Spiritual formation the hard way?
Spiritual formation–being formed into the image of Christ by the Father through the power of the Spirit so that Christ is formed in us from the inside out–comes in at least two ways. Neither are easy; both are difficult. Neither are instantaneous; both are processes.
There is a disciplined, habitual approach to spiritual formation. These are the historic practices of solitude, prayer, Scripture reading, and simplicity of life–those four are common to all traditions of spirituality (and the last one is the probably the most absent among American Christians). There is a growing renewal of these spiritual disciplines in the life of the church and among many Christ-followers. Disciples are trained in the spiritual life through concentrated attention to practicing the presence of God. Any disciple who ignores them places their spiritual life in danger.
In this post, it is a second mode of spiritual formation that captures my attention. I recently finished Gary Thomas’ Authentic Faith: The Power of a Fire-Tested Life. Thomas, whose book Sacred Marriage was quite enriching to my wife and I, is a prolific writer about Christian spirituality. He is the founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality and, I might add, a favorite writer of our good friend Jim Martin. Authentic Faith is an exploration (he calls himself a “tour guide”) of spiritual formation through fiery trials.
Solitude, prayer, Scripture reading, and simplicity shape our inner life as intentional, daily habits. We set aside time and orient our lives through these practices. But the fires of life erupt without warning; they come out of nowhere. We don’t see them coming. They happen to us. Our daily habits may prepare us for them–that is the value of the training, but we have no control over them.
These fires burn through our lives in many different ways. Physical suffering–whether cancer, chronic illness, genetic disabilities–is one fire. It is, as Thomas calls is, the “discipline of suffering.” But there are other fires as well such as “the discipline of waiting,” “the discipline of mourning,” “the discipline of sacrifice,” “the discipline of contentment,” and “the discipline of social mercy.”
One of the more helpful chapters for me was the “discipline of forgiveness.” When we are betrayed, insulted, gossipped about–when we are sinned against, this is something that happens to us. We did not ask for it. In fact, we perhaps never imagined it. It is a trial, a test. It is a burning fire that will either destroy us or refine us. It is a moment when we will reject God’s heart of forgiveness for others or we will embrace his mercy for ourselves as well as for others. It is an occasion for spiritual transformation.
Our circumstances are beyond our control. “Stuff” happens! It can be very ugly, horrid, evil stuff, or it can be seemingly minor frustrations and unmet expectations. Both, however, are opportunities for spiritual growth.
When “stuff” happens, God is present in ways that transcend our ability to grasp but is also present to lovingly refine and/or purge us. It becomes part of the process of transformation just as Jesus himself was formed spirituality through his suffering (he was made perfect by the things he suffered, Hebrews 5:9).
“Stuff” hurts. But the hurt, by God’s grace and power, is a way forward into the Father’s heart, participation in the Son’s suffering, and communion with the groaning Spirit. Living through and processing the “stuff” is part of becoming an image or icon of Christ in this world.
I recommend Thomas’ book. Though I think the chapters are rather uneven–as are the chapters in my own books (especially the chapters written by Bobby Valentine!)–the book will help you process how the “stuff” in your life, your “shack,” may actually become an occasion for spiritual transformation.