May 26, 2020

Seasons and Paths of Formation

Four Seasons (detail), Degan

Four Seasons (detail), Degan

Little children, I’m writing to you because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ name. Parents, I’m writing to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I’m writing to you because you have conquered the evil one. Little children, I write to you because you know the Father. Parents, I write to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I write to you because you are strong, the word of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one.

– 1John 2:12-14 CEB

One fact I did not understand when I was younger is that life is made up of different seasons and circumstances that can virtually define any given time in life, or even the entirety of your life. I could hardly grasp that I would be called to adapt and change and learn and respond differently — sometimes for extended periods of time — regarding aspects of life over which I would have little control. I still find it hard to deal with change and disruption of my plans and expectations. And if this is true of me, one who has lived a relatively trouble-free life, what of others who have faced monumental challenges and tragic life-altering situations?

A lot of “discipleship” does not take this into account either, but comes across as generic and all-purpose, a program for all audiences — read your Bible, pray, get involved in church, find places to serve.

What they never tell you is that you and life and God and work and relationships and the way you think about all these things and what you need to flourish in life and love is different at age 22 than it is at 35 and very different at 50 or 65. Discipleship programs rarely, if ever, let you in on the secret that you may have to trudge through vast swaths of wilderness in your life, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and threatened by heat stroke. Nor do they talk about the challenges of good times and the temptations of prosperity and the successful seasons of life and the fact that they may or may not contribute to one’s personal growth.

They also don’t take into account that each person has his or her own inner landscape, climate, and weather — that life with its seasons and circumstances looks and feels somewhat different to each individual.

There is a conformist tendency in institutional religion which suggests that because we’re all in this together, we must learn to deal with life in basically the same manner. This effectively disregards the apprenticeship approach Jesus took with his disciples and the apostles’ insistence that we live in the freedom of the Spirit.

tree by roadThis presents a great challenge for ministers and congregations who want to encourage spiritual formation in their churches. Taking each person’s unique situation into account and responding with grace and edifying love can be daunting.

Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else.

– 1Thess 5:12-15 CEB

There are many aspects of church life in which we are called to be formed in Christ together — worship through Word and Sacrament and catechesis, to name two — nevertheless all of us must also learn to walk in newness of life as individuals who have died and been raised up in Christ.

As a parent, one of the most surprising things I had to face was how different each of my children would be. I had to learn how to balance giving attention to their individual stories with composing our larger family story. This is the same challenge the church faces. There is no one-size-fits-all discipleship “program.” Run as fast as you can from any church that gives you the impression they think there is.

Another false notion about the seasons and circumstances of spiritual formation is that they lead to perceptible progress in the believer’s life. As though there is a definable pattern of personal development. Over the years, the spiritual life has been likened to a journey. That suggests a road with recognizable landmarks and destinations. It has also been envisioned in terms of climbing a ladder, though Protestants have usually been suspicious of this as advocating a system of meritorious works. And this is not a leftover relic from medieval theology. Mission statements of many contemporary churches are quite explicit that they expect certain measurable evidences of “growth” to become apparent in the lives of their members.

However, in Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, a book of Henri Nouwen’s teachings on the spiritual life, we read this different perspective:

The movements of the Spirit, Nouwen observed within himself and in others, tend to come in cycles throughout our lives, with only a broad and hardly predictable progressive order. Instead of stepping up to higher and higher stages, as if achieving one stage leads to the next level and the next, we tend to vacillate back and forth between the poles that we seek to resolve. We move “from fear to love” and then back “from love to fear,” for example in a dynamic process that is never complete. Rather than resolving the tensions once and for all, the movements continue to call us to conversion and transformation.

As I’ve said before, this leads me to be reticent about promoting the idea of “growth” or “transformation” as though this is something that can be clearly observed or that “progress” can be marked as an unambiguous fact. As Nouwen himself writes:

After many years of seeking to live a spiritual life, I still ask myself, “Where am I as a Christian?” — “How far have I advanced?” — “Do I love God more now than earlier in my life?” — “Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path?” Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. There are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty or forty years ago are still very much with me. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, and for a deeper experience of God. And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.

…it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.

Seasons come and seasons go. We travel onward in our journey with Christ. Where we are on the road at any given point in time is debatable from our point of view. What we can know, and what we must cling to, is that Christ has called and enabled us to be with him on the road, that he is with us, that he will not forsake us, and that he picks us up every time we fall.

The Lord directs the steps of the godly.
He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fall,
for the Lord holds them by the hand.

– Psalm 37:23-24 NLT


  1. And this is why I keep coming back to read here at IM. Thank you. Thank you.

    • +1

    • Yes, agreed, this is why I keep coming back to read IM.

