Nurturing/ Teaching Courses
Understanding Spiritual Formation
Dr Alex Tang
Spiritual formation has become a buzz word in evangelical circles in the last decades. However, like the word ‘spirituality’, spiritual formation has different meaning to different people. An evangelical pastor may understand it differently from an ecumenical pastor. A theologian in a seminary may define it differently from a worker in a church. Spiritual formation may have different connotations to those from the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. A dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation (2003,107) defines it as “the dynamics of shaping the human spirit towards maturity and consonance’. For the purpose of this paper, spiritual formation is defined as the work of forming and transforming by the Holy Spirit in the process of internalisation of information and experiences in an individual to develop the character of Christ-likeness. The components of spiritual formation are knowing and loving God, knowing and loving ourselves, knowing and loving our neighbours and being mindful of the presence of God in our daily routine living. This process is centred by the call of God the Father, the completed work on the cross of Jesus Christ our Saviour and empowered by the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual formation is Trinitarian in its theological emphasis. Christian spirituality is defined as living our daily life with God.
There is often confusion when the terms spiritual formation and discipleship are used. Many people regard both terms as similar. On the superficial level, they are similar. Both are aspects of sanctification. Discipleship is the process of making disciples. Unfortunately, in the last two decades, discipleship has become a program. In some churches, if one has completed a certain number of courses, he or she is a disciple. Discipleship has a strong emphasis on head knowledge and behaviour modification. Spiritual formation is more holistic in that it aims at both head and heart knowledge with character formation by the Holy Spirit. It can be regarded as ‘discipleship plus’
The Goals of Spiritual Formation
The goals of spiritual formation are firstly, to become like Christ or Christ-likeness (Gal.4:19;Rom.8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). The process of spiritual formation is so that we can become more like Christ. Jesus Christ is the ideal man. The goal of spiritual formation is to make us like Him. In the Orthodox tradition, they call spiritual formation, theosis, the process of divinisation.
Secondly, spiritual formation is to restore the Image of God (Gen.1:26-27; 2 Cor. 4:4). Man was initially created in the image of God. With the Fall, the image of God was distorted. One of the goals of the new creation in Christ is to restore the image of God in us.
Thirdly, spiritual formation is to develop a People of God. (Rom.8:29). The redemption plan of God is to create a people of God, laos, so that He can dwell amongst them. Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and Paul taught about the people of God, both emphasising a people called out so that God can dwell among them.
Components of Spiritual Formation
The various components of spiritual formation are important in the process of developing a Christ-like character in an individual. These components must be developing equally or an individual will have a skewed spiritual life. Spiritual formation must be balanced.
Firstly, knowing and loving God (Mk 12:30). One component of spiritual formation is to know and love God. Unless we know someone, we cannot love the person. It is the same with God. Unless we know God personally, we are loving an image or concept we have of God. It is not the real God, just our perception of Him. And often this concept of God is based on our concept of our fathers. We can only come to know God by reading His Word, by studying His Son, by appreciating His creation, by quiet time in prayer and meditation and by listening to Him through silence, dreams and vision. God wants to reveal Himself to us. Our God is a ‘knowable’ God.
Secondly, knowing and loving ourselves (Mk 12: 31a). It is only after we become Christians can be truly ourselves and be fully human. Only God can make us authentic human beings. Many of us are living a life of lies. Instead of becoming who we really are, we hide behind false masks and try to convince others that we are powerful, in control, beautiful and spiritual. Sometimes we even convince ourselves. This is our false self. Spiritual formation helps us to remove the false self and help us discover our true self (Pennington 2000). The second commandment is to love our neighbours as ourselves. It implies the order here. We first have to know and love ourselves. Then we can know and love our neighbours. To love ourselves, we first have understand our own personalities and the ways we connect with God (Thomas 1996, 13-32).
Thirdly, knowing and loving our neighbours (Mk 12:31a). Christian spiritual life is relational. The Trinity is a relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Spiritual formation is the relationship between God, us and our neighbours. It is not just a ‘Thou and I’ affair. Spiritual formation involves the whole world as we reach out to a hurting and suffering world and bring redemption to it.
