The Holy Spirit’s Role in Spiritual Formation

            The Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost to fulfill the promise that Jesus made of sending a new Paraclete (John 14:16).  It is in this role today that He is engaged in regenerating, sanctifying, assuring, equipping, empowering, gifting and mediating the presence of Jesus to every believer.  It is certainly no overstatement to say that the Christian’s life in every aspect—intellectual and ethical, devotional and relational, worshiping and witnessing—is enabled and sustained supernaturally by the Holy Spirit. Hence a healthy, dynamic relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit is essential to any success in spiritual formation.

            For centuries Christians have understood and embraced the Holy Spirit’s key role in spiritual development.   However, today, the church has been plagued by people’s tendency to move toward polar opposites of rejection or obsession when they think of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Jim Cymbala, pastor of the famed Brooklyn Tabernacle, speaks to this imbalance when he says that when it comes to the person of the Holy Spirit churches tend to be either cemeteries or insane asylums.  Another way to state this is that many Christians tend to move toward the extreme of a Word focused spirituality that neglects the Spirit or to the extreme of a Spirit focused spirituality that neglects the Word.  Knowledge apart from the Spirit will “puff up” rather than ‘build up” leaving us more dead than alive.  The Spirit apart from the Word will lead to emotionalism, sensationalism, and false teaching. The balance is found in embracing both “Spirit and Truth” (John 4:24).  A balanced Spirit-filled spirituality seeks to unite the mind and the heart instead of setting them in opposition.

            The New Testament Scriptures are very clear as to the Holy Spirit’s many-sided work which is often organized as: empowering, purifying, enlightening, engaging, and equipping. The Scriptures are also quite clear that since Pentecost the Holy Spirit’s primary, basic, ministry is to mediate the presence of Jesus to believers (John 14:18-21; 15:26; 16:14-15).  This means that through the Spirit every believer may continually enjoy three things: 1. Personal fellowship with Jesus.  (John 14:18-21).  2.  The Spirit-given certainty or assurance of being loved, redeemed, and made a part of God’s family (Rom. 8:15-17).  3. Personal transformation into Christlikeness (II Cor. 3:18). It is in this last work of forming the believer into the image of Christ that the Spirit’s work of empowering, purifying, enlightening, engaging, and equipping come into focus.  It is here that the continuing work of spiritual formation is being done as we walk obediently in the light of God’s word (I John 1:7) and keep in step with the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25).

             The Scriptures use a variety of images to convey the many aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in transforming and forming the believer into a spiritually mature person who truly reflects the character of Christ.  Let’s look at five of those:

Enlightening – It has been said the Holy Spirit has a “floodlight ministry” in relation to both Jesus and the Word.  He is the hidden floodlight shining on Jesus.   “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” (John 16:14).  He also illuminates the Scriptures so “that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God “(I Cor. 2:10-16).  It is only as we “look to Jesus, and see his glory; listen to Him, and hear His Word; go to Him, and have His life; get to know Him, and taste his gifts of joy and peace”[1] that we can truly be formed into His image.  This is possible only through the aid of the Holy Spirit.

 Empowering – The empowering of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful New Testament fact and a mark of all true followers of Christ (Lk.24:49; Acts1:8; 4:8, 31; 13:9-10). The primary reason for the Holy Spirit’s power was that we might be “witnesses” of Jesus (Acts 1:8).  We further learn from Paul in Galatians that if we “walk in the Spirit” we will be enabled to fulfill the law of love (5:14), to overcome the flesh (5:16) and to bear the fruit of the Spirit (5:22).  Simply put, the Holy Spirit has power to deliver us from enslaving sin, to energize within us triumphant righteousness and true holiness, and to enable us to effectively and powerfully proclaim Jesus.