      This is particularly relevant for the group that I come from (but am in the process of leaving), the conservative Mennonites. Spiritual growth is implicitly measured by a person’s exterior; as in, whether or not they have convictions against wearing ties, or against women wearing pants, or something along those lines. I say “implicit” because naturally such a measuring tool would never be stated explicitly. Obviously though, conservative Mennonites are not the only ones who are guilty of measuring spiritual growth by external means.

      It is a perfect method for producing weak-kneed Christians, and I would like to think that it is a lie of the devil, because of its incredible subtlety!

  2. Nice job, Chaplain Mike.

    Thank you.

  3. Josh in FW says

    Thank you. I found the Henri Nouwen quote particularly helpful.

  4. Hi Chaplain Mike,

    I must say that I am somewhat confused with the tone of pessimism of this post. While I agree there is an “ebb and flow” in our lives in the Spirit, to suggest that there are no quantifiable marks of progress and that churches who attempt (genuinely) to gauge spiritual develop as somehow in error, is a bit cynical in my opinion. I don’t think our spiritual development and growth is as cyclical as you suggest.

    • I’m sorry you took it as pessimistic. I would say I’m trying to be realistic.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Criticism is not inherently pessimism. In this case, it is very realistic.

      Even with the best of intentions, the search for quanitfiable marks of progress are superficial at best, and lead us to accept as evidence signs and wonders that impress us, to confirm something that is very abstract, individual, and transcendent.

      • I repsectfully disagree; if for no other reason than the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) and the concept of spiritual fruit – “you will know them by their fruit…”

        • IMO you are confusing two concepts — bearing spiritual fruit and measurable progress. The tree planted by the river in Ps. 1 “bears its fruit in season” yet in other seasons appears barren and fruitless.

          • That’s fair. I agree with seasons of barrenness in our spiritual formation. I also believe that maturity and growth is displayed in how we deal with those seasons as we grow.

          • Consider this, Samuel. Maturity is impossible to quantify. I think the same applies to spiritual growth.

        • Marcus Johnson says

          I always get a little queasy when folks start tossing around Biblical metaphors. For instance, someone hears “spiritual fruit” and confuses it with “the fruit of the Spirit,” which are two different concepts.

          Also, there’s the issue of faulty inferences, so someone would assume that if someone is “bearing fruit” then, of course, they would attend church, or join a small group, or memorize a certain number of Bible verses, or tithe, etc. However, nothing in that verse about knowing someone “by their fruit” identifies any specific measurable action.

          • Exactly. …and then there are always those who believe it is their high calling to be “fruit inspectors…” Oh, so much baggage is loaded into this cursed jargon.

    • What is the point of having a gauge? People who are supposedly spiritually mature are just as capable of committing egregious sins as other people. I suppose it is nice to believe that’s not the case, but the more I live, the more I see it is. I think a great lie that many churches promote in one way or another and that many people believe is that as we get older and more mature in the faith that we will struggle less with sin. I just don’t see that’s the case. The sins we struggle with may change, that’s true. But I don’t know that we get any closer to actually live a more victorious life.

      I’m not saying that out of pessimism, honestly. Actually, I’ve found that being honest about my weakness has been more freeing. When you stop treating the idea of holiness as some sort of spiritual drill sergeant, you find that you actually want to live a life that’s God-honoring.

  5. It puts the onus back where it belongs. On God.

    He creates new life in us and causes our growth.

    I do not trust in what I can see. I walk by faith, not by sight. Otherwise I would surely despair.

    Look around. Do you see God at work in all of this? Did they see God at work in the cross? Not until afterwards.

  6. Adrienne says

    Excellent post Chaplain Mike, it hurt to read it as memories of the “old me” came rushing back. Nouwen’s comment shows the danger of this “simplistic” approach to “being spiritual”. The focus is all on me – how am I doing, constant self-focus. And, as you pointed out so clearly, the “model” is exact for everyone, like Christian Stepford Wives. The other is the dangerous “scale” that we measure others by. Are they maturing really is saying, are they becoming like ME – not like Christ. PRIDE.

    One of the many, many joys I have experienced in my new found Lutheran life is the fact that, if I did ask “how am I doing”, I can joyfully lift high the Cross of Jesus Christ and say I’m forever grateful.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Nouwen’s comment shows the danger of this “simplistic” approach to “being spiritual”. The focus is all on me – how am I doing, constant self-focus.

      Another side effect of a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

  7. I’m closing in fast on 59. In many ways I feel much less confident of my “spiritual maturity” than I did at 40. I have many more doubts now about myself than I did then. It would be nice to be more self-confident about myself and my “walk with Christ”, but I do have some confidence that at this point in life it’s better to be a doubting Thomas about myself than not. However, it isn’t nearly as comfortable as I would wish it to be.

