Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Is Spiritual Formation? Part 2: Vision

So if Christian spiritual formation is the process of shaping one's character (spirit, will, heart) to be more like Christ, what does Joe or Jane Believer actually do to promote their own Christian spiritual formation? As previously noted, the will isn't very good at carrying out decisions like "I will not take another drink for the rest of the month" or "I'll run 26.2 miles tomorrow (though I've never run more than a 10K before)." But it is pretty good at decisions like, "I'll go to tonight's AA meeting" or "I'll jog a half-mile today."

In the same way, willpower alone isn't enough to transform someone like me (or you?) into the loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind, benevolent, compassionate, steadfast, gentle, courageous honest person that I want to be. So what does it take? Three words:

  1. Vision:
    a vision of God, yes, but also a vision of what life with God could be like for me;
  2. Intention:
    a desire -- a decision -- to move toward that vision;
  3. Method (or means):
    concrete actions, tools, practices to get us there.
So if I want to learn a language -- Italian, say -- then I'll need a vision: maybe a mental image of spending a month in Siena or Venice or Florence or Rome, seeing beautiful things, enjoying delicious food, chatting with the natives and so on.

Then I must form an intention to pursue that vision. Otherwise, like Walter Mitty, I can spend my life daydreaming and never realize the vision. I also need a method to progress toward the goal. I might take classes, buy a book with CDs, get some software for my computer, find a conversation partner. I need all three -- vision, intention, method -- to learn Italian.

But it all starts with a vision. Without a vision and intention, the books will sit on the shelf, the lessons will be skipped, the conversation partner will be abandoned.

It's the same way with spiritual formation, or discipleship, or growth: without a vision of life with God, without an intention to follow God all my life, the methods (means, disciplines, practices) are useless to me. Either I'll abandon them, or they'll turn me into a Pharisee.

So the vision is really important. What would I like my life with God to be like? How does God want my life to look? What aspects of that are attractive to me? I don't want to say "envision your future and God will give it to you," but if what God wants for your life doesn't attract you, it won't form a useful vision for your spiritual growth.

Please don't short-circuit this step! Otherwise you may find yourself, like me, doing some "spiritual" practices for the wrong reason, or for no reason. I suggest taking half an hour or more to write down what you'd like your life with God to be like. You may want to read through Matthew 5-7, John 14-17, or some other Scriptures to give you some confidence around the content of your vision. At a retreat we each took 15-20 minutes to write down "what I'd wish for in my life with God" -- after which I saw that I really want a lot of things in my life to be different, and that I had merely scratched the surface.

For my vision, I read through parts of Colossians 3 and came up with a few of the ways that I'm not there yet. For example, it says "As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience" (Col. 3:12) so I wrote down that I want always to be aware that I'm dearly loved by God. That I want to be less selfish, less self-absorbed, more compassionate. That I would remember that my worth is not measured by accomplishments, and to be more patient as a result.

By even just this one verse of Scripture, it's obvious that my current life with God is "not OK" -- but the other thing is to remember that that's OK! That is, God loves me as I am, even though he's still got more work to do on me. If, when I die some decades from now (Lord willing), I haven't grown or changed at all, then, well, that would be sad.

But it was exciting to me to think that one day I could actually be like what the Scriptures say. And for the people who know me, it's even more exciting because then I'd be a lot easier to work with and live with and be with.

A lot of what Jesus did in his preaching was to correct people's vision. "You have heard... but I tell you..." Jesus said over and over in Matthew 5:21-43. Jesus says in Matthew 13:44 that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who found a treasure in a field, and in his joy went and sold all he had. So again, if the idea of life with god doesn't bring joy, it's not going to be very useful.

The problem with a life apart from Jesus is that any soul is damaged by sin. When Jesus talked about gaining the whole world but losing my soul (Mark 8:36), he wasn't saying primarily that I'd go to hell after I die; his point was that my spirit will be out of whack with my mind, my mind with my body with my social relationships, and so on. I'll be confused because I won't know why I do things, my feelings won't make any sense, my soul will be cast down and fragmented.

So that's "the vision thing." It's really important. I used to hang out with a group called The Navigators, and they gave me some really clear detailed explanations on the methods -- I learned a lot about how to do Bible study, how to memorize Scripture, and so on. But I think that many of us took the practices as something you just do.

Nobody said, "God will love you more if you memorize more verses," but some of us got to feeling that our worth was tied in somehow with how many verses we memorized, how accurately we could quote them, and so on.

So the vision must come before anything else. Can the practices reinforce the vision? Certainly! That's why I'm trying to memorize the first part of Colossians 3: to solidify the vision in my mind.

And may the Lord help us to be transformed, and not to lose sight of the vision for why we do all these things.

No comments: