once more popular in Christianity as a way to help people become more Christ-like. These disciplines are —

solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, worship and study, fellowship and confession, and the like. These disciplines are not, in themselves, meritorious or even required except as specifically needed. They do, however, allow the spirit or will — an infinitesimally tiny power in itself that we cannot count on to carry our intentions into settled, effectual righteousness — to direct the body into contexts of experience in which the whole self is inwardly restructured to follow the eager spirit into ever fuller obedience.

Willard does not deny the power of the Spirit to change us. Indeed, he’s counting on it. But he believes we have to make ourselves available to the Spirit through these disciplines.

In a letter to a group of Christians in Idaho Springs, Willard writes,

Most of the activities commonly identified as “religious” activities can be a part of the process of spiritual formation, and should be. 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.

Other less commonly practiced activities such as fasting, solitude, silence, listening prayer, scripture memorization, frugal living, confession, journaling, submission to the will of others as appropriate, and well-used spiritual direction are in fact more foundational for spiritual formation in Christlikeness than the more well known religious practices, and are essential for their profitable use.

All such activities must be seen in the context of an intimate, personal walk with Jesus himself, as our constant Savior and Teacher. No formula can be written for spiritual formation, for it is a dynamic relationship and one that is highly individualized. One can be sure, however, that any God-blessed undertaking of spiritual formation will include much of what has just been mentioned here.

Richard J. Foster offers a similar list of disciplines in “SPIRITUAL FORMATION: A Pastoral Letter” —

What are these Spiritual Disciplines I am speaking of? Oh, they are many and varied: fasting and prayer, study and service, submission and solitude, confession and worship, meditation and silence, simplicity, frugality, secrecy, sacrifice, celebration, and the like. The commonly identified public religious activities are important to be sure, but the less commonly practiced activities like solitude and silence and meditation and fasting and submission to the will of others as appropriate are in fact more foundational for Spiritual Formation. All Disciplines should be thoughtfully and resolutely approached for the purpose of forming the life into Christlikeness, or they will have little or no effect in promoting this life.

Now, I can’t disagree that the problem Willard and Foster seek to remedy is real. It’s very, very real. We need more commitment from many of our members. But is this the solution? Do we need to encourage our members to engage in these practices as the best way to get the uncommitted committed? (Oops .. I’m being SO old-fashioned. I meant say, to get those not spiritually formed formed spiritually.)

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 (Introduction)

  1. Jay Guin says:

    No, I don't perceive these authors as money grubbers. I think they genuinely think that have found something important for the Christian church, and they're working hard to spread their idea — with considerable effect. And I have no beef with making money from being a teacher or consultant. I do disagree with the Willard/Foster approach to spiritual formation — and hence disagree with those who teach it, whether or not for pay. It bothers me if some are spending money to be taught a flawed idea.

    I utterly agree with your paragraph —

    I believe we learn by doing. As we do good with and for others, we imitate Jesus, who not only went about preaching, but also doing good. We live a life that demonstrates God is as concerned about souls in the here and now as He is the hereafter.

    I don't see much of this in the literature.

    You do mention spiritual formation as a path toward being drawn closer to God. I quite honestly struggle to understand what that means.

    But I'm glad to be educated more on this. The literature is vast (3,621 hits on for "spiritual formation"!). I can't begin to read it all, but it seems to me that Willard/Foster dominate the field. And they speak in terms of learning to obey all that Jesus has commanded, which seems quite different from being close to God.

  2. When I met you at the Pepperdine Lectures, my wife and I were there to lead a group about using the book we were asked to write, a Group Guide for Darryl Tippens’ book Pilgrim Heart. I especially liked his approach and was interested in writing the Group Guide because added the community dimension to spiritual formation that I didn’t see to the same degree in other books, like those by Willard and Foster.

    I’ll be honest with you: we included in our book some activities practiced in studies at two churches … and some of them have not – and probably will not ever – be able to help draw me closer to God and other people through His Son, Jesus. (That’s my goal for spiritual formation, in the simplest terms I can think of!) But they obviously work for some folks, so I’m all for ’em.

    Darryl dropped in on our session and casually answered the question “Why did you include these disciplines and not some others?” by saying, “These are the ones that helped me in my spiritual life.” The book is, as most good books are, a bit of a personal journey of his pilgrim heart. He doesn’t pretend to be a spiritual formation guru. It’s enough that he’s a university provost who has shared his journey in the hope of helping others.

    Short response: Some things help some people. Other things help other people. I believe we learn by doing. As we do good with and for others, we imitate Jesus, who not only went about preaching, but also doing good. We live a life that demonstrates God is as concerned about souls in the here and now as He is the hereafter.

    I hope the goal of spiritual formation isn’t to get the uncommitted committed, or the not-spiritually-formed formed spiritually. (That sounds manipulative or like a good way to sell books and make money, and if you’re perceiving that in these authors, please try others.) I hope the goal will always be helping to draw folks closer to God and each other through Christ.

    (Did Angi and I make money writing our workbook? Sure did! Almost enough to pay for one of our plane tickets to Pepperdine!)

  3. Donna says:

    I just finished leading a study of Pilgrim Heart and I used Keith & Angi’s guide. He is correct in that some of the ideas worked…some I was not even brave enough to try. But the other glaring thing I noticed was that the chapters that meant so much to me fell flat on some of the others. And, the ones they got excited about were a little repetious for me (I admit I read more spiritual books than some). So it is often more important to know where we are and where we want to be before we start a path…that may of may not lead us there.

