What is “Spiritual Formation”?

Since Richard Foster published his groundbreaking book, Celebration of Discipline, in 1978, spiritual formation has become one of the most written about and talked about topics among Christians of all ages. In fact, to many it might even seem to be a “new” concept. But as spiritual writer and teacher, Dallas Willard, explains in an interview for Leadership Journal (Summer 2005), “Spiritual formation isn’t new; it’s only been lost for a while.” The door of spiritual formation may be opening again, but it is a very ancient door.

So what is spiritual formation? Perhaps these definitions will help.

Christian spiritual formation is a process of yielding oneself to being conformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.
— From Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mulholland

Put in Trinitarian terms, Christian Spirituality means following the risen Christ, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory and praise of the Father.
— From Participating in God’s Life by Leonard Allen and Danny Swick

Christian Spiritual Formation is the continuing process of life and experience through which we are progressively formed, conformed, and transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
— From Church Ministry by Design by Gary H. Woolverton

Christian Spiritual formation is the God ordained process of inviting disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit, to live daily as instantiations of Christ for the sake of the world.
— From Brazil Missionary Conference by David Wray

Spiritual formation is a rather general term referring to attempts, means, instructions, and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth. It includes educational endeavors as well as the more intimate and in-depth process of spiritual direction.
— From Care of Mind by Gerald G. May

God gradually and slowly “captures” the inner faculties: first the heart and the will, then the mind, the imagination, and the passions. The result is the transformation of the entire personality into the likeness of Christ. More and more and more we take on his habits, feelings, hopes, faith, and love.
— From Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster

But, of course, the best place to find a definition is in scripture. And if we take the phrase “spiritual formation” and break it into parts, its true meaning becomes very clear.

“Spirit” is translated from pneuma meaning breath, wind, spirit, the human soul. It is that which animates the body and gives it the power to know, to decide and to act. It is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity, shared by no other part of creation. He gave us “the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7)

Who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s SPIRIT WITHIN HIM?
– 1 Corinthians 2:11

The body without the SPIRIT is dead.
– James 2:26

The SPIRIT is willing, but the flesh is weak.
– Matt. 26:41

“Form” is translated from morphoo meaning to shape, to mold, to sculpt, to build. Here God is at work as the eternal artist, following a spiritual pattern to shape our inner lives. Cutting off some things to reveal the beauty contained inside, he takes a lifetime to build a life.

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is FORMED in you.
– Galatians 4:19

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be TRANSFORMED by the RENEWING of your mind.
– Romans 12:2

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being TRANSFORMED into his likeness.
– 2 Corinthians 3:18

And so, spiritual formation takes place when we offer to God the deepest part of who we are, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength, the part of us that will survive our death.

And we allow him:

  • to form our spirit.
  • to shape our heart.
  • to change our life.
  • to grow our soul.
  • to teach our mind.
  • to direct our inner being.
  • to determine our purpose.
  • to set our course.

Spiritual formation is not an event, a weekend retreat, an online course, a book or a class. It is a long-term process that moves through our entire lifetime. As Brian McLaren describes it, “The Gospel is not an evacuation plan, it is a transformation plan.” And this lifetime process of internal change and transformation works best if we understand a few principles.

Spiritual formation:

  • takes place both in solitude and in community.
  • does not happen quickly, neatly or predictably.
  • is God’s work, but requires my participation.
  • is handcrafted, not mass produced.
  • can occur in every moment.
  • will last my entire life.

And all we have to do is look at the lives of people God has formed – Moses, David, Noah, Jonah, Joshua, Abraham, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, Timothy. How did the process happen in their lives? It happened slowly, painfully, personally, individually, because anything valuable is expensive. We can give our hearts to God in a moment, but our habits will take much longer.

Behold, He stands at the door and knocks. Open the door and start the journey. Don’t just get your religious ticket punched and then wait for the great “evacuation” at the end of time. Begin the exciting voyage of transformation.