As faithful disciples, we are committed to growing in our relationships with Christ so we can be God's witnesses. However, the overarching question is "how" do we become Christlike?
How we answer this question will determine how we live our lives. Christlikeness can become more of a reality as we participate in the process of letting God form us. Christian spiritual formation simply refers to the transformation of becoming like Christ.
We get our understanding of the word "Spirit" as it relates both to the spirit in humanity and to the Holy Spirit. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:15, maintains, "Those who are spiritual (pneumatikos) discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny" (NRSV). The spiritual person, pneumatikos, is under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, Christian spiritual formation refers to those who are living by the presence and power of the God's Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God.
Being spiritually formed is the transformation of the human person into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
It is the result of the cooperation of our whole lives with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who is alive and working within the whole person — body and soul, thoughts, feelings, emotions, passions, hopes, fears, and dreams.
A definition of Christian spiritual formation first begins with a focus on being "formed" and "transformed." The concept of this is derived from Galatians 4:19 where Paul writes, "My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you." Paul's use of the word "formed" refers to a metamorphosis of the essential nature, not mere outward form. Paul is praying that the inward nature of the Galatian believers become so like Christ one could say that Christ has been formed in them.
This is about the outworking of the grace of God in the changed hearts and actions of human beings.
We cannot "conform ourselves" to the image of Christ, but God is the one who conforms and transforms us by the power of the Spirit.
The story of the Exodus illustrates the process of people on a journey with God. Just as the people of Israel were led out toward freedom, letting God form us leads us out toward freedom in Christ.
This leading out is not directionless but aims at the promised land of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is here. This Christian journey aims at growth in grace toward Christian maturity or sanctifying grace.
A second aspect of Christian spiritual formation focuses on our human participation with God. We are transformed as we participate in the "means of grace," which include such practices as prayer, Scripture reading, fasting, and acts of mercy. The "means of grace" include intentional practices and deliberate actions whereby a person is opened to being transformed in the image of Christ.
Historically the church has discovered that certain inward disciplines, devotional skills and exercises, outward acts of Christian service, and corporate aspects of community and worship keep us in the presence of Christ where the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to do His work.
Thus Christian spiritual formation in the Wesleyan tradition is undergirded by a Wesleyan theology of grace: God and the person act "synergistically" (dynamically together). God's transforming grace freely flows to those who actively received it.
Third, a definition of Christian spiritual formation emphasizes it as a lifelong process that takes place in the context of community. Much of Western Christianity views salvation and spiritual growth as a personal, even a private, affair. In ancient biblical times with a more "collectivist" form of social organization, the overriding significance of the community was taken for granted. In other words, one's very identity was based on the community to which he or she belonged.
Today, however, influenced by the present-day values of society, even the Western church has become fragmented and individualistic — this makes Christian spiritual formation more difficult.
Christian faith is often practiced void of the community. The Christian life is intended to be lived in community, where worship, fellowship, small groups, and service are practiced. It is in this context of spiritual relationships that growth takes place, in and through the community as we gather around Word and Table.
The path toward being an ever-maturing Christian includes joy and success as well as struggle and disappointment. Writers throughout the history of Christianity spend a great deal of time focusing on struggle and suffering, compare it to the suffering of Christ, and suggest it is a necessary aspect of growth and maturity.
Today, many Christians believe faith brings ease and comfort. Such Christians will eventually find themselves disillusioned. But Scripture does tell us that God can use life's struggles to work in us perseverance, character, and hope.
Fourth, Christian spiritual formation includes the nurturing of self in relationship to others. While it is very important to note that the goal of maturing in faith is to make us like Christ, we are not designed to be clones of one another.
To follow Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, we believe that God gives different gifts to us. God does not intend us all to be ears or eyes in the body of Christ. We are to work interdependently, but unless we are being our unique selves and doing our unique parts, the body will not function.
Our relationship with God does not sacrifice our uniqueness — it allows us to become more fully who God created us to be. Christian spiritual formation, then, includes the development of our own unique gifts, personalities, talents, and abilities. As we fully give ourselves over to God, he enables us to become more fully ourselves.
Christian maturity includes self-care. We care for ourselves as we engage in practices of Sabbath, diet, rest, study, and exercise. God's intentions for spiritual development intertwine activities where care of self is not in opposition to our relationship with God and one another.
We become formed and transformed into Christlikeness when we participate in intentional practices in the context of community. Thus, we live a life of love and compassion toward others as we work for the redemption of all things. While being spiritually transformed, we are to serve as Christ served the church and the world.
Thus, Christian spiritual formation can be defined as "a process of being transformed into Christlikeness, through communal practices and participation in the "means of grace," while giving attention to the care of self, which is demonstrated in loving others and being actively engaged in God's redemption of all of creation."
Mark A Maddix is professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship and dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministries at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2014
Please note: This article was originally published in 2014. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.