 Purifying- Sin in its essence is an irrational energy of rebellion against God. It is an entrenched self-willed arrogance that God hates in all its forms.[2]  It defiles us in His sight.  Scripture teaches us that it is a filth that needs to be cleansed as well as a guilt that needs to be forgiven.  It is the Holy Spirit that convicts us of our sinful behavior – leading to confession and forgiveness.  It is also the Holy Spirit that reveals to us our inward propensity toward sin – leading to a full consecration and cleansing.  Nothing will ever take away our ability to sin, but the sanctified, Spirit-filled life does effectively deal with our “propensity to sin.” The power of God, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, is greater than the power of sin.

Engaging – Paul teaches us that grace is not a static thing given at particular moments in our Christian life.  Rather it operates in a dynamic, living, growing, daily participation in the life of God through the engagement of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8; Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Cor. 15:10; Heb. 12:1-17). The Holy Spirit is a rigorous disciplinarian that engages us on multiple levels in order to groom us, enculturate us and refine us with an eye towards personal holiness and character transformation in Christlikeness.  On a visit to South Africa I picked up a phrase used by the nationals in their testimonies. They would say, “God has been busy with me.” This is so true to life.  The Holy Spirit is always “busy with us” forming and transforming us into the image of Christ.

Equipping – The Holy Spirit equips every believer with what the Bible calls “gifts.”  A spiritual gift is a supernatural ability sovereignly bestowed upon every Christian by the Holy Spirit, enabling him or her to carry out their divinely assigned function as a member of Christ’s body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:4-7; Eph. 4:7-16).  These gifts are perfectly suited to each believer’s situation in life and when exercised in the context of community, will contribute to the nurture and edification of the body.  Thus the gifts are a vital part of spiritual formation.

            As Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; so is the Holy Spirit. In every age since Pentecost, the Spirit has continued to do all the things that Jesus promised he would do when He sent Him in this new capacity.  Understanding His role in the spiritual formation of every believer is second only to allowing Him to do His work and form us into the image of Christ.

[1] J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, p.57.

[2] Ibid.,p.32

Looking Under the Hood

“Discovering the hindrances to the Deeper Life”

             There comes a time in our spiritual development when the primary focus of the Holy Spirit is to lovingly help us see our true inner selves more clearly.  This may well be one of the most challenging areas of spiritual formation, but it is certainly one of the most important.   Saint Teresa of Avila wrote in the Way of Perfection: “Almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from a lack of self-knowledge.”  Saint Teresa understood that a keen awareness of yourself and a healthy relationship to God are intricately related.  So when we talk about “looking under the hood” we are in fact talking about looking into our inner self to discover the things that hinder the development of the kind of spiritual life that God wants us to enjoy. Once those hindrances are discovered, they must be lifted into the light of God’s love and grace so that healing can occur and our continued formation in Christlikeness is neither sidetracked nor stunted.

            The Psalmist catches the spirit of what I mean when he says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way (a way contrary to truth) in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).  David is pleading with God for a thorough examination of his inmost being accompanied by whatever corrective measures are necessary.   Such an intimate revelation of our true self is neither easy to pursue nor pain free to experience.  Fortunately for us, God’s gaze into our soul is always a grace-filled gaze.  On the contrary, self-examination done with only the scrutiny of human eyes may only add to our fear and shame.   But with grace we can see the worst of our condition yet remain hopeful of healing for “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil.2:13).

Looking for what?

          This type of Christian self-examination is not a form of navel gazing. We are not to be self-absorbed and looking inward to see how we feel about ourselves or how we compare to other people. It should not turn into a morbid process of introspection where we do nothing but examine ourselves, and where such self-examination becomes the main and chief end in our life. Rather we should embrace a healthy self-examination that looks for anything that might be offensive to God and/or anything that would hinder our growth into spiritual adulthood.

            From a Biblical perspective, the primary hindrance to spiritual formation in holiness is sin.   The Scripture admonishes us to, “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” (Heb. 12:1) and “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph.4:22).  As fallen creatures needing redemption, we have not only been defiled by sin but we have been damaged by fallenness.  The answer to sin’s defilement is forgiveness and cleansing.  The answer to sin’s damage is correction and healing.

