So What is Spiritual Formation?

I had a conversation with a professor of mine, where he asked what I thought the program was all about since I am almost done.  My response was, “It helps me know how to practice my faith.” After reading a post from Richard Foster this morning, I began thinking that this may have been slightly wrong. It is so much more than merely practicing my faith, it is a total orientation of my life.

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This morning I read a blog post about the future of the Spiritual Formation movement from Renovaré. Currently, one of my majors is in Christian Spiritual Formation, so naturally my ears perked up. I had a conversation with a professor of mine, where he asked what I thought the program was all about since I am almost done (graduation December 2019!).  My response was, “It helps me know how to practice my faith.” After reading this post this morning, I began thinking that this may have been slightly wrong. It is so much more than merely practicing my faith, it is a total orientation of my life.

Spiritual Formation is certainly a buzz word/hot topic right now. Lots of people are talking about spiritual disciplines and writing books discussing how to use spiritual disciplines to deepen your faith (I only know this because I have several waiting on my bookshelf to read for this blog). Spiritual formation is a question my church is trying to figure out. It seems everywhere I look, there is someone talking about being more disciplined. But what happens when this fad goes away? Everyone is so focused on their spiritual development now because it is the “in” thing to do. When everyone stops writing, teaching, talking, and thinking about the subject, does that mean we are spiritually mature and no longer need to grow closer to God?

“Frankly—and I hate to say it in such a blunt matter—much that has gone out under the name of spiritual formation has been done by people who simply have not thought substantively on the subject, and (dare I mention it) we have to wonder if they themselves have been spiritually formed to any substantial degree.”
— Richard Foster

I think that the focus needs to not be on the disciplines or the generic idea of spiritual formation. Rather we need to be looking at what does a life dedicated to God actually look like, then emulate that. St Antony led an extremely ascetic life in the desert wilderness, in order to do battle against the demons in his life and grow more Christlike. Does this mean we need to do extreme versions of fasting, living in the desert alone? No! We should be looking at why did Antony choose the live the way he did, and how can we live that way today. Antony sought to purge himself of what was not of God, and to overcome the power of the Enemy on his life. Have a problem with lust? Stay away from people. Have a problem with gluttony? No food for you. Anger? People cannot bother you when you aren’t around them. What we can learn from this is not the specific practices that Antony did, but look at how he was living his life. He recognized the power of sin over himself. He knew that his sinfulness is what kept him being away from God. So he removed sin. Yes, it was extreme, but it teaches us today how dangerous sin can be. We have to look at the things that tempt us, and cause us to stray from God, and run to get away from it. So we must be introspective to see what temptations we have, then train our lives to turn away from those temptation and look to Christ.

“It is the renovation of the heart we are after. This inward work is much harder than mere outward conformity … and easier.”
— Richard Foster

Spiritual formation is not about a set of disciplines. It is not guidance for how much you should pray, how long to meditation, how extremely to fast, etc. It is a life. It is a life that is pointed to the Creator of the Universe, lover of your soul, and sustainer of your life. When all the blogs have been written, and all the books read, you cannot be any more spiritually formed without that simple truth. When we focus on the discipline, rather than Christ, we become legalistic. You become formed by what you focus on. Focus on the Law, and you start telling everyone how to live their lives (eg Pharisees). Focus your life on Christ, and learn to love God, others, and yourself. Focussing on Christ allows the true spiritual formation that we are all hungering for.

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