June 5, 2020

Another Look: Spiritual Formation — What Is It?

Like a Tree Planted by the River (detail), Simpson

Like a Tree Planted by the River (detail), Simpson

Note from CM: This will be my last week of full time writing for awhile. When it gets to Tuesday of next week, pray for me, because by then the DT’s will probably be setting in hard.

As I’ve tried to think about what to share this week, I thought it might be good to reach back and re-post a series that was important to me at the time and seemed to be well received as helpful by many readers. I also think it’s appropriate because of the recent death of Dallas Willard, whose fingerprints are all over these posts, as you will see. If I can, I will try to work in a couple of book reviews of two of his most important books this week as well.

At any rate, if “Jesus-shaped spirituality” is what this site strives to promote, then the subject of spiritual formation must be high on our list of concerns. Paul wrote to the Galatians and described his ministry as being “in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in” his congregations (Gal. 4:19). If I end up returning to pastoral ministry in a congregation, I guess I’d better get out the maternity clothes again!

Until then, here are some of my thoughts from the Spiritual Formation series.

* * *

Spiritual Formation.

First of all, I don’t like the term. It is too “spiritual” for me. We’re talking about personal formation, about becoming a more gracious, loving, virtuous human being; the person God created me to be. It is not about developing some part of me that is “spiritual,” it’s about me becoming more mature. It is not about developing some part of life or some special version called the “Christian” life. No, it takes place in the midst of life, ordinary everyday human life.

Second, I appreciate the term. Correctly understood, it reminds me of a few important concepts. (1) It is “formation” — a process of organic development. “Growth” is another good word in this regard. At its core, it is not about something manufactured or constructed, it’s about life, evoking images of human or agricultural development. (2) It is “spiritual” in the sense that it happens because the Spirit of God vivifies and indwells his children, enabling and energizing our development into the family likeness. Perhaps “Spirit-led formation” says it more clearly.

Of course, here at Internet Monk, we want to emphasize, thirdly, that this formation is “Jesus-shaped.” Michael Spencer would say that it is designed to help us live lives “that Jesus would recognize as being like him, about him, and formed around him, not religion.” Growth happens through walking with Jesus, living with Jesus, eating and drinking with Jesus, watching Jesus work, listening to Jesus teach, asking questions of Jesus, fulfilling the callings Jesus assigns us, and living the life with God that Jesus showed us and makes possible for us.

64875-Deep_Rooted.1x_jpgFourth, it should be said that spiritual formation is about the development of a people, not just individuals. God designed it so that babies would be born into families. The growth and development of human beings is meant to happen within a community of love, support, and mutual service in which all members, at different stages of life, are being nurtured into greater health and well being, becoming wiser and more loving. In terms of spiritual growth, God has provided his church, the family of God, and the plan is the same. It’s not just that the church is one of many helpful options for individual formation. The family relationships of the congregation are part and parcel of the organic process of bringing individuals and the entire household to maturity and usefulness.

Now, what are some of the key aspects of spiritual formation?

1. Grace. In a recent post, I noted how we take so much for granted about life. We humans think we are independent, that we steer events and make things happen by our efforts. Yes, we have the capacity to make choices, and yes, we can effect some level of change on occasion. However, the sooner we realize that every moment of our life hangs on billions of other elements falling into place just so, and that behind those elements is the hand of Providence by which everything coheres, the sooner we will recognize our true place in the universe. Of course, our thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes do matter; and if we don’t cooperate with the unseen Hand, we may find ourselves broken against his laws of life. Bottom line, however, life is a gift.

We were likewise born into this new life by God’s gracious initiative and intervention, and we live and grow by grace alone. It is the continuing work of the Gospel in our lives that furthers our development.

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6-7, NLT).

In other words, God works in sanctification the same way he works in justification — by grace through faith in Christ. A big part of spiritual formation is learning to receive God’s gifts afresh each day.

2. Word and Sacrament. The Reformers emphasized that God’s grace comes to us through means that God himself ordained. Primary among these are the Word of God (the message of Christ, especially as read and heard from the Bible) and the Sacraments (Baptism, by which we die and rise again to new life, and its counterpart of confession and repentance in the daily life of the baptized; and Communion, by which we are nourished in our salvation by Christ’s presence in the bread and wine). Gathering with God’s family for worship is not simply an obligation we must fulfill, it is one of the primary means God ordained for our spiritual formation. I like to think of it as “Sunday Dinner” for God’s family. It’s that special, memorable meal of the week when we gather around the table and do what families do.

3. Vocation. Genuine spiritual formation hinges on the truth that all of life is sacred, even sacramental. The various “callings” God has given us in the world — family, career, neighborhood, citizenship, etc. — are ways God works in and through us to know him and make him known. Embracing our vocations and delighting in the One who disguises himself in them to extend his grace, truth, and love to others makes every day a fertile context in which healthy spiritual formation can take place.

