What is spiritual formation? Spiritual formation is a daily process involving deliberate attention to spiritual disciplines that enable us to grow in intimacy with God and to be conformed to the image of His Son Jesus Christ. This process is informed and guided by understanding ourselves and who we are in Christ. All that we are and all that we do should arise out of and be influenced by the presence of Christ in us.
Are spiritual formation and discipleship two sides of the same coin? Yes, and no. Though they are neither the same nor merely overlapping—they are integrally interwoven. Yet, while interwoven, there are important distinctions that can be made between them. Very briefly, those distinctions are as follows:
Discipleship pertains largely, but not entirely, to knowing and growing. Focus is on understanding God’s Word and its application to life through intentional, systematic study. Attention is given to doctrine, theology, and matters of Christian life and service. Believers are encouraged to study God’s Word, apply it to their everyday lives, serve their church and community in meaningful ways, evangelize the lost and, in turn, disciple them in the faith.
Spiritual formation pertains largely, but not entirely, to being and becoming. Emphasis is upon being conformed to Christ’s image by developing intimacy with Him through deliberate attention to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, practicing God’s presence, devotion to God’s Word, identifying spiritual gifts and learning to operate in them, and developing the fruit of the Spirit. Focus also is upon self-assessment, understanding who we are as persons, how we respond to people and circumstances, and why we respond the way we do, and how these issues impact our lives relationally and spiritually.
Historically, the Church has developed a conceptual understanding of discipleship, though ongoing training is needed to help believers become effective disciples. However, is a significant weakness in understanding and practicing the disciplines of spiritual formation that develop an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Enhancing that understanding would reap tremendous benefit in helping all believers, leadership and laity alike, to avoid many of the influences and pitfalls that can lead to spiritual and moral erosion and greatly augment their effectiveness as disciples of Jesus Christ.
A vital part of spiritual formation and becoming conformed to the image of Jesus Christ is allowing the Holy Spirit to develop His fruit in our lives, the fruit of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). In Chapter 5 of Living in the Spirit, General Superintendent George O. Wood discusses the vital need to develop this fruit, stating,
It’s one thing to receive Christ in our life and acknowledge Him as our Savior and Lord. But there is a process in which He actually becomes Lord and is formed in us so that the personality of Jesus moves into our personality. We express through our own uniqueness the common characteristics and personality that really belong to Jesus. I’ve found that the more I become like Jesus the more uniquely I become myself. We don’t all look like we’re made from the same mold in terms of our personality. We’re all still different. But there is a thread that unites us together because Christ is formed in us. When Christ is formed in us, it means His personality will be duplicated in us.
As the fruit grows in our lives, we become more like Christ, reflecting His character and nature to the world around us. He becomes formed, and thereby visible, in us.
A leading premise in spiritual formation is that being always supersedes doing in the Kingdom of God. Who we are as followers of Jesus Christ is more important than what we are trying to do for Him or His Church.
In Chapter 5, Dr. Wood further states,
The fruit of the Spirit tells us God is far more concerned with who we are than what we’re doing. If you’re looking for God’s will for your life, don’t look first of all at where God wants you to go, even what God wants you to do. Look first of all at what God wants you to be. Probably 99 percent of knowing the will of God is being the person God wants you to be. Because if you are that person, you can go anywhere and do anything and you’ll be guided by God and in His will.
Many disciplines can be observed in the process of spiritual formation. Some of those are listed below and will be addressed further on this site.
In verse 1 of the old hymn, “O, To Be Like Thee,” is found a potent phrase that describes spiritual formation: “Jesus, thy perfect likeness to wear.” The chorus then pleads:
O, to be like thee! O, to be like Thee!
Blessed Redeemer, pure as Thou art;
Come in Thy sweetness,
Come in Thy fullness;
Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.
May this be both our song and prayer!