            From the beginning of our new life with Christ, the Holy Spirit works with us to teach us how to walk and please God.  A part of this is to teach us about sin.  He will faithfully enlighten us on any behavior that is not pleasing to God or that holds the potential of harming our relationship to Him.  For some Christians, He may need to start with the most obvious sins like the list Paul gives in Gal. 5:19-21.  As we better understand sin, he will reveal those “culturally acceptable sins” that are not acceptable in God’s economy.  Things like gossiping, “white lies”, covetousness, lust and a lack of gratitude.   He will also talk to us about things we may not have known were wrong – things like sins of omission and unintentional sins. He will gently prod us to confess and repent of such things while enabling us, by grace, to rise higher in our level of living.  In time, His probing and enlightening will help us to see those moments when we subtly try to manipulate others to get our own way or maybe a time when we told part of the truth but not all of it so as to save face!  The Spirit will faithfully and ruthlessly seek to root all of these things out of our lives.  Much of this happens by means of the Sprit led process of self-examination.

            The journey that we are now on will take us to deeper levels of openness and surrender.  We will grow in our understanding of what God requires, while at the same time be strengthened by grace to live a life that is “obedient from the heart” and that presents its “members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:17-18).  Sanctification is God’s answer to the defilement of sin and our conformity to Christ in true holiness.  As sanctification progresses, the Holy Spirit will bring us to a place where we not only see, but are forced to deal with a deep-seated attitude – an inner orientation of our being out of which our behavior patterns flow.  This “sinful self” is what causes us to keep our hands on the control levers of our life rather than abandoning them to God and His control. It will be here that the Spirit points us to our own cross!  Here, at this conjuncture of self-will, self-centeredness, self-love and self-control, lies the real crux of deep inner formation in holiness. It is here that we must die to our old self.  This requires a total consecration to God in love – a surrender so radical it’s like a death – to which God responds with a thorough cleansing of the heart by the inhabitation of His Spirit.  From this point forward, rather than my being in charge of my relationship with God, God is given absolute control of the relationship.

            God’s remedy for sin’s defilement is thorough.  However, there is still much more work to be done. It does not solve all of the problems related to our fallenness and to the consequences of living in a broken body in a broken world.  Sin has damaged the world we live in (it groans to be delivered) and sin has damaged us. As much as we would like for God to touch us into complete wholeness (body and mind), He has not chosen to work that way.  The lives of the New Testament characters, the saints of the church and my own experience prove that there are no exceptions.  He works with us and in us over time through the various means of grace to correct and heal the damage of sin. Hence the work of “looking inside” must go on.

Looking more deeply!

         Once we have allowed God to deal with the defilement of sin in our lives, we are more open and willing for Him to begin to work on the damage sin has causedWe have been born into a fallen world where sin’s impact on our culture, our community, our church, our family and our individual lives is significant.  Living in such a world has consequences. I sometimes call it “sin’s collateral damage.”  These problems are real and often hard to describe but are often referred to as weaknesses or infirmities. They include things like: painful hurts, brokenness, the fallout of misguided parenting, fear, fragility, perfectionism, deep inferiorities, quirks, baggage and scars from various forms of victimization and abuse. These may rightly be call emotional or behavioral damage but they so clearly impact our spiritual life and are so closely tied to our spiritual development that allowing the Holy Spirit to bring as much healing as possible to them is essential in the ongoing process of becoming spiritually whole.

