In his comprehensive work on spiritual formation, Conformed to His Image, Ken Boa writes:
As important as each of these approaches was to me, no one of them was sufficient for understanding the depth and breadth of the Christian life; there was always more.
This has been a source of both frustration and excitement. Frustration, because my quests for a quick fix, a one-size-fits-all approach, or a controllable technique have all failed. Excitement, because I now see that we can hardly scratch the surface of all that God has for us; there are always new surprises. Seen this way, the pursuit of God becomes the greatest adventure of all (p. xii, emphasis added).
I am grateful for Boa’s comments. He is articulating an experience I’ve often had - and it helps to know that I’m not the only one.
I think another emotional response to all of this is discouragement.
How can I ever understand all of the Bible? People get Ph.D.'s on a single verse of it. How can I practice faithfulness to Jesus? There are more books to read… How can I demonstrate love for my neighbor? There are so many needs to meet…
For me, discouragement can lead to resignation - even passivity. If I can’t do it all, then why try?
But I think Boa’s perspective contains the centering wisdom we need. Whatever the approach to growth, whatever the particular need I can meet today, the ‘secret’ is to be responding to God’s pursuit, participating in God’s mission.
Of course I can’t do it all - but I can pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and do my little part.
I wonder if anyone else feels this way? There is “always more”… how do you respond to this?
For me, I’m left sitting with the continual nature of formation…
When I reflected on the process of Christian spiritual formation in the Boa excerpt, the way he initially described it, it sounded as if it were goal-oriented, and he was frustrated because he never seemed to reach his goal. He is longing to arrive at his destination, and each time he thought maybe he was getting close to reaching it, the goal-posts moved – something else gets uncovered; finality eludes his grasp. So there’s the discouraging sense of, “PSYCH. Not there yet.”
But then his use of the word always linked me to the Latin phrase, semper reformanda – always reforming. I have always linked that phrase (with good reason) to THE Reformation and Reformed theology, etc. It encompasses the idea that there will always be something that needs attention or tweaking.
But today the emphasis fell on formation part of reformation. It’s not just that the church (esp. it’s structure and interaction with culture) needs to be always open to reform. And it’s not even that our individual heats are always in need of reforming. It’s that the entirety of life is a formation process. To be human is to be formed, shaped, molded. Paul encourages us to take this seriously, and invites us not into the conforming pattern of the world (Rom. 12:2), but to be transformed by God in order to be conformed to Christ (Rom. 8:29). It is this process that is continual because we can never fully reach it this side of the Jordan.
Or, if we can reach it, we can only do so momentarily. We cannot arrive and then stay there. Isn’t that what Peter, James and John wanted to do at the Transfiguration? “It is good that we are here. Shall we pitch the tents?” But Jesus didn’t stay there for too long. If He was called to continue on, so are we. We journey on into something more.
That news can be discouraging for exhausted travelers who will not rest until they ‘get there’ or for those who are trying to prove themselves. But it can also free us up to actually enjoy more of the actual journey. For is not the journey the means by which our goal (Christ-likeness) is reached?
@kathleen, I’ve continued to reflect on your point here.
If I am enjoying God today, then that is ‘the end’ of formation. Am I perfect? Holy? All-knowing? Completely loving? Ah… no. I have a rather long way to go.
But can I enjoy God today as he loves me and works with me to follow him through every moment of today?
Without the joy of God’s friendship, and the joy of participating in his mission in this moment - whatever that looks like - then where am I really going? What am I actually accomplishing? Spiritual formation is a process that takes place in cooperation with God, who is a good Father.
I love that. After all, what is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. And, even when participation is heart-breaking and painful and difficult to enjoy, God is there, participating with us.
I also wonder if trust is on some level a part of ‘arriving’? A complete, child-like trust in God that is far from naive, but tested in the painful trials of life.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 18:3)
Trust allows relationship to exist, breathe, grow…it is life. So, formation is a relational process (or journey, if you will) grounded in trust. This goal of this process is to become…or, that is, to be transformed by the giving and receiving of love. As relational beings, we will never stop relating – and our circumstances will always be changing – so perhaps this is also a part of the continual, ‘always more’? There is no end to His depths…
I’m currently reading a book called ‘The Unquenchable Flame - introducing the Reformation’ by Michael Reeves and I was reading today about the Puritans. In chapter 6: Reforming the Reformation, he writes,
Who, then, were the Puritans? Perhaps John Milton put it best when he spoke of ‘the reforming of the Reformation’, for that was the united goal of all Puritans. It was not that they thought they were pure, it was that they wanted to purify what in the church and in themselves had not yet been purified. They wanted reform, and while they had some different ideas as to what that should look like, they wanted to apply the Reformation to everything it had not yet touched. They thought the Reformation was a good thing, but that it was not yet complete.
It came to mind again as I read this discussion. How true for all of us that we are so aware that God’s reformation and transformation of our lives is not yet complete. As Carson quoted Boa,
Whilst there can be a sense of discouragement at times, and excitement at other times, I think the Puritans showed that it is also fuel in the engine of putting into practice what we read in scripture. It has the potential of firing us up, to push through that dissatisfaction and knowledge of the incomplete. I think that this must contribute to what stoked the Godly ambition that Paul spoke about when he modelled to Timothy how he had fought the good fight, run the race, and kept the faith, exhorting him in verse 5,
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
To follow this advice must go some way to “understanding the depth and breadth of the Christian life”. This may be an example of when being goal orientated is the right motive for pushing through in our spiritual growth. The outworking is so much bigger than just our own life and spiritual reformation, but that it extends to those to whom we minister or serve, even when ensuring hardship. The goal has eternal consequences not just for ourselves but for those around us, and this is an exciting invitation to continue in responding to God’s uncommon pursuit.