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.
5. I hate how spiritual formation gets set against other movements in the church. People get confused about the relationship between essential words like "discipleship" and "spiritual formation." Or they think they are competing terms. A disciple of Jesus is simply someone who seeks to have their spirit formed by him. If you are interested in Christian spiritual formation, the way you pursue it is by becoming a disciple of Jesus.
6. I hate how hard spiritual transformation is, and how long it takes. I hate thinking about how many people have gone to church for decades and remain joyless or judgmental or bitter or superior.
7. Mostly—I hate how hard and slow it is for me.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California and editor at large of Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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