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Understanding Christian Spiritual Formation

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For the last eight months, I – and a cohort of about 50 other people – have been working towards earning a certificate in spiritual formation through a 10-month-long certification program called Abide. 

The program consists of monthly 4-hour-long online teachings and trainings, required reading, reflection papers, and the requirement of going on a spiritual retreat and meeting monthly with a soul friend or spiritual director. 

When I first applied to the program, my understanding of spiritual formation was very finite. I had heard the phrase being used by some of my favorite podcasters, like Emily P. Freeman, and would occasionally come across it in different books and online articles. But it wasn’t until I engaged with the term through my Abide program that I gained a better understanding of its meaning. 

Actually, it wasn’t until I realized that spiritual formation is something you live into, not learn or attain through a certificate, that I finally grasped what it truly meant. 

So, friend, if you’re like I was and you’ve heard the phrase ‘spiritual formation’ but aren’t sure what it means, or you feel like you have somewhat of an understanding of its meaning but want to learn more about how to live into it, then today’s blog post is for you. 

The Definition of Christian Spiritual Formation

First, let’s begin with what spiritual formation actually is. 

The language of its definition might change, but for the Christian, spiritual formation is the lifelong process of conforming to the image of Jesus. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit cultivating within the believer a heart and mind that mirrors the heart and mind of Christ. 

There are many Scriptures in the Bible that reiterate the truth that our greatest calling in the Christian life is to be like Jesus. Some of those Scriptures include Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6, and 1 Peter 2:21. But I think there’s one verse that really drives home the invitation and meaning of spiritual formation above the rest, and that’s 2 Corinthians 3:18.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (NIV)

What a beautiful picture of true Christian spiritual formation. In this verse, there is nothing required of the believer that must be achieved or earned. It’s an invitation to behold more of God as we allow our own beholding to lead us into ever-increasing intimacy with our Savior. 

Living Into the Spiritual Formation Journey

Intimacy with God is how we live into our call to be more like Jesus. This is how we live into our own spiritual formation. 

It’s in spending time walking relationally and communing with God that we become more like Him. Author, J. Oswald Chambers in his wonderful book, Enjoying Intimacy with God, says, 

“…as we spend time devoutly “beholding… the glory of the Lord” in the face of Jesus Christ – His virtues, graces, achievements – the Holy Spirit not only reveals Him to us, but He reproduces Him in us. Without conscious volition on our part, He incorporates into the fabric of our spiritual lives the virtues and values we see in Christ, and transforms us increasingly into His likeness. “Beholding… the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image” (2 Corinthians 3:18).”

Jesus’ words in John 15:4 & 8 reiterate this truth that intimacy with Him – time spent in His presence – is how we become more like Him.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me… By this, my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (ESV)

The MSG version of this same Scripture says,

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me… This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.”

Not only do we see that spiritual formation is an invitation into intimacy with God, but it also shows us that a major part of spiritual formation is bearing spiritual fruit, which are essentially the very characteristics of Jesus that we see in Galatians 5:22-23. 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… (NIV).

Those who are living into their spiritual formation journey abide closely in Jesus, walking with Him daily and communing with Him. Because of their close communion with Christ, they also begin to naturally bear the fruit of the Spirit, which shows others the image of Jesus within the believer. 

The Work of the Spirit in the Believer

As someone who has struggled her whole life to prove her worth and value, I breathed a heavy sigh of sweet relief when I realized the truth that spiritual formation can’t happen solely because of my hard work and achievement. I can’t grow my own spiritual fruit, as much as I would like to! 

The reality is that spiritual formation is a slow, ongoing process that births within the believer over the course of a lifetime spent walking with God. It’s the believer partnering with the Holy Spirit, remaining open to His leading and forming, as the Holy Spirit shapes the believer to look more like Jesus. 

This process was never meant to be perfect, that’s why there’s grace upon grace. And it’s probably not going to look like a straight line either, much to my dismay. Life is much too messy for that, and our gentle and faithful Father knows this. That’s why His invitation is always first to abide. To remain rooted in His love and to come Home again and again to the truth of being His Beloved. 

One of my Abide instructors, Steve Macchia, gave his own personal definition of spiritual formation on day one of my Abide class. I want to share it with you here because I think it falls in line beautifully with what the true invitation of spiritual formation is. 

Steve says,

“Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong journey of being transformed by the love of the Father, into the image of Jesus, by the gracious movement of the Holy Spirit, in order to live an abundant life of trust, rest, hope, and joy, accompanied by suffering and sorrow, for the sake of God’s Kingdom and glory, and the fulfillment of his mission of grace, justice, peace, and mercy for all.”

It’s by gazing on the glory of God that some of that God-glory splashes onto us and begins to transform us from the inside out. Living into our spiritual formation journey simply means living into a close, intimate relationship with Jesus. It practically looks like saying yes to the Spirit of God alive within us, trusting Him to direct our steps as we surrender our control and receive His divine grace, allowing His love to totally transform and change us.

It looks like acknowledging our powerlessness so that His power can rest on us and then transform us (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Jesus said in Luke 9:23, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (NIV)

Saying Yes to Jesus

Becoming more like Jesus is a choice. You get to choose whether or not you want to step into a daily, deep relationship with the God-Man and be open to His growing you. You also get to choose not to. 

I pray that your answer would be yes because, after that, all He desires is your willingness to be led. You may go down roads you never expected or wanted to go down, and yes, it may hurt. It probably will hurt, and I speak from experience. 

But the pain that may come from saying yes to intimacy with Jesus – yes to living fully into the spiritual formation journey – doesn’t even compare to the indescribable joy, rest, love, and liberation that awaits you on the other side of those aches and fears. 

His hand is held out toward you, Beloved, waiting patiently and kindly for you to step toward Him and take it. Take His heart and make it your own and you’ll never suffer again alone. You’ll love harder, deeper, and be known in ways that will heal the loneliest, most broken parts of you. 

You’ll find a wholeness that isn’t temporary but permanently wrapped in an identity of Belovedness that can’t be shaken nor stolen. 

Christian spiritual formation is simple, really, while at the same time containing many layers. It’s saying yes to a forever life-long and beyond journey with Jesus. 

Peace be with you,

If you’d like to learn more about the Abide Spiritual Formation program, check it out here:

Spiritual Formation Books

Broken and Whole: A Leader’s Path to Spiritual Transformation by Stephen A. Macchia

Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx

The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things by Leighton Ford

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath by Mark Buchanan 

The Glorious Pursuit: Embracing the Virtues of Christ by Gary L. Thomas

Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard J. Foster 

Enjoying Intimacy with God by J. Oswald Chambers 

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton

Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson

The Broken Way: A Daring Path Into the Abundant Life by Ann Voskamp