Option or Necessity?
Once we begin to realize that genuine spiritual growth is a continuous and sometimes difficult process, we may be tempted to think that it is an option we can take or leave. For many Christians, the quest for the deeper life in Christ is viewed as a discipline for the dedicated disciple, a pursuit for the particularly pious, a spiritual frill for those who have the time or inclination, a spiritual fad for trendy Christians.
We fail to realize that the process of spiritual shaping is a primal reality of human existence. Everyone is in a process of spiritual formation! Every thought we hold, every decision we make, every action we take, every emotion we allow to shape our behaviour, every response we make to the world around us, every relationship we enter into, every reaction we have toward the things that surround us and impinge upon our lives—all of these things, little by little, are shaping us into some kind of being.
We are being shaped into either the wholeness of the image of Christ or a horribly destructive caricature of that image—destructive not only to ourselves but also to others, for we inflict our brokenness upon them. This wholeness or destructiveness radically conditions our relationship with God, ourselves, and others, as well as our involvement in the dehumanizing structures and dynamics of the broken world around us. We become either agents of God’s healing and liberating grace or carriers of sickness of the world. The direction of our spiritual growth infuses the all we do with intimations of either Life or Death.
The process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place primarily at the points of our unlikeness to Christ’s image. God is present to us in the most destructive aspects of our cultural captivity. God is involved with us in the most imprisoning bondage of our brokenness. God meets us in those places of our lives that are most alienated from God. God is there, in grace, offering us the forgiveness, the cleansing, the liberation, the healing we need to begin the journey toward our wholeness and fulfilment in Christ. But this can be uncomfortable. We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way? In fact, may not such practices become a defence mechanism against the areas that are not yet conformed to the image of Christ?
If, indeed, the work of God’s formation in us is the process of conforming us to the image of Christ, obviously it’s going to take place at the points where we are not yet conformed to that image. This means that one of the first dynamics of holistic spiritual formation will be confrontation. Through some channel—the Scripture, worship, a word of proclamation, the agency of a brother or sister in Christ, even the agency of an unbeliever—the Spirit of God may probe some area in which we are not conformed to the image of Christ. That probing will probably always be confrontational, and it will always be a challenge and a call to us in our brokenness to come out of the brokenness into wholeness in Christ. But it will also be a costly call because that brokenness is who we are.
Sometimes we suffer under the illusion that our incompleteness, our brokenness, our deadness is something like a sweater that we can easily unbutton and slip off. It is not that easy. Our brokenness, like Pogo¹, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” This is what Jesus indicates when he speaks about losing yourself. That which has not yet been conformed to the image is simply a “thing” in you—it is an essential part of who you are, is what Jesus is pointing to when he calls us to take up our cross.
Our cross is not that cantankerous person we have to deal with day by day. Our cross is not the employer we just can’t get along with. Our cross is not that neighbour or work colleague who cuts across the grain in every single time of relationship. Nor is our cross the difficulties and infirmities that the flow of life brings to us beyond our control. Our cross is the point of our unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised by God into wholeness of life in the image of Christ right there at that point. So, the process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place at the points of our unlikeness to Christ, and the first step is confrontation.
The second dynamic in holistic spiritual formation is consecration. We must come to the point of saying yes to God at each point of unlikeness. We must give God permission to do the work God wants to do with us right there, because transformation will not be forced upon us. God will stand at those closed doors of our lives by which we have shut God out and imprisoned ourselves within, and the love of God’s grace will knock and knock and knock with the knock of confrontation upon those doors, but God will not force open the doors. As George MacDonald says, “He watches to see the door move from within.”² There must be a consecration, a release of ourselves to God at each point of our unlikeness to Christ. When there is, the process of being conformed to the image of Christ begins.
In part three, “The Journey,” … we will see how that release takes place. Spiritual disciplines are the act of releasing ourselves in a consistent manner to God, opening those doors in a regular way to allow God’s transforming work in our lives. When we respond to the confrontation of the Spirit at the point of our brokenness with a consecration that allows God to do the work God wants to do, we begin to experience the reality of being conformed to the image of Christ.
There are times, I grant you, when the nature of our response is such that God, you might think, would instantly touch us into wholeness. But I have discovered in my own life and in reading the saints of the church that those times are the exceptions. The rule is that God begins to work with us there and to grow us up into wholeness over a period of time as we continue to offer the disciplines as a means of grace.
¹Pogo was a daily comic strip that was created by cartoonist Walt Kelly and syndicated to American newspapers from 1948 until 1975. … The strip was written for both children and adults, with layers of social and political satire targeted to the latter.
²George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity”