Spiritual formation is a life lived in God’s transforming presence, welcomed by him into the thriving life we see in Jesus Christ. As we are transformed by God, the way we live and move and work and love in the world is changed. We find the pieces of our lives gathered into a living whole with love at the center. And we find that we have the strength to live this way in spite of sharp resistance, setbacks, and difficulties that arise.

Spiritual formation requires effort, but it isn’t by our effort that we gain the transformation we desire. Our effort is the effort we make to turn ourselves into the path of God’s grace, to find those channels he has established that put us in touch with the life he freely gives. This participation is required for spiritual formation. God can move us according to his will, but he does not force us to submit or to change without our consent. The deep inner change that is the good life doesn’t happen to us while we blithely go about our lives ignoring God or his clear instruction regarding these channels and graces.

But there is a danger here; if we go too far with our effort, we can end up badly off track. On the one hand, we will come to the end of our own strength and give up. Or on the other hand (and possibly worse), we come to find our own strength sufficient and end up missing God for the journey. These are two excellent ways to fail with spiritual formation.

So how do we reconcile this? If our effort is required, how do we proceed without depending on our strength?

As Dallas Willard often teaches, the success of spiritual formation requires understanding. How we approach the process and how we understand our part and God’s part working together can drastically affect our outcomes. If we don’t understand what we’re doing or why we are doing it, we will easily find ourselves in blind corners, confused and frustrated. Steve Porter, at the 2016 Apprentice Gathering, shared a helpful illustration of this: it’s like the husband that is told he needs to take his wife out for date night. He hunts around and finds instructions on what to do on a date night. The instructions might be very clear and he can follow them to the letter, but if his heart isn’t in it—if the actions themselves aren’t animated by a personal, interior desire to love, honor, and cherish his wife—she will see through it instantly. The actions won’t result in greater intimacy or relationship; if anything, he’ll be worse off than if he hadn’t bothered with date night at all.

God doesn’t want or need us to complete the actions of spiritual formation. God wants our hearts. And, proper aligned with our personal, interior desires, the practices of spiritual formation can lead us into deep, transformative relationship with God.

The best part is that God meets us halfway. He knows that we have very little understanding, that we see as though in a dark mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). Actually, it’s much more than halfway.

Think of a lamp standing in the corner of a room. It has a cord, connected to the wall socket. Is it the light switch that turns on the light? Or is it the electricity that comes from the power plant? Which is the greater energy? None of us have the tools or resources to create the kind of power produced at even a small power plant, but we can flip a switch. The lamp won’t light without the switch—it’s the limiting factor. It’s the same with spiritual formation. Yes, it requires our effort, but our effort is not the driving force; our effort is the catalyst.

This is why I am constantly repeating the refrain of starting small. Take for example the practice of daily devotions, essential for the spiritual formation of every Christian. It requires some effort on our part to re-arrange our lives to make room for this practice. But most of us already have a maxed-out energy and willpower (“vital”) budget. By starting small, we recognize and account for our limitations. But now we are in touch with a greater power: God himself. We make a little room for him and he moves heaven and earth to draw near to us, meeting us where we are. He moves and works as we interact with him in prayer and in the careful, attentive reading of the Word. Some days we feel him at work, other days not so much. But we know he is at work and we wait patiently for him, trusting in his love and care.

Then, even though we have started small, our capacity for further change grows. Because we are now in touch with the source of life, we draw on God’s strength in his timing and we find that we are changing. We don’t quite know why or how, but seemingly insurmountable difficulties in our lives begin to unravel themselves. Not because we have done anything much at all, but because we are now in the path of God’s grace. God is at work and we are patiently walking with him, allowing him to do whatever he wants to do in the order he wants to do them.

Are you ready to flip the switch?