Spiritual formation is change, the process by which we learn to live the good life. It involves slow change that starts in the deepest places of our hearts. Then, as the dreams, thoughts, and plans that emerge from our hearts change, our lifestyle and behavior changes.
The question is, how does spiritual formation happen?
Three Movements of Natural Formation
Every change that occurs in spiritual formation follows a basic three-step movement. But before we even name them, we need to be very careful about our language or we will end up off-track right from the start. Superficially, spiritual formation may resemble ordinary goal-setting and achievement under the guidance of a coach or director. In what Dallas Willard famously calls “natural formation”, we make plans, we set goals, and then we set about achieving them with clear, actionable steps. The three steps of natural formation are, Where am I now? What is my destination? and How do I get there?
These are fine questions for “natural formation” and are used profitably in productivity circles every day. But with the Regnare Project, we are seeking true, lasting spiritual formation. The good life we are seeking goes far beyond the bounds of ordinary life and into the Divine. The mark of the true disciple is that he understands that he cannot arrive at this beautiful, glorious destination under his own power. In fact, he cannot even truly discern where he is going, because his eyes are dim and his heart darkened.
No, spiritual formation and true discipleship begins with the understanding that real change finds its power and direction in God. Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He is the firstborn from among the dead (Colossians 1:18). And he sends the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks (Luke 11:13), leading all those who belong to him into a deep understanding of his teachings (John 14:26), making them fruitful in the glorious new life of the kingdom (John 15:5).
“I am the vine, you are the branches”
This is not to say that we have no part in our own spiritual formation. The more common error among Christians these days is to assume that God does all the work while we go about our ordinary business, the same as everyone else. This is simply not true. Countless scriptures make this clear; for our purposes here, let’s focus on one of the most important: John 15:5:
The branch has plenty of work to do and is an active part of the plant, but it is not the source of the plant’s life (the vine is). It is responsible for what branches do: bear fruit. If the branches don’t draw from the source and bear fruit, they are discarded (v6). But if the branch does what branches do—draw from the source—then we will not only bear fruit, but that fruit will last (15:16).
This understanding of spiritual formation is central to the Regnare Project. Our purpose is to align ourselves and the little kingdoms for which we are responsible with the kingdom of God. We are to become inseparable from the vine. The goal is to submit ourselves so seamlessly with God’s kingdom that it is impossible for us to discern where God’s kingdom ends and mine begins, because my thoughts, words, and deeds proceed from the vine and go out into the world to do God’s will.
In light of this, how does this vine-and-branch life work itself out with regard to spiritual formation?
Three Movements of Spiritual Formation
Let’s take a look at those movements of “natural” formation again. If we ask the questions, Where am I now? What is my destination? and How do I get there?, we find ourselves at the center of this kind of thinking. We are asking questions about my perception of where I am, my thoughts and desires about where I go next, and the exertion of my own strength and influence to get where I want to go. That should be our first clue that something is amiss.
The ones who follow Jesus discover that they are not their own source of life. They do not live by their own strength, alone in a cold world that is careless of their well-being. Disciples of Jesus learn to call upon their Father in the heavens, to trust the presence, wisdom, and teaching of the Holy Spirit, to rely on that strength that is perfected in weakness. Disciples of Jesus die to themselves and take up the way of the Savior, pouring out their old lives in order to receive the good life of the kingdom. In this light, the questions disciples ask are these:
- What is God revealing to me about where I am now?
- To where is God leading me?
- What is my part in this process?
We’ll take a close look at each of these movements in more detail, but for now, let yourself ruminate on these questions. Dwell with them and listen to what God has to say.