         Opening up our inner world in this area may be the most challenging element in the whole spiritual formation process.  It is certainly one from which far too many shrink. I have met many such people who have closed their lives to this kind of honest introspection, yet who desperately need a deeper level of emotional healing.  As a matter of fact, it seems that some have embraced certain misguided Christian teachings that only serve to deny or deadened their humanity, instead of setting it free to develop in all of its capacities under the influence of grace.  Others avoid this path of self-knowledge because “they are afraid of being swallowed up in their own abysses.  But Christians have confidence that Christ has lived through all the abysses of human life and that he goes with us when we dare to engage in sincere confrontation of ourselves. Because God loves us unconditionally – along with our dark sides – we don’t need to dodge ourselves.  In the light of this love the pain of self-knowledge can be at the same time the beginning of our healing”[1].

Starting the process

            The process of change begins at the point of honest transparency – with ourselves and with God.  Nothing keeps people away from Christ more than their inability to see their need of him or their unwillingness to admit it.  The same is true with the kind of self-knowledge that brings about spiritual and emotional maturity.  Deny the problem, and nothing can be done about it; admit the problem, and at once there is the possibility of a solution. The kind of honesty I am talking about can be seen in the following steps used in systematic healthy self-examination:

  1. Open the door – Invite God to show you any area of need or weakness. The opportunity to experience His correction is also an opportunity to experience His love (Heb. 12:5-11).
  2. 2. Refuse to excuse – Face the issue squarely refusing to make excuses for whatever it might be or entail. No one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and blames their mattress for what they see. They just accept it and work to beautify what can be beautified.
  3. Partner with God – We have a responsibility to do what we can do.  However, we need God’s power and grace to make lasting change.  Paul portrays this partnership when he admonished us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
  4. Confess – If God points out any behavior that is contrary to truth, agree with Him quickly, acknowledge it and seek forgiveness.
  5. Keep an attitude of gratitude – Continually voice to God your gratitude for all He is showing you and for what He is doing in you.
  6. Welcome an outside voice – God uses community to form and shape us. He also uses individuals in that community. Develop deep spiritual friendships with those whom you can share what you are discovering about yourself and who will be able to help you see things about yourself you couldn’t otherwise see.  You will need not only their insight but their affirmation and encouragement as well.
  7. Establish Scripture as a baseline for your behavior – Accept nothing but Biblical behavior in your life. Old patterns of established behavior and thought die hard. Even the Apostle Peter had to be confronted with behavior that was unbiblical when he refused to eat with the Gentiles at Antioch. Even though he had experienced the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh at Pentecost; had a vision to correct his views of clean and unclean at Joppa, and had witnessed the Gentile Pentecost first hand, he still reverted to his old prejudices and fears when under the scrutiny of leaders from Jerusalem and refused to eat with the Gentile Christians. Yet, with the help of Paul, he was able to re-orient to scripture in his behavior.

Enjoy the journey!

            The journey into self-knowledge is not only an encounter with your true self, it is also an encounter with the living God.  It is coming to see something about yourself but even more, it is coming to see something about God – His sufficiency for our need. Both Jacob and Isaiah found this to be true.  In Isaiah’s experience he not only saw that he was a “man of unclean lips”, but he also saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa.6:1, 5).  Jacob’s bitter encounter with his true self became a momentous life changing encounter with the living God, “surely the Lord is in this place” (Gen. 28:16). Self-examination will force us to recognize that we are not what we ought to be, but it will also help us to see that God is something far more that we thought!

            Such encounters with ourselves and with God, serve as an open door to a whole new dynamic of being.  We may at first wrestle with what we see or turn away in horror or disbelief, but if we will choose to step across the threshold of the open door it will place us in a new open place of growth, joy and blessing.  It will ultimately be a journey of joy!

[1] Ruth Haley Barton, a quote by Richard Rohr, Sacred Rhythms, p. 91.

