Spiritual Formation. That’s what I have a degree in. Yes, it’s a real thing, but don’t feel bad for being confused, even today I am sometimes too.

The question,”What is spiritual formation?” is far too familiar. Whether it be out of genuine interest or mocking nature though, I believe that personally knowing how to answer this question with a working definition is essential when on a journey with Jesus. The word working here is very important. You can bet your bottom dollar that in a year I will have a different view on what Christian Spiritual Formation is, and that is okay. Thankfully there is no lack of phenomenal resources in the area of Spiritual Formation, and in order to come to my own working definition, I had to pull from some of them. With that help, I was able to mesh, blend and articulate my own working definition of what exactly it is that I have studied for the last four years of my life: Christian Spiritual Formation is the process by which an individual, alongside others, is gradually changed by the Holy Spirit from the inside-out to become more like Jesus Christ.

There is a lot going on in that last sentence, so I want to explain some of the keywords, and the first one is the word process. It can be attractive to want to change overnight. I mean, I want that the majority of the time, but I realize that is not how it works.

 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
James 1:2-4

If we are wanting any change in our lives at all, we must realize that perseverance is an essential element for that to happen. We cannot expect go from one stage of our journey to the next in one night… it is a journey! To go along with process, I think the word gradually pairs nicely, and compliments well. God doesn’t want an avalanche type, surface change in your life. He wants gradual, slow, glacier type change.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
James 1:12

God wants to bless us, but in order for that to happen we must be willing to “patiently endure” in our gradual process that is spiritual formation.

This next key phrase is great , and so meaningful— alongside others. That two-word phrase describes a factor of spiritual formation that is unparalleled. Henri Nouwen is a well known professor, writer and theologian and in his book, In the Name of Jesus, he tells a story of a time he was heading to Washington D.C. and wondered why he was not being accompanied by another friend. So, he ends up taking his friend Bill Van Buren along. He writes, “Jesus did not send his disciples out alone to preach the word. He sent them two by two.” This is not just a neat little “tweetable” quote, but rather a biblical concept being lived out.

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.
Proverbs 27:17

Our faith journey is not meant to be walked alone by any means, rather we are called to be in community with others. If we try and go through the gradual process of spiritual formation alone, we are destined to fail. We are called to be in this journey together!

The final keyword I want to explain is inside-out. I think understanding what inside-out change actually is may be what most of us struggle with in the church today when it comes to spiritual formation. We want to simply “try harder.” We like to think that once we get our habits broken, or we stop looking at porn, or we stop gossiping, that then we can get our spiritual life in order. It’s actually quite the opposite! Spiritual formation is when our own inner life begins to look more like the inner life of Jesus. This does not mean that spiritual formation is a passive process by any means, but rather one that begins with the heart, and then finds itself showing through the outer life as a by-product. While this may be the most difficult aspect of spiritual formation to understand, I think that it may be the most important, because without this knowledge true, life-long change may never occur.

Christian Spiritual Formation is a dynamic process that continues throughout life. There is nothing easy about it, and nothing about it that we can truly, fully comprehend, but I believe that this working definition is a solid explanation of what it is I have studied the last few years. Maybe my degree is important after all…