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Spiritual Formation: The Education of the Heart

Text: Mark 12:28-31

Dr Alex Tang

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

 

Summary

Spiritual formation is the process of growing into Christ-likeness; characterised by knowing and loving God, knowing and loving ourselves, knowing and loving other people and experiencing the Presence of God in our everyday lives. The basis of spiritual formation is the call of God the Father, the finished work of Jesus Christ the Son and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

 

1.                  Heart

The heart is a wonderful organ, a pump that keeps the blood circulating in our bodies. One we affectionately call our ticker. But we also use the word ‘heart’ in many different ways. We say our hearts may be glad or sad, troubled, aching or sick. Our hearts may be heavy or light, warm or cool, cruel or kind. Our hearts may be aflame with love or broken. To have a heart is to be empathetic, to have no heart is to lack feelings. We pray to change hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and blood. We open our hearts or close our hearts. Two hearts beat as one. We may take heart or lose heart. We may be faint-hearted or stout hearted, half-hearted or whole-hearted, weak-hearted or lion hearted. The heart suffers and the heart endures. On the Titanic, Celine Dion sang that her heart will go on forever.

It is obvious that when we refer to the word ‘heart’, we often refer to more than the organ in our bodies. In the OT, the Hebrew word for heart is lēbāb and the Greek word in the NT is kardia. It carries the meaning of the organ-heart and the metaphor that the heart is

(1)   the inner spiritual life

(2)    the center of personality

(3)   the place in which God reveals Himself to man.

Thus the heart is who we are, our real self and it is out of this center that we relate to God, to other people, and the world. Our heart is not static. It is continually being moulded and formed by our thoughts, our desires, our feelings and our reaction to the external world. By default our hearts are self-centered. When we became Christian, we invite Jesus into our hearts. We called this the conversion of the heart. What it means is that our hearts are to be converted from self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness.

 

2.                  Definition of Spiritual Formation.

Spiritual formation is the process of growing into Christ-likeness. Spiritual formation is the education of our hearts

Spiritual formation is known by different names throughout the Christian eras. It is known as spiritual growth, growing into communion with Christ, sanctification, regeneration, discipleship, peregrinatio (journey) and Renovation of the Heart (Dallas Willard, Professor of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California). Spiritual formation or sanctification is an essential part of Christian life. We cannot be a Christian without sanctification, just as we cannot be a Christian without justification.

The moment we accept the redemptive act of Jesus Christ – that Jesus Christ who is fully God, fully human and is therefore sinless, died on the cross for our sins and rose again thereby defeating death- we are saved or born again. That very moment, we have justification by faith and we have sanctification. We are justified in God’s eyes because Jesus died for our sins. As evidence of our justification, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit who can to dwell in us. The Holy Spirit immediately begins the process of sanctification or spiritual formation.

Justification by faith can be considered as a once-off event. Sanctification or spiritual formation is a past, present and future event.

§         Past, because as God has chosen us from the beginning of time we are already in Christ when he died to set us free. Hence when He rose, we rose with Him sanctified.

§         Present, because as long as we are in the world, we are in the process of sanctification or spiritual formation.

§         Future, because the process of sanctification or spiritual formation will ends when we receive our resurrected bodies and are presented to God as being made perfect in Christ.

Sanctification or spiritual formation is not optional. We cannot be like Peter Pan and refuse to grow up. Like any living organism, we have to grow if we are alive. If any organism is not growing it is dead. Similarly if we have accepted Christ and is not growing, we need to relook at our salvation. The Bible said if we are not saved, we are still dead in our trespasses and sins. And dead things do not grow.

  

3.                  Goals of  Spiritual Formation.

3.1              Become like Christ.[Christ-likeness](Gal. 4:19)

19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,

The process of spiritual formation is so we can become more like Christ. Jesus Christ is the ideal man. He has the fruit of the spirit. And the goal of spiritual formation is to make us like Him. In the Orthodox tradition, they call spiritual formation, theosis, the process of divinisation.

 

3.2              Restore the Image of God (2 Cor. 4:4)

4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

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.

John Wesley, in his sermon On Perfection stated that one of the features of sanctification is “the restoration of the image of God in the soul, a recovery of  man to the moral image of God which consist of righteousness and true holiness.”

