I was raised in southern Missouri where the land is mineral poor. Cows and sheep there will find piles of junk or refuse out in the fields or woods and eat old dry-cell batteries and rusty wire and nails to get the minerals that they need, and they die of it. The hunger for spiritual depth that we see manifested across our culture becomes a threat to a meaningful and practically effective understanding of spiritual growth as it should be presented by followers of Christ. And this threat has several forms.
Is spiritual formation going to be lost in the sea of humanistic or “new age” spirituality–in what I am tempted sometimes to call the “Oprahcization” of Western culture”? I think that Oprah means well, and there is much good in what she does–certainly much more than with many others in her type of public position. But she is severely misguided on some fundamental points. She now has on her television program a segment called “attending to your spirit,” and we should pay attention to what shows up in that segment, asking ourselves how we could deal with the real needs she addresses.
The hunger of the human heart that is unfed by what is authentic will go for what is inauthentic. If human beings need something vital badly enough, they may even destroy themselves trying to get it.
Most are familiar with the Vedic or New Age form, but now secularism itself has a ‘spirituality’. Even a mere “culture” has a spirituality to it now. There is a book titled Spirituality and the Secular Quest, edited by Peter Van Ness, in the very well known “World Spirituality” series. And what you have there is simply the claim that secular people have a ‘spirituality’ too. Spirituality is taken to be simply one dimension of the human being. That’s the great divide, because, from the scriptural teachings and the teachings of our traditions in the Christian communities, we know that that is supposed to be right–human beings are, as such, supposed to have a spirituality. And in a sense they do. They remain spiritual beings, with all that implies. But on their own they’re dead spiritually. They’re cut off from the source of spiritual life. Yet what we are seeing and what we will continue to see is an attempt to take the merely human, dead in trespasses and sins, and make that into ‘spirituality’, framing it culturally, artistically, and in other ways. Usually ‘spirituality’ as a purely human dimension has to do with commitment, creativity and meaning.
And so we have not only the New Age, but we also have secularism as a direction in which the drive to “spirituality” may develop. We could almost speak of “culturalism,” because culture is now generally assigned to the area of the spiritual. And I think that in many of our Christian congregations there already exists in the minds of many people a hopeless mish-mash of these two tendencies, the New Age and the secular. It has already almost totally captured some mainline churches–and some not so mainline, as you find when you begin to talk with people about what they actually think about spirituality and spiritual formation.
Now all of the spiritualities address, of course, the deep human needs of identity, righteousness and power. They must do so to have any appeal, and recent failure to show how the Christian way deals with those needs is largely responsible for their widespread appeal today.
Who am I? And the culturalisms etc. that pose as vital spirituality, as well as other forms of group identity, step up and say: This is who you are. But in these responses you don’t get the sense that what we are meant to be is children of the heavenly Father, with a life that transcends everything that can be found in human culture or actual human nature.
Am I okay? Am I a good person? You will see that all the spiritualities address that issue. Am I strong? And you will see again, the longing for power (“empowerment” is the usual term now) is what is back of all these forms of spirituality, what gives them their appeal.
Well, that’s one thing I think we are in danger of seeing happen with the current interest in spirituality and spiritual formation: It may be taken over by these kinds of Vedic or secularist tendencies.
Another possibility is perhaps more dangerous for those of us here today. It is that spiritual formation will simply become a new label for old activities–for what we are already doing: worship, hearing the word, community, quiet time, plus a new twist or two such as spiritual direction and so on. Now all of these things are very important. But if spiritual formation merely becomes a new label for things we are already doing, it will leave us right where we are. And the issues of deep inner transformation will remain untouched. And I say with trepidation that there is a real danger of spirituality becoming a field of mere “expertise,” of academic competence, focused upon “religious activities.”
Let me illustrate with just one aspect: repentance. I think that one of the greatest dangers for the cause of Christ today is that we Evangelicals will not understand our need for genuine repentance: repentance, not about what we aren’t, but about what we are. Our problem is not caused merely by the fact that we don’t do certain things, like love our neighbor as ourselves and so on. It’s the very things that we teach and practice about the spiritual life that leave us in the position of not doing the things we should.
