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What is Spiritual Formation?

In January I read a book by John Westerhoff called Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Below are some of my thoughts about spiritual formation that I drew from reading his text.

“You need to be like Jesus!” This phrase is either uttered or implied each time someone enters a house of worship. The preacher or pastor has spent all week writing a lesson from the Bible with that conclusion in mind. The essential goal of the Christian should be to make sure that they live, talk, and make decisions in the same manner that Jesus would. A campaign in the 1990’s called “What Would Jesus Do?” was used as a personal motto for thousands of Christians. They used the phrase as a reminder of their belief that Jesus is the supreme model for morality, and to act in a manner which Jesus would. This is a lofty aspiration, but many believe this is the heart of spiritual formation. The problem is that practical steps toward becoming like Jesus are not easily defined. How does one live like someone who never sinned? How does one make decisions like someone who never made a bad choice? Outside of God this transformation is impossible. If spiritual formation is possible, it is only through God’s power and the Spirit’s leading by trusting God to show where growth is needed, seeking avenues of communication with God, and responding with action to the Spirit’s leading.

First we must come to the understanding that “[i]A right relationship with God is dependent on our commitment to abide in God’s reign.” It is in this context that one realizes that only God is able to point out areas in their life where growth is required. In Psalm 139:14 David proudly proclaims that he is “[ii]fearfully and wonderfully made”. He recognizes that God has made Him perfectly and in His image. This recognition of God’s work in his life leads David to wholly trust God. In respect of this knowledge David invites God to “[iii]search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” David accepted His brokenness as a human, but sought the counsel of God to help him grow spiritually. Anyone who seeks spiritual growth must first trust God to show them where their spiritual life is lacking because only He can bring about the growth that is needed.

Next, we must realize that “[iv]our relationship with God is directly related to the amount and quality of time we spend consciously with God daily.” This writer believes that most people seem to think that the only way to come in contact with God is through prayer and Bible study. Prayer is definitely important. Jesus spends time in Luke 11:1-4 teaching His disciples how to pray. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 discusses how the Bible is “[v]given by inspiration of God, and is profitable… for instruction in righteousness.” Prayer and Bible study are important faith building facets of spiritual growth, but God has provided other avenues of communicating with Him. The practice of spiritual disciplines is one of several ways of communicating with God. John Ortberg defines a spiritual discipline as “[vi]any activity that can help me gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modeled it.” One who is seeking to communicate with God can come in contact with Him through meditation, confession of sin, fasting, etc. The point of these exercises is to allow God to speak to the individual without the hindrance of any outside distractions. These practices are not meant to be mastered, but to be used as tools to stay connected with the Spirit of God.

Finally, we must live out these spiritual disciplines as a response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual knowledge without application has the potential to “[vii]create magna cum laude atheists who know all about Christianity but do not intend to be Christians…” The essence of Christianity is to live a changed life. The Christian life should be signified by people who naturally react to situations in the manner that Jesus would. Matthew 5:44 instructs its readers to “[viii]Love your enemies.” It is not the natural human reaction to like, much less love, someone who is considered an enemy. This reaction is only made possible by the transformation made available through the Holy Spirit. The transformed life consists of actions that are not natural or comfortable, but which are necessary for spiritual growth. This response of faith is a commitment toward a Spirit-filled life. The development of this step is painful but leads to the desired spiritual growth.

Becoming like Jesus was never meant to be easy. This journey is time-consuming, frustrating, and even uncomfortable. Those who truly want to know God better will seek His wisdom in knowing where growth is needed. This new knowledge will encourage the seeker to stay in communion with God and respond appropriately as the Holy Spirit leads them. Spiritual formation is not optional. Anyone who considers themselves a follower of Christ should seek this growth and wait patiently for God to bring it about.

[i] John Westerhoff, Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: Westminster John
Knox Press, 1994), 6.
[ii] King James Version
[iii] Psalm 139:23-24, King James Version
[iv] John Westerhoff, Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 6.
[v] King James Version
[vi] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 48.
[vii] John Westerhoff, Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: Westminster
John Knox Press, 1994), 17.
[viii] King James Version

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