“Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ, a journey into becoming persons of compassion, persons who forgive, persons who care deeply for others and the world, persons who offer themselves to God to become agents of divine grace in the lives of others and their world—in brief, persons who love and serve as Jesus did.”
Robert Mulholland in an Invitation to a Journey
Spiritual formation. Discipleship. Sanctification. Wholeness. Christ-likeness. It is known by many names, but they all describe the process Christians experience as we grow into the person God designed us to be. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). We are all clay in the Potter’s hand, being formed in His image and according to His perfect will. John Wesley used to start his covenant group meetings with the question, "How is it with your soul?" Spiritual formation is not something we do, it's who we are. It is the care and nurture of our soul. The spiritual disciplines are ancient practices through which Christians have nurtured their souls for thousands of years. Take some time to explore these channels of God's grace.
Prayer: "To live the life of prayer means to emerge from my drowse, to awaken to the communing, guiding, healing, clarifying, and transforming current of God's Holy Spirit in which I am immersed" (Douglas V. Steere). Simply put, prayer is a conversation with God. It is as natural and essential as breathing. There are many ways to pray: contemplative prayer, visualizing prayer, intercessory prayer, experiential prayer, confessional prayer, adoring prayer. Prayer is the language through which we speak to God and participate in his Kingdom work.
Worship: "To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God" (William Temple). Jesus tells us in John 4 that we are to worship "in spirit and truth." Worship is not about a place, but an attitude. Worship is our response to the work of God in our lives. It is the overflowing of God's grace and love in us. Worship happens wherever we meet God and sense his presence. In the Old Testament the patriarchal fathers and the prophets would build altars wherever they saw God or experienced his miraculous provision. Where would you build your altars? Where is the holy ground in your life? What do you bring to worship?
Fasting: "More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us" (Richard Foster). Technically, fasting is abstinence from food for some period of time. It is an ancient practice that is mentioned frequently in the Bible. John Wesley fasted every Friday as part of his spiritual discipline. But the discipline of fasting, in order to increase our dependence on God, can relate to abstaining from anything that we habitually depend upon . We see this practiced most often during the season of Lent, when Christians give up something in sympathy with the suffering of Christ. But as Richard Foster points out, we should give up anything that controls us and reduces our dependency on God.
Scripture: "We will only be happy in our reading of the Bible when we dare to approach it as the means by which God really speaks to us, the God who loves us and will not leave us with our questions unanswered" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). There are two ways to read scripture: informationally and formationally. We study the Bible to understand its universal message and truth. We read the Bible formationally when we are receptive to the personal truth that God reveals to us individually. There are many techniques for reading scripture devotionally, such as lectio divina and praying the Psalms. Both of these are meditative practices that involve reading slowly and attentively so that God can speak to you through his Word. Many daily devotions include reflective questions that you can use in meditation, journaling, or prayer.
Study: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2). When we practice the spiritual disciplines, we trade our worldly habits for holy habits. We all read and listen to the radio or television everyday. But how much of that steady diet of words is God's Word? Through the discipline of study we immerse ourselves in the thoughts of other Christians and examine our own beliefs and attitudes in light of God's truth. In addition to reading scripture, we should study the spiritual classics of the past and of today.
Stewardship: "So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?" (Luke 16:11). Stewardship of the earth was the first responsibility God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Stewardship of the Garden was Adam's act of worship and gratitude for all that God had given to him. Stewardship is our act of worship and gratitude to God for all that he has given to us. We primarily think of our finances when we hear the word "stewardship," but this discipline applies to anything and everything that God has given us to take care of. When we think of everything we have as belonging to God (Deut. 10:14), then we make different decisions with our resources.
Solitude: "The movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of growing withdrawal but is instead a movement toward deepening engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude can make it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response" (Henri Nouwen). The greatest threat to spiritual growth is not creating enough white space in our calendars and our heads to spend listening to God. Hurry is the enemy of transformation. In unhurried silence we can see and hear things that are normally drowned out in the rush of our days. If we retreat into the desert of our minds, we allow God to reveal himself to us. He will also reveal those thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are preventing us from growing closer to him. God instituted the observance of the Sabbath as one of the critical parts of the holy life of Israel (Exodus 20:11). As God's people, we also need to observe Sabbaths in our days, weeks, and years when we dedicate time to God and pay attention to what he is doing in our lives.
Fellowship: "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). While it is important to have time in solitude, it is equally essential to spend time in Christian community and fellowship. John Wesley put it this way: "'Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.” We are meant to live out our faith with others, not alone. In Christian community we can see Christ in others and be Christ to others. Fellowship can happen in groups, or one-on-one. We can be part of an accountability group, a service group, or a support group. We can seek out spiritual direction from mentors or confess our sins to a pastor or Christian friend. These are all ways that we can connect with the Body of Christ.
Service: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should also do as I have done for you"(John 13:14-15). When we serve others we practice the discipline of humility. Just as Jesus humbled himself to wash the dirty feet of his disciples, we are called to humble ourselves to care for others. We can serve in small and large ways; it's not what we do that matters, but the attitude with which we do it. Through service we show God's love to those who desperately need to know that they are loved.