Monday, July 27, 2009

A Call to Spiritual Formation (3)

The Definition

The definition offered is Christian spiritual formation is the process of being shaped by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ, filled with love for God and the world.

Christian spiritual formation must be identified and recognized that it is distinct from other types of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation occurs whether we are aware of it or not. All of us are being spiritually formed at all times. Therefore Christian spiritual formation is distinctive because it occurs after “conversion” when one comes to believe in the saving grace of Christ’s work on the cross. During the process of conversion, after receiving justification, the Holy Spirit is sealed onto our spirits to begin the great work of sanctification or as Dallas Willard calls it, ‘the renovation of our souls.’

It is important to recognize that Christian spiritual process is a process. Unlike justification which is instantaneous, spiritual growth takes time. Paul uses the metaphor of putting off our old nature and putting on the new nature. This is further illustrated by the “wretched man” when he explains the struggle of the old and new nature in Romans 7.

I will suggest an important qualifier for the word process – intentionality. Christian spiritual formation is an intentional process. It is volitional and involves choice. We can choose to grow spiritually or not to grow at all. We can chose to be “mature beginners” as John Coe suggested, feeling on spiritual milk despite decades of membership in the church. The role of the Holy Spirit is recognized here as the shaper of our spiritual formation. However the Holy Spirit will only work with our consent. Unlike inanimate clay, we are embodied souls and the Holy Spirit respects our freedom to choose.

According to the wording of this definition, the telos or goals of Christian spiritual formation is (1) shaped into the likeness of Christ, (2) filled with love for God, and (3) filled with love for the world. The first goal is obvious from biblical literature as God wants to restore the imago dei in us and to recreated the shalom or perfection of the created order through his Son, Jesus Christ.

I am curious about the notion of being “filled” with love for God and the world. This implied a passive filling love which is an emotive term. When Jesus summaries all the teaching in the Old Testament into loving God and loving our neighbours (Mark 12:29-31), love is used as an active verb. Christian spiritual formation is not to be filled with love for God and the world (though it may have a part) but to love God. The process of loving God involves taking part in what Karl Barth called the missio Dei – the great redemption plan of God for all mankind and the fallen created order. This will mean that the process of Christian spiritual formation will involve becoming co-partners with God in restoring the damaged planet and fallen humanity.

This definition implies an individualistic Christian spirituality. It seems to describe a type of Christian spirituality that is between me and my God. This is a dangerous type of Christian spirituality because it will lead a person to be totally inward-looking and be exposed to the risk of falling into the idolatry of narcissism. Thomas Merton points out the risk of individualistic spirituality and differentiates it from contemplative spirituality. True Christian spiritual formation is personal but not individual. It is communal where the community of faith is both the nurturing crucible, and the matrix where Christian spiritual transformation takes place. The church or a community of faith, in spite of its imperfect, is vital to Christian spiritual formation.

Christian spiritual formation is an intentional process which may be facilitated by the means of Christian spiritual formation such as assimilating the Word, practicing the spiritual disciplines, church traditions, fellowship, prayer and other such practices that open us to God. It is something we can do. Christian spiritual transformation on the other hand, occurs during the process of the Christian spiritual formation where true transformation takes place. It is often a movement from the cognitive to the affective. Christian spiritual transformation is the act of the Holy Spirit and is pure grace.

In summary I will offer the following definition: Christian spiritual formation is the intentional process of being shaped by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ in our communities of faith, developing our love for God by taking part in his redemption plan for humankind and the earth.



  1. I would suggest that some authentic, Christian spiritual formation occurs when we are not intentional about it. Sometimes we grow well when we are simply engaged in living according to our nature, according to love, or according to the will of God. Intentionality is necessary along the way, I think, but it is not necessary for every action. Perhaps there is an unconscious intentionality that is just as effective as a conscious one. One of the Niebuhrs (I can't remember which one) described will-fullness, will-lessness, and willingness. Perhaps there is a rightly willing stance that qualifies as intentional without being consciously aware of having made a choice.

  2. Hi soulformation,

    welcome. I agree with you that sometimes our "intentions" are subconscious. There are deep hunger in our soul for God. To those who respond to this hunger will intentionally seek God.

    There is much research needed to understand what actually happens during the process of Christian spiritual formation - in our mind, emotion, volition, spirit, soul and physical being.