 

3.3              The People of God. (Rom.8:29)

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Adam and Eve were to be the first of the people of God. The Laos. The people that God will stay with. That why in the beginning there was close fellowship with God. God will seek out Adam in the evening. Unfortunately, this relationship was broken by the Fall. Yet God has not given up His plans for His people. He again called His people through Abraham which led to the tribes of Israel and finally through the church. In the end, God will have His people to dwell with. God will be with His sons and daughters. Spiritual formation is the process in which His sons and daughters are transformed into His people. It is the process of building the Kingdom of God.

 

4.                  Aspects of Spiritual Formation.

For our discussion of the aspects of spiritual formation, we shall look at our text Mark 12: 28-31.

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Text Box:
 

Have you ever wondered why the Ten Commandments were given?  The Ten Commandments can be considered the guidelines for the spiritual formation of the Israelites. It is to form a people of God. Jesus’ summary of the Ten Commandments is given for our spiritual formation. I would like to use the Celtic cross to illustrate the various aspects of  spiritual formation. The Celts are the ancestors of the people of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. St. Patrick  evangelized the Celts and a strong Celtic Church was developed way before the Roman Catholics. Celtic spirituality is strong in itself embrace of all aspects of life in Christ. The Celtic cross is unique to their part of the world. It stands twelve to fourteen feet high. The image is a powerful one- the circle of creation with the cross of redemption brought together into one whole.

 

 I would like to use it with a modern interpretation.

 

 

4.1              Know and love God

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

One aspect of spiritual formation is to know and love God. Unless you know someone, you cannot love the person. It is the same with God. Unless you know God, you cannot love Him. Unless you know God, you are loving an image or concept you have of God. It is not the real God, just your concept of Him. And often this concept of God is based on our own concept of our fathers. If our father is strict and distance, our God is strict and distance. If our father is warm and loving, our God is warm and loving. As Philip Yancey said in his lectures when he came to Singapore a few years ago, we need to move from knowing our own conceived idea of God to meeting the real God. What is worst is that our own conceived idea of God is a form of idolatry.

 

4.2              Know and love ourselves.

‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

It is only after we become Christians can be truly ourselves, to 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 a false mask 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 will help us to remove the false self and help us discover our true selves.

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.

 

4.3              Know and love other people

‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Christian spiritual life is relational. The Trinity is a relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. Spiritual formation is the relationship between God, us and our neighbour  which are other people. Spiritual formation is not just a Thou and I affair. Between God and us. It involves the whole world as we reach out to a hurting and suffering world and bring redemption to it. It is said of Abraham Joshua Herschel (1907-1972), a prominent Jewish theologian and social activist that ‘he stormed the fortress of self-righteous power- the war makers, impressing upon them that man is not a number, but the image of God.’

 

4.4              Experiencing God in our daily lives

Next we look at the context in which Jesus taught the greatest commandment. It is after He has told the parable of the tenants who was ungrateful for what they have been given (Mk.12:1-12), Paying taxes to Caesar (Mk.12:13-17) and 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 is the mundane, ordinary matter of our daily lives.

 

4.5              Trinitarian in the Center

The key to all this is the center. Jesus who is empowered by the Holy Spirit is teaching about the greatest commandment which is to love God the Father. Here we have 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 to have spiritual formation in our lives. We can try as hard as we can but we will never succeed. It is impossible. But with the Holy Spirit, all things are possible.

 

Thus we can define spiritual formation as :

Spiritual formation is the process of growing into Christ-likeness; characterised by knowing and loving God, knowing and loving ourselves, knowing and loving other people and experiencing the Presence of God in our everyday lives. The basis of spiritual formation is the call of God the Father, the finished work of Jesus Christ the Son and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

 

The book, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, was a powerful story of redemption of a soul. The novel, 1,200 pages of it, deals with the struggle of the soul, the balance between good and evil in human beings, and the continual challenge to conscience. The main character in this novel is Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean grew up as a woodcutter but could find no work. His widowed sister and her children were starving. One day, out of desperation, he raced out of his house, broke a window in a bakery and stole a loaf of bread. Due to the hard penal laws in the 1800s, he was sentenced to 5 years hard labor in prison. In prison he was dehumanized to being just a number. Four times he tried to escape and each time he was caught and his sentence extended. Finally he was released after 19 years in prison. This is a different Jean Valjean. There is no human kindness left. He is bitter, angry and cruel. Concluding that man treated, as animals become animals, Jean’s aim on release is to steal and kill until he is himself killed.

