October 25, 2020

Spiritual Formation: How It Happens

By Chaplain Mike

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

• Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 6

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.

It 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 an entire 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.

In 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 gifted you 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. Jonathanblake says

    BRAVO!! It’s amazing what analogy and metaphor can do to help us understand. I’m definitely enjoying this set of posts and you’re helping pull me (along with the Spirit) back to the practice of spiritual disciplines. With school starting and simultaneously beginning a new job I’ve found little time for much more than out of class studying (all of it concerns Scripture since I’m at a Bible college) but I’ve neglected the developing practices of these habits. Thank you for your help in refocusing life 🙂

  2. BRAVO!!

  3. This is great, Chaplain Mike. Very helpful analogy.

  4. Mike,
    Can you briefly comment on what it means to “grow in grace”? Is grace referring to God’s favor? God’s strength and enablement? It’s somewhat of an elusive thing to many of us.
    Peace to you.

  5. Thanks, Chaplain Mike.
    Getting down to the heart of the matter, you are.
    I love it. I need it. Hope this series continues for a while.

  6. Good analogy. Willard’s “VIM” strategy (vision, intention, means) helps orient me to what (who) my desire really is and I think you embed this in the story above. I can hear Bach played beautifully but I must ask myself do I want to play the “piano” and do I want to learn to play it well? If so, what are the means that can help me grow in this life? Many may simply own a piano. Some may dabble with playing it like a hobby. Others may play it out of duty or simply to play it as good as those around them. Some only to play it in front of others. For some it’s a process of “fits and starts” (and the list goes on).

    One thing I’m mindful of, is that we are not in competition with each other tho we may encourage and challenge each other along the way. A person just learning the piano is playing as beautifully to the Master as a seasoned proficient. Lewis might remind us that God calls each of us to mature into great maestros but he is ecstatic over our first stumbling attempts to play the “chopsticks” – but he doesn’t intend for us to live our whole life at this level and gives each of us by his Spirit, the faith and grace to grow into the kind of person he wants us to become in Christ. Analogys still fall short of the real!

    • And the diversity of each person growing into the life of Christ will be a great symphony of many instruments to the glory of God.

      • well said. thank you for this comment. I am one that falls prey to that whole comparison thing. struggle with feelings of inadequacies…and unfortunately, it spills over into my Christian walk. I certainly understand the “spirit” of the analogy and appreciate what is being communicated through it, but being a mediocre musician (piano & trumpet) I was a bit overwhelmed at first when reading through this. In the natural I will never be an accomplished musician and the idea of trying to be so would be very daunting indeed. and I once sat through a ladies bible study (i do not remember the topic), but for some reason I remember the teacher trying to make a point by using the example that each of in the room had the ability to play piano, but for some of us it would never be more than just “plunking out chop sticks”…we could maybe learn basic techniques, but it takes something special to actually make “music”. yes, indeed, analogies can be limited. 🙂

    • Great point about competition, mick; that’s a great weakness in many sports analogies as well, though they have their place. Compare and die, I’ve heard said few times….

    • I knew this would come up. The analogy is limited.

      • And a very good analogy, IMO; sorry if that wasn’t plain in my posts. All analogies have their limits. Well said.

  7. Chaplain Mike,

    An excellent post. I particularly liked the scriptures you used.

    My understanding is that in “Reformed Protestantism” scripture has the final authority and tradition is given a subordinate role.

    I think this should be the case in all Christian churches, particularly the protestant ones since Sola Scriptura was such an emphasis of the Reformation.

    “…present your members to God as instruments of righteousness…” What a great verse to use for “spiritual formation.”

    May God grant us the grace to become those instruments (kind of like a well-tuned piano or a trained musician) of righteousness.

    God’s blessings…

  8. I’ve read Foster and Willard. I had an assistant pastor who was a student of Willard and sat through a lot of spiritual discipline training. To me, it is just a replacement of the old moralism. Instead of don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t miss your quiet time, don’t dance, don’t go to movies, don’t play cards. etc. We now have to subject ourselves to contrived times of silence, solitude, retreats, etc. We may as well get out the whips so we can practice physical suffering.

    It is all about what we can do to make ourselves more spiritual. The disciplines eventually become the #1 thing in people’s lives, above grace, word & sacrament, and vocation. I’ve seen it a hundred times.

    • Any practice can be corrupted into self-righteousness. Your warning is valid but we should not dismiss spiritual practices wholecloth. Luther certainly did not.

