What is Spiritual Formation? Start this Not so New Idea in 5-Steps

While Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus, Jeremiah being called up to heaven, and a few more out of the ordinary experiences occur in the Bible:

The usual experience of biblical stories and saints of today and in the past are not so instantaneous.

There are standard practices, exercises, and objectives. In the last 300 years or so, this has been called—spiritual formation.

Today you will learn what spiritual formation means and the steps to take to start walking in this not so new, reliable way.

Let’s dive in.

What is Spiritual Formation?

Everyone gets a spiritual formation—either an intentional form—or becoming formed spiritually without a vision.

Spiritual formation is a way to clarify an intentional process of “becoming spiritual.” 

Purposeful spiritual formation is lengthy and difficult. Your entire personality—physical, social, psychological, and spiritual dimensions—are being transformed with attention and devotion.

Christian spiritual formation is simply a phrase used to describe the process of renewing your mind and transforming your thoughts and behaviors to be “formed” into Christ.

“Spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the spirit driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”

And:

“Spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and it’s result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself.” 

From Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart, a powerful book that shows the 6-dimensions of life and how each is necessary and a part of the spiritual formation process.

Here’s a worthwhile discussion on Spiritual formation by Dallas Willard.

Spiritual Formation in the Bible

While the Bible is an entire book about spiritual formation, The word “formation” is not in the Bible “Formation” was not widely used until the late 1400s.

And because of this, some Christians are afraid to use this phrase, spiritual formation.

Passages such as Colossians 3, Romans 5, 2 Peter 1, and many more reveal the – processes and outcomes of biblical spiritual formation.

In order to begin, or better said, continue on in being formed spiritually so that you become a “good tree bearing good fruit,” another recent phrase— the spiritual disciplinesenter the picture.

Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Disciplines

spiritual formation and spiritual discipline

While all of the spiritual disciplines aid in spiritual formation, these five will most effectively help accomplish the stages shown in 2 Peter 1.

  1. Silence
  2. Solitude
  3. Fasting
  4. Study
  5. Celebration

Here’s how each one of these spiritual formation ideas, “transform” you.

Silence and Solitude

Why do you need silence and solitude in spiritual formation?

To “Know God better and discover what he wants you to do” from 2 Peter 1:5, being able to hear God’s whispers is critical—which is one of the primary benefits of silence and solitude.

Solitude will also help with verse 7, “enjoy other people and to like them.”

It sounds backward that an exercise practiced alone will help you to “enjoy and like others,” but this is what solitude will do.

“Solitude allows us to be genuinely present to people when we are with them.” Richard Foster.

Here are a few ideas to help you begin practicing the disciplines of silence and solitude.

Fasting

How will fasting help spiritual formation?

From 2 Peter 1:6,” learn to put aside your own desires so that you will become patient and godly”

In addition to accomplishing other elements, when you fast, you learn how to be pleasant and sweet when you don’t get what you want.

Don’t begin fasting with a 21-day, one week, or maybe even a whole day fast; you’re likely not ready, and that’s okay.

Incremental improvements are the successful way to become spiritually transformed.

Begin with intermittent fasting, skipping a meal, or fasting from a substance that may be an addiction for short periods of time.

  • Coffee
  • Sweets
  • Alcohol
  • Soda
  • Smokes
  • Netflix

Spiritual formation aims to “learn to put aside your own desires” not to win a flex your fasting muscles in a competition.

Study

Studying in spiritual formation is more than reading only the Bible. Anyone that advocates otherwise is giving you more than the Bible for study—the devotion of time and attention to acquiring knowledge on a subject.

However, reading the Bible in a particular way was where I began to study, likely because my denomination conditioned me for safe theology.

Here are some main objectives when studying the Bible for spiritual formation: “knowing God better” from 2 Peter 1.

  1. Notice God the Father Almighty—Why, hallowed be thy name.
  2. Learn who Jesus and his people are—Kingdom living.
  3. See God’s hand through events in the saints and history.

When studying the Bible, something to pay particular attention to in the last objective—see God’s hand through events in the saints and history—is how much time elapses between “formations” experienced in the stories.

Example:

In 1 Samuel 18:1-5 from the Message, we read:

Verse 1.By the time David had finished reporting to Saul, Jonathan was deeply impressed with David—an immediate bond was forged between them. He became totally committed to David. From that point on, he would be David’s number-one advocate and friend. 

Verse 5. Whatever Saul gave David to do, he did it—and did it well. So well that Saul put him in charge of his military operations. Everybody, both the people in general and Saul’s servants, approved of and admired David’s leadership.

How many days, months, years occurred during these five verses?

What did David’s days look like during this time?

Likely not too much different than your day in your job, other than killing Philistines, lol.

Other Writings

We don’t like to hear words like lengthy and challenging, but like all things worthwhile, a consistent, steadfast pace is the only way.

Francis De Sales in Introduction to the Devout Life penned these words:

“The ordinary purification and healing, whether of the body or the mind, takes place only little by little, bypassing from one degree to another with labor and patience. 

The Angels upon Jacob’s Ladder had wings: yet they flew not, but ascended and descended in order from one step to another. The soul that rises from sin to devotion may be compared to the dawning of the day, which at its approach does not expel the darkness instantaneously but only little by little.”

This “ordinary purification and healing” explanation was refreshing words for me to hear.

All my life, I had begged God for an immediate release of addictions. Or, to be transferred instantaneously into a life of prayer and devotion, but my experience was quite different.

When you read life stories, novels, poems, and books written for life, you receive new insights and encouragements for your spiritual formation journey.

Note:

John Ortberg shares this word of caution when diving into “books.”

“I asked Dallas one day how to know what to read because I’m the kind of person who’ll have stacks of magazines and books on my table–way too many. After another of his long pauses, he said, ‘Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth.”

Celebration

How does the spiritual discipline of celebration help in spiritual formation?

Similar to solitude, the benefit doesn’t seem to match up with the discipline.

When you celebrate, particularly with fun foods and drinks, you learn that God has given these pleasures for enjoyment, and they are—not necessary to fulfill a physical desire that He can fill.

C.S. Lewis causes Screwtape to scold a younger demon Wormwood because of this blunder:

“You allowed him to walk down to the Old Mill and have tea there – a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words, you allowed him two real positive pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this? 

The characteristics of pains and pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality.”

Learning how to celebrate connects you with the reality—you live in a little tiny and beautiful world with a great big God.

Experimenting with “sabbathing” was how I began this worthwhile discipline.

The Most Necessary Step?

I know with a little more understanding of a few key areas mentioned above, being transformed could have occurred more rapidly in hindsight.

The most important of these critical areas is: Understanding the importance of redeeming time.

The incremental improvement of stewarding your time is at the root of success in spiritual formation.

“The disciple will become a disciple when he determines to direct his time, regardless of how un-spiritual that thing he does in the time directed, this discipline will over time permeate all areas of his life.” William Law from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

There’s Hope

For years I had this song—Only You by David Crowder—on a very short playlist named a new life, hoping to find it before I died.

Take my fret, take my fear

All I have, I’m leaving here

Be all my hopes, be all my dreams

Be all my delights, be my everything

And It’s just you and me here now

Only you and me here now

I also held onto verses like, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” Psalm 1:3. 

Knowing that someone could only find the abundant life in The Way, I could not experience feeling this for over 35 years.

It wasn’t until I began to cultivate a deep inner life between God and me that these visions and glimpses became a reality of experience.

I later learned that the journey God was taking me on was the necessary “exercises unto godliness,” which give space for spiritual formation to be realized.


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