Excerpt from The Great Omission

In the fall of 1999 a small group of Chris­t­ian teach­ers [includ­ing Dal­las Willard, Richard Fos­ter, Gayle Beebe, and Eugene Peter­son; along with oth­ers from the Catholic com­mu­ni­ty] gath­ered in retreat near Ida­ho Springs, Col­orado to prayer­ful­ly reflect on the mean­ing and prospects of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion today. With no human author­i­ty, but deep con­cern for the life of Jesus Christ in his peo­ple, and for the world-wide under­stand­ing of his Gospel, we sought for clear and help­ful respons­es to sev­er­al ques­tions about spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion that now con­front us. Our hope is that these respons­es might serve to direct us in meet­ing the chal­lenges of our day to pro­found­ly Christ­like being and liv­ing and in gain­ing max­i­mum ben­e­fit for the Church of the upsurge of inter­est in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion that char­ac­ter­izes the end of the Twen­ti­eth Century.

1. What is spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion? How is it to be described in the lan­guage of con­tem­po­rary life?

There is a hid­den dimen­sion to every human life, one not vis­i­ble to oth­ers or ful­ly gras­pable even by our­selves. This is God’s gift to us in cre­ation, that we might have the space” to become the per­sons we choose to be. From here we man­age our lives as best we can, uti­liz­ing what­ev­er resources of under­stand­ing, emo­tion and cir­cum­stance are avail­able. It is here we stand before God and our con­science. This hid­den dimen­sion of the self is com­mon­ly thought of in spa­tial terms – as the with­in” or insides” or depth” of the per­son or self. Such lan­guage express­es the fact that it is hid­den, and that it is foun­da­tion­al. The heart, soul, mind, feel­ings and inten­tions lie in this area, and these make up the true char­ac­ter of the per­son: who that per­son is and what they can be count­ed on to do.

With­in the invis­i­ble dimen­sion of the per­son, and right at its con­scious cen­ter, lies the human spir­it. God is Spir­it,” the cre­ative will that cre­ates and gov­erns the uni­verse, and spir­it” is the cre­ative ele­ment in human nature, the image of God in man.” The human spir­it is pri­mar­i­ly what we today call will,” the capac­i­ty of choice and res­o­lu­tion, and what bib­li­cal­ly and tra­di­tion­al­ly is called heart.” It is the source of our life: of the stream of actions and influ­ences and con­tri­bu­tions we make to our shared, vis­i­ble world and its history. 

Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, with­out regard to any specif­i­cal­ly reli­gious con­text or tra­di­tion, is the process by which the human spir­it or will is giv­en a def­i­nite form’ or char­ac­ter. It is a process that hap­pens to every­one. The most despi­ca­ble as well as the most admirable of per­sons have had a spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. Their spir­its or hearts have been formed. We all become a cer­tain kind of per­son, gain a spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter, and that is the out­come of a process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion” under­stood in gen­er­al human terms. For­tu­nate or blessed are those who are able to find or are giv­en a path of life that will form their spir­it and inner world in a way that is tru­ly strong and good. 

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. In the degree to which it is suc­cess­ful, the out­er life of the indi­vid­ual becomes a nat­ur­al expres­sion or out­flow of the char­ac­ter and teach­ings of Jesus. But the exter­nal man­i­fes­ta­tion of Christ­like­ness” is not the focus of the process; and when it is made the main empha­sis the process will be defeat­ed, falling into crush­ing legalisms and parochialisms. That Christ be formed in you” (Gla. 4:19) is the eter­nal watch­word of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, for­ti­fied by the assur­ance that, while the let­ter of the law kills, the spir­it gives life.” (II Cor. 3:6)

Thus, for exam­ple, Jesus’ teach­ings in The Ser­mon on the Mount” (Matthew chap­ters 5 – 7) refer to var­i­ous behav­iors: act­ing out anger, look­ing to lust, heart­less divorce, ver­bal manip­u­la­tion, return­ing evil for evil, and so forth. But, as abun­dant expe­ri­ence now teach­es, to strive mere­ly to act in con­for­mi­ty with these illus­tra­tions of what liv­ing from the King­dom of God is like is to attempt the impos­si­ble, and also will lead to doing things that are obvi­ous­ly wrong and even ridicu­lous. It is mere­ly to increase the right­eous­ness’ of the scribe and phar­isee,” not to go beyond” it to find gen­uine trans­for­ma­tion of who I am as Christ’s man or woman in his Kingdom. 