    • I’ve read Foster and Willard, and it seems that they both warn of that. Anyone can take a teaching and abuse it. From your post, I’d say the leaders you were under were the issue, not the discipline itself. Just like a bad piano teacher (to use Chaplain Mike’s example) can put someone off from playing the instrument for life, a bad teacher can have the same effect. A good teacher, however, can be the thing that inspires a student to love the music and put the hard work and effort into learning.

    • I’m with you, Dave. This all sounds like another (newer! better!–or maybe older! better!) treadmill that nobody can keep on but everybody pretends to. May as well start hanging clothes on it now. 🙁

      • What’s your alternative to the “treadmill?”

        • Wish I knew, honestly. Maybe I’m just being too hard on myself.

          • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

            This may sound trite, but I think there’s truth to it nonetheless. Don’t worry about the destination in all this. It’s really about the process. You take on what you can handle and let the growth just come on its own.

            For example, I saw a neat video at St. Peter’s Anglican Church’s Website (there’s a link to their site on the homepage) where a visiting priest explained how to use the Book of Common Prayer as a tool for devotions and spiritual formation. In the current American BCP, there are four daily services, the longest of which takes 30+ minutes if you include the readings. Let’s face it, four services is too much for most folk. But she likened the mindset with that of Hobbits in Lord of the Rings. It’s really for simple folk and has simple beauty to it. As such, there are options for each service that are so short you could say them at a stoplight (yes, I’ve tried that).

            So, maybe I can’t do four prayer services of 30 or so minutes a day. But, maybe I can take a couple minutes out of my morning while I’m enjoying my coffee to say one of the short ones and just tell God “good morning.” And after a while, I might wanna take a couple minutes out after lunch to do the same. Or before bed. And I find you’ve grown little-by-little without even knowing it in a very organic and not-so-stressful sort of way.

            I might go through times when it’s so tough to do even the little stuff that I miss a day or two. That’s OK. Don’t worry so much about missing things; just pick up where you left off. There’s no “catching up.” There’s just a journey. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we run, and sometimes we take longer-than-anticipated pitstop.

            Honestly, I’m at a period of life where it’s HARD to even spend a few minutes in prayer before work. Two months ago, I effortlessly was able to hit all four services each day with joy. Both are just part of life sometime. But Jesus is taking the journey with me, so it’s all good.

    • to me Spiritual formation is not about “moralism” – we will always fall short & the experiece of falling short brings us closer to God as our only salvation.
      But growing in God, walking with him, worshiping him, listening to his voice is the answer to the “old moralism” of evangelicalsim’s “get saved then hold on till death” don’t do this & don’t do that. peace.

    • Dave: “It is all about what we can do to make ourselves more spiritual.” While I can’t comment on the motive within your Pastor’s heart, I am wondering why it couldn’t be about a thirst and hunger in one’s heart to know the Savior? I don’t mean any sarcasm in putting it that way because I’m quite sure you would agree. But, why not? Yes, the disciplines can eventually became the #1 thing, I get that, but if in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit on my heart I begin to thirst in that way, then my energy spent in practising spiritual disciplines is really and always an attempt to know God.

  9. one more Mike says

    Thank you for this series Chaplain Mike. It has taken me way too many years to begin following a path of spiritual formation. I have always felt a yearning to search more deeply into the mysteries of faith, and nothing in my evangelical existence (as opposed to life) pointed me to anything but rules, vapid platitudes and appeals to my emotions. When I was 8 years old my father told me not to “get too smart for my religion” when I asked if Dr. Leakey had found Adam and Eve in the Olduvai gorge. That was not an answer, and it’s a reply/dictum that 8 year olds are still getting.

    I’m now a former evangelical who is deeply studying the gospels, prays the office, reads Thomas Merton, N.T. Wright, Michael Spencer and Chaplain Mike (read that out loud, it’s like a cheer!). I’ve been “unchurched” for 2 years. Some wounds are deep, and I feel no urgency to expose them to amateurs. I’ll continue on this path through the wilderness until it merges with some new fellowship, or not.

    Here’s an observation: The “Spiritual formation” series are the type of postings that attract many people into the IMonk community. Look at the number of comments it’s getting, as compared to postings on the “hot button issues” in evangelicalism (which I won’t even name, since any mention of them instantly brings out the hijackers). There’s nothing wrong with this, there needs to be a place where these important discussions can take place, and it brings up site traffic. I’m just throwing that out as a thing that makes me go “hmmmm…”

    • “When I was 8 years old my father told me not to “get too smart for my religion” …”

      I was 45 years old when one of my more fundamentalist friends told me “We’re not supposed to ask questions like that.” Anything that might threaten sola scriptura, as taught, is verboten.

      It directly relates to the topic of spiritual formation because if you’re 100% satisfied with where you are, you’ll never grow. Much like intellectual formation requires intellectual inquiry, spiritual formation cannot help but include inquiry into one’s self.

      • I had a pastor recently suggest that a friend and I were “educated beyond our obedience” for having the audicity to suggest there were problems in evangelicalism, and that an annual men’s gathering might have been more effective if the music had had less of a rock concert feel to it. My friend is in his late 30’s, and I’m closer to 60 than I thought I’d ever be. So yeah, it’s not just for 8 year olds.

        And I don’t respond well to the usual devotions/quiet time/church every time the doors open school of “Christian growth” that is so prevalent among evangelicals, so I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series. Don’t think I’ll be telling my pastor about my current journey, though. 😉

    • Here’s an observation: The “Spiritual formation” series are the type of postings that attract many people into the IMonk community.

      And for many of us, where else to take our interest and questions about spiritual formation ?? I know this is NOT the case for the EO,RC, and more traditional/liturgical forms of protestant denoms, but where I’m living, all of this gets a LITTLE airplay . You can find Foster and Willard in our bookstore, but it’s the sermon series, present, past , and future that is the deal (and for establishing a direction for church, maybe some of that is OK….wince @ the lack of sacrament focus….I understand that)

      The internet becomes the community that “gets it” when other options are closed off (for now). And we wait….

  10. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    In one of the earlier posts, you mentioned that the concept of vocation is tied to the concept of spiritual formation. After reading the music analogy, I think I get that a bit better.

    I’m a guitarist. I started playing about 15 or so years ago. I know my chords and some scales. I know my fingerpicking patterns, various blues boxes, and how to get my guitar to sound like I want when all I have is the guitar and an amp. I can improvise and write some songs. I’m good. For an amateur. I’m about as good as I’ll get considering the amount of time I’m willing to invest. I’m not a professional guitarist, I’m just a guy whose been fooling around long enough to know a thing or two. There’s a level of playing that I’ll never get to, not because I don’t have the potential or talent to get to it, but because my calling in life, my vocation puts some limits on the amount of investment I make into the guitar. But that’s OK. My guitar playing is good for where I am in life. And I’ll learn new things, I’ll continue to grow, but in a way that is commensurate with what I am able to invest in it.

    Relating this back to spiritual formation, not everybody is called to ordained ministry. Not everybody is called to be a multi-degree-holding theologian. Not everybody is called to the ascetic life of a monk. The pastor/preacher may spend 20 hours a week studying the Word. Not everybody needs to do that. The monk may spend 6 hours a day in prayer. Not everybody needs to do that.

    The real question is whether or not we are on the path to spiritual formation that God is calling us to be in our own vocations.

    • That’s connecting the dots very ably, Isaac. Haven’t read the book (yet) but I think that was the direction Thomas was going down in Sacred Pathways (I think that was the title..). What helps prevent the treadmill scene is knowing which of zillions of possible spiritaul disciplines is working , because GOD has made us to be …..fill in the blank. It’s when one tract , in very concrete terms, becomes THE WAY, that we stumble, and the tail is now wagging the dog…..to death.

      Nice post.

  11. SearchingAnglican says

    Chaplain Mike –

    I’ve read Celebration of Discipline every year for the past four, after my women’s group first used it for a study. While I’m more or less in the “fits and starts” phase in my life in terms (again) of actual practice, I appreciate the disciplines more than I ever have. Particularly the practices of solitude and silence. Difficult, but most needed, for this extroverted, over committed over achiever.

    Thank you for a beautiful analogy. It has a lyrical quality, and not because of the piano analogy. Your words darn near flew off my monitor.

    Enjoying this series very much.

  12. There’s a somewhat cheesy movie from the mid 90’s with Brendan Fraser (really, is there any Brendan Fraser movie in which the word “cheesy” can’t be used as a descriptor?) called With Honors in which Joe Pesci plays a homeless man. The plot really isn’t worth getting into, but there’s one line from that movie that comes to mind. Pesci’s character tell Fraser’s character, “Winners forget they’re in a race, they just love to run.” And really, to me, that sums up what our attitude toward spiritual disciplines should ideally be. I think a discipline can initially seem like something we have to do, but after a while, it becomes something we get to do.