Tree-with-roots-planted-in-the-water4. A Conversational Relationship with God. In the midst of life, we “practice the presence of God” by listening and speaking to him in every circumstance. Spiritual formation happens through a life of contemplation. In the midst of our daily activities, we ponder and meditate on God’s words and works. We talk to him in prayer. We listen, we question, we complain. We give thanks, make requests, and express our doubts. We study, analyze, and consider how to apply his teachings. We walk or sit silently with him and enjoy his presence. For a believer the veil between this world and the “heavenly places” is thin and there is constant interaction between the two realms.

5. Spiritual “Training.” What part do the “disciplines” play in spiritual formation? As many teachers, particularly Dallas Willard, have reminded us, spiritual disciplines are to life what practicing one’s scales is to playing a piano piece in concert. Practice is not performance. No one will pay the high cost of a ticket in order to hear a musician run through her scales! They want to hear the music! In the same way, spiritual disciplines are “hidden” training exercises that we are to leave in our practice room when we emerge to play the concert of living each day. Some speak of “spiritual disciplines” as though they should be the focus of a Christian’s life, but the fact is that they are not of life’s essence. Rather, they should be viewed as habit-building training exercises, sadly necessary because of our continuing weakness, in order that we might “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13) and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14).

Those who excel in music, sports, business, and other vocations usually have teachers, coaches, or mentors who design appropriate training exercises to help them overcome weaknesses and excel even more in areas of strength. In the same way, pastors have traditionally engaged in ministries of “spiritual direction” to help their congregants grow in Christ.

In summary…

True spiritual formation involves a person who has been born anew by grace through faith in Christ being formed into a person who is coming to know God, not just about God, in the context of God’s family. Who is being formed into a life of love. A life of wisdom. A life of kindness. A life of generosity. A life of virtue. A life of contemplation. A life of service to others, especially the poor. A life of ultimate optimism, and thus, joy.

This process is “spiritual” because it is initiated and sustained by the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. The process is “formation” because it involves life growing and developing into maturity and fruitfulness. This process might better be termed “personal formation” because it is about becoming a mature human being, one who exhibits the image of God in the context of daily living and relationships.

* * *

By faith in Christ I walk with God,
With Heav’n, my journey’s end, in view;
Supported by His staff and rod,
My road is safe and pleasant too.

I travel through a desert wide
Where many round me blindly stray;
But He vouchsafes to be my Guide,
And will not let me miss my way.

Though snares and dangers throng my path,
And earth and hell my course withstand;
I triumph over all by faith,
Guarded by His almighty hand.

The wilderness affords no food,
But God for my support prepares;
Provides me every needful good,
And frees my soul from wants and cares.

With Him sweet converse I maintain,
Great as He is I dare be free;
I tell Him all my grief and pain,
And He reveals His love to me.

Some cordial from His Word He brings,
Whene’er my feeble spirit faints;
At once my soul revives and sings,
And yields no more to sad complaints.

I pity all that worldlings talk
Of pleasures that will quickly end;
Be this my choice, O Lord, to walk
With Thee, my Guide, my Guard, my Friend.

– John Newton, Olney Hymns (1779)


  1. In a nutshell, what other Christians call “Spiritual Formation” kind of is Eastern Orthodoxy. Everything else is ancillary to Spiritual Formation, spiritual fatherhood, etc. It’s kind of our ordo saluti, Law Work, shouting down the Glory, discipleship program, anxious bench, whatever, all rolled up into one.

    Everybody agrees that everyone should have a spiritual father (or spiritual mother). They also agree they are in short supply. One thing Orthodoxy is not, and it is not an ideology extracted from a text.

    I would recommend St. Symeon The New Theologian. He writes about the spiritual father/spiritual son relationship exhaustively.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Not just Eastern Orthodoxy(TM), Mule. Almost all the liturgical churches — both Eastern and Western Rites — emphasize the ongoing process of sanctification. The Evangelical emphasis on the Moment of Salvation is a historical aberration dating back to the one-shot sales pitches of tent revivals and travelling evangelists. (Though it might be a Protestantization of Medieval beliefs which accreted around Baptism-as-magic.)

  2. br. thomas says

    Over the years, I have come to adapt the following into a statement of what spiritual formation is about:

    “God desires to shape us, as individuals and as a faith community, into the likeness of Christ—becoming our true & authentic selves, through the gracious working of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of a very needy world.”

  3. Mike, you asked for prayer during your writing hiatus, saying you would be going through DTs Tuesday. Was that a metaphor about writing, or are you actually in detox? Not trying to pry here, just wanting to know how to pray.

  4. Mike,

    If you were to describe spiritual formation to an evangelical, using evangelical terms, what would it look like?

    Part of the issue with getting evangelicals to embrace spiritual formation, is that the terminology can lead to people putting up barriers.


    • Mike, I’m not sure.

      Michael Spencer’s post “Who and What Are Forming You?” might be a place to start.

    • The word “spiritual” may be off-putting to evangelicals, a code-word for heresy. The anglican concept of “spiritual director” gives some evangelicals the creeps (even though we have “accountability” and “discipling”), and the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is a code for anything else but Christian.

