Saturday, July 31, 2010

What is the Role of Spiritual Disciplines in Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual growth is intentional. We have an active role to play in our progress in the faith—that is why much of the New Testament is addressed to believers. 2 Peter 1:5-7 calls us to make every effort in our growth as Christians, adding to our faith “goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”

Our responsibility in spiritual formation includes our rhythms of prayer, Scripture, solitude, listening, fasting, service, worship, evangelism and other actions that align our head, hearts and hands with God’s will. Although these are “disciplines”—things we do in a consistent, disciplined fashion as disciples of Christ—many prefer the term “rhythm.” These activities are like breathing in and out—the regular rhythm of life for a believer.

Spiritual disciplines never earn salvation (Ephesians 2:5-11). Nevertheless, we are called to train ourselves in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). That word “train” is the Greek term ask─ôsis, from which we derive the English words “ascetic” and “asceticism.” Ascetic practices, then, are the spiritual training exercises—the spiritual disciplines—that help us grow.

Rather than earning us anything, these activities are ways that we make time and place to cultivate our relationship with the Lord. As well as simply enjoying God’s presence during our time set apart for him, we allow him to work in our lives. We open our minds, our hearts and our wills to receive what the Lord has for us—whether to encourage us, direct us, confront us or conform us in ways of which we are not even aware.

As we spend time in Scripture—reading, studying, memorizing, meditating, praying a passage back to God, or doing a combination of the above via Lectio Divina—we are listening for God’s Word to address our lives. Simply keeping up with a reading program, and even memorizing Scripture, is not sufficient, as the Pharisees so clearly demonstrated. Mentally they knew the Bible inside and out, but they failed to allow God’s Word to impact their lives. We need to soak in Scripture and allow it to renew our minds (Rom 12:1-2) and refocus our hearts. Continually we ask the questions: What do I need to learn from this? How must I change? What does this passage say concerning my life? How do I see God’s love for me? Then, we must be ready to follow through on what it says to us. Scripture must be followed by action, as Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28).

Foundational to spiritual growth is solitude with the Lord. Personal relationship of any depth requires one-on-one communication where we are free to share from our hearts. Prayer is our personal time with God. Far from being an item to mark off on some checklist, it is intimate time with the One we love more than anyone else. It is something we look forward to—that “sweet hour of prayer” that draws us from a “world of care”! Uninterrupted solitude, then, gives us the space necessary to pray. As Henri Nouwen observes, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives—healing, teaching, and guiding—we need to set aside a time and space to give him our undivided attention” (Making All Things New, p. 69).

While the exercise of spiritual disciplines is by no means the whole of the Christian life, it is a valuable dynamic of discipleship and lays a foundation for further growth in Christ. On page 158 of his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard groups spiritual exercises under two categories: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. The former group includes what we refrain from doing; the latter refers to what we take initiative to do.

Disciplines of Abstinence
Solitude, Silence, Fasting, Frugality, Chastity, Secrecy, Sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement

Study, Worship, Celebration, Service, Prayer, Fellowship, Confession, Submission

When these practices become the rhythm of our lives, we place ourselves in a position where we are open and receptive to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Spirit who changes us, put these practices help us to be attentive to all that he has for our lives.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography on Spiritual Disciplines
Barton, Ruth Haley. Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-8308-2386-7.
__________. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8308-3333-1.
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3330-6.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Rev. Ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. ISBN: 9780060628390.
Harris, Mark. Companions for your Spiritual Journey: Discovering the Disciplines of the Saints. Vancouver: Regent College Publications, 2005.
Jones, Tony. The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-310-25810-0
Ortberg, John. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. ISBN: 0-310-25074-9.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981. ISBN: 0-06-066326-X.
Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991. ISBN: 1-57683-027-6.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How does Christian Spirituality fit with Evangelicalism?

While the concepts of the Christian growth and maturity have always been a part of biblical faith, the terminology of spiritual formation is rather new to evangelicalism. The year 1978 served as a watershed as Richard Foster published his first edition of Celebration of Discipline and James Houston assumed the Chair of Spiritual Theology at Regent College.