The instru­men­tal­i­ties of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion (which we will usu­al­ly mean when we speak sim­ply of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion”) involve much more than human effort. Well-informed human effort is nec­es­sary, for spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is not a pas­sive process. But Christ­like­ness of the inner being is not a mere­ly human attain­ment. It is, final­ly, a gift of grace. The resources for it are not human, but come from the inter­ac­tive pres­ence of the Holy Spir­it in the lives of those who place their con­fi­dence in Christ, as well as from the spir­i­tu­al trea­sures stored in the body of Christ’s peo­ple upon the earth. There­fore it is not only for­ma­tion of the spir­it or inner being, but also is for­ma­tion by the Spir­it of God and by the spir­i­tu­al rich­es of Christ’s con­tin­u­ing incar­na­tion in his peo­ple, past and present – includ­ing, most promi­nent­ly, the trea­sures of his writ­ten and spo­ken word.

2. What are the pri­ma­ry ele­ments or activ­i­ties involved in an effec­tive process of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al formation?

There is first of all the action of the Holy Spir­it and the word of the gospel that awak­ens those dead in tres­pass­es and sins” to the love of God and to the avail­abil­i­ty of life in his King­dom through con­fi­dence in Jesus Christ. This makes pos­si­ble their accep­tance of Christ as Sav­ior, which then opens their souls to the influx of divine life, mak­ing them par­tak­ers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4) and hence chil­dren of God. The ini­tia­tive of the Spir­it, the Word, and those who in var­i­ous ways min­is­ter the Spir­it and the Word nev­er ceas­es dur­ing the process of spir­i­tu­al formation. 

But there is also a con­stant seek­ing on the part of the indi­vid­ual dis­ci­ple and of groups of dis­ci­ples. And you will seek me and find me,” the prophet­ic word is, when you search for me with all you heart.” (Jer. 29:13) And again: He is a rewarder of them that dili­gent­ly seek him.” (Heb. 11:6) This seek­ing is dri­ven by the desire to be inward­ly pure before God, to be whol­ly for him, to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Insep­a­ra­ble from that desire is the desire to be good as Christ him­self is good: to love our rel­a­tives, friends and neigh­bors as he loves them, and to serve them with the pow­ers of God’s Kingdom. 

This seek­ing is imple­ment­ed through the dis­cov­ery of the state of our own heart and inner world by study, reflec­tion, prayer and coun­sel; and then through the tak­ing of appro­pri­ate mea­sures to change what is not right with­in, as well as in the vis­i­ble, social world of which we are a part. We find what God is doing in us and in the vis­i­ble world and merge our actions into his. This is what Jesus described as con­stant­ly seek­ing the king­dom of God and his kind of right­eous­ness.” (Matt. 6:33)

Most of the activ­i­ties com­mon­ly iden­ti­fied as reli­gious” activ­i­ties can be a part of the process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, and should be. Pub­lic and pri­vate wor­ship, study of scrip­ture, nature, and God’s acts in human his­to­ry, prayer, giv­ing to god­ly caus­es, and ser­vice to oth­ers, can all be high­ly effec­tive ele­ments in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. But they must be thought­ful­ly and res­olute­ly approached for that pur­pose, or they will have lit­tle or no effect in pro­mot­ing it. 

Oth­er less com­mon­ly prac­ticed activ­i­ties such as fast­ing, soli­tude, silence, lis­ten­ing prayer, scrip­ture mem­o­riza­tion, fru­gal liv­ing, con­fes­sion, jour­nal­ing, sub­mis­sion to the will of oth­ers as appro­pri­ate, and well-used spir­i­tu­al direc­tion are in fact more foun­da­tion­al for spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in Christ­like­ness than the more well known reli­gious prac­tices, and are essen­tial for their prof­itable use. 

All such activ­i­ties must be seen in the con­text of an inti­mate, per­son­al walk with Jesus him­self, as our con­stant Sav­ior and Teacher. No for­mu­la can be writ­ten for spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, for it is a dynam­ic rela­tion­ship and one that is high­ly indi­vid­u­al­ized. One can be sure, how­ev­er, that any God-blessed under­tak­ing of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion will include much of what has just been men­tioned here.

3. How is spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion expressed in the lan­guage of the Bible? Is it a bib­li­cal con­cept? And is there any­thing real­ly new in the cur­rent usage, or is it just new lan­guage for some­thing we have been doing all along?

