What is Spiritual Formation?

What is Spiritual Formation?

 “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19, NIV) (Emphasis mine).

We all share the same dilemma—we long for life and we’re not sure where to find it. We want the abundant lie Jesus promised but often our journey leads us elsewhere.  The guide we have been given is the desire set deep within, the desire we often overlook or mistake for something else or even choose to ignore.

 In our longing to know God and walk in his ways, however, most of us have followed some kind of prescribed formula for spiritual success.  We believe the right doctrines, live upright lives and attend church consistently.  Yet for all our personal strategies for personal transformation, they do not ultimately achieve what we had hoped for.  Unknowingly we have distracted ourselves from our heart’s desire…God himself. 

 What we have failed to realize is pushing and shoving do not bring life to our souls.  When it’s up to us to make the Christian life “work” we become more concerned about fixing problems, mastering principles, and racking up “brownie” points.  Perhaps that is why after being a Christian for forty years we can remain relatively unchanged.

As long as we think is us who must find God we will surely lose hope.  But the good news is God is pursuing us! In fact, Christian spirituality is the story of “God’s unquenchable and gratuitous love for mankind.”[i]  Because of God’s great love for us, God, through the Holy Spirit is always actively wooing, continually at work keeping us in relationship with himself…“until Christ is formed in us” (Gal. 4:19).  When it’s all said and done, this seems to be the key issue in our life with God: abiding with God in such a way that Christ’s life would become visible in our lives…that we might live and love as Jesus does (John 15; Rom. 8:29; Matt 22:37-40).  What we come to discover is that the Christian life is more about Christ and less about our efforts.  Dallas Willard said, “The Christian life is what you do when you finally realize you can do nothing.” [ii]  It’s about making our home in God and living authentically from that center.

Spiritual formation, thus, is an invitation, by initiative of God himself, to deep inner change through abiding interaction with Jesus himself for the sake of others.

Spiritual formation is ultimately a dynamic journey of the heart (John 7:38; Prov. 4:23).  For once we realize it is God’s nature to seek us out and draw us to himself, we begin to cultivate different things like deepening attentiveness and increasing responsiveness to the initiative, movements, and already on-going activity of God in our lives.

We cannot force our souls into transformation but we can create and cultivate ways of keeping our hearts focused and alive to what God is doing.  Often it is through the spiritual disciplines that we train our hearts to pay attention to divine initative and create the space and environment that best opens our “sails” to receive the “wind” of the Spirit. The spiritual disciplines are a means of grace and are of great value but only to the degree that they keep us vitally connected to God (abide), and help us “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).  They offer space in our lives for God to do what only God can do and engage our souls fare beyond the superficiality of our days ever could.

The ultimate result of spiritual formation is that all our human dimensions and relationships be transformed in making us more loving:  that in being with Jesus and experiencing the love of God, our heart finds its true home; that as we embrace our identity as the Beloved we begin to live as our truest self marked by integrity and personal wholeness; that as we become more like Jesus we begin to do the things that Jesus did and love as Jesus loved – to stand against the forces of the evil one, to act justly with our fellow man, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of those in need (Col. 3:17). To love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-40) thus becomes for us, not a stoic ideal, but a dynamically integrated spirituality.

If you are looking for a resource to help you live into this kind of faith, Keeping Company with Jesus is an on-line, spiritual formation tool that, in practical and engaging ways, helps us keep our lives centered on Jesus. It starts and ends with the premise that simply being with Jesus is transformational.

There are two ways to participate:

The 9-month Journey is a weekly, interactive, on-line resource/spiritual formation tool, which includes a reading, reflection questions and a spiritual practice. Designed to be interactive, it is best done in community and dialogue with others. So it’s perfect for groups. The Journey helps us to learn to keep company with Jesus in such a way that the abundant life Jesus promised becomes a reality in our lives.

The 9-month Leadership Community is for credentialed ministers, ministry leaders, pastor’s wives, and missionaries, connecting with other leaders in authentic community over a 9-month period from Sept. to May. Lead by Gail Johnsen, the Leadership Community is designed to provide spiritually enriching environments through real-life practices, relationships and experiences which allows leaders to participate with God’s Spirit in bringing about the formation of a healthy soul and developing practices that sustain them in ministry for the long haul.

I think John Ortberg summed up the process of spiritual formation well:  “Christ entered our broken world to give us life in all its fullness, in every situation, every relationship and every activity. As you learn to recognize and welcome Christ’s presence into every moment, ordinary days become filled with a tangible sense of God’s presence. Suddenly, you are experiencing all of life with God. Even more, He is transforming you in the process. You begin to experience the kind of ongoing, close connection to God you’ve longed for.”[iii]


[i] R. Paul Stevens & Michael Green, Living the Story (Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003), p. ix.

[ii] Quote from his teaching session at the 2008 SAU Residency class

[iii] Participant’s Guide, An Ordinary Day with Jesus(Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001).

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