Knowing God

                 Knowing God is not an optional part of the Christian life; it is the Christian life! So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the first step in spiritual formation is to learn how to know God “more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly”[1].  J.I. Packer states it well in a series of questions:   “What were we made for? To know God.  What aim should we set for ourselves in life? To know God.  What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God (John 17:3). What brings more joy, delight and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God (Jer. 9:23)” [2]

Our knowledge of God begins with the opening of our heart and mind to Him.  The Bible makes it clear that we live from the heart (Prov. 4:23) and it is in this metaphorical center of our lives that we are called to be made new when we come to God. But it is also true that we “first turned away from God in our thoughts, and so it is in our thoughts that the first movements toward the renovation of our heart occurs.”[3]  In is in our mind that the Holy Spirit begins to convince us of our sin and lost condition.  It will also be in our mind that we first respond to God’s overtures of grace.   It is in our mind that we begin to think our first thoughts of God and begin to formulate our personal knowledge of Him – a knowledge that desperately needs to be consistent with the God that Jesus revealed!  Paul knew that real transformation required the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). So growing in the knowledge of God involves making sure we think correctly about Him.

What does your God look like?

We all have a picture of God in our mind that has been formulated over the course of our lives.  It is a narrative, a story that we use to understand and interpret God.  It becomes the basis for how we feel about God and relate to Him.  Sadly, far too many of us have a distorted picture of God in our minds.  I have known saintly people, whose picture of God was so badly distorted and misinformed, that it placed a dark cloud over all their spiritual life.  One could honestly say that these dear people loved God with all their heart but they didn’t like the God they had in their head.

All the great mystics and spiritual formation writers place a great important on building the right narrative –  a true biblical narrative of God in our minds.  A. W. Tozer expressed the importance of it in his classic quote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  William Temple said, “If your concept of God is wrong, the more religion you get, the more dangerous you become to yourself and to everyone else.”  Dallas Willard adds his word of warning, “to serve God well we must think straight; and crooked thinking, unintentional or not, always favors evil.  And when crooked thinking gets evaluated into group orthodoxy, whether religious or secular, there is always, quite literally ‘hell to pay.’ That is, hell will take its portion, as it has repeatedly done in the horrors of world history.”[4]

Why is knowing God rightly so critical?

          The picture of God we have in our heads profoundly affects the way we relate to God. If we have a vague, fuzzy and impersonal picture of God, then our relationship with God usually turns out to be vague, fuzzy and impersonal.  Or if we picture God to be against us or always out to get us, it will be highly unlikely that we will want to get too intimate with God. Or if we feel that we have to earn God’s love, then we will spend our lives huffing and puffing trying to put ourselves into God’s good books. It is only by knowing God, correctly, that we can understand correctly how we are to live – what He actually expects from us.

It is also true that our picture of God rubs off on us! We become like the God we worship.  If we believe God is violent, we will tend toward aggression.  If we understand God to be against certain people, we will be opposed to them as well.  If we see God as overly serious, we will most probably come across as heavy ourselves. It would seem that we shape our picture of God and then that picture of God shapes us.

Those who operate on bad information about God aren’t likely to know the reality of God’s presence and joy in the decisions that shape their lives. On the contrary, those who think rightly about Him, as He is presented in Scripture, will be moved to love Him passionately and think on Him steadily.  They will experience real joy that comes from knowing intimately the most “joy filled being in the universe” – the God of Scripture.

How is our understanding of God Developed?

The first step in developing a knowledge of God is instructional. Before we are old enough to seek a knowledge of God on pour own, we began to develop an understanding of God from our parents. This comes from not only what they teach us but from how they model God before us (particularly the father).  As we mature, we begin to learn about God from the teachings of the church through Sunday school, VBS and the pastor’s sermons.  We also learn through observing the church interact as a corporate body.

At some point in our growing up years, we begin our own reading and study of the Bible. God has given us all the information we need to live as we ought in the Bible.  However, the revelation of God is not presented in scripture as a set of well-organized theological tenets unrelated to the realities of everyday life.  He has chosen to reveal Himself (His character and how He relates to us) not so much in statements of dogma as He has in the context of real life – in relationships with real people. This is why the OT is filled with history and stories. It is God’s way of putting flesh on the bare bone ideas of who He is.   It is God’s picture book, to not only teach us, but to show us who He is.

