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Spiritual Formation

God giving power through his Spirit so that you might
become strong in your inner selves (Ephesians 3:16).

by Rowland Croucher (GRID, Winter 1991)

The law of the Lord is perfect… The commands of
the Lord are trustworthy… The worship of the Lord is good…
The judgments of the Lord are just… Your servant is formed by

May my words and my thoughts be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my refuge and my redeemer!

(Excerpts Psalm 19:7-14, GNB, JB).

Christian Spirituality is about the movements of
God’s Spirit in one’s life, in the community of faith, and in
the cosmos. It is concerned with how all realities relate, enlivened,
enlightened, and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus.

Each of us is being ‘formed’ all the time. ‘Formation’
happens because we’re human. Christians, too, are ‘made not born’
(Tertullian). The key question: is our spiritual formation intentional
or haphazard? How do Christians mature in their faith, loving
God with heart, mind, soul and strength and others as themselves?
How do they learn to do justice, to love tenderly, and to walk
humbly with their God (Micah 6:8)?

The two Emmaus disciples experienced a ‘formational’
experience one day which transformed them. The Word of God in
Scripture was the touchstone, together with reflection, discussion
and discernment about the meaning of the Word of God. To that
we add the sense (not recognition) of the presence of the Lord
on the journey. The Master questioned and taught them. There was
a moment of recognition in the breaking of bread – a momentary
and passing experience. So we have an interaction of Scripture
and sacrament, preaching and celebration. From the perspective
of spiritual formation, the notion of journey is the key. Then,
finally, there is witness-bearing, sharing in the community what
has happened to them.

Spiritual formation is the dynamic process whereby
the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God to the heart and
mind of the child of God so that she or he becomes more and more
like the Son of God.

A dynamic process. The human life is not fixed or
finished, but rather dynamic and malleable. We are invited to
change and grow. But if you want potatoes for dinner tomorrow
it won’t do much good to plant them today. Potatoes – like Christians
– mature, after planting, through a long period of darkness, invisibility,
and silence; cultivating, weeding and nurturing. Biblical images
of formation include the parable of the cultivation of seeds and
plants (Matthew 13); the metaphor of the potter, remaking a vessel
when a first attempt failed, requiring in the clay submission
and flexibility (Jeremiah 18); wrestling with God until we submit
to his sovereign will (Genesis 32).

On our side, the process is one of discipline. A
concert pianist practises for long hours so that the concerto
can be played as if by second nature. Mature formation doesn’t
happen by chance: it is a matter of intentionality, obedience
and discipline. But formation is more than a disciplined mastery
of spiritual techniques: the Christian life is rooted not in a
method but in a person. A person who is with us, even in the darkness,
when we pray as Varady did in Elie Wiesel’s novel The Town Beyond
the Wall: ‘Oh God, be with me when I have need of you, but above
all do not leave me when I deny you.’

The Word of God. The New Testament writers cannot
conceive of spiritual formation occurring without the Word of
God. The Word of God is God’s instrument to discern and judge
our deepest thoughts and desires (Hebrews 4:12). We are born again
through the living and eternal Word of God (1 Peter 1:23). The
Word in all its richness is to live in our hearts (Colossians
3:16). We are to hold firmly to it (Titus 1:9). When we use the
expression ‘Word of God’ we ought immediately to think of a Person,
God’s living, incarnate Word. ‘God has already placed Jesus Christ
as the one and only foundation; no other foundation can be laid’
(1 Corinthians 3:11).

There are two ways, generally, we can approach the
written Word of God in the Bible: ‘scientifically’, as a critic
of the text; or ‘devotionally’, allowing the Scripture to be critical
of us. Actually, these two ought not to be mutually exclusive:
but the first method alone will lead to spiritual aridity; the
second alone to subjective piety.

Prayer, as Wesley put it, is to be policed by reason
and a meditation on the Scriptures. Wesley recommended that preachers
put in six hours a day in prayer, Bible study and reading. Other
Christians need only spend two hours! In one of his letters to
a new convert, Margaret Lewen, he recommended one hundred specific
books she should read.

But is ‘reason’ or ‘mind’ our only resource to apprehend
God and his Word? Blaise Pascal reminds us that ‘the heart has
reasons of which reason knows not.’ ‘The one who loves God in
the way reason argues or the intellect understands, does not love
the true God’, said Miguel Molinos. Catherine de Hueck Doherty
invites us to ‘fold the wings of the intellect and open the door
of the heart’ if we are to know and love God. Carlo Carretto made
the most important discovery in his life of prayer: ‘that prayer
takes place in the heart, not in the head.’ Both heart and mind
(probably in that order) must be open: fideism is the subjective,
anti-intellectual appeal to the authority of individual experience;
but a cerebral rationalism is not a better alternative. Rather,
we ‘praise the Lord’ with ‘all our beings’ (Psalm 103:1).

The Child of God. In the spiritual life we are always
learning and growing. Karl Barth used to say he was suspicious
of any effort to cultivate spiritual expertise. In our life in
the Spirit, Barth wrote shortly before his death, we must all
be ‘beginners’, amateurs.