It is a bib­li­cal con­cept, expressed in many ways in the Bible – in admo­ni­tion, in prayer, in teach­ing, in exam­ple. Keep my words in the midst of your heart,” Proverbs says, for they are life to those who find them and health to their whole body. Watch over your heart with all dili­gence, for from it your life flows.” (4:20 – 23) The Psalmist cries: Cre­ate in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a stead­fast spir­it with­in me.… Sus­tain me with a will­ing spir­it.… The sac­ri­fices of God are a bro­ken spir­it; a bro­ken and a con­trite heart, or God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:10 – 17; cp. Isa. 66:2 – 6) Lat­er, a strat­e­gy of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is indi­cat­ed: Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11; cp. Josh. 1:8 and Psalm 1

God con­sid­ers what is in the heart (I Sam. 16:7), seeks those who would wor­ship him in spir­it and in truth, and can only be wor­shipped by such peo­ple. (John 4:23 – 24) He speaks a word so pen­e­trat­ing that it can dif­fer­en­ti­ate between what is soul and what is spir­it in the human being. (Heb. 4:12) He iden­ti­fies and rejects those who hon­or him with their lips, but have hearts that are far from him. (Isa. 29:13; cp. Matt. 15:8 – 918

Bib­li­cal reli­gion is above all a reli­gion of the heart and of the keep­ing of the heart. Thus Jesus him­self stress­es that there is no good tree that pro­duces bad fruit, nor a bad tree that pro­duces good fruit (Luke 6:43), and that the good and the evil that come out of a per­son come from their heart. (Luke 6:45 and Mark 7:21 – 23) We are to clean, not the out­side, but the inside of the cup, and the out­side will take care of itself. (Matt. 23:25 – 26

The Apos­tle Paul’s con­stant instruc­tion is for us to ren­o­vate our inner being by putting off the old per­son” and putting on the new per­son” char­ac­ter­ized by a heart of com­pas­sion, kind­ness, humil­i­ty, gen­tle­ness and patience, for­giv­ing as the Lord for­gave us, and secur­ing all togeth­er by agape love. (Col. 3:12 – 14) He prays that the Eph­esians would be strength­ened with pow­er through his Spir­it in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith and.…that you may be filled up to all the full­ness of God” (Eph. 3:16 – 19); and he tes­ti­fies that his own inner man is being renewed day by day…, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” (II Cor. 4:16 – 18

Thus it is clear that spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is not some­thing new in the his­to­ry of Christ’s peo­ple. The ancient Chris­t­ian com­mu­nions of East and West show that prac­tices of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion are as ancient as they them­selves are, and the very lan­guage of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion” is of long stand­ing usage through­out many sub-divi­sions of the Catholic Church con­tin­u­ing to today. More­over, the real­i­ty, if not the lan­guage, is sub­stan­tial­ly present in the Protes­tant wing of the Church in its Reformed and Puri­tan forms, as well as among Anabap­tists, Methodists and many lat­er sub-divisions. 

And yet, with ref­er­ence to the late 20th Cen­tu­ry Protes­tant church­es in Amer­i­ca and the West, spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion clear­ly is some­thing new. We are at a cru­cial point in the progress of Chris­t­ian faith in our times, and a door of oppor­tu­ni­ty is cur­rent­ly open that must not be missed. 

The over­shad­ow­ing event of the last two cen­turies of Chris­t­ian life has been the strug­gle between Ortho­doxy and Mod­ernism. In this strug­gle the pri­ma­ry issue has, as a mat­ter of fact, not been dis­ci­ple­ship to Christ and a trans­for­ma­tion of soul that express­es itself in per­va­sive, rou­tine obe­di­ence to his all that I have com­mand­ed you.” Instead, both sides of the con­tro­ver­sy have focussed almost entire­ly upon what is to be explic­it­ly assert­ed or reject­ed as essen­tial Chris­t­ian doc­trine. In the process of bat­tles over views of Christ the Sav­ior, Christ the Teacher was lost on all sides. 

