To form something is to cause it to take on a certain desired shape. For Christians, spiritual formation is the process by which we take on the shape of Jesus, learning to live the good life that he proclaimed and opened for us. Spiritual formation is how we participate with God in trading our old way of life for this new, very good life that opens up into God’s beautiful, endless, glorious future.
Formed by the World
We all undergo formation of various kinds whether we like it or not. We are formed constantly by the world around us. Beginning even before our birth, countless competing forces press in on us every minute of every day, shaping who we are in the deepest, inmost parts of ourselves.
Out of our constantly shaped and reshaped hearts comes everything we think, say, and do. The day to day world we live in is the result of hundreds (thousands—millions!) of human hearts, thinking, saying, and doing, such that the thoughts, words, and deeds of others combine and recombine with ours in ways we scarcely comprehend, creating the reality we know and making us who we are.
And if we look around with clear eyes, we will see that our collective thoughts, words, and deeds have made a mess of our world. Everywhere we meet confused, competing, and contradictory ideas; we hear harsh, destructive, and deceitful words; we see deeds that astonish in their cruelty and inhumanity. Yet this mess is not the final word. Everywhere we see signs pointing to something better, pointing toward what is true and good and beautiful. But as often as not, these things seem impermanent, intangible, out of reach.
Formed for a Better Way of Life
Spiritual formation is the determination to seek the source of that goodness. Spiritual formation is the determination to seek first the good and gracious ways of the God who brought this world into being. God knows all the wayward forces that shape us and he knows every thought, word, and deed that has touched us. And he knows who we are in our inmost selves. He longs to take us into his hands, to heal what is hurt, to teach the ways that are true and good and beautiful, and to finally free us for love.
It is with the guidance and power of God’s Holy Spirit that this process takes place. His Spirit is always at work in the world, the source and power of those signs that point beyond our world to God and the glorious future he has opened for us. This same Spirit he offers to everyone who would receive, so that God himself becomes for us a wellspring of life, bubbling up in us, ever remaking our hearts.
Here is the really beautiful part: as our hearts are remade, our world changes. The things we think, say, and do emerge from a heart like God’s. Our thoughts, words, and deeds go out into the world like rich seed, bearing fruit the likes of which the world sorely needs.
This is God’s work and God’s passion. He moved heaven and earth and to make such transformation possible. And while it is God’s power that does most of the work in spiritual formation, let us make no mistake: spiritual formation is difficult. It does not happen while we sit idle. As Eugene Peterson famously said, it is “a long obedience in the same direction.” We must apply ourselves to the task, giving over our heart, soul, mind, and strength to God. As we do this, day after day, ever keeping in step with the Spirit, we will know this beautiful transformation of heart that is the gift of the Living God.
As a next step, take a look at the three movements of spiritual formation to discern how God is leading you deeper into the good life.