I am excited to be teaching Spiritual and Theological Formation at the Harding School of Theology this Fall. As I got ready for our first class session, I knew I needed to define what Spiritual Formation meant to me. This required me to summarize what I believe to be the essence of spiritual growth. If you are seeking to grow spiritually, here are five ideas I’ve found to be helpful in how I think about what it means to do this.
1. The fundamental shift you need to make in your life is one of awareness.
Think of it this way: How comfortable are your feet right now?
Did you just adjust them? Before I mentioned them, were you thinking about them at all? You had feet, most likely. They had a comfort level. But you weren’t paying attention to them. At my invitation, suddenly, they’re back in focus.
Many people struggle with whether they believe God is present or not. This is not the real issue. God is always present. The issue is whether we work to maintain an active awareness of this truth. The more you remain aware of God and persistently invite God back into your life and focus, the more God can be at work in you through the formative power of the Holy Spirit which indwells all Christians.
2. You cannot grow what you do not nourish.
Randy Harris has put this helpfully in the form of a question: Am I getting enough water?
When Jesus met with the woman at the well, he offered her living water. A source of nourishment that went to the deepest levels of her soul, even into the parts of her life she felt compelled to hide or avoid. None of these was out of the scope of his love or redemption.
Jesus himself often got up early while it was still dark to go off by himself and pray. If Jesus himself needed regular time alone with God to be the person he was trying to be, who am I to believe I can do without it?
Seriously. We believe all sorts of lies about our own importance, our own capability of being the Energizer Bunny, or that what we need doesn’t matter. You cannot grow to be healthy if you aren’t receiving the nourishment you need. At the very basic level, we all need times of prayer, Christian community, solitude with God, and engagement with Scripture. It is likely that some of those four items sound more appealing to you than others. Incorporate a generous amount in your life of what helps you most, but also eat your vegetables by making some time for the practices that are harder for you. Balanced nourishment leads to health.
3. There is no greater knowledge to attain than a deep grasp of the love of God.
Ephesians 3 contains one of my favorite prayers in all of Scripture. In my opinion, there is no situation in any place where the thoughts here are inappropriate to request from God on another person’s behalf. Here is how the NIV renders it:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.Ephesians 3:14-21 (NIV)
Notice that Paul prays that his readers would receive a double portion of strength of God…for the purpose of being able to grasp the love of God. To really know God’s love goes beyond the simple head-knowledge or quip that “God is love.” It has to become a lived, deeply experienced thing.
Jesus says that those who have been forgiven the most will love the most. When I’ve come to the realization that I am broken beyond my ability to fix myself, I begin to understand the value of love. When I know I am an unworthy recipient of the favor I receive, I begin to appreciate love. God’s heart doesn’t look at a disobedient child with disdain. At the first glimpse of our return, he is the kind of God to run to us while we are still far away in order to throw his arms around our necks, kiss us through joyful tears, and provide for us a royal welcome party. To experience that is different than to say it.
Spiritual growth is a gradual process because to grasp such love will take time, reflection, and learning to move past our incredulity that God’s love could be so open−even for me.
Such love is transformative. It is inspiring. It is the Way forward to a better future. At the root level, it is the main thing you need to understand.
4. Spiritual maturity is a way of being, not an achievement.
In a performance-driven world, we tend to look to external signs of progress. We want people’s verbal acknowledgments, plaques for the wall, and trophies for the shelf.
I have read of some churches who have tried to manufacture maturity in their members by creating types of members. The idea is that by completing a certain number of classes and tasks, you are formally acknowledged as a sort of next-level member. Some include multiple tiers to this. The problem is that spirituality doesn’t work this way. It’s not an achievement. It’s not guaranteed that if I pray for X number of hours, I will grow by Y amount.
Do my pursuits and dedication help me grow? Certainly! But it’s not the case that once I have unlocked an achievement of deeper maturity that I can sit back and leave it on the shelf as if it requires no more attention.
Randy Harris has opted to describe a contemplative stance. I am choosing how I will act in my life, not reacting to whatever life throws at me. What we are striving for is a way of being.
So why use spiritual practices if I’m going to have to keep using them, even after I grow? Gary Holloway has pointed out that practice enables me to do what I cannot do by merely trying. Can I run a marathon? If I have to do it right now, the answer is “no.” If I needed to do it in a year from now, with practice it becomes possible.
I want to begin each day, claiming the day for God and reminding myself that I am God’s person. Through prayer, reflection on Scripture, and intentional acts of kindness, I move myself toward an intentional way of being. By returning to these things often, in an unhurried fashion, God is able to be at work on me, shaping me into something better. My character grows until I am able to be a better kind of person than I would have without the spiritual practices through which God shapes me.
If the goal of having the Holy Spirit within us is so that we can bear fruit, we ought to envision ourselves as trees that can bear fruit for many ongoing seasons, and not for only one crop.
I was recently reading The Five Rings by Myamoto Musashi, a legendary Japanese swordsman from the 1500s. In his mind, part of what set him apart from most warriors is that many people have a battle stance and a leisure stance. There’s the way they try to stand on the battle field, but the rest of the time, they are relaxed. He urges the importance of making the battle stance your only stance. At all times, I am aware of my surroundings, who is near me, and what my purpose is. While I believe the Christian Stance is a non-violent one, there is much to be said for this mindset and how it can be analogous for the Christian walk.
If I am a Christian, I am a Christian at all times. I do what a Christian would do in every scenario from the moment I wake up until I shut my eyes. Growing in spirituality is embracing an intentional way of being. It’s not about what I can accomplish. It’s about living in to who I am in Christ.
5. We are invited into an expanding family.
Especially for introverts like myself, it is a temptation to make faith an entirely private matter. “It’s between you and God,” the hyper-individualized American in me might want to say.
All faith begins with the object of our faith which is the God we serve. God is Trinity. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. One of the more helpful ways I’ve found to conceptualize being a Christian is to imagine a big family reunion. This is easy for me, because my mother’s family had these annually. My Great-Grandmother was one of seven sisters. Between all of their families, we had a multitude of people. Each year we would travel to Defeated Creek park where we spent a day together cooking out, playing, and catching up.
In such an experience as a child, you can see that this family already existed long before you came around. It’s because of this family that you’re here. Even though you are new to it, they couldn’t be more delighted to count you as part of it. The love of a family has no limit on its potential for growth. The more love you give, the more love you have. It will likely continue on, growing even beyond what you can fully grasp.
Our story begins with Trinity. Out of the joy of God, God decided to create a world with the intent of filling it with the love of God. Scripture tells us of this story, but even now, we are still part of the same story.
The starting point for us may have been a garden, but the destination we seek is a city. God’s love has grown. The family has expanded. It includes people from all generations and all nations.
The community of God, while not always an easy part of my walk, is an integral part of my walk. It is a loving family that came before me, will outlast me, and in Christ, of which I will always be part.
This realization helps me avoid making my spiritual growth just a private matter of personal achievement. I want to take my part within the family, to contribute what I’m able, and to welcome others into the fold. Hospitality is a key trait of the spiritually mature. We show grace and mercy as others learn the family culture, knowing that God wants them to be part of our family, too.
What helps you to grow spiritually?
These are a few ideas that have become central to me and what I think about spiritual formation. What has been central to you? How do you conceptualize what you are trying to do as a child of God? What does it look like to grow?