Excerpt from The Deeply Formed Life

We are Always Being (Shallowly) Formed

Whether we know it or not, see it or not, or understand it or not, we are always at risk of being shallowly formed. We are formed by our false selves, our families of origin, the highly manipulated presentations of social media, and the value system of a world that determines worth based on accomplishments, possessions, efficiency, intellectual acumen, and gifts. So we need to be regularly called back to the essence of our lives in God. That essence is one of ongoing transformation; that is, Christ being formed in us. It’s something I’ve needed to continually explore during all my years of following Jesus….

Until Christ is Formed in You

…The Galatians had drifted away from the simple message of God’s grace found in the Christ that Paul preached. … If you do this, you will be the covenant people. If you do this, you will prove yourself to have been properly formed.’ 

But Paul spoke an unequivocal no! We are not transformed from the outside in; we are transformed from the inside out. One is transformed by saying yes again and again to Christ’s self-giving, poured-out, redemptive love. We receive it and are to be formed by it. 

This was Paul’s fixation. He later in this same letter described his concern for his little children” by saying, I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (4:19). Paul had one solitary focus: that Christ be formed in them. What use are the superficial changes we make if we neglect the deep work God wants to do inside us? 

Although Paul was writing to a church two thousand years ago, this issue they were facing is the very same in our day. Instead of being deeply formed, we settle for being shallowly shaped.

My Story of Being Formed

I’m a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in the East New York section of Brooklyn. In the 1980s and 90s, this area of Brooklyn was regarded as one of the most overlooked, under-resourced, drug infested areas in New York City. Growing up in this neighborhood offered me a mixed bag of experiences. I have fond memories of playing street football and frightening memories of seeing a couple of dead bodies in the street.

I have stories of profoundly joyful moments playing with more than a dozen cousins who lived down the block from me and heart-wrenching stories of relatives dying prematurely because of drug use and violence. I have grown up with wonderful examples of men and women of faith around me (some who were my grandparents and aunts), as well as examples of familial dysfunction. All of these experiences have formed me.

I grew up in a home that was indifferent to the things of faith. I didn’t have many negative views about the church or God. I rarely thought of them. During my childhood, my parents attended church once a year at best, but they made up for their indifference by regularly sending me to church with my grandparents. At first, I thought my parents wanted to instill in me good religious values and such, but I would come to find out that these trips to church gave Mom and Dad a much-needed break. (Those two especially lacked religious curiosity if it meant sitting through four hours of a Pentecostal church service spoken in Spanish.) 

This church I attended shaped my first conceptions of God. As early as elementary-school age, I learned that God was unpredictable and powerful. At any moment, someone in the congregation could be the meeting place where the holy converged with the human. As a kid, I curiously and fearfully watched people fall on the ground, dance, shout, and cry. When this happened, there was both a normalcy and sacredness that filled the congregation. It was all a bit too much for me to absorb, but I was intrigued.

I would also learn that God was in the business of healing and welcoming. I recall moments when drug addicts would come into a church service (usually attended by twenty people) to make their presence known. One person who walked in often was an inebriated uncle of mine, and in the process of his grand, disruptive entrance, he would be met by a couple of deacons who would welcome him, pray for him, and winsomely escort him out if needed. I would see from an early age that the house of God was a sacred place for hospitality and a safe place for the hurting.

As a twelve-year-old, I asked my parents if I could stop going to church, and they obliged. But five years later, I found myself back in church as a senior in high school. I had started to date a pastor’s daughter. (That got me back into the church enthusiastically.) The relationship lasted a couple of years, and when it ended, I was sent into a tailspin of anxiety and depression. I needed some kind of peace in my life, so on one August Sunday night, I returned to the church I’d visited as a child. In that moment, I encountered the love of God in a way that broke through my despair.

I walked into the church, which had about one hundred people in attendance. It was a long, narrow storefront building filled to capacity. After the loud and boisterous time of singing, I listened to a former drug-addict-turned-preacher give a sermon from Ezekiel 37, a story about God breathing life into a valley of dry bones (see verses 1 – 14). As he preached (in English and Spanish without a translator), he paced back and forth, sometimes dancing up and down the center aisle, with fancy brown alligator shoes and a matching belt. 

At the close of his sermon, he invited all who wanted the breath of God” (see verses 5 – 6) to come forward for prayer. I knew I was spiritually and emotionally suffocating and took him up on the offer. My soul was like that valley of dry bones, and I longed for God’s life, so I went forward. As the preacher prayed for me, with sweat dripping down his forehead and tears flowing down my face, I became that meeting place where the holy converged with the human. I (along with about fifteen of my family members) received the gracious invitation to life in Christ.

From this point on, something was unlocked in me. I found myself praying all the time. I attended every church service and Bible study my local congregation offered. I would be in church five to six days out of the week, participating in the prayer meeting, youth group, and men’s ministry — even the weekly women’s Bible study. I invited myself into every home prayer group I could find. When I wasn’t at a church meeting, I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with my grandfather in his bedroom, being mentored in the Scriptures. It was hard to explain what was happening, but I had found something for which my soul was thirsting.

That was the beginning of my continuing spiritual journey forward. Along the path, I would be exposed to many different ways of following Jesus. As a twenty-one-year-old college student, I would be exposed to the desert fathers and mothers and would begin experimenting with practices of silence, solitude, and contemplation. As a twenty-three-year-old, I would learn more about how God transformed people through the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. As a twenty-five-year-old, I would come to know of God’s particular and preferential care for the poor. I learned with great clarity that the spiritually, emotionally, and socially poor mattered to God and should matter to me. As a twenty-eight-year-old, I would begin a journey of interior examination, integrating the world of my feelings and emotions into my spiritual formation. As a thirty-year-old, I would be introduced to the radical vision of God’s reconciling power across racial, cultural, economic, and gender barriers.

A Deep and Wide Formation

…I’ve been shaped by shoutin’ churches and silent experiences. I’ve sung Taizé and memorized Black gospel songs. I’ve prayed at 3:00 a.m. with Trappist monks to start the day and at 3:00 a.m. with Pentecostals to close the night. I’ve been enamored with liturgy and slain in the Spirit. I’ve preached on justification by faith and faith that leads to justice in our world.

For more than twenty years as a follower of Jesus, I have been privileged to be shaped by a wide assortment of streams and traditions, and I’ve learned that to be deeply formed requires one to be widely informed — not on a cognitive level alone but also in a way that the very makeup of our lives is profoundly shaped. I have discovered repeatedly that faithful Christian witness requires us to hold on to the beautiful and diverse manifestations of God’s action among his people, stretching ourselves to be more faithful than ever to Jesus and his kingdom in the age in which we live.

Excerpted from The Deeply Formed Life. Copyright © 2020 by Richard A. Villodas Jr. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Used with permission.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Text First Published September 2020 · Last Featured on Renovare.org September 2023