However, simply knowing about God is not adequate enough for life with God.  We must know Him personally; experientially; relationally!  We must come alive to God by experiencing a New Birth (I John 5:12) and a full surrender of ourselves to Him (Rom. 12:1).  He wants us to have personal interaction with Him, just as we would have with other acquaintances. He wants those experiences and moments of intimacy to form and shape our knowledge of Him.  He wants me to know Him, love Him and trust Him so much that I want to commit myself to His company, His interest and His concerns.  This is what we see in the Bible.  He walks with Adam and Eve in the garden, eats with Abraham by his tent, and argues with Moses on the mountaintop.  The gospels give us a front row seat as the eternal Son wraps the garments of human flesh about him, steps onto the stage of life and interacts in loving relationship with those he meets.   God wants His people to truly know Him, love Him, and enjoy the blessings of His steadfast love, faithfulness and righteousness that are only found in intimate relationship.


Getting to know God takes both “grit” and “grace”

David said in Psalm 63:8, “My soul followeth hard after thee . . .” The kind of spiritual formation that helps us to know God intimately and transforms us into the image of Christ does not occur instantaneously or automatically.  Rather, it is a partnership of human effort and Divine grace. Paul described it like this, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” ( Phil. 2:12-13). “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (I Cor. 15:10). As Dallas Willard is so well known for saying, “Grace is not opposed to effort but to earning”.   Clearly we must strive to know God, but our striving to know God is not merely a matter of unaided human willpower. Rather, it is rooted in the deep work of God in our hearts, arousing hunger and desire to know Him.  The impulse to pursue God originates with Him, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him.


Getting started

Paul challenged the Corinthian Christians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (I Cor. 11:1).  We too can walk in the time proven ways of knowing God that have been drawn from Scripture and demonstrated over centuries of church history.

  • Worship God faithfully in a church that is sound in its beliefs, spiritually alive, and preaches God’s word.
  • Connect with a couple of like-minded believers and meet regularly to pray and encourage one another in your pursuit of God.
  • Read and study the Scriptures daily, asking God to open the eyes of your heart and teach you (Ps. 119:18; 1 Cor. 2:12; Eph. 1:16–20). This includes memorizing key verses.
  • Pray daily in a quiet, undistracted place. If you haven’t already done so, learn to pray the Scriptures.
  • Stay filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18); seek to walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16) and manifest the fruit of His presence in your life (Gal. 5:22–24). It is impossible to know God or to live the Christian life without the Spirit’s help.
  • Practice solitude and fasting when you sense the need. A one-day or weekend retreat devoted to seeking God more earnestly about specific concerns can be a source of great blessing. Those who have been closest to God and most fruitful over the centuries have practiced fasting often.
  • Find a voice outside yourself for guidance in your spiritual life. An older, spiritually mature man or woman that is well grounded in Scripture, is humble, manifests the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), and is wise and prayerful.
  • Read classic books on the Christian life.

I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing God and all the rich blessings that will accompany that knowledge.  But in the end, what matters supremely, is the larger fact that He knows me! “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. . .” (II Tim. 2:19).

[1]  Richard, Bishop of Chichester, Prayer of Saint Richard.

[2] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1973) p. 29.

[3] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, Navpress,2002) p. 95.

[4] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, Navpress,2002) p. 106

Spiritual Formation

 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.       2 Corinthians 3:18

The Bible assumes it to be self-evident that we can know God intimately. On almost every page of Holy Writ we meet a God who affects us and is affected by us.  The Old Testament reveals Him speaking, pleading, loving, working and manifesting Himself to His people.  He walks with Adam and Eve in the garden, eats with Abraham by his tent, and argues with Moses on the mountaintop.  The gospels give us a front row seat as the eternal Son wraps the garments of human flesh about him, steps onto the stage of life and interacts in loving relationship with those he meets.