Although a few Evangelical publishers have been reluctant to broach the subject, most have recognized that spiritual formation is part of the mainstream of evangelical faith. A quick look at the bibliography below shows the tip of the iceberg of evangelical works on spiritual formation and the history of Christian spirituality.

As mentioned previously, there is good reason to be cautious about anything promoting “spirituality” in our day, since so much of what is written comes from a perspective of New Age or Eastern Religion. An alarming number of Protestant and Catholic writings—as well as retreat centers—have uncritically adopted New Age thought. Nevertheless, we do not need to abandon the concept of Christian growth simply because various writers and speakers have distorted it.

While soundly biblical and evangelical, the study of Christian spirituality or spiritual formation includes a much broader Christian discussion. Such a broader approach is absolutely necessary to save evangelical thought from its limited perspective. Because of this broader appreciation of the Christian faith, many fundamentalists will not subscribe to the developments in Christian spiritual formation. Nevertheless, the vast majority of evangelicalism recognizes its value.

Throughout the centuries, great figures have clearly articulated Jesus’ atonement and salvation by grace, especially Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, and lesser known figures such as the German preacher Johannes Tauler. Although many Protestants today do not realize it, Martin Luther and John Calvin deeply appreciated Augustine, building most of their theology on the foundation he laid. They also respected Bernard, with his unflagging commitment to Scripture, and Anselm, with his emphasis on Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross. Luther stated that next to the Bible itself, the Johannes Tauler had the greatest impact on his theology. Therefore, spiritual formation today seeks to bring the writings of such key figures to a contemporary audience.

Thus the best thinking on spiritual formation includes Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives—all Christians who recognize that faith must be lived out personally in a vital relationship with Christ and who receive salvation through Christ’s death and literal resurrection. Such an orthodox understanding of the faith has always been part of the historic Church and is perhaps summarized most clearly by the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography on Christian Spirituality and Evangelicalism

Bloesch, Donald G. Spirituality Old and New: Recovering Authentic Spiritual Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2838-8.
Chan, Simon. Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. ISBN: 0-06-062822-7.
Foster, Richard and Gayle Beebe. Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3514-0.
George, Timothy and Alister McGrath. For All the Saints: Evangelical Theology and Christian Spirituality. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003. ISBN: 06642-26655.
Gordon, James M. Evangelical Spirituality: From the Wesleys to John Stott. London: SPCK, 1991. ISBN: 0-2810-4542-9.
Richards, Lawrence O. A Practical Theology of Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987. ISBN: 0-310-39140-7.
McGrath, Alister. Beyond the Quiet Time: Practical Evangelical Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995. ISBN: 0-8010-5708-6.
__________. Spirituality in an Age of Change: Rediscovering the Spirit of the Reformers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. ISBN: 0-3104-2921-8.
Schmidt, Richard H. God Seekers: Twenty Centuries of Christian Spiritualities. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8028-2840-8.
Scorgie, Glen, et al, eds. Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.
Sittser, Gerald. Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Recommended Classic: Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila

Many people today are discovering the goldmine of spiritual insight found in the Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. Teresa describes seven stages we go through in our pursuit of intimacy with Christ. Packed with brilliant insights, Teresa’s portrayal of the Christian pilgrimage is one of the best works ever written on spiritual progress.

Describing the stages of spiritual formation, Teresa uses the imagery of a Castle with seven levels to it—much like seven concentric circles. We enter the Christian life on the outer circle and progress toward the innermost circle where Christ shines brightly. He resides in the innermost chamber of the believer’s heart. The process toward an ever-closer relationship with our Lord is long, though. Teresa is honest in her discussion of the various fleshy temptations (she calls them lizards!) that keep sneaking into the rooms of our life. If we persevere, however, we will enjoy an ever-deeper intimacy with him.

Teresa was a Carmelite nun in 16th century Spain. Through the heartaches of life—and ministry—she put her roots deep down into Christ. She became the head of a convent and eventually led a whole reform movement in the Carmelite Order. Teresa was radically in love with Jesus. A blessing to Christians ever since, Teresa recorded the principles of spiritual growth that she learned along the way. In a charming style, she presents those principles in her various writings, especially the Interior Castle.

