January 21, 2021

Another Look: Spiritual Formation — How It Happens


We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.

– Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines

Let’s say I’m in a room with three adults, all seated at pianos. I want to find out their ability to play the instrument. I ask them all to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The first has trouble. The keyboard is unfamiliar. She stumbles around and finally finds a few notes that resemble the simple tune. The second and third pick out the notes right away.

Then I ask them to play a four-part hymn from a hymnal. I hand each the same book. Once again, the first struggles, stopping with each chord and passing note to look at her hands, then back up at the music. She finally gives up. The second plays the notes as written. The third also plays the tune, but enhances the hymn with additional chords and rhythmic patterns.

Finally, I turn to these three friends and say, “OK, for your final challenge, I would like to hear you play Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The first laughs. She barely knows who Bach is, and has never heard of this particular piece. The second has heard of it, but has no idea how to play it. The third pauses, sets her hands on the keyboard, and begins playing the opening aria.

All three of these friends have a relationship with the piano. One is an obvious beginner, still trying to grasp the basics. The second is a competent pianist. She can read music and play from a book. The third is much farther advanced. There is no hesitation about picking out simple tunes. Not only can she read and play from a score, she has the ability to improvise and explore a song’s possibilities. And she has obviously studied and mastered classic pieces of the repertoire. In fact, she can play complex works on the spot, upon request! They all “know” the piano. Only one has the capacity to make music at any given moment, solely from the resources that lie within her.

The goal of spiritual formation is to be a person that would do what Jesus would do, say what Jesus would say, think and feel what Jesus would think and feel, at the moment when it is required — the moment of crisis or need or opportunity. As Dallas Willard so helpfully reminds us, the question “What would Jesus do?” is not enough. Instead, we must be driven beyond that query to ask, “Why would Jesus do what he would do?” and, “How can I live and walk in relationship with God as Jesus did, so that I too might do as he would?”

These are key questions for spiritual formation.

learn-piano-slowIt is not “natural” for someone to play Bach on the piano. Making music at such a high level is not something innate or automatically produced. You can’t do it simply by wanting to do it, by having watched others doing it or by reading about it. A person might love the music of Bach with all her heart, however that deep emotional connection alone would not make it possible for her to play a Bach piece. Even if one could read the score and analyze it musically, that knowledge would not translate into an ability to perform the music.

Likewise, it is not “natural” for human beings who are flawed because of sin, who live in circumstances where the powers of world, flesh, and devil exert profound influence, to be like Jesus. Nor does it come automatically to those who have been born anew in Christ, saved by grace through faith. By faith we have obtained access to a new realm of “grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2). However, though we stand in grace, we remain beset by sin, and therefore acting in a Christ-like manner does not come automatically or easily to us in the midst of life’s circumstances. It is therefore incumbent upon us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2Pet. 3:18).

The question is how this growth occurs. All Christian traditions agree that the spiritual growth and formation of his people is, in an ultimate sense, God’s work — “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus(Phil. 1:6). But how does he do this “perfecting” work in his people? I am not among those who believe the Bible teaches an instantaneous work of sanctification through a “second blessing” or crisis faith experience. As I understand it, progress in Christian development is a process that requires our active cooperation with God as he works in our lives.

This is where the use of spiritual practices (the disciplines) comes in. The pianist who is capable of playing Bach from memory when asked can do so because of a life devoted to learning the piano, practicing scales and exercises, studying under good teachers, following a plan that allows her to progress in skill and interpretive ability, and dedicating herself to mastering particular pieces of music. She can respond in the moment and play Bach because she has engaged in an intense hidden life of devotion and discipline. Her goal of making beautiful music for people in public concerts is made possible by the unseen life of preparation. Somewhere along the line, it was clear she had the talent, the life-force within her, to be a musician. She had to cooperate in relationships and processes that would nurture and develop that talent. That meant also that she had to deny herself other activities in order to devote herself to her music.

Playing_piano_by_Lady_ErinIn the same way, in Romans 6, Paul tells those who have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” (6:3):

  • In Christ, you are meant to “make beautiful music” by “walking in newness of life” (6:4).
  • In Christ, you have the potential for this — you can count on the fact that you are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).
  • Therefore, in Christ you must act — don’t present the members of your body to the life of sin anymore, rather present yourself to God, dedicate yourself to this new life in Christ, and “present your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (6:13-14).

