Spiritual formation is simply the way the human spirit, or self, is formed into a definitive shape—and ultimately how each of us is formed to be like Jesus. In doing so, we become our deepest, truest self—the self that God had in mind when he willed us into existence before time began.
Put another way, spiritual formation is the process of being formed into people of love in Christ. Let’s parse this out—starting by defining what this process entails.
Formation into the image of Jesus is a long, slow process, not a one-time event. There’s no lightning bolt from heaven. Spiritual growth is much like bodily growth—very gradual. It takes place over a lifetime at an incremental, at times imperceptible rate. Yes, we experience periods of dramatic change like birth or a teenage growth spurt, but those key inflection points are the exceptions, not the rule.
As the Regent College professor James Houston often said, “Spiritual formation is the slowest of all human movements.” This is a provocative challenge to our instant-gratification culture; we’re used to fast and faster—the entire world just a swipe of our thumb away. Click the button and get it delivered within hours. But the formation of the human soul doesn’t work at digital speed.
If we lose sight of this, we will either grow discouraged and give up, or settle for mediocre: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” (As if the best we can hope for is a little tune-up on the way to the afterlife.) But we cannot lower the horizon of possibility that was set by the extraordinary life of Jesus and the gift of his Spirit. Instead, we must stay with the process for as long as it takes to actualize our destinies.
And this may take a very long time.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s joy to be had all along the way. You could argue that joy is the defining feature of a life organized around God. But it’s rarely the explosive happiness of an emotional high, dramatic yet fickle and fleeting. It’s more like a quiet undercurrent that slowly accumulates at the base of your soul, increasingly welling up like a soft melody that, over the years, becomes the soundtrack of your life.
At the same time, formation into the image of Jesus isn’t something we do as much as it’s something that is done to us, by God himself, as we yield to his work of transforming grace. Our job is mostly to make ourselves available. Pick your analogy from Scripture: We’re the sheep, he’s the shepherd; we’re the clay, he’s the potter; we’re the child in utero, he’s the mother, laboring in the pains of childbirth.
This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook—“Let go and let God.” No, we have a responsibility to cooperate with God’s transforming grace. He won’t force it on us. As Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”
The reason many Christians get disillusioned over their lack of transformation is because they never learned their part in spiritual formation. Many of us make our new year’s resolutions based on our estimate of what we can achieve by our own effort and strength.
But our job isn’t to self-save; it’s to surrender.
When we unmask the human facade of self-delusion, we realize just how utterly unlike Christ we are in the deepest recesses of our hearts. We are forced to confront our true natures—how warped and wounded we really are. “Physician, heal thyself” is a strategy doomed to fail. In that tender place, we all realize, we need help, power, from beyond us. We need grace.
Formation isn’t a Christianized version of “project self.” It’s a process of sanctification—of being saved by Jesus. An apprentice of Jesus is one who has arranged their life around becoming like Jesus, as expressed through their personality, gender, life stage, culture, ethnicity, and so on.
People of love
But if you had to summarize Christlike character in one word, there would be no competition: love. Love is the acid test of spiritual formation . The single most important question is, Are we becoming more loving? Not, Are we becoming more biblically educated, or practicing more spiritual disciplines, or more involved in church? Those are all good things, but not the most important thing (Matt. 22:37–40).
If you want to chart your progress on the spirituality journey, test the quality of your closest relationships—namely, by love and the fruit of the Spirit. Would the people who know you best say you are becoming more loving, joyful, and at peace? More patient and less frustrated? Kinder, gentler, softening with time, and pervaded by goodness? Faithful, especially in hard times, and self-controlled?
Are you growing in love—not just for your friends and family but for your enemies? When you are hurt, wounded, and treated unjustly (as we all are at times), are you finding yourself increasingly able to emotionally release the bitterness, to absorb the pain and not give it back in kind? To pray for and even “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28)? And is all this feeling more and more natural and less forced? More and more like this is just who you are?
If not, then no matter how well you know the Bible, how many books you read, how many resolutions you make, or how many practices you build into your “rule of life,” you’re not on track. Because the telos of the spiritual journey is to become like God, and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is why God is Trinity: because God is love and love cannot exist outside relationship. To quote Saint Augustine yet again, “God is (at once) Lover, Beloved, and Love itself.” He is the one who loves, the one who is loved, and the ultimate source of all love.
Love as defined by Jesus is not just an attitude of compassion, warmth, and delight, it’s also an action. It’s agape—to will the good of another ahead of your own, no matter the cost or sacrifice that may require. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). This is the cross. And it isn’t just something Jesus did for us; it’s also something we do with him: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16).
This is where spiritual formation veers in a wildly different direction from the self-actualization movement or the Western obsession with project self: It has an end goal, a telos—it’s designed to form you into a person of agape.
The late Bible professor Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “a process of being formed into the image of Christ for the sake of others,” and he harps on the “for the sake of others” piece. Without this crucial element, our spiritual formation inevitably devolves into a private, therapeutic self-help spirituality—which is just a Christianized version of radical individualism, not a crucible to burn our souls clean and forge us into people of love like Jesus.
Yes, there is a journey inward and even a self-discovery that are key to Christian spirituality, but it’s followed by a journey outward into love—into action in the world. Our goal is to be formed by Jesus at every level of our beings. But again, we cannot do this alone. There is only one way.
Christlikeness is the result of Christ in us. It’s all grace; it’s always been grace. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). And us in Christ. In fact, “in Christ” is a phrase used all through the New Testament, more than 80 times in Paul’s letters alone.
Theologians call this doctrine “incorporation”—being incorporated, integrated into the inner life of God himself through Christ. Jesus has come to draw us into God’s inner life of Love loving. As the pastor Darrell Johnson put it in his book on the Trinity, to experience this is “to be alive in the intimacy at the center of the universe.”
As Jesus said in John 17, right before his death,
I pray also for those who will believe in me . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us . . . I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (vv. 20–23)
This is the gospel: In Jesus, God has drawn near to us—we who are sinful, broken, wounded, mortal, dying, and incapable of self-saving, with many of us completely uninterested in God or even his enemies—to draw us into his inner life, to heal us by immersing us within the fold of his Trinitarian love, and then to send us out into the world as agents of his love.
Jesus’ invitation to apprentice under him isn’t just a chance to become people of love who are like God; it’s a chance to enter the inner life of God himself. The ancients called this union with God, and it is the very meaning of your human existence —for me and for every human on the planet, whether they realize and receive it or not.
This, then, is spiritual formation: the process of being formed into a person of self-giving love through deepening surrender to and union with the Trinity. You’re becoming a person; that much is unavoidable. And you’re going to end up somewhere in life. Why not become a person who is pervaded by the love of Jesus? Why not end up in union with God?
John Mark Comer is the founding pastor of Bridgetown Church in Portland, a teacher and writer with Practicing the Way, and the bestselling author of multiple books, including The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and Live No Lies.
Excerpted from Practicing the Way: Be with Jesus. Become like him. Do as he did. Copyright © 2024 by John Mark Comer. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on January 17, 2024.