Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Is Spiritual Formation? Part 1: Definitions and Goals

It is not
...a set of practices favored by contemplative, academically-oriented white males who like to read Nouwen and Merton.
(name redacted)
What is body formation? It's the shaping of the human body, and it goes on all the time, whether I want it to or not. If I sit on the couch all day eating hot dogs, chips, and onion dip, that will shape my body a certain way. If I do a lot of aerobic exercise, drink lots of water and eat leafy greens, that shapes my body another way.

Similarly, spiritual formation -- the shaping of my character, my spirit, my will -- goes on all the time, whether I want it to or not. Consciously or unconsciously, my spirit is being formed continuously. (Since when we talk about spiritual formation we usually include habits of thought and speech and action, "soul formation" may be a more accurate term. But we'll stick with "spiritual formation" here to avoid confusion.)

What kind of spiritual formation goes on in my life when I watch "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or meditate upon the photos in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? How about when I spend time thinking about the many ways my wife forgives my self-absorption and the ways my friends accept me with my quirks? Or when I consider how fortunate I am to be able to attend church every week without fear, and to be able to afford brown sugar and milk and frozen organic berries with my oatmeal every single day? When I take time away from my own "important" pursuits to serve the poor and the lost, to feed the homeless, or help someone build a house for their family?

Anyway, if spiritual formation is the shaping of the human will or character or spirit, what is Christian spiritual formation but the shaping of the human character, will, spirit, heart to be more like Christ?

By the way, Christ's #1 teaching point, the gospel, was that you can enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) -- that place where God's will and your will are in perfect alignment. Paul's #1 teaching point, the mystery "which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27) was another side of the same coin: "I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you" (Galatans 4:19). Indeed Jesus told his disciples to remain in him "and I will remain in you" (John 15) and Paul wrote that God chose us "in him (Christ)" (Ephesians 1).
With Christian spiritual formation thus defined, its primary goals should be:
  1. To dearly love the Heavenly Father and delight in him, in order to:
  2. Remove my automatic anti-kingdom responses/reactions, so that I can:
  3. Fully experience life with God.

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