Dis­ci­ple­ship as an essen­tial issue dis­ap­peared from the Church­es, and, with it, there also dis­ap­peared real­is­tic plans and pro­grams for the trans­for­ma­tion of the inmost self into Christ­like­ness. One could now be a Chris­t­ian for­ev­er with­out actu­al­ly chang­ing in heart and life. Right pro­fes­sion, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, was all that was required. This has now pro­duced gen­er­a­tions of pro­fess­ing Chris­tians which, as a whole, do not dif­fer in char­ac­ter, but only in rit­u­al, from their non-pro­fess­ing neigh­bors; and, in addi­tion, a mas­sive pop­u­la­tion has now arisen in Amer­i­ca which believes in God, even self-iden­ti­fies as spir­i­tu­al,” but will have noth­ing to do with Church­es – often as a mat­ter of pride. 

What is new in the cur­rent revival of inter­est in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is the wide­spread recog­ni­tion that by-pass­ing authen­tic, per­va­sive, and thor­ough trans­for­ma­tion of the inner life of the human being is not desir­able, not nec­es­sary, and may be not per­mis­si­ble. We are see­ing that the human soul hungers for trans­for­ma­tion, for whole­ness and holi­ness, is sick and dying with­out it, and that it will seek it where it may – even if it destroys itself in the process. We are see­ing that the Church betrays itself and its world if it fails to make clear and acces­si­ble the path of thor­ough­go­ing inner trans­for­ma­tion through Christ.

4. What is the rela­tion­ship between spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion and sal­va­tion? How is grace involved with spir­i­tu­al formation?

When sal­va­tion” is spo­ken of today, what is almost always meant is entry into heav­en when one dies. One is saved” if they are now count­ed by God among those who will be admit­ted into his pres­ence at death or some point there­after. This usage of sal­va­tion” and saved” deprives the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of the gen­er­al sense of deliv­er­ance which it bears in the Bible as a whole. That loss is the result not only of the age-old obses­sion with for­give­ness of sins as the only thing that real­ly mat­ters, but also of the suc­cess of Evan­gel­i­cals in stress­ing, in recent cen­turies, the fun­da­men­tal impor­tance of forgiveness. 

If, now, one adds that for­give­ness is strict­ly a mat­ter of what one (pro­fess­es to) believe, we have the recipe for the con­sumerist Chris­tian­i­ty-with­out-dis­ci­ple­ship that we have inher­it­ed at the present moment. 

If, how­ev­er – and by no means deny­ing the essen­tial impor­tance of cor­rect belief and the for­give­ness of sins – we under­stand sav­ing faith” to be con­fi­dence in Jesus Christ, the whole per­son, and not just in some part of what he did or said, we have the recipe for a sal­va­tion that deliv­ers the dis­ci­ple, the whole per­son, into a full life in the King­dom of God. That includes pro­gres­sive inner trans­for­ma­tion of the believ­er, not as a con­di­tion of entry into heav­en – sal­va­tion” in the com­mon sense – but as a nat­ur­al part of a whole that also includes new life and con­stant spir­i­tu­al growth, and entry into heav­en as a nat­ur­al out­come rather than as the cen­tral focus. This deliv­er­ance will indeed Be of sin the dou­ble cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.” 

Such deliv­er­ance is grace in every aspect. It is the gift of life in con­stant inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with a liv­ing Lord, Sav­ior and Teacher. And this is eter­nal life,” Jesus him­self said, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Knowl­edge” in the bib­li­cal under­stand­ing is inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship. It is the redeem­ing rela­tion­ship of dis­ci­ple to Mas­ter, in which unmer­it­ed favor” is received from the ear­li­est stages of repen­tance and for­give­ness to the most advanced gifts of vision, char­ac­ter, ser­vice and pow­er. (Acts 6:8) Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is sim­ply the process through which we grow in the grace and knowl­edge of our Lord and Sav­ior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 3:18)

5. What rela­tion­ship does spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion have to spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” and the many spir­i­tu­al­i­ties” that now abound? How, if at all, is Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion exclu­sive rather than inclusive?

In the Chris­t­ian con­text, we are spir­i­tu­al to the extent that our lives draw their direc­tion and strength from Jesus Christ, liv­ing Lord, through the Holy Spir­it and oth­er agen­cies estab­lished by God in his King­dom, which is itself a spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty. Out­side that con­text there are, of course, oth­er spir­its. (I Cor. 10:20, 12:2)

Spir­it is unbod­i­ly per­son­al pow­er. It is not a mere force” or ener­gy” – not even one that lies out­side the frame­work of the phys­i­cal as that is gen­er­al­ly under­stood. It is a pow­er that func­tions inde­pen­dent­ly of bod­i­ly and nat­ur­al forces, though it can be inti­mate­ly involved with them. It takes the form of ideas, atti­tudes, emo­tions, judg­ments, deci­sions and actions. There­fore it is per­son­al. The human being has a spir­it, as we have not­ed, and is basi­cal­ly a spir­i­tu­al being, though one that is eter­nal­ly spec­i­fied by its bod­i­ly his­to­ry. Angels are spir­i­tu­al beings – the bad as well as the good. And, above all, God is Spirit.” 

