Spiritual Formation….By Way of the Furnace

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.

7 Responses to “Spiritual Formation….By Way of the Furnace”

  1.   weswoodell Says:

    Sounds like good stuff – especially the “discipline of forgiveness.”

    That’s a discipline I could use a litte bit more of I think.

  2.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    I will have to look it up and that chapter on forgiveness might be a tough one.

    I laughed out loud at the last paragraph. Are you saying my chapters are a cut above!!?? 🙂

  3.   rich constant Says:

    Dichotomies John Mark dichotomies.
    Each and every one of us has them.

    each and every one of his tries to hide Them. each and every one of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ
    I could go on and on John Mark.
    You brought up Hebrews I like that part in Hebrews that says that God learned obedience quite amazing.
    Jesus was on the brink of death and disaster and prayed for a way out.
    This speaks of a one-time event even God would never do this again, separate himself from himself for the redemption of a creation, and to prove to the creation that God is good and that they might have hope in the Scriptures, that just as God was faithful to his will prior to the resurrection he will be faithful to the second coming and the redemption of the purchased possession.
    What must’ve been like for the two guys walking down the road asking the stranger have you not heard, and they said did your heart not burn within you as he explained the Scriptures from Moses and the prophets all the things that his Christ must suffer.
    An appreciation of the old
    covenant prophets, has pulled my fat out of the fire so many times John Mark I can’t count the times.
    Yes dichotomies are part of all of us John Mark,
    how ignorant are those who throw rocks and live in glass houses, my brother.
    Our home is where our house is John Mark, there are so many analogies made by our Lord .
    Who shall deliver me from the body of his death.
    I thank God through Jesus Christ.
    How many of us really want to devote ourselves to the Lord and his kingdom.
    Who really controls what goes on between my two ears.
    If my reality is just a process of my mind.
    Can I not choose to stick my nose in the Scriptures, and change my reality.
    It’s so much easier with help, you know like-minded folk.
    You know those people that want to talk behind your back and make fun of the way you said something, doesn’t he have some strange ideas, did you hear what he said the other day.
    Did you hear what he did, did you look him up on Google, yep John Mark the only way that some people can be built up is to run everybody down.

    I guess that’s why I’m alone so much I’m one of those strange fellas.
    I don’t see where the Lord says it’s necessary for anyone to understand you or what you do, or why you do it. Why you said it.
    If a person chooses even today they can mind their own business and talk on good things.
    Think on good things.
    You know if I want to John Mark, I can carry on a conversation with the Lord all day if that makes me weird, I’ll let the Lord be the judge of that.


  4.   Steve Kenney Says:

    Spiritual disciplines prepare us for the fire, but at times they feel like the fire. It’s easy to think of ourselves as tested merely because we consistently prepare for testing. If I pray every day on the hours, and if I fast monthly, but yell at my wife and get angry at the church committee, have I accomplished anything? If I simplify my life and start every day in quiet contemplation but am not filled with love, has anything been gained?

    You’ve reminded me that preparation is not the trial. Running well in practice is not the same as winning the race. In fact, we are reminded in our disciplines of our need for supernatural help to survive the fires. God help us!

    Grace & Peace

  5.   rich constant Says:

    steve i would ask :
    is there a difference between a big and little sin, or is it just the social ramifications. I think the point of maturity is seeing ourselves in other people. We’re told that certain people are underdeveloped in the faith never leave the minor principalities of the doctrine of Christ.
    When I read the first part of the Ephesian letter, and put that together with the parting words of the Lord, go and teach and baptize them.
    Who gets all those spiritual blessings.
    If a person is retarded in their development, I’m sure there is a good reason why but then we might not choose to have fellowship with that person, because of our perception of what sin is. Now who is retarded.

    At that point we as brothers have made a fatal error.
    We have set ourselves up by not dealing with God’s forgiveness and his love for us, and participating in that love by not sharing with a brother that we see is in need.
    I wonder when love see’s sin does it turn its back and walk away or does it say…
    engage in Fellowship praying always, love covers a multitude of sins.
    I’ve done both the things that you’ve mentioned honestly more than I’d care to admit but then I’ve learned to drive a car more moderately and within the framework of the legal speed limit.
    We all fall apart all the time.
    If we all knew each other a little better maybe we wouldn’t fall apart as much of the time.
    I’m of the opinion any more, as I look at my brother in a disparaging way, I make myself a hypocrite.
    Seems to me one of the first questions that was asked” am I my brother’s keeper”…

  6.   rich constant Says:

    the point was …

    sorry john mark…

    Do we call on God as a rationalization for our own failure to be transparent and honest with our brothers, and to use the Fellowship as intended by the divine nature that showed us how…
    it seems to be an awful convenient way out of engaging in the work of sharing.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I don’t think it is a rationalization. Rather, it is a both/and…a participation in the divine life and a participation in the human community which is designed to mirror (image) the divine life.

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