What the Apostle writes here is akin to what any master teacher would say to a promising music student. You can make beautiful music. In order to do so, you have to accept this as your calling and believe that God has given you the talent to do it. And you must dedicate yourself to an overall life of disciplined preparation, denying yourself anything that might hinder your development, embracing a rigorous life of training.

The problem with much Christian teaching is that it is merely moralistic. It does not point us to the process of grace by which beautiful music can come forth from our lives. It shouts commands — Be loving! Be patient! Be kind! Forgive those who hurt you! Be pure of heart! Guard your tongue! Resist temptation! Bear up under trials! Give thanks always! But it fails to say — Here’s how to develop the habits of grace. Here’s how to practice. Here’s a teacher who can work with you to nurture your gifts. Here is a set of “scales” that will help you advance to the next level. Here is the time and space you need to pursue the kind of secret life that will enable you to “walk in newness of life” in your daily affairs.

We don’t need to “develop” these practices or find new ones. The well known disciplines such as solitude and silence, fasting and frugality, worship and confession, etc., have been around for millennia. We have often tried to replace them with lists of shallow “how to” advice, but these fail to go to the heart of our need. We have promoted church activities and programs and have ignored the secret, unimpressive training exercises that really do the trick when it comes to helping us grow.

You and I were made to make beautiful music in Christ, for his glory and for the benefit of others.

The practice room is calling.


  1. This touches on, but I think needs to mention, John 15: The Vine and branches. To grow spiritually, we must abide in Him (both individually and as a community/church). That is how we see the fruit. Apart from Him we can do nothing, so it says.

  2. Here’s how it works:


    A must listen.

    He speaks of the 4 ways that we are “spiritually formed”.

    The best part about it is that it has nothing to do with what ‘we do’.

    • Steve, I agree with the spirit of your posts, but your points can be phrased too strongly. Do you attend worship? That’s something you do. Do you receive the sacraments? You hold out your hands to receive them. Do you pray? Those are your words proceeding from your mouth.

      As Dallas Willard said, don’t confuse effort with earning.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So we should just sit back like lumps Justified by FAITH FAITH FAITH Alone?
      God Will Do It All, just have FAITH FAITH FAITH?

    • Do you think we attend worship of our own volition?

      Does not the Spirit of God have anything to do with our desire to worship instead of going golfing?

      Does not the Spirit lead us to pray? And even intercede for us in those prayers? St. Paul even tells us that “we don’t know how to pray as we ought”.

      Nobody is a Christian of their own doing. And nobody stays a Christian of their own doing. How’s that for strong? 😀

      • Robert F says

        Where does God’s will stop and creaturely volition begin? When a Christian salts or refrains from salting her food, is it her own doing?

        It’s often seemed to me that an overemphasis on divine sovereignty not only negates any meaning of human freedom but in fact negates the meaning of creation, for what does it mean for God to create other than to make something not completely controlled by himself, something that has a real irreducible freedom? How would extreme doctrines of God’s sovereignty really be different from a kind of pantheism?

      • This is the conversation that usually goes nowhere. Willards point, I think, is that God does what he does with our cooperation, our active partnership, our discipleship. This is done in relationship, we answer god,s initiatives with a willing response. None of what we do is “on our own”. Total false dichotamy there.

      • Of course, the new life is Spirit led. But humans are not mere ciphers.

        If you go back and read the first post you will see that I highlighted grace as the most fundamental aspect of formation. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” He did not say “I do everything; you do nothing.”

        • Maybe another way of saying this: Jesus said, “Apart from ME you can do nothing”…. HE never said, “united with ME, you will do nothing”

  3. Jerry Goodman says

    Your post is amazing and I would love to use this illustration. Is this a portion of Dallas Willard’s or your insights? The reason I like it is not only the simplicity picture, but also is a picture of the symphony of the Spirit that draws attention to God in mercies and grace. I used to think of grace as a one time, fill us all – it can. But I see grace as a growing vital aspect that reminds me that I need to press in and on in Christ. Please excuse my lack of words here. Thank you for this hi-light of a weary day. jerry

  4. Does anyone actually believe that the Holy Spirit allows us to “sit back like lumps, justified by faith alone?”


    Truth be told, most of the time we do sit back like lumps…when we’re not taking matters into our own hands and making things worse.

