Tree with its roots showing growing in front of a waterfall

What is Spiritual Formation?

As we begin a new year, we’re also launching a new blog series called Ask Mission Central. The series will feature real-life questions from emerging Christian leaders about spiritual life and leadership. You can count on finding answers that are thoughtful, practical, and fun.

This series will run in parallel with other blog posts that address our favorite topics. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out!

Ask Mission Central: Question One

“When Christians say ‘spiritual formation,’ what do they mean? Does it have Buddhist roots?”
Columbus, OH


With so many competing visions of spiritual life today, it can be a little disorienting to even stay current with what various terms mean—especially because the same turn of phrase often means different things to different people! The Dalai Lama practices meditation, but so does Ariana Grande. I’m not convinced that those two are on the same wavelength (despite their shared experience as recording artists). The phrase “spiritual formation” can give off a bit of that vibe: Religious people from several traditions talk about it, but they don’t always mean the same thing. Is it an authentic part of the Christian tradition, just a fad, or some kind of dangerous aberration?


Spiritual Formation is the Process of Becoming Who We Are

Thankfully, for followers of Jesus, spiritual formation isn’t trendy or exotic. It’s just a helpful way to refer to a reality that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures teach about all human beings: We all have a spirit, an inner life, that takes shape over time. Think about your body. It changes shape based on what goes into it and what you do with it. That’s true about our inner, spiritual self as well, which the Bible often refers to as our heart. Proverbs puts it like this: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23 NRSV). You have a heart, a spiritual center, that affects everything else in your life. Where you spend your time, who you date, how you respond to suffering—anything that is shaped by your decisions and habits comes from your heart.


Spiritual Formation is for Everyone

Spiritual formation isn’t a niche for certain people who “like that kind of thing”; it’s of vital importance to all of us. Philosopher Dallas Willard writes, “The spiritual side of the human being, Christian and non-Christian alike, develops into the reality which it becomes, for good or ill. Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one.” Spiritual formation isn’t a fad like the paleo diet or a lifestyle option like #eatingfresh; it’s a basic feature of human life, like breathing or blood circulation. What’s in our heart is what determines everything else that matters about what we do and who we are.


Spiritual Formation is an Answer to the Basic Human Problem

So, you’re already in the middle of your spiritual formation! Way to go. But how can we engage the process of spiritual formation so that it’s good? That’s the real question. In a way, that’s the key question that philosophers and scholars have been asking from the beginning. Trying to solve any human problem points us back to the problem with humans. As a species, we are a paradox. We glimpse the capacity for love, self-sacrifice, and nobility in so many human stories, but right alongside them we see the horrors of oppression, abuse, and unimaginable evils. Author Rodney Clapp wisely calls us “tortured wonders.” Or, to use a less eloquent image, we’re like the batch of Christmas cookies that got burned, and no amount of sprinkles can make up for it. We have a heart problem.

Long before Christianity, thoughtful people pondered this predicament. For example, thinkers from East and West alike addressed the problem of justice: On the one hand, they wondered how to create a just society. On the other hand, they asked how people themselves become just. Who we are forms our community around us, and the community around us forms us to be who we are. But so often both the social and individual realities look rather deformed. In the middle of our tortured, burnt-cookie lives, we long for wholeness. What if there was a reliable way to enter into truth, beauty, and goodness at the deepest levels of our personalities and character? And what would that wholeness do for our world?


Jesus’ Life Inside of Us

Enter Jesus. As a teacher of life, he grapples with the same questions as the great philosophers of every age. What are we supposed to do for this human mess? Is there any hope? Standing in the middle of the Hebrew spiritual formation tradition, he gives an emphatic and idiosyncratic answer. Riffing on Proverbs, he says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38 NASB). Jesus paraphrases the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures that our life flows out from our heart, but he reorients the teaching with reference to his own person. He identifies himself as the source of life. And what he offers is not just any life, but his kind of life, the life that animated him as he lived and died and rose again.

If you know the story of Jesus, that is amazing news. An invitation to have Jesus’ character in our hearts is an invitation to experience that elusive wholeness we all long for. Generosity, courage, and joy characterize all of Jesus’ interactions with others. His words convey purity without self-righteousness; his actions demonstrate confidence without arrogance. There is torture, too, but not the torture of a darkened soul, only the suffering of self-forgetful love. And Jesus is saying, this life that you see in me, it can be in you. Not just a hint of it, but the heart of it, a gushing torrent of true goodness.

If we’re being honest about ourselves, right now is about the time when we might raise our hand and ask, “Uh, Jesus, have you met me?” What he is describing is so different from our ordinary expectations of life and of our own spiritual capacities. But that’s the point. Jesus is making a claim that authentic, thorough character change is possible for his followers. It is only possible because of the power of God. The writer who records Jesus’ words about living water interprets them: “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive” (John 7:39 NRSV). For Christians, spiritual formation is formation in the Spirit. That gives us the hope that we really can become like Jesus over time. It’s not our track record that determines our future; it’s the power of God.


Joyful Work, In Community

That’s not to say we don’t have anything to do. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes, “The training required to transform our most basic habits of thought, feeling, and action will not be done for us. And yet it is something that we cannot do by ourselves” (345-346). Nobody—not even God—will do the work of heart change for you. God gives us the power to take the next step. When we do, it puts us in a new spot, so that the next step after that is possible. The Bible calls this “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NRSV). It’s hard work, but it overflows with joy as we experience more of God’s love and life over time.

There’s another sense in which we cannot do the work of spiritual formation by ourselves. We all need community. In fact, many of the Bible passages that deal with spiritual formation actually address the formation not of individuals, but of communities. The Spirit’s work in our life is not just an individual dynamic in which community functions as a kind of club where we compare notes. The Spirit works directly in community, knitting us to each other as we all become more like Christ. In one text, Jesus is called “the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19 NRSV). You can’t grow outside of the community of the church any more than your hand or foot could grow if it was cut off from the rest of your body.


Spiritual Formation Is Not About You

Even though your spiritual formation is the most you thing there is—the process of you becoming who you really are—it’s not about you. You are not formed for your own sake, but for the sake of the world. If it’s Jesus’ life that’s flowing through us, our lives will move in the same direction as his. That means our lives go to the cross. Using another word image, Jesus describes his body, his very being, as bread, something that others can feed on. Looking ahead to his death, he says that he will give this bread not for his own life, but for others’: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51 NRSV).

Jesus laid down his life for the world. As we become like him, we learn to do the same. That’s what the wholeness of his life does for our world as we put it into practice. We put others before ourselves in small, everyday sacrifices. We arrange our lives to prioritize giving over receiving. We embrace suffering instead of comfort whenever courage or kindness demands it. And we do these things without getting in a huff about how noble we are, because we trust Jesus that it’s simply the best way to live.


Spiritual Formation Works

So that’s what spiritual formation means. It’s the process we’re all already in, of becoming a certain kind of person. The good news is that Jesus invites us to become like him. If we accept that invitation, we find ourselves doing joyful work with Jesus in community that changes our hearts so that we lay down our lives for the sake of the world. It’s all powered by grace. It’s what we’re all longing for. And it really works.

Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

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