The Face in the Mirror

I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.

It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…

doughnuts

The doughnuts help.

Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.

Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.

The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.

I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.

But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.

brussel sprouts

If Bible studies were family dinners, teaching about sin would be the Brussel sprouts of the meal.

The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.

And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.

Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.

How-does-a-Man-stop-ageing

And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.

Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.

There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.

However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.

love-the-sinner-570x187

And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.

Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.

As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.

Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.

On Rest (Lenten Reflections, Week 7)

I write this early in the morning on Good Friday, at the welcome desk in the lobby of the chapel. To my left is a simple, black and white sign indicating the starting point for my church’s Stations of the Cross prayer exercise. A little c.d. player spills gentle, acoustic ballads into the solemn atmosphere. In each of eight classrooms behind me, there is a small table bearing the name of each station, a corresponding Scripture text, and an artistic, black and white photograph imagining eight individual seconds of an event that unfolded in the early morning hours of the first Good Friday 1,990 years ago, give or take a couple of years.

My mind is not in this… yet. I am still imbibing my first cup of coffee, still going over in my head the setup for today’s prayer exercise to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, still wondering if the air conditioning is going to cut on. (Oh, there it goes. That’s good.)

But my mind is also toeing the high-cliff edges above a reservoir of doubt. In the past couple of days, my soul has been bombarded by troubling news and dark truths. News stories have flashed across my little smartphone screen, informing me of chemical warfare and subsequent retaliation; of a massive bomb dropped in Afghanistan (Oh, not a nuclear bomb. That’s… good?); of North Korea threatening to test an actual nuclear bomb; of the president of Turkey actively pursuing despotism. To top it off, I just finished a podcast all about super volcanoes. Did you know that when the super volcano residing beneath Yellowstone Park finally explodes, it will release 580 cubic miles of molten rock and dust up to 16 miles into the atmosphere, inevitably triggering a nuclear winter that will almost certainly bring human life to screeching halt?

Well, now you do.

I behold a world of chaos, of natural and man-made disasters roiling just beneath the surface of quotidian life. Then I step into the pre-dawn dark of this chapel lobby, and I click on the little spotlights that illuminate eight simple images of a first-century Jewish peasant scalded to death by a brief steam vent of that chaos. And I am reminded that a Christian is one who is supposed to believe this betrayed and beaten and brutally assassinated Jewish peasant is, somehow, in control of everything else. That there is no measure of chaos, momentary or catastrophic, to which he cannot speak a pacifying word – that he cannot, if he would choose, remove entirely from reality itself.

No wonder so few people in this world truly believe, let alone truly follow, this Savior. It does not merely seem as if the scales are tipped in the other direction; it seems like a joke to believe some massacred miracle-worker from an utterly insignificant blip of a town within a long-lost empire could possibly hold power over a gentle spring breeze, let alone all the world and all its contentious inhabitants.

It is a difficult thing to apply ourselves to the disciplines of which I wrote in my last post. But it is a far more difficult thing to rest in the Master who guides us in his discipline. To accept that what I am doing with my life – these commitments I am making and striving to keep – holds any consequence, makes any difference. Because, in the scheme of things…

But things don’t have schemes, it turns out. World powers serve a lie that one violent act can end violence, rather than naturally necessitate another. World leaders falsely believe that the pinnacle of achievement is asserting their authority, even though millennia have proved all authority is fleeting. And the world itself simply spins and shifts and rumbles along, a slave to chemistry and physics. There is no scheme – no rhyme, no reason – to what it does.

The only scheme belongs to God alone. The only efficacious plan is the one of a Heavenly Father who sends his Son to model true humanity to misguided humans, and to surrender to that misguidedness to the extreme point of blood and nails and death.

It makes no sense… to me. To us. But, then again, I’m a misguided human. When false schemes frustratedly vent their steam, I quake in my boots. I cannot comprehend the mind of the Lord; I cannot fathom his divine logic.

All I can do is rest.

Rest in his power. In his authority. In his order.

If this season of Lent has taught me anything, it is that discipline without rest is just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Repentance without reassurance is pointless. Purgation without peace is worthless. Confession without joy, meditation without stillness… it is all for naught if we cannot lay our myriad fears and doubts and disbelief at the feet of our Savior and say, “Please cast these shackles so far away they cannot be remembered. And defend me, because this world loves to jangle about in its carefully fashioned chains. It loves to rattle sabres and hear the cruel and pretty sounds they make. Guard my eyes. Preserve my ears. Still the anxious beating of my heart. Help me, glorious God, holy Other, to rest in you.”

