Editor's note:

Prac­ti­cal as ever, Richard Fos­ter offers a glimpse into some of the pit­falls and proac­tive mea­sures of liv­ing with inten­tion into Christ­like­ness. Today, we look at three ideas he would cau­tion us to avoid as we engage in the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines and prac­tices. On Wednes­day, we’ll look at sev­en things he would encour­age us to pur­sue in spir­i­tu­al formation. 

—Renovaré Team


The ten­den­cy today is to think of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion exclu­sive­ly in terms of prac­tices of one kind or anoth­er. We get all excit­ed about lec­tio div­ina, for exam­ple. But then we think that this is the way … the only way to be formed spir­i­tu­al­ly … and we begin to think that any­one not doing lec­tio is not expe­ri­enc­ing spir­i­tu­al formation. 

Such an atti­tude will only pro­duce legal­ism and bondage, and it utter­ly defeats spir­i­tu­al formation. 

The Chris­t­ian idea of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is, very sim­ply, the for­ma­tion and con­for­ma­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty — body, mind, and spir­it — into the like­ness of Jesus Christ. 

In Gala­tians 4:19 (NRSV) Paul says, “… I am again in the pain of child­birth until Christ is formed in you.” In Romans 8:29 he says, For those whom [God] foreknew he also pre­des­tined to be con­formed to the image of his Son.” And in Romans 12:2 he speaks these famous words, Do not be con­formed to this world, but be trans­formed by the renew­ing of your minds.…”

And so I want to share with you sev­er­al coun­sels in the work of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. Ten coun­sels, in fact. I got the idea from the Bible and its Ten Com­mand­ments. Three of them are stat­ed in the pos­i­tive: You shall” and sev­en of them are stat­ed in the neg­a­tive: You shall not.” I know that depends on whether we view the first com­mand­ment as a pos­i­tive or a neg­a­tive, you shall have no oth­er gods before me,” but you get the idea. Three pos­i­tives, sev­en negatives. 

For my coun­sels in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion I want to switch the ratio and give three neg­a­tives and sev­en pos­i­tives. Three do nots” and sev­en do’s.” [Today, we will focus on the do nots.”]

Do not define spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in terms of var­i­ous practices. 

In anoth­er era those prac­tices were things like qui­et time” and Bible study of one sort or anoth­er. Today it is lec­tio div­ina and jour­nal writing.” 

May I say as clear­ly as pos­si­ble: Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion has noth­ing essen­tial­ly to do with such prac­tices. Many of these prac­tices are use­ful, to be sure, and some are more use­ful than oth­ers. But none is essen­tial. What is essen­tial is life with Jesus, inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with the great God of the uni­verse, inner trans­for­ma­tion into Christlikeness. 

We all are to walk with the liv­ing Christ and then in humil­i­ty regard oth­ers as bet­ter than your­selves” (Phil. 2:3).

This real­i­ty can hap­pen with lec­tio and with jour­nal­ing” — and it can hap­pen with­out them. Remem­ber, as far as we know Jesus did not keep a jour­nal … and he turned out OK

Do not focus on cur­ricu­lum-based solutions. 

Cur­ric­u­la of all sorts are impor­tant in the work of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. But they are not the most impor­tant. First comes the rela­tion­ship with Jesus, our liv­ing Head. All the clas­si­cal lan­guage on prayer is rela­tion­al, even erot­ic: Think of Augus­tine, Julian, Richard Rolle, and Charles Wes­ley. Like them, we are to fall in love with Jesus, our liv­ing Lord, over and over and over again. 

Sec­ond come the ideas. We must dis­tin­guish Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion from for­ma­tion in gen­er­al that is every­where in the cul­ture. Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is the redemp­tive process of form­ing the inner human world so that it takes on the char­ac­ter of the inner being of Christ him­self. We must think care­ful­ly and expe­ri­ence ful­ly the Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. And we must under­stand how that func­tions in con­junc­tion with human effort, but how it also goes far beyond human effort. 

In The Divine Con­spir­a­cy Dal­las Willard (right­ly, in my esti­ma­tion) has a chap­ter enti­tled A Cur­ricu­lum for Christ­like­ness.” How­ev­er, this is chap­ter 9 and comes only after both a care­ful delin­eation of the unique qual­i­ties of the inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship between Jesus and his appren­tices and a care­ful expli­ca­tion of the cen­tral ideas relat­ed to life in the king­dom of God. Far too many peo­ple rush to the cur­ricu­lum pro­gram of chap­ter 9 with­out first estab­lish­ing into their lives the foun­da­tions set forth so care­ful­ly in all that comes before. 

Do not aim at out­ward action. 

There is a hid­den dimen­sion B to every human life, one that is not vis­i­ble to oth­ers or ful­ly gras­pable even by our­selves. At its con­scious cen­ter is the human spir­it. God is Spir­it; God’s cre­ative will cre­ates and gov­erns the uni­verse. And with­in us the spir­it” is the cre­ative ele­ment in human nature — the ima­go Dei in us. The human spir­it is pri­mar­i­ly what we today call the will” — the capac­i­ty of choice and res­o­lu­tion — and what bib­li­cal­ly has been called the heart.” It is the rad­i­cal source of our life; the stream of actions and influ­ences and con­tri­bu­tions we make to our shared, vis­i­ble world and its history. 

It is the ren­o­va­tion of the heart we are after in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. This inward work is much hard­er than mere out­ward con­for­mi­ty. It is hard­er because we can­not see it, test it, con­trol it. We can­not pro­gram the heart of anoth­er human being. We can­not pro­gram our own heart. 

But this is also what makes it eas­i­er. God is the One who sees the heart. God is the One who ten­der­ly pro­grams the heart, always allow­ing time and space for our will to turn, turn, turn — respond­ing in a thou­sand ways to God’s divine Love. We are part of God’s great ren­o­va­tion project for human beings. We work, but we work rest­ing. We wor­ship and labor under God’s abid­ing grace.

On Wednes­day, we will post 10 Coun­sels of Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion, Part Two: 7 Do’s’ ”

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Reformed Wor­ship magazine.

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