      • I admit it makes me slightly wary because I have met a fair number of spiritual directors from liturgical traditions (including Catholicism) who dabble considerably in New Age stuff, Buddhism, goddess paraphernalia, etc as part of their MO. Maybe that’s just because I live in the “hippie belt” instead of the Bible belt, though.

        • Robert F says

          Don’t forget the Enneagram, which is very big among Catholic spiritual directors; and no, it’s not just in the “hippie belt”. And perhaps worst of all, the popularity of Jungian approaches to spirituality among many Christian spiritual directors in the liturgical traditions, which are completely incompatible with any traditional Christian theology.

          Of course, evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic churches have their own pet heresies.

          • Argh, yes, the Enneagram. That stuff offends me as much as a student of science and research methods as it does as a stuffy orthodox Lutheran. It especially makes me roll my eyes and bemoan the state of our educational programs to hear that the ELCA administers the Myers Briggs horoscope, er, I mean “personality test” to potential ordination candidates, and a lot of pastors and seminarians seem to think all that INFJ stuff actually indicates something more meaningful and scientific than “Capricorn.”

          • Robert F says

            Well, in this age of science and technology superstition prevails more than it ever has; in fact, it thrives in our era. Managers, whether secular or religious, especially value these superstitious pseudo-sciences, because they give them the false impression that they possess knowledge about and therefore power over their employees.

          • I personally have found the Myers Briggs EXTREMELY helpful in: 1. Learning how to interact with co-workers who think differently to me. 2. Placing people in positions where the job suited their personality type.

            Using Myers Briggs helped us resolve a very difficult office situation

          • Robert F says

            My own experience with Myers Briggs at work was that my employer, and others, used my profile outcome to pigeon-hole me rather than dealing with me as a unique individual; this produced not more but less understanding in office interactions with those who thought they knew how I think on the basis of my profile but actually did not know, which in turn produced much resentment in me, since now I had to work hard to make myself understood against a form of stereotyping that was taken for objective scientific measurement.

          • Robert F says

            After a quick look a Wikipedia, I see that Myers Briggs was developed based on the psychological theories of C.G. Jung, that creator of depth psychology who none too incidentally used occult methods to supposedly access his own unconscious; I should have known that old magician had his hand in it, just the way that the occultist Gurdjieff was behind Enneagram. It’s amazing how many prominent forms of psychometry can be traced back to figures who dabbled or more than dabbled in the occult. If the well springs are poisoned, is the water fit to drink?

          • Even more fun, the pair who developed Myers Briggs were not even scientifically trained researchers of any sort. They were armchair Jungian psychology enthusiasts, and writers for the popular market. The scale has no “l” curve so anyone who can sense the pattern to the answers will get the result that either confirms what they want to think of themselves, or the impression they want to give the test reader. It is literally like a horoscope or fortune-teller.

            If I am going to be evaluated for a job and pigeonholed based on a test, at least make it something that isn’t a ridiculous party game based on some society lady’s obsession with the occult!

  5. David Cornwell says

    It’s too bad the term “sprititual formation” is distrusted by some evangelicals. Every church I’ve been a part of in my life would have done well to give more emphasis on this part of our life together. Everything else under the sun seems to claim a priority in church life, yet this is almost invaribly seems left out. Of course, like Chaplain Mike states, the sacraments are one of the core elements of spiritual formation, but are not the whole thing.

    A church that takes seriously this part of the Christian life might well find out that some of the serious problems that crop up in would cease to have the disruptive power we normally expect, and then experience. When we are being formed in Christ together with each other then the devil’s grip, and power to introduce chaos is lessened. The will to power by individuals becomes less insidous.

    So– I’m looking forward to this discussion.

  6. spiritual reformation comes from one’s decision as said in http://unn.edu.ng/department/religion

  7. “The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us in true faith.” – Luther

    How’s that for “spiritual formation”?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So we should sit there like lumps Justified by FAITH FAITH FAITH Alone because The Holy Spirit will do it all?

      Like some retired workaholic just sitting around waiting to die?

      • This is like when people quote “sin boldly!” and say Luther is responsible for every type of antinomianism. There’s a few more words in the sentence that make all the difference.

        But I *would* ask, in a limited sense, why the disdain towards “sitting around”? (Which could also be phrased as “resting in faith.”) Sounds like some lingering Calvinist work ethic nonsense, there. Even God rested on the seventh day.

        • Robert F says

          As a former Zen Buddhist, I have nothing against “sitting around,” except when one should be standing up or moving about.

    • Steve,

      Jesus says, “Take up your cross, deny yourself daily, and follow me.”

      Paul says, “Put to death your members of earthly quality.”

      The verbs, in both instances, are active. I think you’re misunderstanding the work of the Spirit as something that happens instead of obedience rather than as something which he does with obedience (at least as far as human experience goes). Based on your other posts it’s pretty clear that your theology of us needing to “sit like lumps” is contradictory to commands, instructions, and advice of every New Testament author. Now, I do not think you mean that we should actually sit like lumps, at least I hope not. I’m guessing that you mean that somehow we should “let the Spirit do it through us” or some such evangelical catch phrase. The problem with that catch phrase is that it is not supported in the New Testament.