To the extent that the actu­al life of a human being is depen­dent upon their inter­ac­tions with God they are a spir­i­tu­al per­son. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is the qual­i­ty of life that marks out such a per­son. By con­trast, one is car­nal” or flesh­ly” to the extent that this qual­i­ty of life is lack­ing and they are oper­at­ing on mere­ly human or nat­ur­al resources. The more advanced they are in the process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, the greater and more per­va­sive will be their spirituality. 

Spir­i­tu­al­i­ties” are in good sup­ply today. Often they involve noth­ing more than an exter­nal form of doing reli­gion” or even a mere lifestyle.” But in the larg­er cul­tur­al con­text the var­i­ous spir­i­tu­al­i­ties all rep­re­sent attempts to achieve iden­ti­ty and pow­er in a world where lack of a sense of self and feel­ings of insignif­i­cance and pow­er­less­ness crush the human soul and spir­it. They all involve explic­it prac­tices–per­haps rit­u­als, man­ners of dress and appear­ance, or spe­cial rou­tines of diet, exer­cise or social inter­ac­tion – that promise to mark one out as some­one spe­cial and tap into an ener­gy that is out­side the nat­ur­al.” Often they inter­sect with the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines” that are used with­in var­i­ous man­i­fest­ly Chris­t­ian or oth­er traditions. 

What­ev­er is good is good, and Jesus would be the first to say so. But, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, allspir­i­tu­al­i­ties” are more or less exclu­sive of all the rest. None admit that just any­thing” goes. All insist that there is a right and a wrong way to go about their own ver­sion of spir­i­tu­al” liv­ing. And you will not find any spir­i­tu­al­i­ty (even those that pro­fess the utmost inclu­sive­ness”) that does not by its beliefs and prac­tices exclude beliefs and prac­tices of some oth­ers – indeed, most oth­ers. It is a con­tem­po­rary illu­sion that the Chris­t­ian way is unique­ly exclu­sive or is, on the whole, more exclu­sive than others. 

The exclu­sive­ness of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion lies sim­ply in the life it is and brings. Let it sim­ply be what it is, and let all see and com­pare. The Chris­t­ian need not be close-mind­ed and antag­o­nis­tic, but only fol­low and learn from Jesus Christ ful­ly. The aim of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is obe­di­ence to Christ from inner con­for­mi­ty to Christ. This will be sharply exclu­sive, not because of arro­gance toward oth­er spir­i­tu­al­i­ties, but because of its degree of gen­uine love and effec­tu­al car­ing for all with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion. Inclu­sive­ness is a grace of life that must be root­ed in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in Christ, not an eth­i­cal or polit­i­cal stance that any­one can accept or reject at will.

6. What is the role of spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines in spir­i­tu­al formation?

By dis­ci­plines” we under­stand con­scious­ly under­tak­en or cho­sen activ­i­ties that enable us to do what we can­not do by direct effort. Spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines” are such activ­i­ties, but ones specif­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant to growth and attain­ment in the spir­i­tu­al life. Hence, they are major fac­tors in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. They are a major part of what we can do to con­tribute to our own spir­i­tu­al formation. 

For exam­ple, if I find, as most do, that I can­not by direct effort suc­ceed in bless­ing those who curse me” or pray­ing with­out ceas­ing,” in putting anger aside or not indulging the cov­etous or lust­ful eye, then it is my respon­si­bil­i­ty to find out how I can train myself (always under grace and divine guid­ance) so that I will be able to do what I can­not do just by try­ing in the moment of need. 

Watch and pray that you not be tempt­ed,” was the good advice giv­en by Jesus to his weary friends, to assist their will­ing spir­its against the weak­ness of their nat­ur­al abil­i­ties (“flesh’). (Matt. 26:41) And the ancient charge was: This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall med­i­tate on it day and night, so that you may observe to do accord­ing to all it says; for then you will make your way pros­per­ous, and then you will act wise­ly.” (Josh. 1:8) Such vers­es incor­po­rate the wis­dom of scrip­ture, that we are to take mea­sures to receive the spir­i­tu­al assis­tance that we need, but that will not be pas­sive­ly imposed upon us or infused into us. 