    (sorry, it is Sunday Morning, the woman in me wantted to speak! Ha!)

  4. I don’t fully understand what it means to draw closer to God. Some things you know with your head. Some things you just believe with you heart, whether they make sense to your head or not.

    Hebrews 7:19 and 10:22; Psalm 73:28; 27:28; 105:3; Jeremiah 29:13 and James 4:8 all express some facet of the concept. I can tell it’s something He wants for us.

    I think sometimes we move away from Him, and – like the father of the wastrel son – He watches and waits.

    Sometimes, when we turn back to seek Him, He runs to us.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks, Keith. There’s a lot of wisdom in those passages.

    There are certainly Christians whose hearts are far from God. And there are those whose hearts are not but who fail to feel close to God.

    I have never felt this way. I don’t know why. I’m thankful for it, however. This likely means I’m not very qualified to address the topic, I think.

    But it seems to me that we have some people who need to repent. They feel far from God because they are. The solution isn’t spiritual disciplines so much as a changed heart, but if the disciplines help them change, more power to them!

    Others are far from God and don’t realize it. I wonder whether these are even in the classes on discipline or whether they are likely respond to those practices. Others can speak better to the question than I can. But I have trouble seeing a truly lukewarm person journaling or fasting to get close to God. If you’re motivated enough to do that sort of thing, you likely are already pretty close to God — or well on your way.

    Others are close to God but don’t feel close to God. I’ve known many in this state. Some never really internalized the lessons on grace. Some are looking for a feeling that their constitution doesn’t permit them to have. I mean, there are people who are constitutionally unhappy. (Some need medication because they have a physical problem.)

    I’m always saddened when I run into people who care deeply about God but who feel distant from him. They don’t need to get closer so much as to feel closer. Again, if the disciplines help them do that, more power to them.

    And there are plenty of people who are close to God and know it or who are close to God and don’t even think about whether they feel his presence. They aren’t looking for a feeling.

    Therefore, there certainly is a place for the spiritual disciplines, but they aren’t for everyone, nor are they always the best means to feeling close to God, it seems.

    Hence, part of my complaint with the Willard/Foster program is a tendency to prescribe the same cure for everyone. It’s just not true. On the other hand, we should surely be grateful that we’ve added several more tools to our spiritual toolbox, to help our brothers and sisters in their relationship with God.

    (Am I even making sense?)

  6. Nick Gill says:

    I think the struggle that Willard and Foster have is that spiritual formation is just not meant to be done from a book. Jesus said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Then, they followed him, and they became like him by learning to do what he did. He didn't call them, hand them some scrolls, and take off.

    You are absolutely right; not every discipline is for every person. Baseball players don't need to learn how to kick field goals, and running backs don't need to learn how to hit the cut-off man.

    So Willard/Foster have a dilemma. They KNOW that the disciplines work in building up the with-God life. They also know that each Christian has a different part to play, different work in God's kingdom, so they need different skill-sets.

    Some of the exercises are like calisthenics and/or a light weight-lifting regimen. They're foundational for the Christian life. Prayer, Service, Study, and Worship would probably fall into that area (although Jesus stresses fasting a lot more than our culture wants to admit, so maybe my reading of the disciplines is a bit out of step with the Master's training program).

    Others are like the particular exercises that an athlete practices in order to specialize in their field of endeavor.

    No one becomes excellent at anything without practice. This includes living the with-God life. I think we've taught for a long time a "fake it 'til you make it" spiritual practice that has created the superficiality and the apathy we see in our congregations. The Disciplines, I believe, are the practical avenues that REPENTANCE takes, if we hang onto a full and rich 1st century meaning of repentance.

    According to Josephus' usage when trying to convince Jewish rebels to surrender to Rome ("repent and believe in me" metanoesein kai pistos emoi genesesthai’. (Life of Flavious Josephus; 110)), to repent means TO DEFECT, to change sides. This fits well with both the denotation of metanoia (a change of mind that leads to a change of life), and its usage. "The time has come, and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

    As we defect from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of Jesus, we must learn a new way of life, a way marked by the activity of the Spirit in our lives. The disciplines are fields in which we can become apprentices to Jesus.

    The struggle is that everyone is different, and American Christianity has neglected active spiritual life for so long that there are very few "personal trainers" who can recommend a personalized regimen of spiritual activities to help a Christian overcome spiritual struggles and equip them to win spiritual battles.

    So, while it looks like Willard/Foster prescribe the same cure for everyone, I don't think that is the case except at the most general level. They would definitely say that it is only the disciplined person who is free to do exactly what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

  7. You make a lot of sense, Jay.

    In fairness, though – there are a number of folks of good conscience who worship in an environment that does not bring them closer to God – in fact, some are in environments so negative that it is difficult for them to worship – and they find rest and solace in spiritual disciplines.

    And I’m sure there are as many other situations as there are disciples who could tell their own stories.

    I’m intrigued, for instance, by the story of former non-believer Sara Miles (see ), who came to belief in – and almost-immediate service to – God because she was offered the bread of communion at a church.

  8. Pingback: The Good and Bad of Spiritual Formation (Being Formed within God’s Mission) « One In

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