On Purgation (Lenten Reflections, Week 3)

In last week’s post, I compared repentance and the process of transformation that follows to the demolition and renovation of a house. I told you that spiritual maturity doesn’t come all at once, and that there is much work for us to do in order to experience the qualities of transformation.

So, exactly what kind of work am I talking about?

Early in the fourth century C.E., a Roman general named Constantine won a series of decisive battles against his political opponents, and for whatever reason, he felt that the God of the Christians somehow had a hand in this success. In his ascension to the throne, Constantine legalized and rapidly legitimized Christianity throughout the empire. And even if he didn’t end up professing the faith until he was on his death-bed, this was nothing short of a watershed moment not just for the Christian faith, but for religious history in general. Suddenly, it was perfectly legal to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world. It was completely above-board to gather regularly in order to praise “the one true God.” From that moment on, being a Christian wasn’t just harmless – it was the gold standard of Roman citizenship.

In response to this whiplash-like shift in Christianity’s relationship with culture, devoted followers of the Risen One realized that what once had been the ideal expression of faithfulness was no longer possible. Before Constantine, Christians who lived out their love for Jesus without compromise were often martyred – burned alive on stakes or pyres, tortured before gathered crowds, and, of course, crucified. And yet, as horrific an event as martyrdom was, the persecuted Church came to see it as the ultimate act of fidelity to God. Now, however, with the complete decriminalization of the Christian faith, martyrdom was off the table as a means of expressing one’s matchless devotion to God.

In response to “imperial Christianity,” many Christians who found this new, cultural faith suspect chose a new ideal expression of faithfulness. They withdrew from society and all of its creature comforts. They exiled themselves to remote deserts and harsh wilderness environments where culture could not tempt and taint them. And they began teaching a new method of spiritual practice – the way of asceticism. Granted, ascetics were nothing new, but joining fierce simplicity and the pursuit of suffering with Christian devotion had never been the norm. However, these “Desert Fathers” insisted not only on the need to remove oneself from the worldly trappings of civilization, but also to purge the carnal accumulations that affix themselves to our souls.

They spoke of something known as katharsis, the willingness to search our souls and identify the selfishness and weaknesses bedded down in the dark, hidden places within us. In order to rid ourselves of the earthly debris and spiritual rot pervading our inner beings, we must first recognize the extent of it. The standard practices of the ascetics – silence, solitude, fasting, even flagellation – puts the believer in a position for this deep “soul-searching,” and leads them to cry out for God’s divine, inside-out renovation.

As a pastor, while I don’t advocate full-blown asceticism, I do recommend believers learn about and attempt most of the ascetic practices (self-flagellation not being one of them). These ancient spiritual disciplines are incredibly powerful experiences, and accomplish much more than katharsis. However, the process of purgation is certainly one of their primary benefits.

Jesus himself seemed to support the concept of katharsis. A large portion of his famous “Sermon on the Mount” focuses on the inner catalysts for sinful behaviors. Consider the following statements from Matthew 5:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (21-22)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (27-28)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (38-39)

The worst thing we can do in our interpretations of Jesus’ sermon is to chalk these statements up to hyperbole. While the Savior does indeed make use of exaggeration in his rhetoric, none of the above statements are wholly hyperbolic. Rather, they are indicative of his understanding that sin is not simply something that is done, but also something that invades us like a parasite, festers, and methodically corrupts us. It is both a contagion and a cancer.

Concurrently, the other dangerous thing modern-day Christians can do is consider personal holiness to be an unattainable ideal – a pipe dream no normal person will ever experience. As a pastor, I am deeply committed to proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace – of unconditional, divine love that knows no bounds. However, just because believers live under God’s extraordinary grace does not mean we should be okay with our sin and weakness. While not necessarily biblical, the old adage, “God loves you as you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way” is a truth we must accept if we ever want to enter intentionally into the process of spiritual transformation.