Soli­tude and silence, fast­ing and fru­gal­i­ty, study and wor­ship, ser­vice and sub­mis­sion – and oth­er prac­tices that serve in the same way (there is no com­plete list) – are there­fore inte­gral parts of any reli­able pro­gram of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. They should be a sub­stan­tial part of our pri­vate lives and of our asso­ci­a­tions with oth­ers in the body of Christ. They do not earn mer­it, but they do allow us to receive from God what will not be pas­sive­ly bestowed. They are not right­eous­ness but wisdom.

7. How are the gifts and fruit of the Spir­it involved with spir­i­tu­al formation?

The fruit of the Spir­it is love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, good­ness, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, self-con­trol.” (Gla. 5:22 – 23) This is the same or close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with what Paul else­where calls the fruit of light,” which con­sists in all good­ness and right­eous­ness and truth.” (Eph. 5:9) Obvi­ous­ly it is the same as love, in the com­pre­hen­sive sense spelled out by Paul in I Cor. 13 and Col. 3:14 and which Jesus made the con­stant theme of his teaching. 

The fruit of the Spir­it sim­ply is the inner char­ac­ter of Jesus him­self that is brought about in us through the process of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. It is the out­come of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. It is Christ formed in us. It is called fruit” because, like the fruit of trees or vines, it is an out­growth of what we have become, not the result of a spe­cial effort to bear fruit. And we have become fruit­ful” in this way because we have received the pres­ence of Christ’s Spir­it through the process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, and now that Spir­it inter­act­ing with us fills us with love, joy, peace.… 

Clear­ly, as the fruit of the Spir­it increas­es with­in us it becomes a dynam­ic ele­ment in the ongo­ing process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. To be pos­sessed of love, joy, peace… is to have rich resources for sus­tain­ing and enhanc­ing a faith-full life and for growth in all dimen­sions of inward and out­ward grace. The fruit of the spir­it and spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion become mutu­al­ly sup­port­ive as spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion pro­gress­es in the individual. 

The same is true, in a dif­fer­ent way, of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion and the gifts of the Spir­it. The gifts of the Spir­it are spe­cif­ic super­nat­ur­al abil­i­ties that are dis­trib­uted among those who make up the earth­ly body of Christ, in order that every mem­ber can ben­e­fit from all of those gifts as need­ed. There are vari­eties of effects, but the same God pro­duces each of them in each per­son, and so each one is giv­en the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Spir­it for the com­mon good.” (I Cor. 12:6 – 7) Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion sim­ply can­not go for­ward as it is intend­ed by God unless the indi­vid­ual is incor­po­rat­ed in a body of believ­ers where they can receive the ben­e­fit of the gifts which oth­ers have. With­out the gifts the fruit will can­not be pro­duced or sustained. 

Con­verse­ly, the gifts of the Spir­it can only be right­ly used if the one who receives and serves by means of them is well formed in inner Christ­like­ness. We are not pas­sive in receiv­ing and serv­ing in the gifts of the Spir­it. They are to be active­ly pur­sued, received and cul­ti­vat­ed. And all of this requires ongo­ing trans­for­ma­tion of the inner being. Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion lays the foun­da­tion and pro­vides a suit­able frame­work for the exer­cise of gifts of the Spir­it by the indi­vid­ual and group, and the appro­pri­ate exer­cise of those gifts by the indi­vid­ual for the group, and by the group for the indi­vid­ual, is nec­es­sary if spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is to go for­ward as it should. Gifts by them­selves do lit­tle to form the spir­its of those who exer­cise them. Gifts of the spir­it are not sub­sti­tutes for spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, though they must be involved in it.

8. Isn’t spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion a human project, equal­ly well expressed in many tra­di­tions oth­er than the Christian?

Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is indeed a human project. No soci­ety has ever exist­ed with­out it. The human being is not an instinc­tu­al ani­mal which nat­u­ral­ly devel­ops what is required for its exis­tence. It must be taught, and pri­ma­ry to what is taught (and caught) are the inner con­di­tions of life (thought, emo­tions, inten­tions, etc.) which make social exis­tence pos­si­ble and enable the indi­vid­ual to hope for a life that is good. 

