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A Starting Place

What is spiritual formation?

The phrase spiritual formation may be unfamiliar to you. Perhaps you’re not really sure what it means. So, we thought we’d start the New Year by offering you, through “Wholly Living,” an opportunity to better understand the idea and process of spiritual formation.

Dallas Willard wrote, “spiritual formation for the Christian, basically refers to the Spirit–driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ Himself” (Renovation of the Heart).

Spiritual formation is essentially a “Spirit–driven” or God–led ordering of our lives. It’s an orientation toward God, then ourselves, and then other people. This takes time, effort, discipline, practice, and action.

But wait. Isn’t it just a bunch of weird ways of praying and ritualized devotions?
In a word, no. We talk about, teach, and practice spiritual disciplines as a means of committing to that God–led ordering of our lives, but the disciplines themselves are not magical or quick fixes for anything. They are healthy rhythms that help us maintain our orientation toward God, just as other healthy rhythms help maintain our bodies or our relationships with people.

For instance, we brush our teeth. That practice keeps our teeth clean and our mouth happy. It also helps our breath when talking to friends and in keeping our relationship with the dentist. If we don’t brush our teeth, many unhealthy things will happen.

When we neglect our soul, we run the same risk. Maintaining the disciplines for our soul, then, might be compared to preserving clean, healthy teeth.

We talk about the practices that we engage on a consistent basis as a rule of life. This phrase seems a bit looming to some people until we realize that we already practice a rule of life. For instance, we get up at certain times and go to work at certain times. We eat at certain times, and we eat certain things, and at certain places. We have morning rituals. We have the way that we answer the phone. Or we may have the way that we don’t answer it. There are habits that order our day, thus we already have a rule of life.

When we bring spiritual formation into the rule of life conversation, we know that we need space for consistent practices, or spiritual disciplines that will help us maintain the orientation of listening and being available to God.

So what are these disciplines?
First of all, let’s settle on some definitions. Discipline can be a scary word for some people. For that reason, Ruth Haley Barton uses the phrase Sacred Rhythms. I appreciate her use of the phrase and particularly her approach to using it. For many of us, especially with roots in evangelical Protestantism, discipline has a narrow and specific meaning. The idea and even the word itself has an effect on people of certain family origins.

Historically speaking, the word discipline comes from the same root as disciple. So, while we might make a different connection, for instance to the words punishment or consequence, the heart of discipline is order and intentional development, rather than chastisement.

Maybe, Sacred Rhythms works better. What we call the practices doesn’t matter much. A far more important aspect is that we incorporate them into our lives. When we make room for God’s transforming work, He will transform us.

Please refer to the sidebar for a partial list of spiritual disciplines. These practices are rooted in Scripture. Some of them have Latin names, as they were developed a long time ago in monasteries and convents. Some have exact and direct connections to biblical practices, such as “Silence and Solitude” or “The Jesus Prayer.” Others are derivatives, or practices related to ideas from Scripture that have developed differently. While some people may shrink from this idea, please ask, “Do we do Sunday school the same way they taught children in Jesus’ day?” The answer is “no.” As the Holy Spirit has led the development and growth of many practices, we can allow that same Spirit to lead us in learning the disciplines.*

While Scripture provides a basis for many of the spiritual disciplines, Jesus Himself, through His life, demonstrated and celebrated a life of spiritual discipline. He pursued a deep and intimate relationship with the Father, often leaving the crowds and busyness of daily ministry to spend time alone to pray. His intercession for others, such as in the garden of Gethsemane, reflects a deep prayer life. His expressions of social justice are sprinkled throughout the gospels in His seeking the least, the last, and the lost. His relationships demonstrated listening and learning (John 5:6).

The importance of Scripture is beyond debate, evidenced in the dozens of times Jesus quotes the Old Testament. His rhythms of corporate worship, including teaching in synagogues and regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem, round out a robust list of intentional spiritual disciplines that Jesus consistently practiced.

For many of us, the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” doesn’t often look robust. Sometimes, that relationship has simply existed, without intentional cultivation or efforts toward a deeper intimacy. Sometimes, we force things in ministry or in faith and “fake it ‘til we make it.” Sometimes, we push ourselves beyond limits or hold ourselves to unattainable standards.

Every relationship is a living and dynamic thing that needs to be fed and nurtured, stretched and exercised, paid attention to daily, and rested in—especially that foundational relationship between us and God.

Hopefully, this edition of “Wholly Living” has helped you understand spiritual formation a bit better and piqued your interest in pursuing your own spiritual formation a bit deeper. We’d invite you to check out our resources on the SLD page on www.saconnects.org. We have book recommendations, blog posts, and lots of other information that can get you started. You can also find us on Facebook at USA East, SLD.

by Chris Stoker

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