    Looking back I see one major thing that the Spirit has been working into me; forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness toward others and myself is the only antidote to bitterness and remorse.

    Thanks for your insight, CM.


    • I am there too Tom, and can relate to every word. Thanks Mike for the post and especially Nouwen’s remarks. I think the post is more in line with Celtic spirituality than the American brand. One more thing Tom, your forgiveness comments are very powerful.

    • Highwayman says

      I agree too, Tom – I’m about a year behind you. I know I thought when I was a teenager – or even earlier – that I must remember what it felt like to be that age, so that I wouldn’t become an old grumps like some of the old people around me in their 50s or 60s. Also, I was very sure of my faith and happy to argue about it at length.

      40 years on, I find that not only are 50-year olds no longer old, but somehow the world and its culture has changed. I’m now less and less sure about more and more – I tend to tolerate fools more readily, because I’ve come to realise that we’re all ratbags who can’t save ourselves, so I have no reason to feel smug.

      But isn’t life interesting?!

      • Robert F says

        Yes, I’m a fool who has also come to tolerate fools more readily, and I’m also more ready to give credence to that proverb of the poet William Blake, “If the fool persists in his folly, He shall become wise……” hoping that it may apply to me.

        • From Brennan Manning;

          What does it mean to feel you are in a safe place? That same afternoon I wrote in my journal:

          To feel safe is to stop living in my head and sink down into my heart and feel liked and accepted . not hav­ing to hide anymore and distract myself with books, television, movies, ice cream, shallow conversation … staying in the present moment and not escaping into the past or projecting into the future, alert and atten­tive to the now . . . feeling relaxed and not nervous or jittery … no need to impress or dazzle others or draw attention to myself. . . . Unself-conscious, a new way of being with myself, a new way of being in the world … calm, unafraid, no anxiety about what’s going to happen next. . . loved and valued . . . just being together as an end in itself.

          But writing about such an experience risks the invention of a new impostor wearing a glossier disguise. I am reminded of the sobering words of Teresa of Avila: “Such experiences are given to the weaker brothers and sisters to fortify their flag­ging faith.” Even attribution to “the grace of God” can be sub­tle self-aggrandizement because the phrase has virtually become a Christian cliche.

          Thomas Merton, the most sought-after spiritual guide of our time, said one day to a fellow monk, “If I make anything out of the fact that I am Thomas Merton, I am dead. And if you make anything out of the fact that you are in charge of the pig barn, you are dead.” Merton’s solution? “Quit keeping score altogether and surrender yourself with all your sinfulness to God who sees neither the score nor the scorekeeper but only his child redeemed by Christ.”

          • Robert F says

            Perhaps, Tom, it’s also okay to feel unsafe, and maybe it’s okay, too, to not make anything out of the fact that one is dead. Perhaps that’s what the text means that says “Be ye baptized…..”

  8. Well said. It’s similar to re-reading a favorite book from your younger years and discovering you don’t like it much at all now. Or 20 years later, watching a movie that you didn’t much like and finding meaning because you now have the life experience to get it.

    God may be changeless but that does not mean our perception of him is static.

  9. Radagast says

    My thoughts…

    I m certainly no expert on spiritual formation. My wife has gone through some extensive coursework on the subject. From what I observed and some dabbling in my own life there is no one size fits all when it comes to this. There are times when groups of people are at the same point where they can grow together in some type of formative activity, for example the Ignateous exercises. A new or nominal christian would not be encouraged to participate in these because it is about growing deeper in the faith and includes much self- reflection. That brings me to the second part – spirtual direction. A spiritual director helps a person to discern what might be helpful as a next step, what phase of life one is in, does the person have sufficient wisdom to pull from (what is meant by this is that they are not idealistic newbies and that there have been life events that they can pull from that have helped them to grow or at least experience),are they going through a dry period or a period of hunger, etc.

    I guess what I am trying to say here is that spiritual formation is going to be different for each person, depending on where they are in their faith walk. It is not, in my opinion, something you roll out for the community and expect all to grow at the same rate.

  10. Nicely done, Ch Mike. Lots of wisdom to chew on today.

  11. Whenever I despair of my “spiritual progress”, I remember a scene from the original Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise has discovered some intelligent lifeforms based on a crystalline structure. When they hook up the “Universal Whorfian Translator” the first words that come out are :

    “Hail, beings of mostly water…”

    Given that I am about 76% water, and water is subject to a number of things I do not entirely understand, tides among them, it would be crazy-making for me not to expect cyclical patterns in my behavior. As long as the general trend is Godward, I should not yield to despair.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I remember the scene from “New Testament” Trek (ST:TNG). There the first words that came out were:


    • Robert F says

      Ahhh, yes! The “Universal Whorfian Translator”!