Much that is good is to be found in every great human tra­di­tion of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, and the Chris­t­ian will do well to respect what is good wher­ev­er it is found. Every good thing bestowed and every per­fect gift is from above, com­ing down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17) If we can­not afford to be gen­er­ous, we pos­sess little. 

But whether the spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion of the human being is equal­ly well expressed in many tra­di­tions oth­er than the Chris­t­ian” is a ques­tion of fact, and not some­thing to be answered sim­ply by being gen­er­ous. In many cas­es – for exam­ple, those of ancient Greek and Roman cul­tures, which were deeply and intel­li­gent­ly con­cerned about the right for­ma­tion of the human spir­it as they under­stood it – the answer to this ques­tion is clear­ly a No.” It was not for noth­ing that Chris­t­ian life and teach­ing sup­plant­ed these spir­i­tu­al­i­ties,” as they would now be called, in the ear­ly cen­turies of the Chris­t­ian Era. 

It does not seem seri­ous­ly like­ly that con­tem­po­rary spir­i­tu­al­i­ties – from new age”, to revived pagan­ism, to sec­u­lar­ism – can hope suc­cess­ful­ly to chal­lenge Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion at its his­tor­i­cal best as the pre­mier way of fos­ter­ing a life to be prized among human beings, much less one pleas­ing before God who exam­ines the heart. But that is not a ques­tion that we need to close off before­hand. Every fair com­par­i­son should be made – espe­cial­ly with oth­er great world reli­gions at their his­tor­i­cal best – and the deci­sion left to the facts. This is an essen­tial part of what it would mean to hon­or all men” (I Pet. 2:17) and to exam­ine every­thing care­ful­ly; hold fast to that which is good.” (I Thess. 5:21)

9. What is the rela­tion­ship between psy­chol­o­gy and spir­i­tu­al formation?

It is nat­ur­al that we should turn to psy­chol­o­gy to meet the needs of the soul. How­ev­er it may turn, psy­chol­o­gy can­not avoid its respon­si­bil­i­ty for the under­stand­ing of the human soul. A major ten­den­cy with­in the field has been Depth Psychology.”“What is the oth­er kind?” we might ask. Shal­low Psy­chol­o­gy”? Psy­chol­o­gy is called to the depths of the human being by the very sub­ject mat­ter of its inquiry. 

Con­verse­ly, spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion must deal with the real­i­ties of the soul. The spir­i­tu­al life of the human being, even at its most ele­vat­ed and ecsta­t­ic, is a psy­cho­log­i­cal real­i­ty, though it is not only that. Thus it was both nat­ur­al and prop­er that, when it became clear ear­li­er in this cen­tu­ry that Bible study, prayer, the pub­lic teach­ing and preach­ing of the word, and reli­gious rit­u­al – at least as they were prac­tice – were obvi­ous­ly not meet­ing the often des­per­ate needs of pro­fess­ing Chris­tians, there would emerge a Chris­t­ian Psy­chol­o­gy move­ment. At the time there was no lit­er­a­ture or research in the area, except some scat­tered frag­ments of pas­toral psy­chol­o­gy, and the major­i­ty of well known the­o­reti­cians in the field of psy­chol­o­gy were hos­tile or dis­mis­sive of Chris­tian­i­ty and of reli­gion in general. 

The rela­tion­ship between mod­ern psy­chol­o­gy and reli­gion was a trou­bled one in its begin­ning, and remains so to the present time. Nev­er­the­less, a large body of psy­chol­o­gists who are Chris­tians has emerged, and they have become a vital and influ­en­tial pres­ence in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, although there are many excel­lent psy­chol­o­gists who are Chris­tians, there has emerged no tru­ly Chris­t­ian psy­chol­o­gy, no the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing of the human soul that does jus­tice to all the facts of our psy­chi­cal exis­tence includ­ing the spir­i­tu­al life and spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. The psy­chol­o­gist who is Chris­t­ian is forced to patch togeth­er the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal insights from many sources, some of which are anti­thet­i­cal to the Chris­t­ian under­stand­ing of human nature and destiny. 

Method­olog­i­cal­ly, of course, psy­chol­o­gy is itself a deeply divid­ed field. This might seem to be a hin­der­ance to plac­ing psy­chol­o­gy and spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion into a fruit­ful rela­tion­ship. But it may be that it in fact pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op a gen­uine­ly ade­quate under­stand­ing of the human self with­in a frame­work of the spir­i­tu­al life for which it is suit­ed by nature. Such an under­stand­ing or psy­chol­o­gy” would then serve to illu­mi­nate and direct the process of spir­i­tu­al formation. 

