Making Every Effort When There’s Nothing You Can Do: More Thoughts on Spiritual Formation

The process of Christ being formed in us, the process of maturation every believer is called to undergo, is called spiritual formation. In other words, the process of transformation, of growing in Christ, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord told his people, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14). And God fulfilled this promise in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 2:1—4). And while there is an indicative sense in which this is true, that the believer lives by the power of the indwelling Spirit, such truth can also be expressed as an exhortation. As Paul says, “Live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). What this exhortation tells us is that there are two related aspects of the work of the Spirit in the process of spiritual transformation. On the one hand, we cannot grow as followers of Jesus without the power of the Spirit; on the other hand, we are also called to cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives in order to see transformation take place.

For something to happen, there needs to be power; for someone to be formed into the image of Jesus, they need “the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:13). In fact, in the New Testament there are several instances where the words “power” and “Spirit” are used interchangeably or in conjunction with one another. The point is simply that the person of the Spirit is the one who enables a follower of Jesus to grow as a follower of Jesus. Peter points us to this reality when he says, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Everything needed. Commenting on these words from 2 Peter, author Mark Buchanan, in his book Hidden in Plain Sight, writes: “Everything you need for life and godliness you have already. In full. You actually don’t need any more. Not one thing—not a cotter pin or flat washer, not a doohickey or a thingamajig; nothing’s been withheld. Everything required for zoë—abundant and flourishing life—and eusebeia—a deep and real commitment to what matters most—is intact.”

During his final hours with his disciples, Jesus used more organic imagery to say essentially the same thing: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Particularly if we conceive the fruit Jesus mentions as the fruit of the Spirit, Jesus puts a more relational spin on the same idea, but the point is the very similar. To become more like Jesus, we need to be in relationship with Jesus. The power of that relationship is the Spirit. Apart from me you can do nothing. Our nothing is more than sufficiently met by Jesus’ everything.

Despite this, our role in spiritual transformation is not passive. Even Jesus says, “Abide in me,” which, if it means remaining in intimate communion with him, is hardly an effortless endeavour. Like any other relationship, ours with Jesus requires nurture, cultivation, support, and, yes, even effort. Speaking of effort, therefore, in the same passage where Peter speaks of God as giving us “everything needed” for becoming mature in Christ, he then goes to tell his readers to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5—8). The effort he encourages his brothers and sisters to expend is effort in adding to their faith a number of virtues that are quite similar to Paul’s list of spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22—23).

So clearly, there is a biblical expectation that those seeking to become mature in Jesus will, to paraphrase the subtitle of Barton’s book, Sacred Rhythms, “arrange their lives for spiritual transformation.” And this biblical expectation is not low, either; Peter does say, “Make every effort.” God calls believers to do everything they can do to become more like Jesus. The Christian life is active and intentional. Just as God does not force his saving love upon anyone, neither does he force our progress towards spiritual maturity. He has his role, we have ours. When we “make every effort,” we are, in effect, living by the Spirit.

It is interesting to reflect on the process of spiritual formation in the context of some of our more prominent, i.e., newsworthy, political stories. For instance, the unfolding train wreck that is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford throws into sharp relief the importance of considering character (especially but not exclusively in political, public life). The dissonance of a leader behaving in the way that Ford has yet who also insists on the quality of his leadership—itself debated by many—serves as a reminder that what we do and who we are intimately related. It’s in this respect we see a connection between the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. In a word, character counts; and character is a crucial aspect of having Christ being formed in us.

Biblically, Christian character takes shape through specific virtues. Paul provides a list of virtues he calls spiritual fruit. Found in Galatians 5:22—23, they are as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Peter does something similar with his list in 2 Peter 1:5—8: “You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” These lists of virtues give shape to the kind of people we are called to be as followers of Christ.

Together the fruit of the Spirit give us a picture of the character of Jesus. And so for a believer to grow the fruit in his or her life is, de facto, to grow in Christlikeness, to become more like Jesus. But the obvious problem is that we cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, as one author says, “through sheer willpower and personal discipline.” Therefore, we have a quandary. We are told by Scripture to “make every effort” to do something we cannot do by our own efforts. Apart from me you can do nothing. Apart from abiding in Jesus, attempts to be like Jesus will prove useless.

Our own inability to produce spiritual fruit is itself our starting point and the key to understanding the kind of effort we are called to exert in the process of having Christ formed in us. Thinking we can do it, that we can accomplish our own spiritual transformation, guarantees either frustration over failure or pride in our good works. In other words, the first step in making every effort toward maturity in Jesus is realizing our own utter helplessness in his presence, a helplessness defined by our limitations and our sinfulness. We must make every effort to understand what it is we cannot do.

The link between our own powerlessness and God’s infinite capacity to transform us according to the imago Dei is the person of the Spirit. “Indispensable to the life of virtue,” Buchanan says, “is the presence of the Spirit. If the Spirit does not stir, fill, and direct both our life of faith and our quest for virtue, all our virtues will grow stunted and bitter, like fruit from hardscrabble ground. Such virtue is usually no more than a repertoire of self-serving gestures.” Beginning the journey toward spiritual formation means acknowledging before God that we stand in complete need of his aid, that nothing we are called to be is something we can accomplish. Practicing spiritual disciplines means placing ourselves in the position where God is free to be about his work of forming us after the image of Jesus.

If, for example, someone struggles with impatience as I do, becoming more patient is not going to happen through my own attempts to act more patiently in relation to those around me. But placing myself more thoroughly at God’s disposal can indirectly produce the quality of patience in my life. “When we come to terms with the inability to change ourselves,” Buchanan reminds us, “then we allow the Lord to be our source.” Apart from me you can do nothing. Think of the prophet’s words: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). Such words lie at the heart of spiritual formation.

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