The Early Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, taught that Christian spirituality involves a deepening trust and developing friendship with God for all Christians.  More specifically, they taught that true spirituality is an ever growing, experientially dynamic relationship with our Trinitarian God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–through the agency of the His Word and the indwelling of His Spirit, in order that we may be formed into the character or likeness of Christ (personal holiness).

Moving towards a Process

John Wesley, more so than any other Reformer, took an explicitly systematic approach to spiritual formation.  The class meetings and the careful application of the spiritual disciplines, as a means of grace, preserved the fruit of the Wesleyan Revival and for a hundred years afterwards turned Methodists converts into stalwart saints.   This vision for spiritual formation was highly effective because it defined Christianity itself as a way of life and not just a creed or doctrine.  Wesley believed that a transformed heart ultimately resulted in a transformed life (holiness or Christlikeness), so much so, that he begins his account of “Genuine Christianity” by describing it in terms of a heart shaped or formed by the Spirit.

We live from the Heart

Dallas Willard, whose spiritual formation emphasis was influenced by Wesley, says correctly that “we live from the heart” (Prov. 4:23).   The Bible says that the “heart” is the metaphorical center of our life and it is in our hearts that we are called to be made new when we come to God.  This “spiritual center” has been defiled by sin, developed by the experiences of life and formed by the choices that we have lived through or made in our past.   This is what it means to be formed. Out of this formation we see the world; interpret reality; make our choices; and break forth in action.  Put simply, “out of the abundance of the heart  . . .” all life flows.  Based on this reality, Willard says that the greatest need of collective humanity is the “renovation of the heart”!  It has been formed by a world away from God.  It is defiled and damaged by sin. Hence it must be regenerated and renovated so that out of a transformed heart we can live a transformed life.  The process that we go through to make all of this happen is called Spiritual Formation.  Dallas Willard defines this process like this:

Spiritual formation is the Spirit driven organized process that God uses to form our inner being in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.

Robert Mullholland states it succinctly when he says that spiritual formation is:

            “the process of being conformed to Christ for the sake of others.”

If this formation to the inner life is successful, then the outer life of the Christian becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. Thus the goal of all true spiritual formation is obedience or conformity to Christ that flows from an inner transformation of the heart.  This level of spiritual maturity allows us to exercise an easy relaxed obedience to all that God ask or requires.  It also enables us to effortlessly do what Christ would do when in our situation.

It is important to note that the goal of spiritual formation is not “external” manifestations of Christlikeness.  If this becomes the goal, defeat and deadly legalism are certain to follow.  We will become judgmental, critical and performance oriented.  The goal of spiritual formation is to renovate the heart and form the character of the inner man, so much so, that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are at the center of the deep habit-structures of one’s life.  This is far more than merely altering ones personality to fit ones presumed ideas of Christlikeness. Spiritual formation goes beyond the mere external personality of a man or woman and seeks to transform the heart so thoroughly that one is able to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind; and love our neighbor as ourselves.” This alone prepares us to effectively live and labor in the kingdom of God (Eph. 1:3-4; I Peter 2:9; Rom. 8:29).

Understanding the Big Picture

          This kind of spiritual formation is a process that includes both pivotal and incremental change.   A lost man can be saved in the miracle of a moment, but transforming that same man into a mature disciple of Christ takes years of disciplined commitment to time honor processes.      However, the “big picture” of spiritual formation has three significant components: First, one must pursue God with the intent of knowing Him personally and correctly.  As we know God rightly, we can learn what it is that He expects from our lives.  Second, one must be willing to see himself – to see both the defilement and the damage that sin has wrought in his life. Third, one must be willing to encounter the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables one to become all that God desires one to be.  He alone has the power to cancel our past sin, cleanse our hearts, conquer our problems and change the person we are presently into the person that God’s says we can be.  Interspersed through these three big picture steps are the application of the spiritual disciplines.

