Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is Spiritual Formation? Part 3: Intention and Method

The whole Vision/Intention/Method thing is better explained in Dallas Willard's own words at (I stumbled upon it while looking for a concentric circle diagram). So the rest of this post will be a few things that stood out from our spiritual formation retreat.
Some key assumptions behind Christian spiritual formation:
  1. that we are "homesick for Eden" (to borrow the title of a book by Gary W. Moon); that is, deep inside we long for a state of open fellowship with God and authentic community with each other;
  2. that God longs for us and weeps at the petty obsessions and distractions that take our attention away from him;
  3. that salvation is our journey toward union with God.
Eden had two trees (among others): the tree of life (eating from that tree represents our willingness to engage with God and follow him) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (eating from that tree represents our willfulness to turn away from God and to live life on our own) -- the willingness/willfulness language apparently comes from Gerald May (Rollo's younger brother).

In looking at some practices to further our union of God, it may be useful to consider the progress of a romantic relationship, which may include:

  • Conversation
    To advance our conversation with God, Premack's principle may be useful: pairing a desired action (e.g., prayer) with a frequent action (e.g., swallowing coffee). So if I can remember to thank God (or reflect upon him, or whatever) each time I enjoy a sip of coffee, then I'll tend to pray more than I currently do.
  • Communion
    This has to do with being intentional about my willingness to engage with God and to follow him. To further this, I'll need to embrace the pain of withdrawal from my most cherished idols.
  • Consummation
    I think this corresponds to the part where we go to heaven and are fully united with God after we leave this earth.
The fact that we have disciplines for spiritual formation (or "spiritual growth" or "discipleship"), and that they take effort on our part, doesn't contradict the fact that salvation (our journey toward union with God) is by grace. As Dallas Willard wrote in The Great Omission, grace is not opposed to effort, but only to earning... ah, or in a more complete version found here: "Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone."

Here's a story that may be useful in considering one's vision. Though neither God nor prayer is mentioned (Hello Esther!), I thought it terrific. Is this the kind of man I'd like to be?

The point of the disciplines is to bring us freedom to live in the right way, to enable me to receive power from God to live a holy life. For example, I'd love it if my careless words (Matthew 12:36-37) -- that is, the words that just pop out when I'm not thinking -- are words that bring life and encouragement and healing, rather than corrupted, useless words (Ephesians 4:29) that serve only to justify or defend myself.

By the way, this is the difference between magic vs following Christ; in magic or sorcery, we try to get power over others; in following Christ, we try to get the power to surrender ourselves to God.

A few disciplines

There are disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence. This is a good thing: people who are sometimes rather manic and subject to sins of commission may need abstinence; those who tend toward sins of omission may need disciplines of engagement. Disciplines of abstinence include
  • silence (this one is easy: just don't make any sounds and don't listen to any sounds and don't read or write anything. "You can't do it wrong")
  • fasting
  • solitude (this would be easier for extroverts if they could take a few friends along)
  • slowing (e.g., spend 5 minutes to eat a raisin).
Disciplines of engagement include
  • celebration because it's really good to remember the many blessings we receive;
  • examen, enjoying God's presence, looking back on the day (or the morning) and considering my attitudes, those points where I was most/least grateful, etc. A fuller treatment is here
  • confession
  • study
  • worship
  • servanthood.
It's helpful (for me anyway) to think of these disciplines like training for a marathon or to work a ropes course (as described in another post) -- training being a set of activities which I can do, which will give me the power to do the things I cannot do by direct effort.

I hope that was helpful, and I hope you read Dallas's article, which is certainly more complete. My other posts on this topic are:

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