October 21, 2020

The Goal of Spiritual Formation


“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience — Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

“Atticus, you must be wrong….”

“How’s that?”

“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong….”

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

To Kill a Mockingbird

* * *

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8 NLT).

What is important is faith expressing itself in love (Galatians 6:6 NLT)

The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith (1 Timothy 1:5 NLT).

What is desired in a man is steadfast love (Proverbs 19:22 ESV).

* * *

What makes Atticus Finch one of the great heroes in American literature?

He has a number of admirable attributes. We love his patience, gentleness, and wit, the homespun wisdom he shares with his children and neighbors. We admire his willingness to stand against the dehumanization of an entire race and to embrace one particular member of that race. His courage to defend Tom Robinson in a community marked by petty racism inspires us, even if he ultimately loses his case and fails to go further to destroy the systemic injustice of his society. He not only represents someone who does the right thing but is also a man who can tell us why a person should do the right thing. He is both idealistic and realistic, as ready to shoot a threatening rabid dog as to talk about “walking in another man’s skin.”

All these qualities are commendable but ultimately I think we love Atticus Finch because we would want him to be our neighbor. We recognize in him a person who epitomizes Romans 13:10 — “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Atticus Finch loves his neighbors as himself. He is not perfect in the sense of being flawless or without sin. But he is a person of faithful love.

I imagine people like Atticus Finch when I want to visualize the goal of spiritual formation.

I don’t think of monks or nuns or others who have devoted themselves to religious vocations. I learn from them, and I respect their work, but this is not the path the vast majority of people are called to take.

Most of us are ordinary folks living in communities of lots of other ordinary folks who are not separated from the world and cloistered in religious orders. It is here — right here — that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Spiritual formation is mostly about learning to live the new life of love in Christ in ordinary settings as we do our daily work and relate to our neighbors.

atticus-finch1Those who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ are free to do that. We don’t have to worry about “doing works” in an anxious effort to please God. We don’t bear the responsibility of making or keeping things right between us and God. By his doing we are in Christ Jesus. We are God’s workmanship. He has forgiven us, washed us clean through baptism, and raised us up into a new creation, the realm of the Spirit. The Spirit indwells and renews us day by day to walk in the good works which God prepares beforehand for us.

The spiritual practices we have talked about as being a part of the “training” process that forms us have nothing to do with any of that. We have been set free in Christ, and spiritual formation is our subsequent enculturation into the new creation, into living a life of love.

It is as though God has provided every detail necessary for us to travel to a new land. He took care of our documents and provisions, paid our passage, and made sure we got on the right flight. He guided the plane to its proper destination and when we disembarked we found ourselves in a new place, with new customs, a new language, and new currency. We are now free to live as full citizens of this new country.

Funny thing is, a lot of it looks just like the old country. I still awaken each day and find my ordinary life. My family. My friends and neighbors. My work. My play. It looks like my ordinary, daily life, but somehow it’s all new as well and I have to learn to negotiate it. I have to become enculturated so that I can live at one and the same time as a person of this age and the age to come, a citizen of both this world and the Kingdom of God.

Like Atticus Finch, I find myself simultaneously at home and not at home in the community where I live.

And here I must learn to love.


  1. Robert F says

    Just want to say Godspeed to you Chaplain Mike as you move into this new chapter of your life.

  2. Good post, Chaplain Mike! If, like me, you are also a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction — and if you aren’t, I hope you become one — I recommend to you a book entitled The True Country by Carter W. Martin (1968, Vanderbilt University Press).

  3. Clay Knick says

    So very nicely done, Mike. I think this is one of your best. From one preacher to another I’m going to give you one of the best compliments we preachers can give: I’m going to steal this. Okay, borrow it. And yes, you’ll get the credit in a verbal footnote or something similar. Spot on, brother. We often make spiritual formation into something esoteric & ethereal. When I think of people who are spiritually formed I think of my mother or a professor I had in theological school. Neither would claim they were so like Jesus, but he shined from their lives. Thanks for this.

  4. To Kill A Mockingbird was mandatory reading when I was in school. Now I understand it is banned or fools are trying to have it banned from schools. Too bad, because the one line I have remembered for decades and incorporated into the very fiber of my personality is “…before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.” If more people got nothing more than the message this one line is trying to make, this world would be a far better place than it is now.

    • Christiane says

      WHY would anyone ban this awesome book?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Kyle’s Moms with a Cause will always find a reason.

        In this case, I suspect it’s N-bombs in the dialogue (which would fit the setting and time-period), i.e. RACIST RACIST RACIST(TM)!

        (And when the novel was first published, it was probably banned for NOT being Racist enough, i.e. blaspheming White Supremacy — which at the time was both a Fundamental Law of Nature and/or Commandment of God.)

