I mentioned in my last blog that “Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual disciplines become not just a mundane routine, but a moment, a possibility, an encounter, an opportunity to spend being intentional about knowing this God more and more and daring Him to take you to the next level.” I would like to comment more on this aspect of spiritual growth.
Let’s define some terms. How do we define spiritual growth? I actually prefer the term “spiritual formation” because I think it is a more accurate term. To me, “growth” seems rather one-dimensional, like short to tall or thin to fat. “Formation,” however, seems multi-dimensional, and that is how I see the spiritual life working. Wikipedia (the trusted source for all internet truth) defines “spiritual formation” as “the growth and development of the whole person by an intentional focus on one’s (1) spiritual and interior life, (2) interactions with others in ordinary life, and (3) the spiritual practices (prayer, the study of scripture, fasting, simplicity, solitude, confession, worship, etc.)”. As you can see from this definition, which I think is very good, spiritual formation is not just about you and God or simply about the removal of sin.
Growing up, I was always taught that if you had a problem with sin, you should confess that sin, preferably at an altar during the invitation at church and leave that sin at the altar and never pick it up again. I did that again and again with certain sins, wondering why I still struggled with them and blaming myself for picking them back up again. The problem with this type of thinking goes back to how we define spiritual growth or spiritual formation. If we define spiritual growth as merely “the absence of sin,” then we do not go far enough. Think of it this way: You have a bucket full of bile. You want to somehow present that bucket of bile to someone as something to drink. What’s the best way to do that? First of all, get rid of the bile! Second, you’re probably going to want to rinse the bucket, if not, get a new bucket all together, and then you need to fill that bucket with fresh and clean drinking water. Using this analogy, all I was doing at that altar was confessing my sin, thinking that mere confession would solve all of my spiritual problems. Twelve-step programs have a term for this. It’s called “negative sobriety.” If an alcoholic simply does not drink, he is negatively sober, and according to the teachings of most twelve-step programs, negative sobriety will not keep you sober for very long. You must become “positively sober” which allows growing and forming spiritually. At some point, you have to rinse your bucket and begin to fill it with pure drinking water.
I have not read many books on spiritual formation, but I have taken two classes on the subject. One was an undergrad class where I was first introduced to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, a book that is considered a Christian classic and one that I think every believer should read. One of the things that just recently struck me was the subtitle to this book, “The Path to Spiritual Growth.” With the exception of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible-reading, and meditation, I had always viewed most of the spiritual disciplines as optional. They were for use for someone who had the time and wanted to go deeper in their walk with Christ. I never viewed them as essential. However, Foster says, right in his title to the book that the disciplines are not “a” path to spiritual growth; they are “the” path to spiritual growth. Foster asserts that the spiritual disciplines are not an option for the believer, they are essential.
Let’s pause here for a second. I am not proposing that a person can earn his or her salvation based upon adherence to the spiritual disciplines and I do not think that is what Foster is proposing, although he is often vilified in some circles. As I said in my last blog, “I believe it [election] is unconditional because it is through no conditions of our own.” I do not believe that we, as humans, do anything to deserve salvation. Once we are given mercy from our sin and its punishment (hell) and grace from God to accept His gift of salvation unto an abundant life, what does that life consist of? How do we obtain this abundant life? I believe the abundant life that God has called us to is when we, as believers, live to our full spiritual potential, unlocking fruits of the Spirit like peace and joy in a way which can only be a result of pressing deeper into the Spirit and following the Spirit in a fresh and meaningful way. I believe that Foster is asserting that the abundant life, the deeper life, is obtained through the utilization of the spiritual disciplines, the keys to unlocking this deeper life. On a side note, I am not asserting any Gnostic, “secret knowledge” or anything like that. I believe that this spiritual awakening is available to every believer, if we seek after it. Breaking apart Wikipedia’s definition, I think that we can see that spiritual formation has to do with (1) the vertical life, i.e. the status of our relationship with God, (2) the horizontal life, i.e., the status of our relationship with our fellow humans and (3) the actual integration of the spiritual disciplines.
