What Is Spiritual Formation
Despite various attempts, there has been little success in formalizing a definition for spiritual formation within the Evangelical and Protestant world. In the end, there may not be a need for a universal definition, though it could potentially simplify some discussion. Some hold it up as a necessary part of the Christian life, others declare it as heresy and the infiltration of New Age and Eastern mysticism into the church, and others simply see it as a fad. The reality is that, depending on how one engages in it, it could be any of these.
There is not a single, cohesive understanding of spiritual formation in the Christian world. Of course, this should come as little surprise since there is not a single, cohesive understanding of Christianity within its larger world. Some include Catholicism and others do not, some include the Latter Day Saints and others do not, etc. What I hope to offer in this short space is a sort of quick and dirty understanding of spiritual formation that is coherent, theologically valid, and useful to the church.
True Spiritual Formation is…
- Progressive Sanctification; the process of being continually cleansed from sin, reconciled to God, and transformed into the likeness of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul after initial justification and salvation.
- A movement within contemporary Christianity that discusses and encourages spiritual practices and engagement with the Holy Spirit in an immanent and personal fashion for the purpose of transformation into Christlikeness.
Building on that first definition, spiritual formation is how we’re redeemed and grow into what God desires us to be. It includes a mixture of what we do as well as the things that God does in us and for us for our development. It is always grounded in relationship (to God, others, and oneself), though it includes elements of community and separateness as appropriate to what the Spirit is doing at a given time.
Several years ago, Richard Lovelace identified what he called The Sanctification Gap, a situation among Protestants where we know that we are supposed to grow, but we don’t know how to go about this other than to read our Bibles and pray. While those are absolutely good and necessary, sometimes they don’t seem to “work”, and trying harder doesn’t help. Those studying spiritual formation are working to fill in The Sanctification Gap, and those publicizing and preaching it are trying to help the church to learn and engage with it.
Difficulties and Controversy
Because this is a process of opening doors, some people have moved through portals that should not be opened, and therefore not all spiritual formation materials or philosophies are valid, helpful, or theologically accurate. However, this should come as no surprise since much of Christianity in general has worked in this very way, with people misunderstanding and abusing truth, twisting what is sound doctrine into something distorted or cultish. Their errors, however, do not negate true Christianity just as the errors of some teaching or engaging in spiritual formation do not negate the reality of real spiritual formation.
Others feel threatened or even betrayed by spiritual formation. This can come from misunderstandings about theological issues, associations that others have made between formation and false ideas and dangerous practices, or bad experiences with formation in some fashion. Regarding that last possibility, sanctification isn’t always a pleasant or easy process, and when things become painful, as they inevitably do at some point since we’re dealing with sin, especially sin that’s embedded in our hearts, some people feel frightened or betrayed and assume that it’s not working or bad, not real Christianity.
Despite the various pushbacks against it, spiritual formation, as it was intended to be, is not bad theology or anti-Christian. But like G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Spiritual formation is one aspect of Christianity that can most definitely fall into this category.
Various individuals and organizations have associated spiritual formation with faulty ideas and practices. Among them are…
- New Age or Eastern Mysticism
While some elements of New Age or Eastern mysticism may look similar to things that may arise in Christian spiritual formation, there are distinct differences. Primarily, New Age and Eastern mysticisms are monistic in stance rather than theistic. That is, these mysticisms subscribe to the belief that at the fundamental level of reality, there is no distinction between persons or objects, including spiritual realities. Everything is one. Christian theology holds firmly to the belief that God is very distinct from humanity and His creation, and that He is the center of a universe that is not equivalent to Himself.
Many other mistaken associations are identified as being new age or eastern mystical practices or ideals, though there are really separate problems. Many will be dealt with in separate points here.
- A Doorway to Contemplation
It should be noted, first of all, that spiritual formation does not necessarily include contemplation as a practice or goal. Many formation writers, thinkers, and practitioners have little or nothing to do with it, and the process of maturation and development never need include it.