Haven’t we been told that judgment begins at the house of God? That means, first of all, it begins where I am. I am a man of unclean lips who lives in the midst of a people of unclean lips. I have to own this. We have to own it. And sometimes the uncleanness of our lips simply comes from the fact that we use the language of our culture, and sometimes our religious culture, which may in fact be full of unperceived godlessness. We need to recognize that fact. What are we as Evangelicals, as religious Conservatives, or as Christians generally doing to bring about the kind of deepening called for by the turn to “spirituality” in our times? And is it really true that we just need to do what we are already doing, but more or better? Or do we need to do something different?….We need to do something different.
One possibility is that “spiritual formation” could become a term for those processes through which people are inwardly transformed in such a way that the personality and deeds of Jesus Christ naturally flow out from them when and wherever they are. In other words, it can be understood as the process by which true Christlikeness is established in the very depths of our being. Thus multitudes of men and women could be brought forth from generation to generation to be, unapologetically, Christ’s redemptive community: the true “city set on a hill,” of which Jesus spoke, established in the midst of the earth now, as it shall be for eternity in the midst of the cosmos. (Eph. 3:10; Rev. 22:5) We could become a true “society of Jesus.” We could be the life-transforming salt and light in a darkened world which God has always intended his covenant people to be.
Spiritual formation in Christ would, then, ideally result in a person whose reflective will for good, fully informed and possessed by Christ, has settled into their body in its social context to such an extent that their natural responses were always to think and feel and do as Christ himself would. Their epidermal as well as their deliberate responses are then those of Christ. Standing alone comes from Christ in the inner person. When Christ is there within, even the social context is one where the reflective will for Christlikeness understands what’s happening, makes the right choice, and in faith sees it through, with love and joy and peace and longsuffering and gentleness and goodness and kindness and faithfulness and self-control: the fruit of the spirit. The fruit of the spirit in the inner person expresses itself in that way.
In such a person, the saying of Paul teaches, “The things that I would not that I do, and the things that I would, that I do not,” (Romans 7:19) is reversed: “The good that I would I do, and the evil that I would not I do not.” Again: Of this person we no longer have the diagnosis, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:14)
Now if the Vision of this glorious kind of life is there, then the next step is Intention. I must decide that I will live that kind of life. And then, finally–and this is the area of what we call “spiritual disciplines,” undertaken in the effort to actually obey Christ–we have to have a Method.
There has to be method. Suppose, for example, my intention is to become the kind of person who can heartily bless those who curse me. Or maybe they don’t even curse me. They just think I am wrong or irrelevant. Jesus said to love your enemies, but how about those who bug you? That would be a real challenge too, wouldn’t it? You see we have to get real with all these matters. I have to be able to learn what it is within me that keeps me from being able to do all that and to do something about it. And perhaps it is that I have not devoted myself sufficiently to being alone with God, or to the taking in of his Word, so that I can actually trust Him to bless me when others are cursing me.
So what I have to do is to find the ways–the method–through which I can build my confidence in God’s goodness, and break the power of habit in me of cursing back. Note the wonderful words from the old hymn, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, and sets the prisoner free.” Cancelled sin still has people in bondage. To say it’s cancelled doesn’t mean you’re done with it. And to be “done with it” requires a method that may involve counseling, certainly involves the ministry of the word, and certainly involves worship. We’re pretty good with these practices, but the ones that look more “Catholic,” like solitude, silence, and so on, we’re not so good with those. And usually I find they deal with the areas where our deepest problem lies.
So we have to find the ways of taking our body into solitude and silence, into service, as well as into worship, into prayer, as well as into study; and we have to plan our lives around this objective of fulfilling the vision that our intention has set before us. That, briefly, is how spiritual formation in Christ is done: vision, intention and method, in that order. In this way we succeed, as Paul says in Romans 6:13, in “yielding ourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God.”
It can be done. It can be yours and it can be mine, and we can give it to other people, if, in the fellowship of Christ, we offer them the vision, exemplify and help them with the intention, and teach them the method.
Excerpt from “Spiritual Formation: What it is, and How it is Done,” dwillard.org, previously unpublished.