First, you cannot begin to go deeper with God if you have not taken the first step. There are two aspects of this first step. The first aspect is that you must be a Christian, i.e. a believer. You must believe that you are a sinner that is hopeless apart from a God intervention and you must believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, fully-God and fully-man, was that intervention, sent to us from God the Father to take our place as the punishment for our sin and to give us this abundant life that we seek. You must accept Him into your life as your Savior and trust Christ by grace through faith for your salvation. The second aspect of this is that you must be actively seeking God in your day to day life. Foster asserts that prayer and Bible reading are spiritual disciplines and, indeed, they are, but in my opinion, they are also essential ingredients for any level of spiritual life. They are part of Christianity 101, if you will. Read your Bible and pray every day.
Second, you must be at harmony as much as possible with your fellow humans. I say “humans” because I want to be gender-inclusive here. If I may be transparent here, this is an area that I really struggle with. I can easily adopt a “Jesus and me” attitude that assumes (rather legalistically even) that as long as I read my Bible and pray every morning, it does not matter what else happens. That is fundamentally and categorically unbiblical and if I may be so bold, it is sin. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor and took the time to hang all the Law and the Prophets on that statement. Unless we love others as ourselves, we are not being obedient to Scripture. For me, where this strikes at the heart, is in my sense of entitlement. I am thoroughly a “Burger King Christian.” I always want to “have it my way.” If I do not get my way, I often act out like a child that has his toy taken away. My anger becomes directed at whatever or more importantly whoever is in the way of me obtaining that thing which I so sinfully think will cause me to be ultimately happy. It could be a server at a restaurant, the person making my sandwich at Subway, or the vehicle that just refuses to get out of my way. I constantly have to repent of my attitude. If I do not confess this right away, I risk giving up the best that God has for me and I really do not want that.
On a side note, I think that we are often guilty of misrepresenting what sin actually does to us. What I mean is that we often view sin as an action or omission of something that we should or should not be doing and by that sin we completely hinder what God is doing in our lives. I do not think that is accurate. What I think is more likely is that sin acts as a clog in a drain pipe. The bigger the clog (the more sin) that is in the drain pipe, the less water gets through. It does not mean that the drain is completely clogged, unless we are not a believer; it means that we just get less and less of God than we could. This would explain why certain areas of our lives we seem to do really good at spiritually and why others we do not. It might be a crude analogy, but the spiritual disciplines help us to break out the plunger and really get to the issue of why our sin holds us back.
Third, spiritual formation has to do with the actual integration of the spiritual disciplines. I have already mentioned that I think that Bible-reading and prayer are considered spiritual disciplines; they are also essential spiritual ingredients for any level of growth. I also now think that for one to grow spiritually, one has to integrate more disciplines. Bible-reading and prayer are only the beginning. I recently had an experience that supported this belief. I mentioned that I had taken two classes in spiritual formation. The second one was just this past quarter where we focused on the actual spiritual disciplines themselves. I had to practice a short-term and a long-term discipline. I chose silence and solitude for my short-term and prayer for my long-term. I cannot begin to express to you the level at which I felt like I pressed into God. My times of silence and solitude were some of the most rewarding times I have ever experienced in my walk with Christ. These were the moments that I actually believe that I began to feel the love of God. There are no words. They were simply incredible. I have also continued to try and focus on my prayer life, especially with my wife. My wife and I now have a regular prayer time on Wednesday nights together that I often look forward to. I have been more challenged in my personal prayer time recently because of lack of time. After my class ended, the holidays and the move took a great deal of time and energy. I am now trying to redirect that energy into spending more time with God. Since I prefer to take long walks for retreat purposes, the snow and cold weather have made this difficult so I am praying (no pun intended) for warmer weather soon.
In closing, as I write this, I do not mean to be legalistic and say that you have to do these things to be a Christian. What I do mean to say is that if you want to be intentional about growing in Christ, if you want to live the abundant life that God has called you to live, you do not do it by osmosis. You cannot somehow attract spiritual maturity by simply “hanging out” passively. You have to be intentional about it and I think that Foster’s book is a good start.