Our world today cries out for a theology of spiritual growth that has been proven to work in the midst of the harsh realities of daily life. Sadly, many have simply given up on the possibility of growth in character formation.
Vast numbers of well-intended folk have exhausted themselves in church work and discovered that this did not substantively change their lives. They found that they were just as impatient and egocentric and fearful as when they began lifting the heavy load of church work. Maybe more so.
Others have immersed themselves in multiple social-service projects. But while the glow of helping others lingered for a time, they soon realized that all their herculean efforts left little lasting imprint on the inner life. Indeed, it often made them much worse inwardly: frustrated and angry and bitter.
Still others have a practical theology that will not allow for spiritual growth. Indeed, they just might see it as a bad thing. Having been saved by grace, these people have become paralyzed by it. To attempt any progress in the spiritual life smacks of "works righteousness" to them. Their liturgies tell them they sin in word, thought, and deed daily, so they conclude that this is their fate until they die. Heaven is their only release from this world of sin and rebellion. Hence, these well-meaning folk will sit in their pews year after year without realizing any movement forward in their life with God.
Finally, a general cultural malaise touches us all to one extent or another. I am referring to how completely we have become accustomed to the normality of dysfunction. The constant media stream of scandals and broken lives and mayhem of every sort elicits from us hardly more than a yawn. We have come to expect little else, even from our religious leaders—perhaps especially from our religious leaders. This overall dysfunction is so pervasive in our culture that it is nearly impossible for us to have a clear vision of spiritual progress. Shining models of holiness are so rare today.
Yet echoing through the centuries is a great company of witnesses telling us of a life vastly richer and deeper and fuller. In all walks of life and in all human situations, they have found a life of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). They have discovered that real, solid, substantive transformation into the likeness of Christ is possible.
They witness to a character formation that is nigh unto amazing. They have seen their egocentric passions give way to such selflessness and humility of heart, it astonishes even them. Rage and hate and malice are replaced with love and compassion and universal goodwill.
There is a more than 2,000-year record of great ones in this life—Augustine and Francis and Teresa and à Kempis and many more—who, by following hard after Jesus in this way, became persons of absolute sterling character. The record is there for anyone who wants to see.
Thirty years ago, when Celebration of Discipline was first penned, we were faced with two huge tasks: First, we needed to revive the great conversation about the formation of the soul; and second, we needed to incarnate this reality into the daily experience of individual, congregational, and cultural life. Frankly, we have had much greater success with the first task. Christians of all sorts now know about the need for spiritual formation, and look to saints Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant for guidance.
It's the second task that needs to consume the bulk of our energies for the next 30 years. If we do not make real progress on these fronts, all our efforts will dry up and blow away.
One critical reminder before we begin in earnest: Spiritual formation is not a toolkit for "fixing" our culture or our churches or even our individual lives. Fixing things is simply not our business. So we stoutly refuse to engage in formation work to "save America from its moral decline" or to restore churches to their days of past glory or even to rescue folk from their destructive behaviors. No! We do spiritual formation work because it is kingdom work. Spiritual formation work is smack in the center of the map of the kingdom of God. Therefore, all other matters we gladly leave in the good hands of God.
God has given each one of us the responsibility to "grow in grace" (2 Pet. 3:18). This is not something we can pass off onto others. We are to take up our individualized crosses and follow in the steps of the crucified and risen Christ.
All real formation work is "heart work." The heart is the wellspring of all human action. All of the devotional masters call us constantly, almost monotonously, toward a purity of heart. The great Puritan divines, for example, gave sustained attention to this. In Keeping the Heart, John Flavel, a 17th-century English Puritan, notes that the "greatest difficulty in conversion, is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God. … Heart work is hard work indeed."
When we are dealing with heart work, external actions are never the center of our attention. Outward actions are a natural result of something far deeper, far more profound.
The ancient maxim Actio sequitur esse, "action follows essence," reminds us that our action is always in accord with the inward reality of our heart. This, of course, does not reduce good works to insignificance, but it does make them matters of secondary significance, effects rather than causes. Of primary significance is our vital union with God, our new creation in Christ, our immersion in the Holy Spirit. It is this life that purifies the heart; when the branch is truly united with the vine and receiving its life from the vine, spiritual fruit is a natural result.
This is why the moral philosophers could say, "Virtue is easy." When the heart is purified by the action of the Spirit, the most natural thing in the world is the virtuous thing. To the pure in heart, vice is what is hard.
It is no vain thing for us to return to our first love over and over and over again. It is an act of faith to continually cry out to God to search us and know our heart and root out every wicked way in us (Ps. 139:23-24). This is a vital aspect of the salvation of the Lord.
We are, each and every one of us, a tangled mass of motives: hope and fear, faith and doubt, simplicity and duplicity, honesty and falsity, openness and guile. God is the only one who can separate the true from the false, the only one who can purify the motives of the heart.
But God does not come uninvited. If certain chambers of our heart have never experienced God's healing touch, perhaps it is because we have not welcomed the divine scrutiny.
