What Is Spiritual Formation?

Human beings are creatures of the future. We are works in progress, shaped by the constant rhythms of nature and the unexpected turns of history. Sometimes elated and sometimes burdened by our unfinished condition, we live our days conscious that “what we shall be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2). A sense of our true identity is always just beyond our grasp, always awaiting us, it seems, just around the next bend in the road.

As nature and history interact with a human existence that is incomplete, pliable, and rich with potential, personal formation occurs. Human beings are formed by the sculpting of will, intellect, and emotion into a distinct way of being in the world. Such formation of personal character will assume a wide range of expression depending on our location geographically, socially, economically, and culturally. Family values, social conventions, cultural assumptions, the great turning points of an epoch, the painful secrets of a heart—these and many other factors combine to form or deform the direction, depth, and boundaries of our lives. Formation is therefore a fundamental characteristic of human life. It is happening whether or not we are aware of it, and its effect may as often inhibit as promote the development of healthy, fulfilled humanity.

For people of biblical faith, nature and history of themselves are not the final sources of personal formation. Rather, they are means through which the God who formed all things molds human beings into the contours of their truest destiny: the unfettered praise of God (see Isaiah 43:21). To be shaped by God’s gracious design is a particular expression of personal formation—spiritual formation. . . . For Christians, the pattern and fulfillment of God’s work of spiritual formation converge in a single figure—Jesus Christ. Spiritual formation in the Christian tradition, then, is a lifelong prcess through which our new humanity, “hidden with Jesus Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), becomes every more visible and effective through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

From an essay by John Mogabgab in
The Meeting God Bible: Growing in Intimacy with God through Scripture

Moving Forward in Spiritual Formation

First, we journey forward in faith. The Christian life is lived in relationship with Jesus Christ. We express our faith in Jesus through the character and conduct that emerge from that relationship. Our “belief system” is the total expression of who we are and what we do. The ongoing process of spiritual formation begins and continues with faith. Having given ourselves to God through an initial commitment, we subsequently respond to God, so that our faith grows deeper and stronger. The Holy Spirit is the dynamic energy that conforms us to the likeness of Christ in both personal and social holiness.
We never “graduate” from the spiritual life. Instead, we awaken each day to discovery. Frank Laubach began each day by praying, “God, what are you doing in the world today that I can help you with?” We move forward in spiritual formation believing that God does indeed invite us into holy partnership.

Second, we move forward with a sense of “fit.” When David volunteered to fight Goliath, King Saul clothed him with the royal armor (see 1 Samuel 17.38). Because the armor didn’t fit, David gave it back to Saul, preferring his own clothing and his own weaponry—five stones and a slingshot. David’s strategy may have been contrary to all standards of military preparedness, but it worked! Likewise, our approach to God in spiritual formation must “fit” each of us individually. The Christian life is a way of the heart, and we must follow our hearts in the way we move forward in spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is not random or subjective, however. On the contrary, the choices we make will conform to the larger patterns of faith development in our lives.

Third, we move forward in the presence of friends. Spiritual formation does not happen in isolation. One sign of our genuine progress is the desire to be in “communion with the saints”—in community with others. Community is the context in which much authentic spiritual formation takes place. Through community we express our faith in Jesus Christ—a faith that includes the conviction that Jesus has many brothers and sisters whom we are called to love and with whom we are called to live. Our faith community consists of our particular affiliation with a congregation and the related smaller groups that exist within it, as well as our spiritual friends, mentors, and teachers. Living in community educates, guides, protects, restores, inspires, forgives, heals, and sustains us and sends us out into the world.

Finally, we move forward by adopting a form. Faith and form are inseparable. Form provides the concrete structure on which spiritual formation is built. We are offered a variety of forms and styles, plans and programs to shape and sustain our discipleship. As we become rooted in the spiritual life, we will likely gravitate toward particular resources and practices that suit us and satisfy our needs. Our choices are determined by factors such as gender, race, personality, faith tradition, age, and stage in life. There is nothing wrong with settling into a particular form of spiritual formation. It is as normal as our choices in areas such as literature, art, and music. We never have to apologize for finding and developing those patterns to which we are drawn.
Though it’s perfectly acceptable to choose a form that suits us, we also need to be open to broadening our experience by trying new forms, traditions, writers, and so on. There is indeed a great variety in the ways God speaks to us. A look back through church history reveals that the saints were not only deeply spiritual people but also people with broad interests that expanded and informed their spiritual formation. Catherine of Siena was involved in the political affairs of her day. John Wesley was fascinated with medicine. Peter Marshall was a great game player.
There is a world of blessing and benefit available to us when we embrace all the experiences God offers us. If our spiritual formation is grounded in the Bible, we stand on a sure foundation that enables us to reach upward and outward to every dimension of development that God—who created the earth in all its fullness—has provided.

The earliest Christian creed contained only three words: “Jesus is Lord!” It was the simplest way believers knew to declare their utter confidence in the risen Christ to lead and guide them into an abundant and everlasting life. Wherever you are right now, there is good news: God loves you more than you can imagine. Move forward with assurance. The best is yet to be!

Condensed from an essay by Steve Harper in
The Meeting God Bible: Growing in Intimacy with God through Scripture