I actually came across this in a review of the book Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered in JETS (the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society). I haven’t actually read the book, but the review by Abraham Spiritual FormationKuruvilla of Dallas Theological Seminary (how ’bout that, I’m quoting a Dispensationalist) made enough of an impression on me way back in 2009 that it has stuck with me all these years. What I’d like to focus on here is these six myths, or false models, of spiritual formation:

  1. the quick-fix model that believes one can be “zapped” into spirituality;
  2. the facts-only model that gravitates towards information as the incentive for growth;
  3. the emotional model that overbalances into the deep zone of spiritual experiences;
  4. the conference model that seeks to attain “mountaintop experiences” in large ad hoc assemblies;
  5. the insight model that inclines toward introspection and self-motivated behavior choices;
  6. and the faith model that emphasizes, simply, surrender and submission to God.*

I think this is a pretty good list. I know I’ve been at places in my walk where I just wanted God to “fix me” instantly, but when it comes to spiritual growth, God has a part and I have a part. And so popular in our post-enlightenment rationalism based evangelicalism is the reduction of the conversion experience to “make an intellectual ascent to the following 3-5 doctrinal truths…” and you will be saved! On the opposite end of the spectrum, we charismatics have been (often rightly) accused of simply going after spiritual experiences (for their own sake) and equating that with spiritual maturity. And who among us hasn’t returned from summer camp or a “rockin’ Christian conference” only to find that the challenges of our everyday life were waiting for us there at the bottom of the mountain on Monday morning. Introspection is probably the one I gravitate toward the most, as Ignatian spiritual exercises (like Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, etc.) seem to have taken off in popularity within the Vineyard movement lately. But when it is reduced to the power of self to make right, moral choices, surely the power of the Spirit has been left behind! And while faith is certainly a good thing, emphasized by Jesus throughout the gospels (“your faith has made you well”) we’ve all seen the damage of an overemphasis on faith and the power of positive thinking, our own words, and ‘the disease of the heath and wealth gospel’ (to quote the title of the booklet by Gordon Fee).

So what does spiritual formation really come down to? Conforming to the image of Christ is something that happens over time, over the long haul. For one thing, it comes through the practice of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, worship, regular participation in a healthy local body, sitting under good teaching – see Acts 2:42-47; solitude, silence, fasting, Bible reading) over decades, not days. It comes from continuing to go to church regularly even though we don’t “feel like it.” It comes from calling a friend at 2am, when you’d really rather just give in and keep that sin secret, rather than bringing it into the light. It comes from continuing to trust in, cling to, and rely on Christ through financial trials, the death of a loved one, and painful relationship challenges – don’t give up, don’t throw in the towel! Continue with regular devotions through those long dry periods when God seems utterly silent for days, weeks, months on end! It comes from choosing to do the right thing just because you know its the right thing to do, not because you necessarily feel like doing it. Why? Because He said He would be with us, always… even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20)!

So what do you think? What is spiritual formation? Is it different from sanctification or just another way of saying the same thing? How do we achieve it? What is our part and what is God’s part in our spiritual formation? What are some other myths of spiritual formation? Which of the spiritual disciples have you found to be most meaningful in your walk with Christ, most profound in your own spiritual transformation? Let me know in the comments below.

*Quoted from JETS, vol. 52, no. 3, p. 644 with formatting (numbered list, carriage returns) added by me for readability.