Spiritual Formation

By: Diane Chandler
Friday, July 23rd, 2010

A resurgence of interest in spiritual formation has prompted many voices to offer perspectives about what it means to be transformed into the image of Jesus. Several contemporary authors have written on Christian spiritual formation including Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Robert Mulholland, Ruth Haley Barton, James Houston, and Simon Chan.  Others have developed theories that attempt to capture moral and character development such as Lawrence Kohlberg in his theory of moral development and James Fowler in his theory of faith development. Neither of these theories is without critique nor addresses the inner dynamics and mystery of formation. 

Christian colleges and universities are wrestling with various questions connected to spiritual formation: (1) what exactly is Christian spiritual formation?, (2) how does it actually transpire?, (3) how can it be accurately assessed in the life of the individual believer?, and (4) how can the curriculum and extra-curricular activities intentionally foster spiritual formation of students?  These are not unfair questions.  Most Christian colleges and universities are attempting to get their hands around these issues, but are finding that like water seeping through fingers, spiritual formation is difficult to isolate and measure.  In its simplicity, spiritual formation is a complex convergence of many threads in an individual’s life.  And each individual has a different road map for his/her formation.  No two people are exactly alike.

As much as we reflect on the biblical and theological considerations of spiritual formation and seek to define the term, we are left with some measure of mystery and ambiguity about how the process actually occurs.  Have you ever seen the actual moment when a flower blooms, a baby grows, a butterfly emerges from the cocoon?  These moments occur in chronos (actual) time but are difficult to actually isolate since they seem to be invisible to most of us.  Such is the case with spiritual formation.  We most clearly see the formational hand of God in retrospect. Even the apostle Paul made frequent reference to the “mystery of godliness” that was revealed to believers in Christ (1 Tim 3:16).

However with each individual being unique and God having a unique plan for each individual, God in his providential ecology uses a variety of means to fashion believers into the image of His Son.  Interestingly, God is a completely ecological God ~ using multiple means within the environment to shape us into Christlikeness.  He doesn’t waste a thing.

Some of these shaping conduits of spiritual formation include: (1) family, social, and cultural embeddedness, (2) the Scriptures, (3) God’s grace, (4) God’s Spirit, and (5) God’s providence, defined as circumstances ordained by God to guide us for our good. By family, social, and cultural embeddedness, I refer to the life context in which we are born, raised, and to which we are exposed, as well as social/relational and cultural factors within the environment.  The Scriptures are the written Word of God given to teach and equip us as children of God (2 Tim. 3:16, Heb. 4:12).  God’s grace is the enablement/power of God to accomplish what we are unable to do on our own.  God’s Spirit is the life-giving member of the Trinity who not only is the “agent of God’s activity,” as Gordon Fee asserts (Paul the Spirit, and the People of God, pp. 26-27), but is a person who indwells and equips us to live a godly life surrendered to Christ.

I’ve offered five means that God uses to shape us.  As you reminisce on your own spiritual growth in Christ, what factors, experiences, and conditions were most formative and shaping?  Were any of these inclusive of the five “shaping conduits of formation” addressed above?  Others not mentioned?

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Diane Chandler
This entry was posted by on Friday, July 23rd, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Holistic Formation, Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Spiritual Formation”

  1. Hello Diane,

    I was waiting for the next post on image of God; perhaps this is it.

    I’ve spent a week with this post, and I am no closer to understanding your suggestions than I was a week ago – I am trying . . .

    First, the way you use the adjective spiritual is, at best, distant from any biblical use I can see. Spiritual is used in Galatians 6.1. And the adjective there must mean those who “live by the Spirit” restore the one who is caught in sin. This first usage (assuming an early writing of Galatians) sets the standard for other uses, and consistently ‘spiritual’ refers to those in some way being acted upon by the Holy Spirit. (see Gordon Fee in Life in Spirit; Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, Greemann & Kalantzis eds, IVP)

    You speak of the ambiguity of the process of someone’s growth (I am not sure what you mean by spiritual formation). I realize after looking at another’s children they seem to have sprouted overnight. However, I remember how amazed I was at each step of my children’s development. I remember eye movements, first steps, first words . . . even sounds formed through play and experimentation, laughter, panic, fear, pain, holding little hands and feeling them get larger & larger. Rubbing away leg aches was a simple thing a few years ago. Now I can barely get my hand around soar thighs. My point being when there is a deep relationship, growth is not only realized but shared and celebrated. Growth in that kind of environment is always noticed (as is a lack).

    In the church there is always opportunity to witness growth if you’re willing to take another life and involve it with your own. This is the great blessing of the fellowship in the Holy Spirit. My understanding is that any Spiritual growth requires relationship. I don’t care how long someone has attended a Sunday service or how many verses one has memorized from the bible, if they have no active relationship with the Holy Spirit, there is no Spiritual growth.

    If you desire to see Spiritual growth in the student body, then you must find those who are willing to share ‘Holy Spirit living’ with those students. There is no other biblical means to that end. Of course there is worship and service and faithfulness, but there must be a shared love around our Lord and King Jesus. When such a love, deeply relational, is present, there is no need for any law;-)

    Which then brings me to my next confusion (perhaps I am a bit thick). Why do you delineate grace, Holy Spirit and providence? I can somewhat see the separation between Spirit and providence. One is indwelling while one is circumstantial, but even then using the qualifier “God’s” with providence seems synonymous with Spirit’s leading or God’s favor.

    I know there is a process in growing into the image of our Lord. But any discussion must include the realization that this growth can only occur in community with an active pursuit of hearing and/or responding to the leading of Holy Spirit. When the Jews first became aware that God was calling those outside of the covenant, the proof was the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10). In any exploration of qualitative advance in Christian life, we must see Spirit active in that person’s life.

    Excuse my ignorance, but the discussion is quit perplexing to me.