  5. Robert F says

    “Funny thing is, a lot of it looks just like the old country….” Yes, the old country is new; but the new country is old, as well. There is always that tension since the Kingdom is both here and not here yet, and we remain resident aliens to the degree that it is not here yet. Because the realization or revelation of the presence of the Kingdom is only partial, we forever are on the move even as we rest in this old/new world, and we will continue to lean into a future that retains a deep mystery, but we lean backwards, because we only can trust in that future by looking back into the life of Jesus Christ. “Remember me,” he said ; that is how we recognize him here in the present and trust that he is waiting for us in the unseen future which, against all our intuition, is actually behind us: by remembering him, by looking back at him. This is what it means to always look East.

    Another way of saying it, and seeing it, is this:

    “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods.
    I should be glad of another death.” Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot

  6. Jonathan says

    CM, What makes your choice of Finch all the more pertinent , as least to me, as both Christian and lawyer, is not merely his defense of Robinson, the truly innocent man, but Finch’s earlier years in the law. As described in the book, Finch started out representing guilty people, including two who were hanged after rejecting Finch’s advice to plead to a lesser charge. And he spent a lot of time writing wills that couldn’t be broken. Sure, Finch is fictional, but, since we’re visualizing, I like to think he could stand so credibly and nobly for Robinson because he’d done such credible and noble work in the community in the things about which no novelist would write. I have to keep Finch in mind doing the little things right so that, when he takes Robinson’s case, he doesn’t sprout wings and a halo and fly away from me.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Funny thing is, a lot of it looks just like the old country.

    No Rapture up into Fluffy Cloud Heaven, no Only Drinking Milk That Comes From A CHRISTIAN(TM) Cow, no magic force-field walling you off from all those Heathen(TM), no 24/7/365 Scripture(TM) and Praise(TM) and Witnessing(TM), no unicorns farting rainbows, no free ice cream.

    Like the emphasis in Judaism, you’re just Living Your Life.
    Only in a new way with a different perspective.

  8. Christiane says

    I’ve always loved the way that the Church speaks about ‘conscience’:

    ” “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

    Reading the words of Atticus in Chaplain Mike’s post,
    I thought about the ‘honor’ that being made in God’s image really is: that we are given this opportunity to choose between what we know to be right and what we know to be wrong;
    and that we KNOW is due to God’s gift of a heart that is formed by His Own Hand.

    “I will praise Thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
    marvellous are Thy works;
    and that my soul knoweth right well.” (Psalm 139:14)

    some Christian people in their doctrines
    have written off the gift of moral conscience as not to be considered in the salvation of those who are ‘inculpably ignorant’ . . . those moral people who live according to their consciences, but through no fault of their own, do not know about Christ . . .
    I’m glad that my Church does not do this . . . the conscience of a person is a ‘sacred place’ where God does come to meet with us . . . and Christ is a part of the Holy Trinity and His Presence is also in that encounter within a person’s conscience and His Voice is heard and obeyed when the conscience of a man is honored in his life

  9. David C. says

    I’m also reminded that C.S. Lewis said that unless a conscience is instructed it’s not such a good guide.

    • Robert F says

      Indeed, it seems to me that fanatics, say Jim Jones and his disciples, are invariably very conscientious; and the Heaven’s Gate cult must have had more than its share of highly conscientious members. Without those who are conscientious fanaticism doesn’t work.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Regarding Heaven’s Gate (which I refer to as “The Bo-Peepers” from their earlier days), I came across a passage about them in an obscure book titled UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture by a Gregory L Reece. Does this remind you of anything?

        Unlike most other contactee groups, and practically all of the individual contactees, Heaven’s Gate found little that was good in human nature, little that could give them hope. What hope they had was thought to be coming from above, a starship in a comet’s tail. They had given up on transforming the world; the best they could do was to escape it.

    • Good point, David. Conscience has to be instructed, and it can also be abused and killed.

  10. This has been a great series. This one and the previous one on suffering go hand-in-hand. The pursuit of a “radical” spirituality seems to me as an attempted escape from the suffering of the ordinary life. It’s like a man leaving his wife to run off with a younger woman in the pursuit of “true love”, when true love was right there, among the dirty laundry, the monthly bills, occassional arguments, and aging process.

    I do see the inherent tension within a term like “spiritual” formation, which sounds a lot like radical spirituality. Perhaps its time for a new term. How about vocation? Table of Duties? I guess neither have the same glitz as “spiritual formation”.

    How about sacramental formation? Sacramental is not the same as sacrament, so perhaps there would be a way to include those in traditions without sacraments, which is oddly where I find myself right now.

  11. Adrienne says

    Beautiful post – you just have to love Atticus Finch. An ordinary, quiet hero, courageously, patiently teaching his children and his stubborn community. Harper Lee has said Atticus Finch was based on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee.

    On another subject – have we heard from Eagle lately?

  12. Adrienne says

    Sorry. Posted under wrong discussion.

  13. Off topic- I am praying for Jeff & his family tonight, as I watch the weather channel. Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy on all who are in the path of the tornadoes.