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.


  1. A new release you might want to check out is The Kingdom Life, a practical theology of discipleship and spiritual formation.

  2. Your blog is well written and informative. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts with the world.

  3. Thank you for the encouraging words and the book suggestion from NavPress!

  4. Dear Glenn,my name is Pastor Anthony Makena. i am a Masters student in Leadership at a University in Nairobi, Kenya and a Pastor at Citam Valley road. I have appreciated your contribution on " the goal of Spiritual Formation."and what it entails. If we as Christians could give ourselves to these understandings and work them out, we would avoid the superficiality which is rampant in our churches. My email address is