    • Robert F says

      You know, of course, that they stole the plans for the device from the Tralfamadorians, don’t you?

  12. If I could not look back and see the progress in spiritual growth I have made over my life in cooperation with God’s Spirit, I would long ago have given up. If it were possible, nothing could make me go back a year, never mind back to my youth. I don’t want to go back a minute. How would it be possible to make this assessment without a means to measure the growth? I am completely baffled by Nouwen’s statement, “I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.” If that is so, why make the effort?

    I have been greatly helped in my understanding of these matters by the life work of David R. Hawkins. He was able to speak of spiritual growth in terms understandable to the Western mind of rationality and science. I do not place as much trust in his kinesiological methodology as he did but the map of the levels of consciousness that he developed is far ahead of its time.

    This map shows the broad outline of spiritual growth and is a great help to me in assessing my present needs of improvement and the course ahead. To use it as a source of spiritual pride would be as silly as a college freshman thinking they were more valuable than a first grader. It does point out that anger is a step up from hopelessness, and that love is many steps up from both.

    • The way I see it, I am not truly capable of making such accurate evaluations. The older I get the less confident I feel to do so. Perhaps that is why Paul wrote 1 Cor 4:3-4 —

      “…I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet by this I am not acquitted; but the one who examines me is The Lord”

      • Adrienne says


      • CM, not to challenge you to a proof texting contest, but I don’t see how anyone can escape Paul’s constant reminder to people to examine themselves. That doesn’t mean that such evaluations are going to be God-accurate because after all we are dealing with human nature here. Contrary to your experience, I find that the older I get, the more I am able to recognize things within that need some TLC if not outright tossed into the trash, hings that simply lived under my radar when I was younger.

        The older I get, the more I see that I don’t really have time to worry about the state of other people’s spirituality considering the overwhelming job of cleaning up my own back yard. When Jesus suggested tending to the timber in your own eye before working on that speck of sawdust in someone else, examining yourself seems implied and necessary and obvious to me.

        • Charles, I wasn’t really advocating no self-examination. Nor, do I think, was Paul. However, your statement that he gave “constant reminders” to people to examine themselves is overdrawn as well. Paul actually spoke very little in those terms, and I have argued elsewhere that when he did it was for a specific purpose not as a regular “discipline” (for example 2Cor. 13:5). I think Paul’s regular and constant call is to look to Christ and focus our attention on him, and then, as Paul says in the text I quoted, let him examine me and tell me what’s what. Usually I’ve found that the issues he pinpoints are not the same as the ones I’ve identified. And then I’m usually surprised and appalled by how little actual self-knowledge I really have. I guess if I had to say something indicated growth, it would be that I more clearly recognize my weakness.

          “Know thyself” is still sound advice and I would never say we are totally in the dark when it comes to self-awareness and being able to judge our behaviors and attitudes. However, I think that’s different than “knowing where I am” along the path of formation. And sure, there are areas where I now feel like more than a master than a slave, more clear-eyed and insightful than I was in the past. However, the moment I say that, up pops a problem I thought I’d left behind years ago. I also find it hard to distinguish how much of my “progress” is just getting older and having more experience, and how much is actually the work of the Spirit making me more Christlike. Perhaps both things are involved and we’re not meant to unravel what God has joined together.

          I can hardly imagine how I might respond to a cancer diagnosis, the unexpected loss of a loved one, financial ruin, or any one of a thousand life-altering events that would place my “maturity” under a demanding stress test. Which “me” would emerge at various stages of responding to those kinds of circumstances? I assume I’d be fighting some battles within myself all over again.

  13. Robert F says

    I think that it’s very true that it’s impossible to track things as intangible as growth, transformation, progress in the spiritual life of the Christian, and probably unwise to try hard to do so. But there will always be movement in life, whether we are Christian or not, because life simply will not stand still, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable or spiritually unwise to try to move in ways that we think will deepen and strengthen our spiritual lives, nor do I believe that it’s wrong to choose one direction rather than another. Will life, or the Holy Spirit, throw curve balls at us in life, upsetting our choices and redirecting us in ways we can hardly guess? I think we all know the answer to that question. But that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to choose a path and try to walk it, as long as we continue to remind ourselves that all along the paths we choose, and the ones that choose us, we will encounter grace directing and redirecting our steps and shaping us in ways we could never begin to imagine.