When I was a kid, I had a recurring nightmare that a loved one in my life was possessed by a demon. Immersed in this dream world, I often thought of Jesus’ words from Matthew 17: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed,” then “nothing will be impossible for you” (v. 20). This spurred me on to fresh efforts at casting out the demon, but nothing ever worked. In response, I tried conjuring up even more faith from somewhere within myself.
A similar impulse remained throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. Whenever I came to a spiritual or religious difficulty—whether it was trying to break a sinful habit, discerning God’s will, or growing in intimacy in my relationships—my impulse was the same: If I could just believe harder (whatever that meant, I was never sure), then I’d be able to move whatever mountain lay before me.
I’ve learned over time that deepening faith is not just a mental exercise. It requires action. This lesson was recently reinforced by Rich Villodas’s The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus, which invites Christians to penetrate further into the mysteries of our faith, the history and traditions of our global church, our relationships with others, and the reality of our own inner lives.
In the midst of a national pandemic that forces us to cover our faces and mediate our social engagements (including worshiping God) through computer screens, Villodas’s book could not come at a more opportune moment.
As the lead pastor of New Life Fellowship in Queens for seven years, Villodas guides the reader from experience. He leads a flock that is one of the most multiracial Protestant churches in the United States. And with New York City as their home, the members of New Life Fellowship fight against the tide in what is perhaps the cultural capital of shallowness (which I say from experience and out of great love for that godforsaken place).
Americans in 2020 live in a milieu of shallow social interactions. Many of us uproot from our homes for college or work and live among people with whom we have no deep connection. Social media platforms grant us fragmented views into our peers’ lives, and algorithms herd us into polarized tribes. Screen addiction pulls us along cursory binges of information. These mediums encourage us to define our worth based on our appearance, professional accomplishments, or material possessions.
To put it another way, as Villodas does in The Deeply Formed Life, “we are always at risk of being shallowly formed.” But the book offers more than a theory or theological argument for spiritual deepness. It provides a practical guide for taking the deep dive—for rejecting a culture of shallowness in the context of everyday life.
Villodas urges Christians to incorporate more monasticism, or “contemplative rhythms,” into their daily habits. In contrast to megachurches that blast music, lights, and smoke at their parishioners, his own church incorporates stillness and silence into worship services, teaching congregants that in uneventful moments “God purifies us of the false god of good feelings.”
If you want to deepen your spiritual life, Villodas says, learn how to “normalize boredom” and sit in silence with God. Keep a sabbath. Put yourself close to the poor and vulnerable. And lean on the rich monastic practices of the church (like lectio divina, for example) to help you create consistent religious habits. “We are called,” he writes, “to be active contemplatives or contemplative activists, holding together the invitation to be and to do.”
I remember sitting in my first Christian racial-reconciliation group in Brooklyn back in 2015—we had just read a smattering of Bryan Stevenson, Martin Luther King Jr., Ta-Nehisi Coates, and more—and posing an earnest question to my fellow church members: “Okay, but what do we do now?”
Because of the shallow nature of most of our social relationships, we have little opportunity to engage, even superficially, with people who might be different from ourselves. From the selective wiring of social media platforms to trends of self-segregation (both racial and religious), Christians need instruction on how to deepen our relationships with others.
The Deeply Formed Life is generous with the practical here. The disciplines that Villodas puts forth encourage Christians to be deeper in the world, sharing our faith and fighting for justice for the vulnerable, while keeping our roots firm in Christ. “What makes genuine Christian engagement with the world different,” he writes, “is that we don’t hate the people we are trying to change.”
If we want to have “deeply formed practices of racial reconciliation,” we must remember injustice done in the past, lament with and listen to those who suffer, and keep rigorous habits of prayer and self-examination. In order to show people the light of our faith, we should become masters of hospitality, service to the poor, and purposeful work. Villodas shows how these disciplines train our hearts to point toward others, allowing our actions to be motivated by compassion instead of catharsis.
Penetrating Our Interior Lives
In the same way we are groomed to maintain shallow relationships, the world encourages us to float atop the surface when it comes to knowing our own selves. We’re praised for being willing to follow our impulses. We shed the teachings of our parents and grandparents. We avoid painful memories and treat emotional problems with medication. We glorify a busyness that keeps us from knowing ourselves well.
By examining ourselves, however, we can have freedom from shallowness and confront with confidence any anger, anxiety, unhealthy relational habits, or cycles of sin we may experience.
As Villodas writes, “Interior examination is a way of life that considers the realities of our inner worlds for the sake of our own flourishing and the call to love well.” In other words, it’s not just about knowing ourselves for glorified personal growth. Interior examination is about being healthy so we can love God and love others. And, I would add, though Villodas doesn’t address it himself, a consistent examination of conscience gives God permission to sanctify us in ever-newer ways.
Villodas never stops at a convicting call. He also allows the reader a crash course in the “emotionally healthy spirituality” that is practiced in his own life and at his church. In an effort to disturb our apathy, he encourages readers toward practices that are unfamiliar in many evangelical churches, like examining behavior patterns, confronting painful family history or trauma, and naming and confessing sin. These may be uncomfortable or unpopular in some cases, but we cannot grow without them.
The Only Way Forward
Living out the deeply formed life is doubtlessly difficult, a fact Villodas doesn’t necessarily stress as much as he could. His book is encouraging, making deeper faith look possible and attractive (to its credit). But let us not be shy about the fact that this deeper way is also the way of the Cross.
The experiences of the saints and martyrs that Villodas cites as encouragement reveal that the way will be painful. The disciplines he stresses—being purified by silence, confessing our sins, fighting against injustice, and more—are all encompassed in Christ’s call to “take up [your] cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
I’m writing this at three days overdue to have my second child. As I think about the forthcoming pain of childbirth, the pain Christ suffered on the cross, and the pain of being “deeply formed,” I’m tempted by my flesh to respond with a firm “no, thank you.”
Yet Villodas gently reminds us that this way, this cross, this labor, is the way of Jesus. And it is the only way forward. The cross is not pretty or popular or easy to carry. But it, in turn, will carry us through, deeper and deeper, straight on to heaven.
Rebecca Toscano is a project manager at Behold, an app for daily Christian prayer and meditation. She writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.