Three Misconceptions regarding Spiritual Formation
When it comes down to it, Christian spiritual formation is the process of by which a person’s life gets formed into the image of Jesus. This sounds simple enough in until we consider that divorce rates, addictions and sinful behaviors among those inside the church are approximately the same as those outside the church. Many desire to grow and mature in their walk with Christ, but surprisingly few know how. How does a person’s life get formed into the likeness Jesus? This is a good question. I want to dispel some common misconceptions we have about how spiritual formation takes place in our life. Below is the first of three common misconceptions that we have about how we are formed into the likeness of Christ.
Misconception #1 “The right knowledge and information will make me like Jesus”.
While Bible knowledge is pertinent to spiritual formation, knowledge alone cannot transform us. We have often confused knowing more about Jesus with becoming like Jesus. When I was working with college students, each year we’d tackle a ropes course. Now, before beginning the course each student would receive adequate knowledge about how to traverse the course and how completely safe the course was. Despite all of this solid information from experienced and trustworthy guides, once the students stood on a small platform 40 feet in the air, knowledge and information alone couldn’t transform their terrified hearts. Their heads might have thought “this is safe”, but the rest of their body was screaming “Get me down, this is nuts”. Information has the power to inform, but is powerless to transform. The only way to achieve success on a ropes course is through the experience of actually doing it. You see, there’s always an experiential element to God’s shaping us into His image. He calls us not only to know, but to trust, to risk, to routinely act upon that which we know in our heads to be true. One area that we are continually building into our lives here at Hayward Wesleyan is the experiential element. As teachers we’re no longer only asking, “what do I want people to know”? But also, we’re asking “how can we provide experiences that help people apply what they’ve just learned to everyday life experiences”? Rick Warren probably summed it up most vividly. He says, “Information without application is abortion”. As the seed of knowledge and information is sown into our hearts, may we cultivate it into completion by crafting the truths into daily life circumstances so that we “grow up in all aspects into Him” (Ephesians 4:15).
Misconception #2 “Positive, ‘feel good’ experiences will best make me like Jesus”.
Oh how I wish! A large American church recently did a poll that contained the following question. “Think about an era in your life when you felt like you were growing most spiritually. What factor most contributed to that growth?” In this simple survey the number one answer was overwhelmingly “Pain!” While we all enjoy “feel good” moments in life, the hardships and difficulties we experience are often the highest contributors to our spiritual growth. Thus, the old adage “No pain, no gain” really is true.
Because of the influence of our culture, many well intending Christians have bought into the fallacy that God’s primary function in this world is to produce as little discomfort in our life as possible. God is our God as long as things are going swell, yet when we hit some painful bumps along the journey we wonder why God has abandoned us. This type of thinking is simply not biblical. The Bible teaches that while God is not the author of pain, He does allow us to go through painful and difficult times to help us become more like Christ. So, what is it specifically about the nature of pain that helps us to grow spiritually? Pain helps us to grow because it reminds us of two very important things in becoming like Christ.
First, pain reminds us that we are vulnerable. Pain has a way of exposing the feeble, frail and finite side of life. Where there is little or no discomfort in life we can subtly begin thinking that we are invulnerable and in complete control in this world. I remember when my son Caleb was one and a half and learning to climb stairs. I still remember the little guy with pacifier in hand smiling and swaggering from the top step as if the forces of gravity had no control over him. Having had no prior context of pain associated with falling, he actually thought he was invulnerable. The reality was that he was flirting with disaster. So, despite our constant warnings to our little humpty dumpty, one day, when mom and dad couldn’t protect him, he had his great fall. Fortunately it was only from the third step, not the thirteenth! Of course, this painful incident reminded him that he’s only human after all. The painful bruises and bumps of life remind us that we are not ultimately in control. The pain that we experience in life helps us to grow in ways we never would without it. C.S. Lewis once penned that “God whispers in our pleasure and screams in our pain.”