Appreciated especially by believers open to spiritual gifts, the Interior Castle describes various spiritual gifts and spiritual experiences of breath-taking ecstasy that many encounter along the way. Yet, Teresa is so down to earth. She always points out our subtle self-focus and challenges us to truly understand ourselves (self-knowledge) and our propensity to pride and selfishness. Yet she provides unflagging hope—we can achieve the relationship with Christ we were meant to have.

Down-to-earth and practical—as well as soaring with spiritual heights and intimacy—Teresa’s classic is a must-read for anyone studying the process of Christian formation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

How do Discipleship and Spiritual Formation Relate?

The field of spiritual formation and what we call discipleship overlap substantially. Both pursue spiritual growth in Christ, and both emphasize the dynamic process of that growth. They explore what it means to follow Christ and live as his disciple. In a sense, the terms are synonymous—both can refer to the whole of our Christian life. However, as they are commonly used today they have somewhat different connotations. There are recognizable differences in how each approach the arena of Christian growth.

1. Foundational
Discipleship focuses on laying a foundation in the Christian life. It introduces new believers to the basic truths of Scripture—the authority of the Word, assurance of salvation, content of the Gospel, and the call to a sanctified life. Discipleship aims at establishing the basic rhythms of the Christian walk, especially a daily devotional time that cultivates Bible reading and prayer. Likewise, it seeks to institute the rhythms of corporate faith, especially worship, small group fellowship and commitment to a local body of Christ. Discipleship begins the process of character development and holy living, in particular confronting more blatant sins of the flesh. It also challenges believers to direct their attention toward others through service, evangelism, outreach and ministry of various kinds.

Because these foundational elements are necessary to all new believers, discipleship lends itself to being packaged as a program. Whether through a class, small group, or one-on-one, discipleship often maintains a basic curriculum upon which to build one’s life of faith.

2. Focused on Activity
Second, the term discipleship focuses on activity. It calls believers to action both in terms of their own spiritual practices and their service to others. By doing so, discipleship views spiritual growth primarily as a result—sometimes even a predictable, measurable outcome—of the various activities it purports. Its orientation toward activity emphasizes the need for discipline and the training of our mind, body, will and emotions.

3. Narrow in Scope
Finally, discipleship tends to be fairly narrow in its scope. It usually centers about the basics of private prayer and Scripture reading and memorization. Even within Bible study and prayer, modern discipleship emphasizes the cognitive and rational dynamics of these disciplines.

Spiritual Formation
1. Whole of the Christian Life
Spiritual formation includes the basic elements of faith but goes on to incorporate the whole of the Christian life. Instead of focusing primarily on the foundation—as does discipleship—spiritual formation provides a map for growth the whole of one’s life.

Since Origen in the third century after Christ, spiritual growth has often been seen in terms of three overarching periods or eras of the believer. These have been given different names over the ages, but very much refer to the same basic stages of growth:

1. Purgation Beginner Discipleship
2. Illumination Progressing Service/Ministry
3. Union Mature Christ-Life

Just as 1 John 2:12-14 refers to three stages in life—children, youth, fathers/mothers—to describe various believers, this threefold schema recognizes that there is going to be growth in Christ. If there is growth, then newcomers are beginners, by definition. Classically this stage was called purgation because one main focus of this season in life is being set free and cleansed—purged—of worldly ways and worldly thinking. Our contemporary concept of discipleship corresponds almost exactly with this traditional first season of Christian growth.

Unfortunately, many Christians in our day never move beyond the basics of discipleship. In fact, far too many never see their foundation laid well at all. However, there are those who press on in the Lord and move into a second season of life. These are the progressing, ones who are experiencing a victorious Christian life. They have general triumph over besetting sins in their lives. They have learned to persevere with Jesus day in and day out. They maintain a vital walk with him and make time to cultivate that personal relationship. They know God’s Word and share it with others. In fact, it is because the Scripture is bright and clear for believers in this stage that it was originally referred to as illumination.