The Goal

I believe the ultimate goal of spiritual formation is to create a community of “called out” ones; who have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirt; who enjoy a life of victory over sin and circumstance; and who loved God supremely and one another selflessly; so that this community may become a “touch point between heaven and earth, where the healing of the cross and the power of the resurrection can save the lost and grow the saved into the fullness of human beings in Christ”.  This is the church as she ought to be.  This is the kingdom of God on earth!

Do You Love Me?

Jim Cymbala recently remarked that, “our people will pay good money to go hear some Christian musician but they won’t come to meet with Jesus for free.”  This stinging rebuke points to something deeper than Christians with misplaced priorities.  It points to Christians who have a problem with love – or more precisely, a lack of it.


When Jesus proclaimed to His followers that the greatest of all commandments was to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Mt 22:37), He was not only prioritizing the most important of all Biblical commands, but He was declaring that the fundamental relationship binding us to Him is one of love.


What does loving Jesus mean?


Jesus tells us in the Gospels that loving Him does not consist in saying, “Lord, Lord!” but in doing the Father’s will and in keeping His words (Mt 7:21-29).  When we speak of loving another person, we mean that we seek the good of the person loved.  It means that we desire and seek to procure that person’s well-being. However, there is no good that we can desire for Jesus that He does not already have. Hence, for Him, all the loveliest qualities of loving are subsumed in that simple act of “doing the Fathers will.”


How can we cultivate love for Jesus?


            Jesus is not merely a historical figure, a philosophical concept or a remote invisible Deity.  He is truly God yet truly man.  He is a living person who is a “you” and a “friend.”  He is someone who can be loved and someone who reciprocates our love!  The saints have given us multiple examples of this love relationship.  Paul’s love for Jesus was such that he wished to be released from the body in order “to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).  The Apostle John often referred to himself as that “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). On the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote, “All I desire is Christ . . . I seek Him who died for me, I desire Him who rose again for me”!  How can we cultivate this level of love for Jesus as well as this level of awareness of His love for us?


There are no married couples who cultivate their love for each other in exactly the same way.  Each couple has their own preferred way that works best for them. However, there are common means that can be witnessed in the lives of all married couples who seek to cultivate a deeper love relationship.  The same is true in the cultivation of love for Jesus.  Individually we might have our preferred means, but there are certain common means that Christians have used for centuries in developing such love.


One of the primary ways saints have cultivated love for Jesus is through the means of grace: studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, contemplation, good works toward our fellow man, singing to the Lord (private worship) and receiving Holy Communion.  The faithful pursuit of these means will enable us to “know (experientially) the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (comprehension)” (Eph. 3:14-19). It is important to add that these practices must be enabled and aided by the Holy Spirit. The most brilliant and acute Christological analysis, void of the Holy Spirit, will reveal nothing transformative nor increase our love for Him.  Jesus is not revealed by “flesh and blood,” that is to say by human brain-power and research, but by “the Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).  It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus to us and enables us to love what we see in Him.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings life to what would otherwise be dead works.


The Apostle John provides another way to increase our love for Jesus.  In 1 John 2:5 we learn that, “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” My studies in spiritual formation have taught me that formation in Christlikeness is oriented toward explicit easy obedience.  It is also true that as we go deeper in obedience to Jesus we increase our ability and capacity to love Him.


Jesus gave us insight in how to love Him more in the Sermon on the Mount. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24).  John tells us to, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).  There is a law of moral affinity and it will develop in us either a love for Jesus or a love for this present world depending on what we set our affections upon.  There is no middle ground or safe zone where we can love them both. If you wish to grow in your love for Jesus, then the love of this present world can have no place in your heart.


Someone has said that at the end of life we shall be examined about love.  If that is true, the question we face might be, “How much did you love Me?”  In light of such a possibility, it could be profitable from time to time to let the question of Jesus to Peter, “Lovest thou me?” speak freely to our inner man to see if we can honestly respond,   “Lord thou knowest that I love thee.”