    Cannot the Spirit of God work in a sitting lump?


    Do you want to know a way that you can know, for sure, that the Holy Spirit is in work in you?

    Well….you’re breathing aren’t you?

    Then He is at work in you.

  5. A line from the sermon I posted (in comments above);

    “Where are you in your Christian walk of faith? You are exactly where God has you. No further ahead and no further back.”

    Comforting, isn’t it?

    Takes you off of the religious/ascendancy project and gives you the freedom to just live…and trust.

  6. Robert F says

    The problem I have with this is one that I’ve mentioned before: just who, at least among the Christians I know in the mainline churches, will actually be willing to devote the time necessary to the disciplines? Who is willing to rise to the level of intentionality required? Who will take the energy away from the often tightly scheduled secular project of their life to devote to the formation project? And who will make this kind of formation project a high priority of church membership? My experience tells me there may be a very few, but not many.

    • It does seem that God always provides a faithful remnant.

      The day is coming when that might not even happen.

      “When the Son of man returns to earth with His holy angels, will He find faith?”

      Will there even be any left?

      That, is a real question.

  7. To continue with the analogy, here are some quotes from the “criticisms” section of the Wikipedia article on the Suzuki method of instrumental music teaching (which may stand in for various Christian denominations):

    *[the early emphasis on playing by ear leads to] compromised sight reading skills

    *[the method leads to] a tendency towards rote learning and mechanistic group performance at the expense of individual musicianship

    *if music is to be learned from audio recordings, the quality of the recorded pieces must be questioned in terms of style, integrity, and its positive or negative traits. The resulting views are relative and may differ between people.

    *any reliance on listening to a single piece in order to learn it is not sufficient for instilling a sense of the style of the work (where the style refers to the traits of performance that are common to many similar works), since a style can only be acquired by listening to a range of works of common style (including listening to works for enjoyment, rather than with only the goal of copying them).

    *students may progress too rapidly and find themselves studying repertoire for which they are not yet emotionally prepared.

    *Baroque music is emphasized in the Suzuki violin literature to the detriment of other styles and periods. Some of this literature includes note errors and 19th-century editorial changes that are not in keeping with historically informed performance practice. (The International Suzuki Association is in the process of addressing this by revising the violin repertoire.[citation needed])

    *”Older students can become overly dependent” on the support structure of recordings, parental note-taking and tutoring at home, and teaching styles appropriate for younger students (Barber, 1991).

    *very young students, such as those aged 3–5, are often not ready for formal instruction, and too much emphasis on practicing hard at this age may be counterproductive (American Suzuki Journal, 2005).

  8. I do feel our Christ left us with the protocol to develop “habits of grace.” To walk in the newness of life. Bruno Barnhart said the kingship of Jesus Christ has to do with communication of life. For me – chapters six and seven of Matthew contain the”… plan that allows me to progress…” And of course “solitude and silence, fasting and frugality, worship [which for me is liturgy] and confession, etc” I would add giving as being right up there, giving as in keno of Philippians 2:7. And the denial of self or ego,as in Matthew 15.
    However, the question of why many in the body of Christ have wondered so far afield is of paramount import. Because”… alive to God in Christ Jesus” is where the Joy is. I thank you for your post. A blessing to find the site.

  9. George C says

    The student of music analogy is great.

    I am a musician and have worked and interacted with musicians from total hacks to people who make you want to cut your fingers of and give up because they are so good and it is interesting to hear how they (and often their students) progress.

    It raises all sorts of questions for me about potential, baggage and bad habits, and work ethic that may also relate to spiritual formation.

    Some folks take to it like a duck to water and yet stay at a certain level forever. Then there are those who seem to have no natural talent who make up for it with diligence. Some folks have to spend a large amount of time unlearning things.

    One trend I have seen is that until you get to the level where people are really quite good, it is a mistake to assume that someone’s ability to perform is the result of their hard work. Often they are just playing to their strengths, which I find quite common in another form of one upmanship that we are likely all too familiar with.

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