One day he came to the village where Monseignour Bienvenu, the Bishop of  Digne, lives. This modest clergy diligently attempts to live in poverty and generosity of spirit in the model of Christ. When he found Valjean sleeping in the streets, he invited him home. Valjean intended to murder the priest and steal his silver spoons. Instead he just stole from the priest. However he was caught. Instead of accusing him, the priest called him his brother and sent him on his way with a gift of the silver candlestick. With this starling act of generosity and forgiveness, the bishop planted in Valjean mind that he has just bought his soul, relieving him of his bitterness and evil thoughts and given them up to God.

A born again Jean Valjean started a factory with the silver the priest has given him in another town. He became rich and prominent. He strove to be fair to his workers. The story went on to show how he saved and adopted an orphan and raise her up as his own. How he gave up himself to the authorities when another man was accused as him (Jean remained a fugitive). How he saved the life of his enemy, police inspector Javert who swore to capture him and thus making his life miserable. How he saved the life of Marius, his adopted daughter’s fiancée. It is the story of a man redeemed for good works. As the story unfolds, we saw the point of redemption of  soul and also the spiritual formation of a soul. We see Jean Valjean turning to love God, to love himself, to love others and were involved in the world.

 

5.                  Practice of Spiritual Formation.

5.1              Know and love God

§                     Prayer

§                     Word

§                     Knowing God through His Creation

§                     Worship and Adoration

5.2              Know and love ourselves

§         Prayer

§         Solitude

§         True self / false self

§         Anamchara (Soul friends). One is not alone in our Christian walk but close companionship can encourage and correct one along the way.

James Houston, in his new book, The Mentored Life, wrote “Perhaps the central mystery of our humanness is that we are both individual and social selves at the same time….We are uniquely a self and yet also a self-in-relationships.” He quoted a Xhosa saying, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (Persons depend on other persons to be persons).

§         Opening to God

 

5.3              Know and love other people

§         Prayer

§         Fellowship

§         Exposure

§         Service

§         The Great Commission

 

5.4              Experiencing God in our daily lives

§         Prayer

§         Examining ourselves. Examen of consciousness

Frederik Buechner wrote in his Book, Now and Then, ‘Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are kept moments, and life itself is grace.’

§         Desert spirituality: Attentiveness and Indifference

The Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth century are Christians who rejected the complacency of the Official church and went to leave in the deserts of Egypt. From them we have a rich heritage of writings which made up the desert spirituality tradition. This later developed into the monastic tradition. To survive in the desert, you need to be attentive to what is important and be indifferent to what is non-essential and distract you from what is important. The desert is unforgiving and will kill you. So in our spiritual formation, we also need to learn to be attentive to the essential and be indifferent to what is non-essential to our spiritual life.

§         Biblical choosing

In our daily life, we are often faces with choices. Learning to make informed decisions that is pleasing to God is part of our spiritual formation.

§         Practising the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence in his book, practising the Presence of God, gave practical advice on how to practice the Presence of God. While he worked in the kitchen of a monastery, the job of a manual worker yet he is the presence of the King.

 

5.5              Trinitarian in the Center

§         Prayer

Prayer is the axis that connects all the aspects of spiritual formation with the Triune God of Grace in the center.

§         Baptism (God the Father)

§         Lord’s Supper (Christ the Son)

§         Life in the Spirit. Cupertino with the Inner Work of the Holy Spirit in our lives

 

6.                  Concluding Remarks.

Spiritual formation is spiritual growth. It is moving from being nourished by spiritual milk to spiritual meat. It is moving from breast-feeding to McDonald and to a steak dinner.

Spiritual formation is not a solo undertaking. It is done in the company of the community of faith. That is why the church must be actively promoting spiritual formation, supporting and teaching spiritual formation and  to provide the resources for spiritual formation. That is why in Holy Light Light, we shall be setting up a Spiritual Formation Institute. It is my prayer that God will use this Institute to help us all in our spiritual formation.

                                                                                                                                                     Soli Deo Gloria

 

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