And don’t forget children grow to maturity in families.
Growing Christians, too, need the community of faith, the church.
Bonhoeffer spoke of the church as ‘Christ-existing-as-community’.
In families, children are loved into emotional maturity or scolded
into neuroticism. In the church, people are loved into spiritual
maturity, or, sadly, sometimes scolded into pharisaism. Our parents,
and parents-in-the- faith, model maturity for us. Paul was quite
open about this process (see, eg. 1 Thessalonians 2:8). Every
Timothy needs a Paul, every Paul should have a couple of Timothys,
and every Paul and Timothy need a Barnabas, to encourage them.
Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman (The Social Construction
of Reality), have helped us understand how living and interacting
with others helps us form concepts of ‘reality’ in every sphere
of life.

Families – including the church, the family of God
– are places in which, ideally, you can be ‘who you are’ and still
be loved and accepted.

Our relationship with God is like every other relationship:
it is nurtured (or it isn’t) to the degree that we are honest
and present in the relationship. As the popular devotional hymn
puts it, ‘Have thine own way, Lord’. As we surrender to his will,
turbulence gives way to stillness, turmoil to serenity. He is
the Lord of the tempest and of tranquility. As we allow him to
steer our ship through troubled waters, and come to the harbour
of protected peace – only then can we be ‘yielded and still’.
We are formed, spiritually, both when we experience times of dereliction
and inklings of grace.

Kenneth Leach (1986:13) writes: ‘To sum up, the New
Testament letters offer us three major insights into Christian
spiritual formation: it is a social act, rooted in the Christian
community, the Body of Christ; it is a process involving growth
and progress towards maturity; and it is a putting on and sharing
of Christ’s nature.’

The Image of God. In our Spiritual formation Jesus
Christ becomes more and more the shaping power of our lives. He
graciously and gradually restores the image of God to all levels
of our being. Put simply, our goal is to become more like Jesus,
who is ‘the visible likeness of the invisible God’ (Colossians
1:15). Thomas Merton writes somewhere, ‘The identity or the person
which is the subject of this transcendent consciousness is not
the ego as isolated and contingent, but the person as "found"
and "actualized" in union with Christ.’

As Jesus lived a life of radical freedom and service
to others, so too our spiritual disciplines must carry us into,
not away from, lived experience. Their primary purpose is not
correct thinking or right beliefs, or even effective action, but
rather with how all these spheres, including our relationships,
are integrated into our total awareness (Thayer 1985:57). Our
aim is to become liberated creatures committed to the freedom
of humanity. Or, as Jurgen Moltmann has written, ‘Christian freedom
understands itself… as the beginning and foretaste of that all-encompassing
freedom which will bless all [humanity] in all things.’ We come,
more and more, as Barth put it, under the command of one to whom
we already belong, and who calls us to join him in his continuing
ministry, actualizing the new life he continually gives…

The practice of spirituality is not merely reflecting
on God, but an obedient living out in the world of a dynamic relationship
with God. Spiritual formation is not just about ‘how to seek God’
but rather ‘how not to resist God’s gracious initiatives’. It
is an inter-dependence of faith and works. Or, it is the interdependence
of knowing, being and doing.

To sum up: Spiritual formation begins with receptive
faith, is nurtured through reading and obeying the Scriptures,
is renewed every week through the worship and fellowship of the
church, and is given ‘muscle’ through commitment, discipline,
and self-forgetful service.

Further reading:

Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook of Intercessory Prayer
(1979), and The Workbook on Spiritual Disciplines (1984), The
Upper Room. Don Postema, Space for God: The Study and Practice
of Prayer and Spirituality, Bible Way, 1983. Tilden Edwards, Living
Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age, Paulist
Press, 1977. (Four workbooks to help with prayer, meditation and
other spiritual disciplines).

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The path
to spiritual growth, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980. (Still one
of the best introductions to spiritual disciplines).

Mark Link, You: Prayer for Beginners and for Those
Who Have Forgotten How (1976), and Breakaway: 28 Steps to a More
Prayerful Life (1980), Allen, Argus Communications. (Written originally
for high school students, they contain excellent ideas for contemplative

Maxie Dunnam, Alive in Christ: The Dynamic Process
of Spiritual Formation, Abingdon, 1982. (A good introduction to
the idea of Spiritual Formation being nothing more than ‘Christ
in you’…).

William A. Barry & William J. Connolly, The Practice
of Spiritual Direction, Seabury Press, 1982. (Of the many books
now available on the subject, this has the value of ‘verbatims’
describing what actually happens in spiritual direction).

Gordon Jeff, Spiritual Direction – for Every Christian,
SPCK, 1987. (Suggests that in every congregation some possess
a latent gift for spiritual direction).

Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care, Sheldon
Press, 1986. Nelson S. T. Thayer, Spirituality and Pastoral Care,
Fortress Press, 1985.

John Carmody, Holistic Spirituality, Paulist, 1983.
(Spirituality and everyday life).

James Whitehill, Enter the Quiet: Everyone’s way
to Meditation, Harper & Row, 1980. (Meditation and everyday

An Australian Prayer Book (1978) and A New Zealand
Prayer Book (1989). (Try the Daily Devotions in the NZ book: beautiful!).


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