These days, while we may get a rush out of shaming those we disagree with, when it comes to our own, individual sense of shame, we don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about it. If we pray about our sin, we are quick to name what we did wrong, ask for Christ’s covering of those actions, and move on. And while there is nothing incorrect about such prayers, they rarely reach the full, purgative experience they should – the kind of exercise in prayer and meditation that not only names our sins, but allows the Holy Spirit to point his searchlight into the dank recesses of a soul that has housed a capacity for such evil habits. We must not wallow in our sin, but we must not ignore its far-reaching roots either.

It is no easy thing to let the Spirit of God shine his light into the shadows of our souls. But it is an essential part of transformation. To return to the renovation metaphor, it is the moment we enter inside our decrepit houses and begin identifying all the things that must be purged, swept up, and stripped away before the work of renewal can begin. Sometimes, this cleansing is easy – shoving excess clutter into trash bags, or pulling down old screens caked with dust. Other times, however, we find cracked beams, rotting floorboards, and purposeless walls, all of which must be torn away, piece by piece, if this old house will ever be made beautiful again.

So, may you not shy away from katharsis, no matter how uncomfortable those first forays into the cobwebbed cellar of your life may be. This is dirty work – no one ever said it wouldn’t be. But you have a co-laborer with you every step of the way. He holds a bright light from which no dirt or decay can hide. He is here to show you everything this old, rundown soul can be. Trust him. He’s been doing this kind of work for thousands of years.

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

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By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?

The Answer in the Question

I’m two months into a new position at a new church. That position is Minister of Spiritual Formation. Apparently, the title isn’t self-explanatory, because upon introducing myself to church members, I am often asked to explain what exactly I do at the church.

Now, the puffed-up, self-centered part of me wants to balk at such questions, and the cynic in me wants to scoff and say, “What do you mean? Do you ask the music minister or the youth minister to explain what it is they do?” But, at the same time, the realist in me just gets anxious.

"Whatever happened to a simple "'preciate ya'" and a handshake?"

“Whatever happened to a simple “‘preciate ya'” and a handshake?”

Here’s why. Several years ago, I remember sitting in an interview with a church’s search team and being asked essentially the same question. The woman who asked it had done her homework on me; from where I sat across the conference table, I could see her detailed notes written into the margins of my resume, a legal pad replete with questions she considered asking me, and underneath that a black, three-ring binder containing photocopies of several posts from my blog. Perusing these for a few seconds, she looked back up at me and said, “You write a lot in your blog about ‘spiritual formation.’ It seems like that term comes up a lot. I was just wondering, what is spiritual formation?”

I remember feeling simultaneously excited and apprehensive by her question.

Excited, because this was one of the first interview questions that had to do with my personal convictions and interests in ministry (as opposed to programs I had started and events I had planned), and it would be refreshing to speak to a deeper level of what it means to be a minister.

Apprehensive, because I was hardly prepared to give a succinct and comprehensive answer to her question.

"Uhhhh... no comment?"

“Uhhhh… no comment?”

You see, at the time “spiritual formation” was still somewhat of a nebulous concept to me, despite however many times the term found its way onto my blog or into my lessons. It was something I was profoundly interested in, of course, but also something that intimidated me as much as it inspired me. I was convinced I wanted to focus on it in my ministry, both in philosophy and practical direction, but despite collecting several books on the subject, I was still unsure how to work with, in, and toward spiritual formation.

Still, it is not like me to forego offering my opinion on anything. So when this woman asked her question, I let very little silence fall before I opened my mouth to speak. However, another person on the search committee beat me to answering. He said quickly and dismissively, “It’s just another word for ‘discipleship.'”

His answer threw me off, and I slowly closed my mouth. It’s tricky enough to respond to the open-ended question, “What is spiritual formation?” Explaining the error in confusing it with discipleship, especially in the context of a job interview, is a whole other level of difficulty.

"Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness."

“Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness.”

The Hunt for a Good Definition

I learned two things in that interview. The first was that it is not uncommon to encounter long-time, active church members who have little idea what spiritual formation is. The second was that I was one of them.

Defining spiritual formation is not necessarily a hard thing to do. People have been offering their elucidations on the term for quite some time. (Jim Smith just wrote a great series of posts covering it from every angle.) However, because every person whom the Spirit forms is a unique individual woven together by an elaborate and distinctive collection of characteristics, attributes and idiosyncrasies, sometimes the only definition that seems to truly fit is the one you craft yourself.

How pompous can you be, Merriam-Webster?

You don’t know everything, Merriam-Webster.

