SPIRITUAL FORMATION
by "Eric Miller"

Definition

Spiritual Formation in the context of Christianity is defined as the process of the formation of one’s heart after the likeness and character of Jesus Christ that enables Christ followers to do the works of Jesus in the character of Jesus. This process is also referred to as transformation. At the core of the process of spiritual formation is the practice and use of spiritual disciplines. These disciplines are practiced in order to form one’s inner character or heart. In biblical understanding the heart is the principal seat of decision making and the will, and not simply the emotional aspect of mankind. The heart, in the mind of the bible, is the executive center from which decisions are made.

Spiritual Formation is characterized by the intentional use of spiritual disciplines which lead to virtue but have no intrinsic virtue in themselves. The disciplines are likened to the sails of a great sailing ship, which need to be in place for the winds to blow and carry the ship forward. As the sails are put up, so the heart of every believer must be recollected and trained and prepared for the Holy Spirit to blow upon and direct the life of the Christ Follower. Transformation is by Grace, but that does not mean that intentional effort does not play a part in Spiritual Formation. These spiritual disciplines are based on the Grace of God and aided by the Grace of God, and assume the Grace of God in their practice.

The greatest need of humanity is the transformation of the heart; that place within us from which outlook, choices, and actions come. This inward place has been formed by a world apart from God. Now it must be transformed. Our hope is that as our heart has been formed, so it can also be transformed by Gods Grace.

A simple way to categorize spiritual disciplines is to classify them into two categories, disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. This list is not exhaustive and others could be added to it. The most basic and fundamental disciplines that are the most often neglected by Western Evangelicals are the disciplines of Silence and Solitude. Silence is not just being silent, but being silent to listen to God. Solitude is not simply being alone, but being alone to be with God. These two disciplines are the building blocks for all the other disciplines and need extra emphasis and focus in order to counteract the breakneck pace and chaos of our destructive culture of noise and mania. Intentional focus on silence to quiet the many voices so one can hear the voice of the Lord, and intentional focus on solitude to learn the discipline of drawing on God alone are the basic antidote for those who are ailing from the destructive poison of society. Jesus Christ certainly modeled this for us over and over again in his ministry.

Disciplines of Engagement

  • Study
  • Worship
  • Giving
  • Celebration
  • Service
  • Prayer
  • Fellowship
  • Confession
  • Submission
  • Meditation

Disciplines of Abstinence

  • Solitude
  • Silence
  • Fasting
  • Simplicity
  • Frugality
  • Chastity
  • Secrecy
  • Sacrifice

The best way to approach putting these disciplines into practice is to put these disciplines into practice. The saying goes “It is good to speak of God, but it better to purify oneself for God.” A Rule of Life is a way many have been helped to develop a daily practice of spiritual disciplines. A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provide a structure for practicing spiritual disciplines. The rule provides structure only, and one quickly learns that the rule should not be so rigid that it can’t flex and be adjusted as the occasion demands. There is no virtue in the rule itself and to think otherwise is legalism. The rule is best thought of as a trellis that provides a structure for growth. The Rule should be an “asceticism of small steps” to be effective. Start small and grow as life makes way and allows. Practical wisdom dictates not to bite off more than we can chew which leads to discouragement and prayerlessness. The dry times are times of tremendous growth of the unseen roots of life in God. Accountability is a tremendous help, so get an accountability partner and stick to prayer, especially when it is dry and difficult. This is where the hidden growth takes place.

A good reading list to go along with starting a intentional practice of spiritual disciplines, or as we are calling it, an asceticism of small steps. These works should be read slowly, deliberately, along with times of silence and solitude. In the last 25 years many, many ancient Christian writers have been published and there are many more recommendations to follow, but these are some of the best one’s to start with.

Henri Nouwen-The Way of the Heart

Dallas Willard-The Renovation of the Heart

Brother Lawrence-The Practice of the Presence of God

Jean Guyon-Experiencing God in Prayer

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality-Peter Scazzero

Pursuit of God-AW Tozer

Imitation of Christ-Thomas A Kempis

Personal Testimony

As an evangelical trained in the doctrine of the reformation, I am challenged by much that I read outside my comfort zone, but I have learned to read with discernment and have benefited much by reading outside my tradition. I remain a committed Evangelical, committed to Reformed Theology, but I have discovered a wealth of wondrous material that has recently been “rediscovered” by modern publishers. I see that the Reformation and the onset of the age of Reason, with all of its beauty and depth, has tended to emphasize the more “propositional” aspects of the faith, and has tended to overlook the “experiential” aspect of the faith. My “asceticism of small steps” with emphasis on “silence’ and “solitude” has been a life-giving and a life-changing discovery for me over the last several years. I am certain these ancient, obscure, Christian disciplines have been vital to progress.

The Great Commission

In the bigger scheme of things, I see these practices laying the foundation for discipleship as the Church of Jesus Christ fulfills the Great Commission, to make disciples and teach people to obey the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. Without these basic tools put into practice in a mentor/discipleship role in the context of a local church, we have what Dallas Willard calls the “Great Omission.” The Rule of Life can be tailored to a spiritual leadership team of elders, one tailored for staff, and one tailored for the general congregation as is the case with Pete Scazzero and New Life Fellowship in Queens New York. I often wonder what practices Paul encouraged his disciples to practice as he said “follow me as I follow Christ. Over time, with patience and endurance, the process of the formation of one’s heart after the likeness and character of Jesus Christ enables Christ followers to do the works of Jesus in the character of Jesus.

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