The most important, most real, most lasting work is accomplished in the depths of our heart. This work is solitary and interior. It cannot be seen by anyone, not even ourselves. It is a work known only to God. It is the work of heart purity, of soul conversion, of inward transformation, of life formation.
It begins first by our turning to the light of Jesus. For some, this is an excruciatingly slow turning, turning until we turn round right. For others, it is instantaneous and glorious. In either case, we are coming to trust in Jesus, to accept Jesus as our Life. As we read about in John 3, we are born from above. But our being born from above, of necessity, includes our being formed from above. Being spiritually born is a beginning—a wonderful, glorious beginning. It is not an ending.
Much intense formation work is necessary before we can stand the fires of heaven. Much training is necessary before we are the kind of persons who can safely and easily reign with God.
So now, we are ushered into this new relationship. As Peter puts it in his first letter, we "have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23). God is alive! Jesus is real and active in our little affairs.
And so we begin to pray, to enter into an interactive communion with God. At first our praying is uneasy and halting. It's an alternation of our attention back and forth from divine glories to the mundane tasks of home and work. Back and forth, back and forth. And often the alternation is worse—much worse—than not praying at all. One moment we are reveling in divine glories, the next moment our minds are wallowing in the gutter of base desires.
Our lives are fractured and fragmented. As Thomas Kelly puts it, we are living in "an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness." We feel the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are "unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow." But through time and experience—sometimes much time and experience—God begins to give us an amazing staidness in the Divine Center. In the depths of our being, alternation gives way to a well-nigh unbroken life of humble adoration before the living presence of God.
This is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakableness, and firmness of life orientation. In the words of George Fox, we become "established" men and women.
We began to develop a habit of divine orientation. Now this is no perfectionism, but it is progress in our life with God. The interior work of prayer becomes much simpler now. Slowly we find that little glances heavenward and quiet breathings of submission are all that are needed to draw us into a habitual orientation of our heart toward God. Without even knowing it, we are practicing the presence of God. Formal times of prayer merely join into and enhance the steady undercurrent of quiet worship that underlies all our days.
Behind the foreground of daily life continues the background of heavenly orientation.
This is the formation of the heart before God. To use the words of Kelly, it is "a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time."
As apprentices of Jesus we are learning, always learning how to live well; love God well; love our spouse well; raise our children well; love our friends and neighbors—and even our enemies—well; study well; face adversity well; run our businesses and financial institutions well; form community life well; reach out to those on the margins well; and die well—ars moriendi.
And, as we learn how to live well, we share with others what we are learning. This is the structure of love for the building up of the body of Christ.
We are not alone in this work of the re-formation of the heart. It is imperative for us to help each other in every way we can. And in our day, the desperate need is for the emergence of a massive spiritual army of trained spiritual directors who can lovingly come alongside precious people and help them discern how to walk by faith in the circumstances of their own lives.
Please note that I said "trained" spiritual directors and not "certified" spiritual directors.
There is a genuinely bad idea circulating these days that if we take a certain number of courses and read a certain number of books and receive a certain kind of certification, we will be ready to be spiritual directors. I'm sorry; I really do wish it were that simple. But no, we are here talking about life training. And it is only by life training that we will see the development of a certain kind of life, a life of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. It is this quality of life—the ability to forgive when it is painful, the yearning for prayer—that we are looking for in trained spiritual directors.
We have real difficulty here because everyone thinks of changing the world, but where, oh where, are those who think of changing themselves? People may genuinely want to be good, but seldom are they prepared to do what it takes to produce the inward life of goodness that can form the soul. Personal formation into the likeness of Christ is arduous and lifelong.
Fellowship Gathering Power
This naturally leads to the second great arena of work for the years ahead: congregational renewal. If in our churches we do not do the hard work of spiritual formation, we will not get spiritually formed people. So this is a vital arena of labor, and I am speaking of both congregations as traditionally understood, as well as newly emerging forms of our life together.
At the outset, it is important for us to see the context in which we labor.
First, we have in our churches a "hurry sickness." Many of our people are adrenaline addicts, and the overall spirit of our day is one of climb and push and shove, of noise and hurry and crowds. But spiritual formation work simply does not occur in a hurry. It is never a quick-fix deal. Patient, time-consuming care is always the hallmark of spiritual formation work.
Another contextual situation we face is the fact that we now have a Christian entertainment industry that is masquerading as worship. How do we attend in reverence and awe before the Holy One of Israel when so much of our worship culture focuses on amusement, diversion, and gratification? I don't know the answer, but it is clearly one of the realities of our congregational life.
A third issue: We are dealing with an overall consumer mentality that simply dominates the American religious scene. It is a mentality that keeps the individual front and center: "I want what I want, when I want it, and to the measure I want it." Of course, spiritual formation work teaches us to turn away from our wants and instead focus on true needs, such as the need to die to self and to take up our cross and follow hard after Jesus.
All these things and more make the work of spiritual formation in a congregational setting complicated indeed. I am sure I don't have the answers to these complicated matters. But it is wonderful to know that having the answers is not our job. Our job is to do the work of spiritual formation, and to do this in a congregational setting.