    Isaac, in an earlier comment, mentioned playing guitar. I too am a guitarist, and I remember when I first started playing, my fingers hurt and would cramp up. Learning new chords wasn’t necessarily a joy. But now, after playing for years, I genuinely love being able to play and am thankful for the opportunities I get to play with other musicians. Yes, there’s work and effort involved still, but overall, the joy I receive from playing is much greater than the pain I have to go through because of the work involved.

    • “Pesci’s character tell Fraser’s character, ‘Winners forget they’re in a race, they just love to run.’ And really, to me, that sums up what our attitude toward spiritual disciplines should ideally be.”

      Another excellent illustration, pulled from a cheesy, secular movie. Bravo, Phil!!!!

    • Buford Hollis says

      “really, is there any Brendan Fraser movie in which the word “cheesy” can’t be used as a descriptor?”

      Many have praised his performance in “The Quiet American.” He’s perfectly capable of serious roles, it’s just that money is obviously his priority.

  13. Excellent illustration. This is one of the better things I’ve seen written on how I might become more Jesus-shaped, despite the selfish skin I’m in.

  14. What does everyone think of Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline”? I started this last year but only got through half of it before putting down.

    • Tony,

      It’s a good book, but I prefer Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard.


    • SearchingAnglican says

      I enjoy it from cover to cover, and I like to reread it about once a year. However, I’ve heard more than one person say that it’s just waaaaaay too much to digest all at once, and rather intimidating.

      Some people I know find themselves “hungry” for a particular practice at a particular time, and then try to incorporate that discipline into their lives. Currently, I’m taking more of that approach. I find myself challenged most by the “outward discipline” of solitude, so I have made that my focus…for now.

      It was interesting when we did the study as a small group, we all practiced a 24-hour fast together (“corporate discipline”) because many in the group had never fasted before, or had somewhat of a wrong-headed notion about the value of the fast. While it made for some really good discussion, I’m not sure any of us have tried that again. However, it’s put “giving something up for Lent” in a WHOLE new context.

      I think I’m going to have to pick up Willard’s book to make a comparison. Silly book addiction. Amazon loves me.


      • Casey,
        if you’re interested in investigating fasting in particular, Scot McKnight has written a worthy little book on the subject, “Fasting: The Ancient Practices”, which actually is “on sale” at Amazon at the moment.


        • Buford Hollis says

          And people…? BE CAREFUL. Don’t make fasting like a crash diet, where you decide yourself how long to starve. Safest is to limit yourself to plain / healthy food (no McDonalds), or reduce the quantity to something reasonable and moderate. Pregnant women should never fast.

          Catholics and Orthodox give up things like meat , eggs, and dairy products during assigned periods on the church calendar. Mormons practice total food-fasting one day per month, which works out okay, and give the money the save to the poor. Muslims fast during the day, but feast at night (which should still not be done by pregnant women–there are studies).

          One Orthodox priest instructed his congregation NOT to fast when their non-Orthodox families are feasting, on the principle that the most important thing is giving up the egotism of yourself deciding what to eat. And also not to announce to other people that they are fasting.

      • I used to fast one day a week, following the model of John Wesley. It will give you a different perspective, for sure. If only we thought about God as much as we do about where we’re going to eat tonight!

    • Any book by Richard Foster is good. espeacially his books on prayer & meditation.

  15. Excellent post.

    To be honest, this topic has “haunted” me for some time. Thoughts about the spiritual disciplines and an intentional following of Jesus through these means of grace keeps coming back to me again and again. Dallas Willard and his excellent book are certainly connected to this situation.

    Let me throw out a question that may seem like a detour, but may be related: Do you have any idea what the present day application of the Nazirite vow might be? Numbers 6 portrays people who want to embrace a level of consecration unto the Lord that exceeds the already high calling of the people of God.

    In the present state of Christianity in this country, regular involvement in the spiritual disciplines seems like a radical approach that mirrors the way of the Nazirite. But in general it seems like the basic lifestyle of the believer.



    • who’s talking about vows? this is Discipline. do you vow to brush your teeth every morning or do you do it because it is healthy for you?

      • Briank,

        Seems like a vow is a commitment to discipline yourself for a particular purpose or season. I don’t see them as apples and oranges, but I’m willing to be wrong.