Finally, we have those who are mature in the Lord. They share an intimate relationship with God that has been tested through the ups and downs of life. A. B. Simpson referred to this as the Christ Life. No longer seeking the blessings or even the power of God, these believers are simply in love with him. Christ has become their all-in-all. Repeatedly the New Testament calls us to move on to maturity.

These are three general eras of spiritual formation. Although this paradigm might not be perfect, it gives a nice overview of progress in the Christian life. That overview offers not only a map for our personal growth, it provides a challenge for many today who simply want to pray a little prayer and then hold on ‘til heaven. Such a concept of stagnant faith is found nowhere in the New Testament. Rather, we are called continually to press on, running the race “to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor 9:25) and growing up until we all “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

2. Beyond Activity
Spiritual formation moves beyond the activism of standard discipleship. While it recognizes the need for our engagement in the process of growth, it realizes that the deepest transformation that takes place in our lives comes about through hardship, trials and suffering. James 1:2-4 states, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be [perfect/mature], lacking in nothing” (NASB). Like our passive role in receiving radiation treatment, we embrace circumstances that God allows in order that he can burn out the cancer of self-focus that encircles the vital organs of our lives. Much maturity comes only through testing, trials and suffering.

Likewise, as we mature much more of our prayer becomes silence and surrender to the Lord. While we still bring big and little requests to our Heavenly Father, we learn to listen to him more and simply to rest in his presence. We cultivate stillness.

3. Broader in its Approach

Finally, spiritual formation has a broader approach than discipleship. It incorporates a much wider set of spiritual rhythms. In addition to Bible reading and memorization, it embraces the practice of lectio divina. It highlights the role of spiritual retreats and pilgrimages, as well as fasting and silence and solitude.

Spiritual formation is also broader is scope in the way that it appreciates a wider view of Christians found in other denominations and believers from the past 2000 years of the church. Discipleship is a popular evangelical term, and it often assumes one must become an evangelical in order to be saved. Spiritual formation recognizes believers in Roman Catholic settings, Orthodox churches and genuine Christians over the centuries. It has a great appreciation for the spiritual writings from the past 20 centuries of church history. One classic that beautifully describes the process of spiritual maturity is Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Teresa describes the stages—and the struggles—of spiritual growth with insights I have never seen by other authors on the Christian life, past or present. Appreciating classics such as Teresa’s, the field of spiritual formation offers wonderful new horizons of the faith to contemporary Christians.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography
Andrews, Alan, ed. The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010. ISBN: 978-16000-6280-3.
Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001. 0-3102-2153-6.
Howard, Evan B. The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008. ISBN: 978-15874-30381.
Mulholland, M. Robert. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-8308-1386-1.
Smith, Gordon T. Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle. Translated by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. ISBN: 0-385-03643-4.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Recommended Book: A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller

For those looking for a great book on prayer and spiritual growth, I highly recommend Paul Miller’s book, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009). Engaging the reader from the opening pages, A Praying Life presents prayer as an ongoing conversation with a loving God. Stepping back from the “discipline” approach to prayer, Miller show how much of our common practices of prayer are fake—therefore they kill prayer.

Instead Miller demonstrates how we need to weave prayer into our daily lives, relationships and struggles, as he masterfully weaves his own story with the lessons of prayer. In 1981 he and his wife, Jill, had a special needs child, which has shaped their whole life since. At one point the heartache and exhaustion they experienced virtually closed down their practice of prayer—only to have that prayer life resurrected in a vibrant and holistic way.

If you have ever struggled with prayer, this book is for you! Miller presents a fresh approach to our walk with God and provides lots of stories as well as practical suggestions. Each chapter is brief, interesting and oh so applicable! A Praying Life is one of the most refreshing reads I have had in a long time!

Monday, July 12, 2010

What is the Goal of Spiritual Formation?

The goal of spiritual formation is Christian growth. That growth entails development of character, inner transformation and deepening friendship with God and others.