After the interview, I at least knew where not to start. I knew spiritual formation was not simply another term for discipleship. The two are intimately related, for sure, but even my limited understanding cried out against belittling either term by calling it a mere synonym of the other.

I decided to start with defining discipleship, something that did not intimidate me as much. Oddly enough, it was this endeavor that led me to an answer for the other.

Defining discipleship seemed easy enough; I just looked more closely at its root word: disciple. Once I cleared away the cobwebs of antiquated Christianese words that were part of my small town Baptist church upbringing – words like “discipleship training” and “church discipline” and “Disciple Now Weekend” – I was able to return to the original meaning of the word. From the Greek mathetes, meaning learner, pupil or apprentice, it was often used to describe the students of a rabbi, and in the case of the Gospels, this means Jesus. Rabbinic disciples were meant to learn from their teacher, to emulate them in every way possible, and, eventually, to carry on that rabbi’s teachings – also known as their rabbi’s “yoke” – as a formative part of their own.

If this is not the very example provided us by the likes of Peter, James and John, I don’t know what is.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

So, if discipleship is the commitment to being a disciple, and being a disciple means emulating one’s teacher, then Christian discipleship simply means, as one of his disciples wrote, “walking as Jesus did,” and another added, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is both the example and the focal point for our thoughts, words and actions.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was all right there in the word itself. It wasn’t complicated.

The Title Is Self-Explanatory

Naturally, this led me to reconsider the term “spiritual formation,” taking again the root word – or, in this case, the root words. “Spirit” and “forms.” I was struck by the fact that these two words alone was almost a workable sentence in itself. Spirit forms. What is more, it sounded as much like a declaration as it did a reminder. In John 16, Jesus declares that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth. And every time I try to arrange and organize and methodize my life so that I might feel like a more effective person, my inevitable shortcomings bring God’s reminder: “No, Bo. The Spirit forms. Not you.”

This, then, must be the first step toward any measure of spiritual formation. There must be the element of surrender. I’ve heard some people describe the concept as a “pursuit of God,” but spiritual formation is not about us chasing after God. Rather, we are the ones who lay down our arms – the dependencies and life structures that rival his promised provision – and wave the white flag. It is not us creeping closer to God’s territory, but rather God invading our once guarded spaces. If it is a pursuit, it is a pursuit of man by the Holy Spirit.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

This is similar to discipleship. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, that person had to deny himself. This doesn’t mean that discipleship and spiritual formation are the same, but it doesn’t reveal that an essential element of the Christian life is the relinquishing of control over our abilities and circumstances.

The difference between the two is that discipleship is the commitment we make to follow Jesus according to his call. Spiritual formation is what takes place once that following begins, when the Spirit begins its transformative work in our hearts and minds.

So, what exactly does a Minister of Spiritual Formation do?

If I’m shepherding a person effectively, then I am helping him understand the principle common to both experiences – that it isn’t all about him. A minister attends to the needs of others, so I’m reminding him that he doesn’t need the worship service to conform to his preferences. That his Bible study doesn’t need to utilize his favorite curriculum. That fellow church members don’t need to think and act the way he feels they should.

"Again with the rattlesnakes?! I really think he should use more copperheads! They much more aesthetically pleasing."

“Again with the rattlesnakes?! Copperheads are much more aesthetically pleasing, Pastor.”

I tell him that what is truly needed is something only God can give. And, if I do this well, he learns to accept that the community of God is something larger and grander than his own imagination’s limits. He comes to see it is infused by a very big and very beautiful God who has a purpose and an agenda so much greater than any one mind can grasp.

A Minister of Spiritual Formation provides opportunities upon opportunities that challenge people to experience the grandeur of God. I’m pointing them to ministries and programs and events and studies not simply because that’s what going to church is all about, but because these things hold the potential to reveal how, as Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

It’s not always the easiest thing to explain, but not everything has to be easy to explain. When people hear my job title and ask me what I do, I’ve stopped sweating the question. Instead, I smile and tell them, “I make sure people aren’t so focused on their own lives that they forget they’re a part of something much, much greater.”

It may not be the answer they are expecting, or the one that clarifies things the way they were hoping when they asked the question. I’ve only been here two months, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do when it comes to helping people live into their own definitions.

But when it comes to explaining spiritual formation to someone, I’ve decided that is as much the Spirit’s job as it is mine.