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Home > 2013 > April Web Exclusives > Seven Things I Hate About Spiritual Formation

The phrase "spiritual formation" expresses the most important process in the world. But it also drives me crazy. Although I grew up in the church, I never heard the phrase until I was out of college. Now it's a subject I find myself writing and thinking about a lot. But like all language, the phrase has a way of taking on baggage and barnacles and misunderstandings. So here are a few items I need to get off my chest.

1. I hate how spiritual formation gets positioned as an optional pursuit for a small special interest group within the church. People think of it as an esoteric activity reserved for introverted Thomas-Merton-reading contemplatives. I hate that. Spiritual formation is for everyone. Just as there is an "outer you" that is being formed and shaped all the time, like it or not, by accident or on purpose, so there is an "inner you." You have a spirit. And it's constantly being shaped and tugged at: by what you hear and watch and say and read and think and experience. Everyone is being spiritually formed all the time. Whether they want to or not. Whether they're Christian or not. The question isn't if someone will sign up for spiritual formation; it's just who and what our spirits will be formed by.

2. I hate how spiritual formation gets equated with certain restricted methods. So, for example, someone who grew up in a traditional evangelical spiritual context will swap out meeting at Denny's at 6:00 a.m. for inductive Bible study for lectio divina and learning about the difference between meditation and contemplation and engaging in Ignatian exercises. Any technique is just a technique, and always only a shade away from becoming a new legalism. There is no magic formula, just life. Wise method is always needed, in spirituality as in auto mechanics. But the goal is always love. Better to be a loving person without knowing how you got there, than an expert no one can stand to be around.

3. I hate how easy it is for people to become "champions" of spiritual formation without actually becoming transformed. Sometimes in churches somebody will discover a particular vein of spirituality and seek to recruit others into it, or assume a superior position because they have found certain techniques—but no one actually wants to become like them. I hate it when we forget that the goal is producing truly good people, not becoming experts at certain spiritual activities, or advocates for certain writers.

4. I hate it when people misunderstand the nature of spiritual disciplines. I read an author recently who wrote that the problem with spiritual disciplines is that they turn transformation into a merely human enterprise; for instance, if you struggle with lust you can simply begin to practice fasting as a way to alter your appetite. That's a little like saying the problem with eating breakfast is that it turns nutrition into a merely human enterprise. If you have become a Pelagian breakfast-eater, the solution isn't to stop eating breakfast. It's to start doing it with the right mind, recognizing my dependence on God's presence and goodness and provision in it. That's as true for fasting as it is for eating.

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Posted: April 8, 2013

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Displaying 1–5 of 17 comments

Tom Nash

September 04, 2013  4:02am

I agree, the process is slow. Recently my focus has changed from the narrow focus of my own spiritual growth to the more outward focus of growing in my relationship with Christ. If my relationship with Jesus is growing then my inner transformation will also occur. Two good old fashioned disciplines remain: prayer and reading the Bible. If those two aren't occurring, then growth will be stunted.

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Rick Dalbey

September 03, 2013  12:10pm

What if there were a spiritual discipline that would build up your most Holy faith, would keep you aware of the love of God? What if there were a spiritual practice that would edify you and give a sharper edge to your prayer and praise and express thanks to God? What if anyone, from the mentally challenged, the illiterate, to scholars could practice this with guaranteed results and it was so simple one could do it while driving? Wouldn’t Paul have written about it? Wouldn’t Paul have practiced it all the time? “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.”, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all” As the brother of Jesus said, “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.” Praying in tongues is for all Christians.

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April 19, 2013  10:59am

Rom 12:1, 2 is pretty clear about being fully transformed and has been a part of the God breathed Scripture since the beginning. Its always good to realize that being true to the Bible requires a fully surrendered relationship with the living Lord, since the Bible is not the fourth Person of the Trinity and Sola Scriptura isn't a Bible is Lord declaration.

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David B.

April 13, 2013  1:34am

Spiritual formation is the term that describes the result of spending time alone with Christ, cultivating one's awareness of His presence and power, and then living out the "springs of living water" in community. It is pusuit of HIM, abiding in His presence, not merely desiring something from Him. Through learning how to draw nearer into Christ over the past year, He has delivered me from slavery to addiction. Praise His Holy Name! In reflection on some of the comments logged here, the defintion of "mean 'Christians'" comes to mind: -Someone who is more interested in being 'right' than being Christlike. Accepting Christ as Savior is just the beginning of coming to Christ. Let the spiritual formation continue.

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Monte Vigh

April 12, 2013  9:05am

True spiritual transformation (Romans 12:1-2 we are transformed by the renewal of our minds) is not merely psychological change, but a spiritual experience of our minds encountering the Spirit so being able to think in the mind of Christ. Paul wrote: "I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!" (Gal 4:19) This article is a good call to biblical transformation without swinging to extremes that make it something different than the word of God intended. If we set our minds on things above, and fix our eyes on Jesus, and consider him, and immerse ourselves in all that is meant by the renewal of our minds, we will be changed in every way we need to change to one day, finally, be like Jesus. I do not endorse any "method" or "technique" that falls under the label of spiritual formation, but I urge everyone to pursue the real transformation of the "inner being" (II Cor 4:16;Eph 3:16), no matter how much the real thing makes us look similar to the counterfeits.

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