First, spiritual formation means growth in character. The objective in the Christian’s life is not simply to “get saved” but to be changed into Christ’s character, conformed to Christ’s very image (Rom 8:29). In his Invitation to a Journey, Robert Mulholland provides a concise definition of spiritual formation as “(1) a process (2) of being conformed (3) to the image of Christ (4) for the sake of others” (p. 15). As Paul stated in Galatians 4:19, he was in labor until “Christ is formed” in us.

Second, spiritual formation is inner transformation—it is not simply conforming to a set of expected rules of conduct. Some Christian communities fall into this trap, assuming that outward compliant insures inner growth. Rather, formation means that we are in the process of a substantive metamorphosis. Sometimes referred to as the deeper Christian life, we are to be changed from the inside out by God’s work in our lives. We are to be transformed by the continual renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). We become like what we worship. Thus as we adore the Lord and contemplate his glorious splendor, we are transformed from “glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18).

Such inner transformation necessitates that we honestly face the manifestations of our old “man”—the old self or old nature—often referred to as the “false self.” We are called to put off the old nature that we all have because of the fall —indeed, put to death that old self—and instead put on our new nature in Christ (see especially Eph 4: 17-32 and Col 3:1-17). Mulholland’s Deeper Journey and various other works listed below provide practical guides to recognizing our old nature and walking in genuine transformation.

Third, spiritual formation leads into ever-deepening intimacy with God. Christianity is not simply moral living—it is by necessity a personal relationship. From the opening chapters of Genesis through the final pages of the New Testament, God seeks a vibrant friendship with us as human persons. Even in his old age, the Apostle Paul prayed, “I want to know Christ,” desiring an ever deeper relationship with the Lord (Phil 3:10). In devotional classics, perhaps nowhere is that journey toward intimacy more beautifully described than in Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle.

Christian Tradition
Although the terminology of “spiritual formation” may be new in some Christian circles, the concept is clearly stated in the New Testament, using various phrases, such as putting on our new nature, walking in Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, and growing in sanctification. Such an emphasis upon Christian growth has followed through the centuries of the church, sometimes with different nomenclature:
• Moral theology
• Practical theology
• Christian education
• Christian living.
The discipline of spiritual formation overlaps substantial with each of these fields. While each of these terms has a slightly different emphasis and approaches Christian formation from a unique angle, all share the same goal of transformation and growth in Christ.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography
Barton, Ruth Haley. Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-8308-2386-7.
Bridges, Jerry. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. ISBN: 1-57683-463-8.
Crabb, Larry. Inside Out. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1990. ISBN: 08910-91963.
Hougen, Judith. Transformed into Fire: An Invitation to Life in the True Self. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002. ISBN: 0-8254-2890-4.
Houston, James M. In Pursuit of Happiness: Finding Genuine Fulfillment in Life. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1996.
Manning, Brennan. Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994.
May, Gerald G. Addiction and Grace. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. ISBN: 0-06-065537-2.
Mulholland, M. Robert. The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8308-3277-7.
__________. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-8308-1386-1.
Smith, Gordon T. Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle. Translated by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. ISBN: 0-385-03643-4.
Thrall, Bill, Bruce McNicol and John Lynch. TrueFaced: Trust God and Others with Who you Really Are. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003. ISBN: 1-57683-446-8.
Thomas, Gary. Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996/2002. ISBN: 0-310-24284-3.
Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God. Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1982. ISBN: 0-87509-366-3.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
__________. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What is Christian Spirituality? What is Spiritual Formation?

Christian spirituality encompasses the entirety of the Christian life. A holistic approach to faith, it includes our beliefs and practices, as well as the way we live our everyday lives. As believers, our friendships, our acts of kindness, and our inner thoughts and attitudes reflect our spiritual well-being—and contribute to our formation—as much as our spiritual disciplines, corporate worship and active evangelism. Christian spirituality is “the character of our actual, lived relationship with God through the Spirit of Christ, as describing our practice of relationship with Christ” (Howard, 16).