        • you seem to have a valid worry about trying to “earn” your salvation – this is a real problem that we must avoid and fight. not to sound all “Buddhist” ,but it all about balance.
          Santification w/ Justification, work thru faith, etc….

          I usally fall on the other side of the divide. I can recall listening a primitive Baptist preacher every Sunday morning on the radio beating his congregation down w/ “there is nothing you can DO to be right w/ God, we are wretched, we can only accept his love, etc…” when you keep beating that drum, I believe you begin to fall into fatalism. I sin therefore I am – I can’t do good, why worry if I do wrong.

          Discipline to me is more about trying follow “the way”, while knowing I will need Jesus to walk for me during much of the journey. peace

  16. I have deeply resonated with this series and it has been very helpful to me as I process through how I understand sanctification.

    This is a very personal issue because this topic has been a point of great abrasion between my father and eye. He sees my life and my actions and is convinced that I am acting out of a need to earn God’s love. I tell him I love God and I live the way I do because God loves me.

    I think I have found that this really comes down to a fundamental understanding of sanctification. He thinks I’m distorting justification, but I think he doesn’t understand sanctification. He’s convinced we are inert beings and if we really understand God’s grace and God’s power in our life we wouldn’t do anything, because we are after all, incapable of doing anything apart from him.

    I could really use some help from the IM crowd if possible.

    Have any of you lived in this paradigm and experienced this struggle with someone first hand?
    Do you have any wisdom that you could impart?
    Is there a definitive biblical understanding on the personal responsibility and initiative that we can take as a follower of Christ?
    But would this even be enough? Is there a deeper issue at work here?

    Any thoughts, prayers, words of encouragement would be greatly appreciated!

    • David, I’ll try to answer you with a few semi-rhetorical questions that I hope address your concern:

      -Did Jesus call his disciples to “follow me” into inert ministry and inert living out their faith?

      -Were the disciples and apostles inert after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

      -Reflecting upon your own salvation – which was soley by God’s grace – did it include seeds sown by the hands of other believers?

      -As a corollary to that question, was your father inert or was he active in trying to show you God’s grace and the way to salvation?

      -Is love inert or active? Is “loving God” inert or active? Is “loving your neighbor as yourself” inert or active?

    • David

      This is a very important question: if its by grace, why do we need to work?

      II Timothy 2:3-6 presents three analogies to illustrate what Paul means when he commands Timothy to “be strong in the grace that is in Jesus Christ”, and the very fact we are commanded to be strong in Jesus’s grace should tell us the passive view of grace is incomplete.

      The first analogy is of a soldier who doesnt get entangled in civilian affairs (much like was mentioned above about leaving some things out of our lives). the second is of the athlete who plays by the rules. The third is that of the hard-working farmer. I suppose Paul gives us three pictures, since all analogies limp, as they say. The last one (the hard working farmer) is most important to me right now. A farmer knows he cannot make anything grow. The process of growth is mysterious, or at least far beyond his power. However, by working hard, he may create conditions whereby growth occurs. WIthout the plowing, fertilizing, planting, watering and pruning, growth will not occur. With it, growth is a reasonable expectation, even if it is beyond the farmer’s power. (Btw, I think Willard uses this analogy). In this way, we partner with a power far beyond us when we take up the spiritual disciplines that others assure us make growth possible.

      • Well said, and from my view, a very fair reading of II Timothy…. “be strong in the grace of Christ Jesus…..” leads seamlessly into three vivid word pictures of OUR activity….not either/or but both/and. the word “partner” , of an unequal sort of course, is apt. This is why the expression “It’s all GOD…..” seems kind of weird to me.

      • Rick, thanks for the rhetorical questions, those are very helpful for stimulating thought.

        And Daniel, I really appreciate your understanding and encouragement, and am very thankful for pointing me to II Timothy!

        I think I will sit down with him in the next week and read through those analogies and have a good conversation (hopefully).

        Thank you both for your time!

      • Thank you, Daniel…love your comments about the farmer!!! Great way to look at this.

    • To the other comments, which were excellent, I would only add Eph. 2:8-10:

      For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

      As Chaplain Mike noted recently, most people who quote from Ephesians seem to think it ends with v. 9. It doesn’t. It goes on to explain that we were created to walk in the good works that God prepared for us beforehand. That is hardly the picture of inert beings.

