This blog is oriented toward the practical most of the time. But spiritual formation can be a burden and a curse if we don’t understand the role of our own effort in what God is doing to lead us deeper into the good life of his kingdom. Consider these short meditations on the theology of spiritual formation.
- I exert myself in the work of spiritual formation as a response to what God has done in Christ. God is the primary actor in our spiritual formation. He came to us while we were still very busy with our own concerns and caught up in the blindness of our sin. He initiated grace in us long before we thought to turn our minds or hearts toward him (Romans 5:6-8). But as the reality of this grace reveals itself to us, our natural response is gratitude. We discover the glory of his kingdom as it comes to us from outside and we turn our attention toward him. In response to his great work, we cease exerting ourselves toward one set of goals and turn them fully toward a new set of goals. This is the core of repentance (Mark 1:15). This is what Paul means when he strains toward the goal for which Christ took hold of him (Philippians 3:10-14).
- God is the origin of all my good and the source of my desire for positive change. It is the Holy Spirit that convicts, moving about in the world prior to our interest or attention, bringing about the desire for change, urging us toward God (John 16:13). It is essential to understand that every effort we make toward a deeper walk with God is a response to the limitless, perfect love he already has for us. Our every effort is a receiving of what is already on offer, a turning toward good that is already present.
- Transformation comes by surrender and exertion, not by surrender alone. The act of baptism is the image that fully captures our surrender to Christ, aligning ourselves with him in his death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). When we lay our old lives down in baptism, we then begin a new life (v4). Life cannot be lived without volition—that is, without the human will. The human will is the part of us that chooses. Even in the act of doing nothing, we exercise the will. And God does not wish us to choose nothing (Ephesians 2:10). Put another way, if, after baptism, we simply sit there and wait for transformation to come upon us, we will have displeased God (Matthew 25:14-30).
- Willpower (self-control, ἐγκράτεια) is a gift of the Spirit. Our exertions toward Christ-likeness are always cooperations, not singular achievements. If God were not active in us, we couldn’t even choose the right goal (Romans 1:28), let alone reach it under our own power. God gives the Spirit to us and it’s he that produces what’s lacking in our own wisdom and strength.
- I cannot cause God to love me more or less based on my exertion. God’s boundless love for us was shown most vividly in Christ’s work on the cross (Again, Romans 5:6-8). He did this in the midst of our rebellion, when the will of the world was turned directly and violently against him. He does not love us less when we are not exerting ourselves and he does not love us more when we are. We are his treasured possession and his beloved people (1 Peter 2:9-10).
- My worth in God’s eyes does not depend on the results of my exertion. Just as I cannot cause God to love me more by exerting myself, neither can I cause him to love me more by making myself more like Christ. Whether we succeed or fail, becoming more like Christ or failing in the attempt, our worth in God’s eyes remains the same. Marvelously, his love does not depend on the state of our hearts (Matthew 5:43-48). The results of our exertions are fruits produced by the cooperation of our spirit with his Spirit, something that happens as a response to his love.
- I can become more like Christ through the exertion of my willpower. All spiritual disciplines require the diligent exertion of our will. This is not our own doing, but we are willing participants in our own salvation as we obey the commands of Christ (Luke 6:46-49). As we do the things he does and love like he loves (John 20:21), we are conformed to his image (Philippians 2:1-11).
- I will struggle with pride as I work to become more like Christ. It is inevitable that we struggle with pride on the road to spiritual formation. If we see progress, exerting ourselves diligently to obey the teachings of Jesus, we will see the great benefits of this path and feel a swelling of our pride. This is indeed an accomplishment to celebrate, but we must not become full of ourselves (Romans 12:3) or forget that it is God’s mercy that has brought us this far (Ephesians 2:8). At the other end of the spectrum, we must not be too hard on ourselves when we fail. Our pride may try to keep us from trying again but we must persevere; Jesus is gentle with the hard-pressed (Matthew 12:20) and the contrite (Psalm 51:17).
- God can and does shape me to be more like Christ outside of my own exertion. Our spiritual formation does not depend wholly on our own effort. His is the greater part and God is at work in us in ways we do not understand (Romans 8:26). Our own efforts are small compared to the great transformation he has promised to work in us (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
- Spiritual formation should not be grueling. There will be times of trial when great effort will be required to overcome temptation or to do those things which God is commanding us to do. But we follow a shepherd, not a ruthless general or a relentless physical trainer. Jesus describes the work he requires of us as gentle and light (Matthew 11:28-30). Even as we face trials and difficult, challenging circumstances that require the exertion of our will, we will find cause for rejoicing (1 Peter 1:3-9).
In terms of how this works in actual practice, have a look at the three-step movement that all cooperative spiritual formation takes.
What have you learned about cooperating with God as he works out your salvation?