Fourthly, living a life of mindfulness of the presence of God in our daily life. This is the context in which Jesus taught the greatest commandment. He taught it after He has told the disciples the parable of the tenants who was ungrateful for what they have been given (Mk.12:1-12), about paying taxes to Caesar (Mk.12:13-17) and a debate about marriage at the resurrection (Mk.12:18-27). Jesus did not take His disciples away from the cities to live in a monastery. Jesus taught and lived among the people. His is a marketplace spirituality. Taken in this context, spiritual formation is not done separate from the world. Spiritual formation is experiencing God in the mundane, ordinary routine of our daily lives.
Finally, Trinitarian in the centre. The key is the centre which is the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the One who called us. Jesus the Son made it possible to be reconciled with God because of His sacrifice on the cross. And the Holy Spirit is the prime power in our spiritual formation. Without the Holy Spirit, it is not possible for spiritual formation to take place.
Dynamics of Spiritual Formation
Spiritual formation in individuals is a process. Lovelace (1979, 1985) is correct in emphasising that there is a pre-spiritual formation stage. In this stage one comes to be aware of the holiness of God and our own sinful nature. Spiritual formation starts at the moment an individual accept Jesus Christ as his/her saviour. This conversion event may be instantaneous or occurs slowly over a period of time. Spiritual formation may be described as a journey because of the various stages it goes through. Faith development theory like Fowler’s (1981,14) describes a universal faith development. Faith, according to Fowler, is everyman’s search for the meaning of life. Although it may be useful in describing faith development in general, there is some problem when it is used as a model for faith development in Christianity (Astley & Francis 1992). There is no room in the theory for the work of the Holy Spirit and spiritual transformation. Fowler (2000, 62-121) did try to make his theory relevant for Christian by introducing vocation and synergy. A better approach was suggested by Hagberg and Guelich (2005). Here they delineate the faith journey into six stages (knowing God, discipling, service, inward journey, outward journey, life of love). Their descriptive model suggests that the process is linear, moving from one stage to another, although they admit it is possible to move backwards.
Unfortunately, spiritual growth are often messy and do not follow a linear pattern. I would like to use the model of early church teaching of the ‘purgative, illuminative and unitive’ way and the metaphor of a tree as a model of spiritual growth. As one progress in spiritual formation, one is always faced with a choice: choose to follow God or choose not to follow Him. To follow Him, one enters a movement of purgative, illuminative and unitive in the spirit and we grow spiritually. To reject Him, one stagnates in one’s spiritual growth. Externally we still grow in chronological age and collects life experiences. This moving to and away from God forms and transforms us and our lives. This is like rings in a tree. As the tree grows, more rings form. As we grow older we retain both positive and negative spiritual elements of our lived experiences. More positive elements (moving towards God, developing the components of spiritual formation) make the tree stronger and our character more Christ-like. More negative spiritual elements make the tree weak and easily broken in a storm.
Spiritual formation is dynamic and is always changing moment by moment. Though it starts at ‘conversion’, there are indications that God is already working in our lives before that. Spiritual formation in individuals will never succeed in its desired outcome in this life. But it will be fulfilled when Christ comes and we receive our new bodies.
The Role of the Holy Spirit in Spiritual Formation
The Holy Spirit plays an important role in spiritual formation. At ‘conversion’ the Holy Spirit is sealed unto us as a covenant of God (Eph.1:13). The Holy Spirit is a baptiser, the Spirit of truth, empowerer, counsellor, comforter and giver of spiritual gifts. It is the Holy Spirit working in our lives that leads to spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit may work slowly in our daily lives, helping us to make correct decisions in obedience to God and opening our spiritual eyes to the Truth of the Bible.
The Bible is central to spiritual formation. There will no spiritual growth without studying and learning the truth of the Bible. But it is not enough just to acquire knowledge. Spiritual formation involves not just acquiring biblical knowledge but also involves internalising this knowledge with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor.1:18). And it involves acquiring wisdom when we apply this internalised biblical knowledge in our daily lives.
The Holy Spirit also works in moments of crisis or suffering, where our props have been taken away and we are forced to depend on God. In such moments, the Holy Spirit opens our spiritual eyes and suddenly we have an ‘aha’ experience. What was once dry head knowledge become real and relevant to our lives. This is spiritual transformation.
It is through the process of formation and transformation that we begin to internalise the spiritual truths into our lives. The Holy Spirit is an excellent teacher and does not force Himself on us. Instead He prepares us to be ready to accept the truth in the formation and transformation of our souls.
