Never has the Christian life been understood as a static experience; instead, the underlying assumption is that believers, once they have come to faith in Christ, will continue to grow in various ways and through various means. The apostle Paul insists that followers of Jesus “be built up until we all . . . become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12—13). As each of us grows physically from infancy to adulthood, the same ought to be true spiritually of Christians. Maturity, perhaps, is the key word.
Actually becoming more mature involves, in Eugene Peterson’s words, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Put another way, spiritual maturity is a lifetime pursuit, for there is never a moment when any one of us can claim to have arrived at our destination. What Paul says of himself is also true of each Christian: “Not that I have already obtained this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me . . . I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12—14).
Journey might be an apt metaphor for this process of maturation. And not only is each member of the body of Christ on a spiritual journey, each member is on a journey that bears some resemblance to the journey of those around them. Yet, each person’s journey is distinct if not unique, requiring careful, prayerful discernment about how to navigate the terrain one is likely to encounter along the way.
In Galatians, Paul uses the metaphor of childbirth to express his longings and hopes for the believers to whom he writes: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). When considering spiritual formation, Paul’s words capture well what our goal ought to be. Until Christ is formed in you. Undergoing spiritual formation is about being formed into the likeness of Jesus. Put another way, human beings have the unique privilege of having been created in the imago Dei, and since the primordial sin this image has been broken; therefore, spiritual formation is, ultimately, about image restoration.
Part of what this means is that spiritual formation concerns primarily God’s purposes for us, particularly in terms of our relationship with him. I think of the last line of the Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger,” which prayerfully asks God to “fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” While we can certainly express it with more nuance, this poetic rendering effectively gets across the goal behind spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is, first, about what God wants of us rather than about what we want in our relationship with God. It’s about being made “fit for heaven to live with Thee there.” In a culture that can in its self-expression verge on narcissistic, articulating the goal of spiritual formation in this way is important because otherwise we run the risk of the goal being subjective and even deceiving.
Careful, biblical crafting of our understanding of spiritual formation offers protection against a more generic, Oprah-esque form of spirituality that offers nothing by believing virtually everything. Having Christ formed in us—being fit for heaven—is not about meeting personal goals of self-fulfillment through the pop-psychology and feel good self-help of entertainers masquerading as spiritual gurus. Such an approach makes spiritual formation the province of the privileged, a luxury of the comfortable, a pursuit of a commodity. And if we consider, for example, the examples of both early church martyrs and current Christian martyrs—those who actually die because they confess Christ as Lord—such a shallow, consumer driven spirituality is not only sad and misleading but blasphemous.
Therefore, definitions of spirituality and spiritual formation are vital. Spirituality is not a catch-all term for any way anyone decides to layer their already comfortable lives with a sense of meaning and purpose; instead, it is a word that points us to the ways in which God is at work in our lives in order to make us more Christ-like. Indeed, true spiritual formation may make us distinctly uncomfortable. Spirituality refers, therefore, to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in bringing us to maturity in Christ. Prior to whatever we may desire or long for or feel we ought to have by way of meaning in this life, there is the purpose for which we were created by God. And this purpose, according to the Shorter Westminster Catechism, is “To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
That said, there is an experiential, even subjective aspect to spiritual formation, one unique to those already in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This more immediately personal aspect of spiritual formation is one that often concerns the recognition that we are not where we should be in our relationship with God. Even though we have been revived and given new life by the Spirit of God, numerous factors coalesce, leaving us feeling spiritually empty and arid. Ironically, this can happen even as a result of becoming overworked in ministry.
Ruth Haley Barton, in Sacred Rhythms, gives voice to this when she writes, “Then there are times when I am aware of my brokenness, and a longing for real, fundamental change groans within me.” Later she asks these pointed questions of readers: “When was the last time you felt it—your own longing, that is? Your longing for love, your longing for God, your longing to live your life as it is meant to be lived in God? When was the last time you felt a longing for healing and fundamental change groaning within you?”
As it happens, Scripture is familiar with spiritual longing. Perhaps most notably in the Psalms, we have examples of people bringing such longings to God in prayer. Psalm 42:1—2 is one such instance: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Similarly in Psalm 63:1 we read: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” For people who have sat in pews on Sunday mornings for years but perhaps have not felt the presence of God for a long time, these words might very well resonate deeply. They remind us that even the most spiritually mature of us can end up in the wilderness, and that a longing for God’s presence is perhaps the most profound and basic longing of all. Indeed, according to Scripture God places each and every human being in the circumstances where they are most likely to seek him (Acts 17:26—28).
Being conformed to the image of Christ and our longing for God converge in the process of spiritual formation. Augustine’s famous words from his Confessions express this convergence well: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This prayer of Augustine’s not only reminds us that the goal of spiritual formation has its source in God’s creative intent but also that our longing for his presence only finds satisfaction when we align our lives according to his intent for us.
Of course, talking about spiritual formation is a lot different than experiencing spiritual formation. Case in point: my family life is a constant struggle to impose some meagre measure of order on a routine more chaotic than calm. There are days when the effort to impose this order feels futile. Our small home barely contains the energy and movement of our preschool-age twin boys and 9 year old daughter. Piles of dirty laundry and even baskets of clean laundry not yet put away signal the direction in which life normally channels our energy. That this is such a clear signal of our rumpled lifestyle is evident from our usual last minute morning quests to find clean socks for my kids and a clean bra for my wife.
And, as it happens, it’s somewhere between laundry and dishes, between preschool drop-offs and a million errands, that I have to learn to listen to God’s clear voice, the voice that shapes, guides, and gives meaning to the myriad tasks that add up to the routine I sometimes long to escape.
Ruth Haley Barton, in her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, refers to this as “the practice of paying attention,” and says, using the image of Moses arriving at Mount Horeb and meeting God for the first time, that “All of us have burning bushes in our lives, places that shimmer with grace, alerting us to the possibility that God is at work doing something that we could not have predicted.” Such paying attention, she explains, means having “the capacity to see the bush burning in the middle of our own life and having enough sense to turn aside, take off our shoes and pay attention.” As Adele Calhoun puts it in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, “Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives.”
The irony, obviously, is that the longing I sometimes have to escape my quotidian routine is a spiritual longing, partly based on the assumption that only outside of the conditions in which I live will I finally be able to hear what God might be trying to say. The mess and noise of life brings out my inner-Gnostic. So I say irony because sometimes I long to escape from the very context in which God is currently at work transforming me, the very place where he longs to speak into my life, bringing the only kind of order that ultimately matters.
The reality is simple. If I cannot put off being formed after the image of Christ and defer any longings I have for God’s presence until my kids are older and life seems to settle down, then somehow I have to find a means of attending to this process of spiritual maturation now, and in such a way that corresponds to rather than fundamentally conflicts with my present circumstances. And I cannot put it off. To do so would be to live a life that lacks coherence, one without a reliable and stable centre and therefore subject to all manner of whims and temptations. In other words, a life in which I was not making every effort for Christ to be formed in me.