Writing an article about spiritual formation—the task I’ve been given—is a little scary. The term seems formal, implying a high-minded discipline I don’t think I possess.
So I check out what my Bible has to say. There I read about ordinary people—fishermen, tax collectors, bookworms, carpenters—who experience amazing growth and change in their lives. The change is attributable to one thing: they were disciples of Jesus who were transformed by the experience.
As a popular saying expresses, God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way. So my working definition of spiritual formation is simple: it’s the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. None of us, if we believe in Christ as our Savior, are exempt from that process.
How does that process happen? The Heidelberg Catechism tells us it is the work of the Holy Spirit. But how? What tools does God use to shape and form us to become more Christlike?
Imagine spiritual formation in the life of a little child as she grows and matures. Her parents raise her with tenderness and respect, so she sees the world as a safe place. That becomes a strong foundation for trusting her heavenly Father. From her family she learns about prayer and salvation, sees Christian virtues modeled, and hears stories about a wonderful and loving God.
Imagine this child in church, joining the congregation in a soul-stirring song or chatting with fellow worshipers after the service. Picture her in Sunday school, where a teacher gives of his precious time to teach her about the gospel. A GEMS leader challenges her to look beyond earning badges and begin a time of daily prayer and Bible study.
As a teen, she’s invited to help with vacation Bible school and sing in the church choir. Church members answer her questions when she struggles with her beliefs, and they rejoice when she makes profession of faith. Fellow believers invite her to share her faith journey in a small group, which nurtures her spiritual gifts. Involvement in a prayer group nurtures her relationship with God.
I’ve just shared a little of my own story. Change some of the details, and it might be yours too. God has used family, friends, the church community, programs, personal spiritual disciplines, creation, and many experiences to shape my faith thus far.
It sounds wonderful, but of course that’s not the whole story. My parents were imperfect models of Christ, as are all parents. My church community had its share of dissention and strife. Not all my experiences in serving God and learning about myself were positive. Small groups and Bible studies often raised more questions than I wanted to face. The process of formation often involves two steps forward and three steps back.
Some people don’t have a positive experience of God at all in their formative years, yet somehow, amazingly, God reaches in and touches their lives, changing them through the tools I’ve just described, or others. That’s the mystery of God’s grace and the hope in which we live. God doesn’t exclude anyone from the call, and God never gives up on us. God can heal brokenness like nobody’s business.
Does that mean I’m now pretty close to being like Jesus? My friends and family would roll their eyes at the suggestion. God’s not finished with me yet, not by a long shot. Spiritual formation is an ongoing process.
But someday, ah! Someday all of us cracked pots and earthen vessels will be perfectly and beautifully formed in every way forever. I’m looking forward to that!