A certain caution should be used, however, when employing the term “spirituality,” since it finds wide usage today, often carrying overtones of New Age thought, Eastern religion and/or nature worship. When assessing spirituality, we must see if what is being purported is genuine Christianity, rooted in Scripture and centered on Christ as fully God and fully man.

Christian Spiritual Formation

Often used synonymously with Christian spirituality, the term “spiritual formation” is valuable because it highlights the process of growth in the life of a believer. The life of faith was never meant to be static—conversion is the starting line, not the place to set up camp for the remainder of our time on earth! We indeed are on a pilgrimage.

John Bunyan’s famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress, is a classic devotional work on the process of spiritual growth. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo masterfully describes the inner journey he took from unbelief to faith in Christ, and then his growth in faith toward intimacy with God. The Spiritual Espousals by John Ruysbroeck (Ruusbroec) is a lesser known classic that systematically and insightfully depicts states of Christian growth. Perhaps the best recent discussion of the process of formation is M. Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey.

God Initiates: We respond
God designed us to mature spiritually. We cannot cause our own growth or transform ourselves—no matter how hard we try—any more than we can save ourselves. Rather, the Lord is the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2), and the One who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1: 6).

God works in us “to will and to do his good pleasure,” states Philippians 2:13. Nevertheless, as verse 12 asserts, we have a role to play: we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” While God is the one who forms us, we must respond to the divine initiative. We have the responsibility of acting in obedience to the Lord’s commands.

The very terms “spiritual formation” and “spirituality” imply the role of God’s Spirit in our growth. While prayer and Scripture study, spiritual direction and the practice of various disciplines, may all be part of our journey, it is the Holy Spirit who works in our lives to convict of sin, to transform us and to bear fruit in our lives (Gal 5:22-23). Our role is to “live in accordance with the Spirit” and allow ourselves to be “controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-17). We must “keep in step with the Spirit”—walking by the Holy Spirit, and being led by God’s Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).

Spiritual formation, then, is the study or the science of our responding to what the Lord is doing in our lives. It looks at the process of spiritual growth and what our role is in that process. That role includes intentional rhythms of prayer, solitude, Scripture, worship and other spiritual disciplines. It involves our response to trials and the unexpected circumstances of life. Our task entails the cultivation of godly friendships and self-sacrificial service to others.

The study of spiritual formation also looks at the various stages of growth along the journey. Because most believers progress through similar steps in their maturation process, it is valuable to explore the dynamics of those common experiences in our pilgrimage. While not trying to fit everyone into the same mold, the discipline of spiritual formation seeks to offer insights, encouragement and direction, especially during dark and dry times of life.

© 2010 Glenn E. Myers

Selected Bibliography on Christian Spirituality and Spiritual Formation
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN: 0-19-281774-4.
Boa, Kenneth. Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. ISBN: 978-0-310-23848-5.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, n.d. ISBN: 0-8007-8609-2. Plus, there are literally hundreds of editions of this classic.
Collins, Kenneth. Exploring Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000. ISBN: 0-8010-2233-9.
Dunham, Maxie. Alive in Christ: The Dynamic Process of Spiritual Formation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1982.
Francis de Sales. Introduction to the Devout Life. Translated by John K. Ryan. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1955.
Howard, Evan B. The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008. ISBN: 978-15874-30381.
John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works. Translated and edited by James A. Wiseman. In The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985. ISBN: 0-8091-2729-6.
Lawrenz, Mel. The Dynamics of Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000. ISBN: 0-8010-9097-0.
Lovelace, Richard F. Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979.
McGrath, Alister. Christian Spirituality: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. ISBN: 978-0-6312-1281-2.
__________. The Christian Vision of God. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8006-3705-7.
Mulholland, M. Robert. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-8308-1386-1.
Packer, James I. Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973. ISBN: 0-87784-770-3.
Scorgie, Glen. A Little Guide to Christian Spirituality: Three Dimensions of Life with God. 2007.
Smith, Gordon T. On the Way: A Guide to Christian Spirituality. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001. ISBN: 1-56783-237-6.