I am a Christian and serve in the Church of the Nazarene; consequently, I will move toward definitional understandings that reflect the particularities of this context. I do so, however, aware that any approach to Christian spiritual formation needs to be understood within a larger framework that includes our relation to other religions and the diversity within Christianity itself.
Let me begin by defining the adjective spiritual. For Christians, the fundamental reference point is God who “is spirit” and wants people to “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Given the imprint of this spiritual God (Genesis 2:7) and, as John Wesley put it, the ongoing activity of God’s prevenient grace, all human beings are in some sense spiritual. Because our Source or Origin is greater than we are, humans are tuned to be sensitive to that which is beyond us, that is, to spiritual realities.
At a most basic level, to be spiritual means to be associated with a reality that is greater than or beyond oneself. People who are spiritual and religious tend to see this greater or transcendent reality as God or a divine being. Those who are spiritual but not religious may base their lives on other important realities beyond themselves that provide a deep sense of meaning and purpose to life, for example, nature, family, service, or higher consciousness. Many different persons, traditions, practices, and places can be considered spiritual in this basic sense of the term.
In the Christian understanding, to be spiritual is to be associated with the work and activity of the Holy Spirit of God, understood in the context of God as Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Being spiritual and Christian involves knowing God by participating in the kind of relationship Jesus has in God (Ephesians 1:17-19).
Spirituality can be defined as human response to a reality that is greater than oneself.
The spiritual is not just something in us individually or something warm-and-fuzzy out there in the universe. It is shaped and becomes visible in our life together, as we draw from and become part of a spiritual tradition. Each tradition has a spirituality—a specific way of being spiritual. Spirituality, then, can be defined as human response to a reality that is greater than oneself. Spiritualities name the reality—what is God or divine or of ultimate significance— and they describe a way of life appropriate for anyone who takes this reality seriously. For those who are spiritual and religious, spirituality is the heart and soul of their religious tradition and expresses itself through religious commitments and activities. For those who are spiritual but not religious, a spirituality may not be linked with an identifiable, organized religion. Yet, it too will be rooted in a tradition with identifiable communities, beliefs, and resources. In either case, spiritualities are believed in and lived out in relation to some form of community.
A broad spectrum of religious and non-religious spiritualities exists—Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Native American, Pagan, and New Age, to name several. Each would define their spirituality in terms specific to their tradition, which is why spirituality is best understood with an adjective in front of it, including Christian spirituality. Christians, drawing on a many-centuries-old tradition, understand their spirituality as a way of living in response to what we know, experience, and believe about God through Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It involves humble worship (Romans 12:1); obedient, sacrificial following (Matthew 16:24-25); and loving embrace of community (1 John 3:7-12). The goal of this spirituality is our progressive transformation in the image of God as our whole person—thoughts, emotions, desires, actions—cooperates with the power and presence of Christ’s Spirit alive and working in and for the sake of the whole world.
From this vantage point, every living human being is spiritual and has a lived spirituality of some kind. This does not imply that all spiritualities are of the same quality. Important questions need be asked of each person and community:
- Is this person or community responding to their spiritual potential or ignoring it?
- Is this person or community simply associating with the structures of a spiritual tradition, or are they engaging that tradition deeply and creatively?
- What are the fruits of this spirituality? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Life-giving or destructive?
- Is this person’s or community’s spiritual life a full response to God or is it piecemeal, shallow, and self-serving?
Simply being created as a spiritual person and associating with a spiritual tradition does not automatically make one spiritually healthy, mature, or fruitful. Most spiritual traditions recognize and teach that true spirituality must be cultivated and nurtured; otherwise, what is potentially good will become distorted and even destructive. To achieve the goals and purposes of a spiritual tradition, persons and communities must be shaped in a disciplined way of life that corresponds to its vision. They must be spiritually formed.
Spiritual formation, then, is an intentional and sustained process of giving shape (form) to a spirituality guided by a spiritual tradition or traditions, in order to maximize its desired outcomes. Persons who are spiritual and religious may understand the process to involve the work of God, a Divine Spirit. Those who are spiritual, but not religious, may refer only to the work and energies of other persons or to natural forces. In either case, spiritual formation entails commitment to particular practices.
Because there are many spiritualities, there are many approaches to spiritual formation. Long-established religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism), and non-religious spiritualities (New Age, Pagan) form their adherents in particular ways toward specific goals. Christian spiritual formation is understood in a very particular way: a lifelong, intentional cooperation with the God-initiated process of inward and outward transformation of our lives and world to be like Jesus. Often referred to in the New Testament as sanctification, it is guided by a centuries-old Christian spiritual tradition, and takes shape (form) in particular Christian theologies (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), in specific practices (prayer, Scripture study, fasting, service), and in a fellowship of believers (churches, small groups, spiritual guides). It is, with “the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), becoming like Jesus, living like Jesus, growing in grace, being “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Ephesians 2:22), “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
To summarize, intentional Christian spiritual formation reflects critical movement in our lives as illustrated in the diagram below:
By virtue of creation and the ongoing work of God’s Holy Spirit, we are spiritual. Simply being spiritual, however, does not satisfy our spiritual longings, and so we associate with a spirituality that provides a framework for living. This shift from “being spiritual” to associating with a spiritual tradition is an important step. But there is more. The shift from merely associating with a spirituality to being spiritually formed in a spiritual tradition requires intention and attention. For the Christian, this means intention and attention to Jesus, the One who inspired the apostle Paul to declare to a group of believers: “I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
Even with this common core understanding, Christian spiritual formation in our day must be understood as reflecting the various traditions within the Christian faith globally and historically. It not only functions in a diverse context, it is itself diverse. Adjectives tip us off to particular Christian approaches to spiritual formation: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, Wesleyan, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, to name several that are defined by specific ecclesial traditions. In addition, there are approaches to spiritual formation that reflect other important realities of a diverse humanity, for example, Feminist, African-American, Latino/Latina, and Asian- American. Each needs to be understood in relation to the others, because each contributes something important to our understanding of what it means to become like Jesus.
The next article in this series will examine one particular approach to Christian spiritual formation, the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition as expressed in the Church of the Nazarene. The third and final article will address the implications of spiritual formation for Christian ministry.
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DOUGLAS S. HARDY is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Nazarene Theological Seminary