It must be said that, at present, one of the great dan­gers to authen­ti­cal­ly Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion comes from sole reliance upon psy­cho­log­i­cal teach­ings and prac­tices that sim­ply omit the real­i­ties of Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, or else sub­sti­tute for them process­es that do not do jus­tice to life in the King­dom of God. The trans­for­ma­tion of the inner self into Christ­like­ness can­not be achieved by any­thing oth­er than the life of God in the soul, and any­thing short of this, how­ev­er good and prop­er it may be in its place, will not be enough to meet the deep­est needs of the human heart or sat­is­fy the mind and the emo­tions. It will leave life adrift.

10. Does Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion real­ly mat­ter? Can’t we get along quite well with­out it?

The response to this ques­tion must be, first of all, that we are not get­ting along quite well with­out it. We are, large­ly, with­out it, to be sure, but we are not doing well. The life of qui­et des­per­a­tion” which most peo­ple have always lived is at present becom­ing notice­ably more des­per­ate and less qui­et. The sad litany of mis­deeds and depraved char­ac­ters that Paul list­ed in such places as Romans 1 and 3, Gala­tians 5:17 – 21 and II Tim­o­thy 3:2 – 7 is as up-to-date as the lat­est edi­tion of the news­pa­pers and week­ly mag­a­zines or the evening news. 

Edu­ca­tion, gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, the pro­fes­sions, art and enter­tain­ment, as well as the pri­vate lives of mul­ti­tudes of peo­ple, stag­ger under the bur­dens of human wicked­ness and fail­ure caused by oth­ers and brought on by our­selves. All of this is so com­mon and per­va­sive that the nor­mal per­son is almost blind to it, accept­ing it as just the way things are.” The process­es of for­ma­tion of spir­it that dom­i­nate the con­tem­po­rary world are a dis­as­ter when viewed in terms of their out­come: a run­ning sore, an unheal­ing wound. (Isa. 1:2 – 9

In addi­tion, those who know some­thing of the good­ness and beau­ty of Jesus yearn to be like him or at least feel a respon­si­bil­i­ty to be like him. But they are left help­less unless they can find a path of inward trans­for­ma­tion. Who can show them the way if the peo­ple iden­ti­fied with the cause of Christ in this world are not pre­pared to teach and exem­pli­fy a process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion that will result in an out­flow of Christ from their deep­est heart and char­ac­ter, from their very iden­ti­ty, from who they are. 

And from the view­point of those respon­si­ble to lead in Christ’s pro­gram of mak­ing stu­dents from all eth­nic group­ings, immers­ing them in the real­i­ty of the tri­une name, and teach­ing them to do all things he has com­mand­ed us (Matt. 28:19 – 28), Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is sim­ply indis­pens­able. The lack of an under­stand­ing and imple­men­ta­tion of it is why there is in gen­er­al so lit­tle real dif­fer­ence between pro­fess­ing Chris­t­ian and non-Chris­t­ian today. Where can one find today any group of Chris­tians with an actu­al plan to teach the peo­ple of their group to do every­thing Jesus said? Indeed, who is sure of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of such a plan? It makes a huge dif­fer­ence whether or not spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in Christ­like­ness is avail­able to the Church and to the world. 

As Chris­t­ian peo­ple we stand today in a moment of great oppor­tu­ni­ty. As Paul wrote to the Corinthi­ans, A great door and effec­tu­al is open to me, and there are many adver­saries.” (I Cor. 16:9) Many blind alleys beck­on, and there is much mis­in­for­ma­tion, as well as deep antag­o­nisms to the way Christ calls us to go. It is impor­tant that we not see in the cur­rent inter­est in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion mere­ly an invi­ta­tion to keep doing what we have been doing – except now to real­ly mean it.” The stan­dard advice” rou­tine­ly giv­en to ordi­nary Chris­tians, and even to the more enthu­si­as­tic among us, is hope­less­ly inad­e­quate to the needs of the heart, soul and body. Now we must find ways that, in our cur­rent con­text, can suc­ceed in hon­est­ly and thor­ough­ly ren­o­vat­ing the inner per­son so that it bears the iden­ti­cal vision, feel­ings and char­ac­ter of Jesus Christ. Go ye therefore.…”

Pub­lished in The Great Omis­sion, 2006. HarperCollins.

Text First Published October 1999 · Last Featured on Renovare.org April 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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