There’s No Such Thing as Spiritual Formation….
Wow, that is a powerful statement to make by someone who values the spiritual nature of the person in his writings, speaking engagements, and preaching! As a psychologist I’ve argued extensively that true healing only comes when we include the spiritual nature of our clients in treatment. How can I say there’s no such thing as spiritual formation?
Last year I attended a conference at Regent University that explored spiritual formation and the role of the Holy Spirit. The conference was good. I wasn’t fond of all the speakers, but I enjoyed the conference overall. Yet, every time I attend a workshop, retreat, or conference dealing with spiritual formation I walk away thinking, “Sometimes Christians just don’t get it.” Let me explain my frustration.
In the Scriptures Jesus doesn’t talk about spiritual formation in the way we discuss it today. In fact, neither does Paul, Peter, the author of Hebrews, or any other New Testament writer. A perfect example of how easily we slip into a very “spiritually reduced” understanding of the human person is found in a statement made by a speaker at the conference mentioned above. I am paraphrasing, but basically he said, “We are not physical creatures with a spirit but rather we are spiritual creatures with a body.” Umm….. no, that’s not correct either. To be more accurate you’d have to say we’re creatures with a body and a spirit, neither more important than the other! Actually, if you want to be completely accurate you have to say we’re creatures with bodies, minds, spirits, emotions, and created to flourish in social relationships. Anything less gives too much credence to that evil I often speak about called “reductionism.” When we give up a solid holistic understanding of people we reduce them to be something less than God created them to be. If we think everything about human experience can be explained by physiology we fall into the error of physical reductionism. If all experiences are about emotions we fall into the error of emotional reductionism. The same can be said when we rationalize everything (Rational reductionism) or spiritualize everything (Spiritual reductionism). None of these provide an accurate understanding of how God made us.
Because of this, I believe Christians solely focused on spiritual formation tend to misunderstand what Jesus did with his followers. In my opinion spiritual formation is too reflective of the neoplatonism and gnosticism of the first few hundred years of Christianity. When we read the Scriptures we don’t see Jesus holding spiritual formation workshops, rather he’s discipling others, an act requiring the engagement and forming of the whole person. Discipling is a more biblical approach to helping people grow than spiritual formation in the modern sense. I don’t deny spiritual formation is part of discipling, but it’s exactly that, only part. For Christians to become mature functioning agents of God they need to care for their physical selves, emotional selves, cognitive selves, and social selves as well as their spiritual selves. That’s why Jesus challenged the disciples to rest, eat, and care for their physical bodies as well as the physical needs of others. Jesus challenged them to think about the law and the prophets differently and he challenged them to experience the pain and joy of others while living in communities as brothers and sisters to one another. Jesus believed these areas of human functioning were as important for Christian maturity as spiritual formation.
Here is my challenge to the church. Quit trying to simply form the spiritual lives of your members. Challenge them to eat well and care for their bodies which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Encourage them to use their minds to think deeply about the world and their role in transforming it. Ask them to reflect on their emotional life and allow them to experience the joy and pain of living in a fallen world. Create opportunities for them to engage one another socially and extend that fellowship to others around them in their communities. Finally, help them grow spiritually. When the church takes the call to make disciples seriously perhaps we will create an army of holistic people, not spiritual people with bodies, but real people to do the real work of the kingdom of God.