  17. This may not be the right place for this, but have any of you on here ever read any of James Bryan Smith’s books on spiritual formation?

    I’m reading and working through “The Good And Beautiful LIfe” right now and it’s good. He has several of these books as a series …..

    (he was a teaching assistant to Dallas Williard for a while and wrote a biography of Rich Mullins due to his close friendship with Mullins; i also recommend that book)….

  18. Lori Pollard says

    Excellent. I too, have returned to roots and am attending seminary. Finding and nurturing the essence of who we are in Christ is our privilege.

  19. N.T. Wright gave a lecture at Fuller Seminary on this very issue. He called it developing “virtue”. At the time, his analogy wasn’t a piano – – it was Capt. Sulley landing his plane on the Hudson river, with hours of training enabled him to do the seemingly impossible as “second nature” (another big concept for Tom).
    I highly recommend the mp3 of this talk, which can be found as a free download on iTunes:

  20. “The well known disciplines such as solitude and silence, fasting and frugality, worship and confession, etc., have been around for millennia.”

    These are good things, but for me personally, even these things don’t really get down to a “practical” enough level of thinking for what I’ve found helpful in my own spiritual growth. Continuing the music analogy (as a musician!), I can play many sections of significant musical works the first time through because of a combination of natural and developed skill. But there are always sections which are difficult and require lots of painstaking practice or else the whole piece never comes together and one is left feeling somewhat empty. It’s the hardest parts that require practice and you have to keep coming back to those specific sections again and again.

    So practically as far as spiritual growth, I have problems handling certain personalities I encounter and I have particular weaknesses with pride of various kinds. My experience in life is that no matter where I go, I encounter the same problems and conflicts. I think of this as God putting in front of me the hard sections of a piece of music, forcing me to practice until I get it right and can actually play that beautiful piece all the way through for the first time. Most of my life, I didn’t even realize that God was giving me an opportunity to practice and just kept thinking “if I can only get away from person X” all will be perfect. The practical spiritual discipline is recognizing where your particular weaknesses are and practicing on improving them every day. Maybe it’s just trying to stop myself from overreacting to person X or practicing thinking gracious thoughts that might actually come out into action rather than resentful thoughts that all too often DO come out into actions that I regret. Recognize your private and public weaknesses that God is most likely trotting in front of you so you can practice them, decide to keep working at them little by little no matter how often you fail and hopefully, you will become more “godlike” in being gracious even to those who often deserve less and maybe moving on to another piece of music with different hard sections to be practiced.

    That’s been my practical approach. Sorry for the length.

  21. I love this post, Chaplain Mike! Several years ago, I was exposed to authors who taught entire sanctification through a second blessing of the Holy Spirit. I soon found myself in a kind of spiritual depression, forever failing to “die to self” enough so that I, too, could receive this blessing. Not until I read a critique of Keswick theology in JI Packer’s KEEP IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT was I released, finally, from the futile pursuit (for me) of the total transformation NOW of the Higher Life movement. Other books that have helped: Walter Marshall’s THE GOSPEL MYSTERY OF SANCTIFICATION, Jerry Bridges’ THE DISCIPLINE OF GRACE, and Mark Buchanan’s HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT.

    Btw, I’m the Susan who struggled with Capon’s book, not the Susan of the above comments. Guess I’ll need to add an initial!

  22. from Henri Nouwen “Seeds of Hope” p.54

    Oh how important is discipline, community, prayer, silence, caring presence, simple listening, adoration, and deep lasting faithful friendship. We all want it so much, and still the powers suggesting that all of that is fantasy are enormous. But we have to replace the battle for power with the battle to create space for the spirit. from the Ch. Our Restless, Busy Society


  23. This is one of the best things I’ve read on iMonk. I’ve been worried that this site would simply devolve into endless evangelical-bashing without any kind of constructive criticism, but this actually wants to build up. I really look forward to reading more like this!

  24. My wife and I have started learning the spiritual disciplines over the past few years. She has gone much further than I.

    It really is ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’. She has gone deeper than I. I have started with a simple book that is manageable written by Ruth Haley Barton called Sacred Rythms. And yes, we practice it with others, not just by ourselves.

    She has one chapter that really is the basic building block, it is about Solitude, learning to withdraw into a quiet place where you can allow God to speak to you. If you can’t do this, you really don’t get very far. The scripture records Jesus as doing it.

    What makes it easier is it is all really about making room for relationship with God, it is not another ‘you should’