The Role of the Individual in Spiritual Formation
Spiritual formation will not take place if there is no hunger in the individual for God. This hunger for God is God’s grace. Like a hungry man searching for food, a spiritually hungry man will search for God. Spiritual hunger is an essential element for spiritual growth.
Another element needed is the willingness to move out of our comfort zone to seek God. This means we are willing to deny ourselves, pick up our cross to follow Him (Matt.10:38). This will involve learning and practicing the spiritual disciplines as a means to discipline ourselves and become more like Him. Paul uses the metaphor of a soldier and an athlete to emphasis the need of discipline in our lives. The list of spiritual disciplines mentioned by Foster (1998) is widely accepted by the evangelical community. However, the list is by no means exhaustive and other authors have suggested other disciplines (Whitney 1991,1996, Willard 1988, Tan & Gregg 1997). Spiritual disciplines from other Christian traditions such as lectio divina (Demarest 1999, 123-155, Mulholland 1985), centering prayer (Pennington 1980), the Jesus Prayer and contemplative prayer (Johnson1999) may be useful. Again it must be emphasised that spiritual disciplines are tools for our spiritual growth, not an end in itself.
Spiritual formation involve informed decision making concerning everything in our lives. Jesus mentioned that idolatry of Money being a major challenge in our spiritual growth (Matt.6:24). Decision making involving every area of our lives is important as we seek to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ and to reject the temptations of the world, our flesh and Satan. Hence spiritual formation is a series of decision making in choosing to be obedient to Christ. There are many mechanisms of decision making, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral being the most popular. However Ignatius’ discernment of the movement of the Holy Spirit in times of desolation and consolation is also a useful tool (Ivens 1998, 205-209).
The individual in spiritual formation must decide to be a life-long learner. He/she must be willing to give the time and effort in studying the Word, prayer, reflecting our his/her life experiences and learning from others in the Christian faith communities (CFC) the rest of his/her life.
The Role of Suffering in Spiritual Formation
We live in a fallen world. Spiritual formation occurs in this world where often pain, suffering and evil affects everyone. How one deal with suffering is an important aspect of spiritual formation. Suffering may lead one to drawn closer to God or to drive one away from God. Yet, it is often in the crucible of pain and suffering that we discover who we are and who God is. Often we are not receptive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit when our lives are comfortable and safe. Our spiritual life begins to stagnant. Suffering is a wakeup call to a deeper spiritual life. It is in times of suffering that we internalise our head knowledge into heart knowledge. Such ‘teachable moments’ occurs during sickness, loss, negative life events and the ‘dark night of the soul’. It is sometimes in despair that we ‘let go and let God’. Gerald May (1977) suggested that, “Despair then is forever a doorway to life” (p.47). Spiritual formation takes these as opportunities for spiritual growth.
Spiritual Formation in Individuals in Community
Spiritual formation cannot happen in isolation. A balanced spiritual formation always occurs in community. We are social beings. An individual must grow in the process of spiritual formation in the community of the Trinity and of the CFC. The overview of spiritual formation is that God is calling individuals into CFC to become His people. It is in community that we learn to be tolerant of one another and to bear the fruit of the Spirit. It is in community that we are more effective in reaching out to our neighbours in social action. It is in community that we celebrate our belongingness to the worldwide Church when we partake the Holy Communion together with a ‘cloud of witnesses’ of those saints who went before us.
Mentoring, spiritual direction and modelling are important aspects of spiritual formation in community. We learn from one other but also from others who are more mature and can guide us. Mentoring and modelling can be intentional or informal. This can also be described as spiritual mentoring (Anderson & Reese 1999, 33-60), spiritual companionship (Edward 2001, 1-26) or spiritual friends. Spiritual direction is a more specific way of helping. Benner (2004) in his excellent survey of spiritual direction in the various traditions highlight the need for this in our evangelical CFC.
Spiritual formation in individuals is worked out in the context of a community. It is a process where one grows into Christ-likeness, restoring the image of God and becoming the people of God. It involves the will of the individual in co-operation with the Holy Spirit. It develops and internalise one’s love and knowledge of God, self and other people and is lived out in being mindful of the transcend and immanent God in our everyday life.
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