First, that means we want to experience deeply the fellowship gathering power of spiritual formation. The church is re-formed and always re-forming. And if my heart and soul and mind and spirit are being re-formed—if I am longing to know Jesus and follow Jesus and serve Jesus and be formed into the image of Jesus—then I am powerfully drawn toward anyone and everyone who is seeking to know Jesus and follow Jesus and serve Jesus and be formed into the image of Jesus. A person filled with the beauty of Jesus has fellowship gathering power. Others are drawn irresistibly toward such a person.
Second, let us do all we can to develop the ecclesiola in ecclesia—"the little church within the church." The ecclesiola in ecclesia is deeply committed to the life of the people of God and is not sectarian in any way. No separation. No splitting off. No setting up a new denomination or church. We stay within the given church structures and develop little centers of light within those structures. And then we let our light shine!
Three historical expressions of the ecclesiola in ecclesia are particularly worthy of study:
• Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) in 17th-century Germany and his collegia pietatis. Considered the father of Pietism, Spener spent his days practicing and teaching conversion of heart and holiness of life. Those listening to him were so regularly moved by his preaching that they wanted further instruction, and asked if he would be good enough to meet with them. Spener began to hold such groups with those eager to follow Jesus, first in his house, then in other houses, and then in public buildings and so on, with the intent of instructing people who were anxious to learn and live a holy life.
• John Wesley (1703-1791) in 18th-century England and his societies, class meetings, and bands. These gatherings were a way to give order and discipline to new converts. The societies were for the purpose of fellowship, the class meetings were for the purpose of accountability, and the bands were for the purpose of loving and mutual confession of sin.
• Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824) in 19th-century Norway and "the inner mission." There were great renewal movements in Norway under Hauge, but—and this is crucial—Hauge urged his followers to stay in the Lutheran state church of Norway. He formed them into small structures within those churches and called their work of piety and heart formation "the inner mission."
Now, this ecclesiola in ecclesia, this spiritual formation work, produces a certain kind of fellowship, a certain kind of community. It produces a unity of heart and soul and mind, a bond that cannot be broken—a wonder-filled caring and sharing of life together that will carry us through the most difficult circumstances.
And that leads me to my third suggestion for congregational spiritual formation: that we learn to suffer together.
I believe our time of suffering is coming. A multitude of factors will bring this to pass. For example, the hostility of the general culture to things Christian is only going to increase. We should not be surprised by this or even try to change it. What we should be doing is building a rock-solid community life so that when suffering comes, we will not scatter. Instead, we will stand together, pray together, and suffer together regardless of what comes our way. Suffering together may well be one way God uses us for a new gathering of the people of God.
Back Into The World
Finally, we come to the issue of cultural renewal, or what in theology is called the "cultural mandate." I can only hint here at what that might look like.
The devotional masters write much about training the heart in two opposite directions: contemptus mundi, our being torn loose from all earthly attachments and ambitions, and amor mundi, our being quickened to a divine but painful compassion for the world.
In the beginning God plucks the world out of our hearts—contemptus mundi. Here we experience a loosening of the chains of attachment to positions of prominence and power. All our longings for social recognition, to have our name in lights, begin to appear puny and trifling. We learn to let go of all control, all managing, all manipulation. We freely and joyfully live without guile. We experience a glorious detachment from this world and all it offers.
And then, just when we have become free from it all, God hurls the world back into our heart—amor mundi—where we and God together carry the world in infinitely tender love. We deepen in our compassion for the bruised, the broken, the dispossessed. We ache and pray and labor for others in a new way, a selfless way, a joy-filled way. Our heart is enlarged toward those on the margins. Indeed, our heart is enlarged toward all people, toward all of Creation.
It was amor mundi that hurled Patrick back to Ireland to be the answer to its spiritual poverty. It was amor mundi that thrust Francis of Assisi into his worldwide ministry of compassion for all people, for all animals, for all Creation. It drove Elizabeth Fry into the hellhole of Newgate prison, and prompted William Wilberforce to labor his entire life for the abolition of the slave trade. It sent Father Damien to live and suffer and die among the lepers of Molokai, and propelled Mother Teresa to minister among the poorest of the poor in India and throughout the world.
And it is amor mundi that compels millions of ordinary folk like you and me to minister life in Christ's good name to our neighbor, our nigh-bor: "the person who is near us."
Richard Foster is author of many books, most recently Life with God. This article is a condensed and edited version of a talk given at a conference on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Celebration of Discipline.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This article accompanies an explanation from Richard Foster on spiritual direction.
Richard Foster previously wrote on leadership, which accompanied an interview with Christianity Today. CT also interviewed Richard Foster and Dallas Willard on the difference between discipleship and spiritual formation.
Other articles on spiritual formation include:
The Blind Spot of the Spiritual Formation Movement | Let's not forget the spiritual discipline of choice for the masses. (September 24, 2008)
Back to Sunday School | The author of Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered says the church must reclaim its disciple-making infrastructure. (June 26, 2008)
Three Temptations of Spiritual Formation | "When seeking to be shaped by Christ, It is all too easy to veer from a fully Christian approach" (December 9, 2002)
Christianity Today also has more articles on prayer and spirituality.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.