Others do incorporate contemplation as part of their understanding of formation process and practice, though it is different from Eastern contemplation in many respects. Eastern contemplation is rooted in the monistic ideal (as described previously) and is therefore geared towards emptying the mind so that one may join with or experience the unity of all things. Christian contemplation, if it is valid at all, and there is much debate on this point, is dedicated to putting aside everything that may distract oneself from what God desires to do in a particular span of time. While the experiences of peak mystical contemplation in both Christian and monistic traditions are similar in some respects, Christian contemplatives almost always acknowledge the felt presence of God in the experience.
In addition, Eastern contemplative experiences are typically under the control of the individual to a significant extent whereas Christians assert that contemplation is “infused” by God and therefore is not something that one may choose to experience at will.
It should also be noted that authentic formation, even if it acknowledges the possibility and merit of contemplation, does not assert contemplative experience as a goal. The goal is never an experience but rather relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit and being conformed to the likeness of Christ and the original image of God in the human heart. If contemplation is valid and part of what God may use in a Christian’s formation and development, it is part of God’s process in shaping the person and does not bear any merit as a good on its own.
- Roman Catholicism
Some argue that spiritual formation has too many negative Roman Catholic elements to it. While some elements of spiritual formation do have RC roots and connections, there is a significant amount of Protestant theology and practice that is already shared with or arises out of Roman Catholicism. Many Evangelical scholars have even become the most ardent supporters of some RC theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar. The similarities between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism far exceed the differences between them.
Still, Protestantism has remained separate from Catholicism (for better as well as for worse) and authentic Christian spiritual formation can maintain separate from Catholic doctrine, practice, and ideology as well. Spiritual formation is Christian and should not be lumped together with any particular denomination or sub-group of the church.
- The Emerging Church
Spiritual formation is essentially sanctification with a different name. Given that sanctification was around in the Biblical era, it, and thus spiritual formation, predates The Emerging Church significantly. The spiritual formation movement within Evangelicalism even predates the birth of the Emerging Church by a few decades. While some emerging churches may incorporate aspects of spiritual formation into their focus, it is, again, incorrect to link the two as equivalent. Many individuals and churches that engage in spiritual formation ideals and practices are not part of and even set themselves as distinct from the Emerging Church. Sanctification is inherent to all aspects of authentic Christianity and cuts across denominations and sects, both theologically sound and not.
- Something Tacked On to Christianity That Pulls People Away from Jesus
Spiritual formation will ultimately fail if it is separated from the cross. Neither justification nor sanctification are possible without the hand of God at work in the human heart, and there is ultimately no cleansing or healing that is possible without the blood of Jesus. God’s love and the ultimate acts of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection are fundamental to spiritual formation just as much as they are of any other part of Christianity. See The Crux of Spiritual Formation for further thoughts.
In addition, formation is not something added to justification or Christianity overall as evidenced by various biblical passages. The author of Hebrews notes that his audience is immature and should be moving towards maturity (Heb. 5: 12-6:1). Paul exhorts the Philippian church to continue to work out their salvation as God works in them (Phil. 2:12-13) and speaks at various times about the need to train oneself for godliness. Spiritual formation is merely the continuation of growth in a person towards God and His design for human beings overall and particularly. As becoming like Christ is part of being Christian, so spiritual formation in integral as they are the same.
It is possible in the process of growing and changing to become self-focused. While this may be necessary for a time within the formation process, it is not ultimately the goal. As one must look to oneself to even know what sins one is committing in order to even attempt to stop, one must look at oneself in order to understand what is wrong that it can be offered to the Spirit for healing and redemption. Many of the Psalms are self-focused in that they are cries to God for help with one’s personal difficulties and struggles. David even asks that God open him to the deep places of his heart (Ps. 139). In all of these, however, the purpose is to turn towards oneself so that one may then turn back to God and others. The distortions and sin within the heart mar relationships with God, others, and self and prevent one from accomplishing those things that are beneficial to others and to God’s kingdom, and therefore the turn inward to deal with these issues is ultimately so that one may then turn back outward toward fuller relationship and more fruitful engagement with creation.
While some may turn inward and become trapped there, this is a problem with the formation process, not its perfection. We will always need to look to our hearts to see the sin that still remains within them, but we will likewise always need to turn back to God and others so that we may find love and healing.