Second, pain reminds us that we need outside assistance in order to become whole again. From the irritating toothache, to the broken and crumbling marriage, painful experiences create within us a desire to seek outside help like nothing else. Pain brings us to the point where we recognize that healing and wholeness cannot come from within, but must be sought through an outside source. So often it’s precisely our discomfort that forces us to take action…to change our perspective…to seek outside help. As I write I think of my good friend Tim Young who suffers from chronic back problems that include constant tinges of pain that shoot through his lower back down into his legs resulting in often agonizing days and sleepless nights. The doctors prognosis is that little can be done. He recently shared with me that it is precisely his pain that has taught him to seek harder after God and to be sustained by Him on a moment by moment basis. Tim’s pain and discomfort in his life remind me of another man who was very familiar with pain. The apostle Paul. Paul talks openly about a “thorn in his flesh” that he struggled with in life (II Corinthians 12). In II Corinthians 12:10 Paul comes to the conclusion that “when I am weak, then I am strong”. In other words, through the weakness of our personal predicament we are reminded that we have the outside assistance of a God that’s promised to grant us the grace we need to get by no matter what difficulty life may throw at us.
Like it or not. Pain has a big part to play in forming us in Christ-likeness. Peter concurs. “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner” (I Peter 4:12-13 The Message).
Misconception #3 “Trying real hard to do what is right will make me like Jesus.”
Now at first glance this seems like a good idea. Trying real hard at something is no doubt a positive step. However, speaking from personal experience I know that trying alone won’t lead us into Christian maturity. There is a far more successful way to overcome obstacles in life than merely trying. It is called training. In fact the Bible speaks about training as a normal part of the Christian life. Paul compares the Christian life to a race and says, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (I Corinthians. 9:25). He later urges Timothy, “Train yourself in godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). Jesus says that “every disciple when fully trained will become like his master” (Luke 6:40). Most of us have been taught to try real hard in the Christian life, but have we been taught to train effectively? Let’s answer two basic questions surrounding this idea of training. First, why is training so valuable to maturing as a Christian? And second, what does training look like in everyday circumstances?
Training is important to success in every area of life. Take the American Birkebeiner, the largest Cross-country ski race in North America located up here in Hayward, Wisconsin. It boasts of 51 grueling kilometers of hilly trails. How many of us would be able to ski the Birkie on race day simply on will power alone? Perhaps a few could. However, for the vast majority of us will power alone wouldn’t cut it. We’d poop out half way or injure a body part along the way. In order to finish the race training would be essential. That’s because training allows us to become what we cannot become by direct effort alone. The same is true in the Christian experience. Without training our hearts, minds and bodies to routinely submit in obedience to God we’re sure to fail. We see this so clearly at Gethsemane. It’s Jesus’ final hour. If ever he needed prayer partners it was at this point. His three friends Peter, James and John are with him to support him, keep watch and pray for him. Here these three are in the middle of the most climactic scene in human history . . .and what are they doing? Sleeping! Jesus approaches them in their groggy state and whispers, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Now I’m sure these three disciples were trying to stay awake. Their spirits were willing; however they obviously had not trained their flesh in such a way as to experience victory. How many areas of our lives that are marked by habitual sins, bad habits or immoral choices might we internally scream, “the spirit is willing, but my flesh is so weak!”
We all want to experience victory and reach maturity in all areas of our life. However, many never reach maturity in the Christian life and it’s not because of lack of trying. However, it’s often due to a lack of training. Jesus, the disciples and the early church fathers embraced the importance of training in the Christian life. It’s not until recent times that we’ve fallen captive to the notion that quick-fixes can replace hard training (sort of like what we’ve done with dieting and all of those TV infomercials on exercisingJ). Quick-fixes cannot replace consistent training. The training regimens Christians have used throughout the centuries are known as the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are practices that help to strengthen our hearts, minds and bodies for the battles of life. Prayer for integrity on the way to work . . . studying the book of Philippians to learn how to embrace joy . . . spending time alone with God in silence of a still woods, . . fasting from something that I normally indulge in to teach me moderation and dependency on God . . . serving a neighbor in need when I’d rather serve myself . . . living simply by having the courage to say “no” to those things that wish to steal time with the family . . . All of these practices (and there are many more) help us overcome sin and live a life pleasing to God. Like physical exercise, each spiritual discipline helps develop different parts of us in different ways. As Dallas Willard states, “The spiritual disciplines help us by assisting the ways of God’s kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies.” The good athlete trains in light of the contest that he/she will be facing. He/She recognizes that there will be a test ahead and much training will be necessary in order to experience victory. Trying really hard on game day alone will not suffice. Our lives are quite similar. There are tests ahead that will challenge our honesty, integrity, courage, self-control, patience, fidelity and faith. In life we can assume that these things are coming. The question is how we are preparing for the day when we are tested. As a teacher of mine used to say, “Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail”. There’s much truth here. May our lives be characterized by preparation for the tests through a consistent process of training.