How are You Being Formed?
“Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world.
Any other offer fails to do justice to the drama of human redemption, deprives the hearer of life’s greatest opportunity, and abandons this present life to the evil power of the age.”
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission
In February, new friends and co-workers in the Gospel were in the United States from Colombia and stayed with us for a few days. In addition to the sweet fellowship and encouragement given by the Holy Spirit through one another, something occurred that was formative in my life.
Sarita, the 12-year-old daughter of the family, who doesn’t seem to have a shy bone in her body, grabbed me by the arm Sunday afternoon and said, “Go!” pointing the way to the gate leading out of our back yard toward the front of the house. Not knowing what she had in mind nor daring to disobey such a direct order, I marched ahead to whatever fate awaited me.
Once in the street in front of our house, she directed my attention down the street to a spot about 30 yards away and said, “Run.” Run? I hadn’t run in a while. I had ridden my bike, but even that had been a few weeks since I had been traveling. I was certainly not dressed for running. Still not daring to disobey, I took off running. Once she had caught up with me, she pointed back the other way and said, “Run.” Evidently, after the second sprint she could see that I might die if she continued, so I was given a break. Though Sarita was just having some fun with me, she may have recognized a need for me to get in shape.
Having learned that day just how out of condition I was for running sprints, I decided I needed to keep it up. Wind sprints are brutal and very good for conditioning. I am now up to running 20 lengths each time and just working to increase speed. Something is happening. My body is forming into a different kind of body: one that is getting stronger and increasing in endurance, not one that is declining and gets tired easily. I’m in the process of physical formation.
There is also something called spiritual formation. This is a name for the Spirit-infused practices that form one into the image of Christ. Like wind-sprints, or the push-ups and rowing exercises I’ve added, form or shape my physical body, practices of spiritual formation form or shape us into Christ likeness. Just as many different body parts must be worked in physical formation, many different practices are needed to shape our whole person into Christ-likeness.
Spiritual formation is a name for the Spirit-infused practices that form one into the image of Christ.
One can be a human and not exercise. This person will be formed into something rather different than if they do. They will be a different kind of person. One would not look at them and think, “this is a physically fit person.” One can also profess to believe and not be formed into Christ-likeness. However, and this is important, one cannot be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, if they are not being formed into Christ-likeness.
The call to Christ is a call to follow Him. Following Jesus is the process of spiritual formation. Following Jesus is done by putting into practice the teachings of Jesus which consequently shape us into His likeness. Setting out to do what Jesus commanded us (Matt. 28:20) involves a variety of practices. Among them are prayer, fasting, and meditating in God’s word. But this is by no means exhaustive.
The call to Christ is a call to follow Him. Following Jesus is the process of spiritual formation.
Many, even most, of the practices required in order to be conformed to Christ-likeness involve others. Certainly, solitude, spending extended time alone with God, is an important practice. However, praying with one another, reading Scripture together, hearing God’s word together, worshipping together, gathering regularly with other followers, sacrificially giving of our possessions to God and others, are all essential practices for the follower of Jesus.
In the gospels, all those who responded to the call to follow Jesus, fell in behind Jesus along with the other disciples. There are no individual sports for which we can train in the Christian walk, it is always a team sport. An individual may receive an award, to follow the metaphor, but only in relation to their impact on the team. Even when I am practicing solitude, for example, that practice is intended to form me into someone who builds up the body more effectively when I am with others.
Continuing the analogy of sports, since the Christian life is a team sport, much of the training is done as a team. We can’t just train by ourselves, but must train together with the body of Christ, in particular, with the local body of which God has joined us together. The “training exercises” are as varied as the creativity of the Holy Spirit. It can involve everything from worshipping together, doing neighborhood outreaches together, joining together to pay for a car repair for a single mother, having patience with a weak brother or sister in the faith, to planting a church.
We can’t just train by ourselves, but must train together with the body of Christ, in particular, with the local body of which God has joined us together.
How Formation Begins
Spiritual formation is a bit like what happened when Sarita told me to run. I wasn’t ready for it, and as a body of believers, we are rarely ready for it; it will push us to our limits. The old fitness mantra applies here: no pain, no gain. When I am running wind sprints, I often think, “If this doesn’t kill me, it may help me live longer (or better).”
Additionally, when Sarita told me to run, I had to do what she said to begin the process of formation. One of the greatest ways we are formed into Christ-likeness is by setting out to do what he says. We can’t wait to become like Christ to do what He says, we must do what He says in order to be formed into His likeness. I couldn’t wait to be “in-shape” to do what Sarita said that Sunday afternoon, I had to begin to do what she said. I had to “run.”
We can’t wait to become like Christ to do what He says, we must do what He says in order to be formed into His likeness.
In the very process of running, repeated over a period of days and weeks, I am gradually being “shaped” into a runner. Not that I have attained the status of a “runner,” but I press forward into being made into the likeness of a runner. I have to forget what is behind (being totally out of shape), and strain toward what is ahead (conformity to the likeness of a runner). In spiritual formation, we must forget the life we’ve lived to this point—the one in which we live for the satiation of the flesh, acquiring the greatest amount of stuff, and the pride of having done so—and strain ahead toward being made like Christ, to attaining Christ (see Phil. 3:11-14)!
At the end of his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives them the secret to how they might gain Christ, being made like Him in His death, and so somehow in His resurrection. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). Practice. We must put it into practice. We don’t practice because we have attained perfection. We practice in order that we might one day be perfected. Like a gymnast who practices daily and over many years that they might one day perform flawlessly, so we practice doing what Jesus said daily and over many years that we might one day perform in such a way that our Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Live the Gospel,