Spiritual Formation Institute
Christian Spiritual Formation
by 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 meanings 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. The 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, Christian spiritual formation is defined as the work of forming and transforming by the Holy Spirit in
the process of internalization of information and experiences in an individual
to develop the character of Christ-likeness. The components of Christian
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 centered 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. Christian spiritual formation is Trinitarian in its theological emphasis. Christian
spirituality is defined as living our daily life with God.
The Goals/ Desired Outcomes of Spiritual Formation
The goals of Christian 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, Christian 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.
Thirdly, Christian 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. Christian
spiritual formation must
Firstly, knowing and loving God (Mk 12:30). One component of Christian 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 concept of Him. And often this concept of
God is based on our concept of our fathers. We 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.
Secondly, knowing and loving ourselves (Mk 12: 31a). 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. Christian spiritual formation help 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
Taken in this context, spiritual formation is not done separate from the world.
Christian 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 to have
Christian spiritual formation.
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 him, is
the search for meaning in 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. 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. 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 us and our lives. This is like rings in a tree. As the
tree grows, more rings forms and we retain both positive and negative spiritual
elements of our growth. More positive elements (moving towards God, developing
the components of Christian 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 Christian 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 Christian 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. Christian 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
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 from 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.
Christian 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 Christian 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 Christian 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 Christian Spiritual Formation
We live in a fallen world. Christian spiritual formation occurs in this world where often pain, suffering
and evil affects everyone. How one deal with suffering is an important aspect of
Christian 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. The Christian spiritual
formation begins to stagnant.
Suffering is a wakeup call. 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). Christian spiritual
formation takes these as
opportunities for spiritual growth.
Christian Spiritual Formation in Community
Christian spiritual formation cannot happen in isolation. A balanced Christian
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 Christian
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 and modelling is an important part of Christian 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 Christian spiritual formation. Benner (2004) in his excellent survey of spiritual
direction in the various traditions highlight the need for this in our
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 with
co-operation of 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
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Soli Deo Gloria
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