By Pastor Brian
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)
The Need & the Opportunity of Our Present Situation
If somebody had told you on March 10th that due to a global pandemic, you’d be spending at least the next month of your life quarantined in your home, leaving only for “essential” tasks, you probably would’ve thought that person was crazy or at least a little paranoid. We’re now over a month into that scenario, and it’s impacting every aspect of our lives—including our life with God. For many of us, this situation has exposed both a real need and a real opportunity in our life with Jesus.
The need is probably pretty obvious. We’re overrun with stress, grief, anxiety, financial uncertainty, relational strain, and loneliness. Maybe we’re feeling a lack in our spiritual life that’s showing itself in this hard time. As a result, we’re feeling our need of Jesus more deeply.
But our situation has also brought a real opportunity. While not all of us feel like we have more free time (I’m looking at you parents of young children trying to work from home!), many of us do have greater control over how we use our time. You’re not commuting to work right now. You’re not having dinner with friends. There are no baseball practices or band rehearsals to attend. There are no sports on TV, and by this point—let’s be honest—you’ve watched everything on Netflix that you really want to! That freedom with our time opens up new possibilities for us. We’ve been given a chance to hit the reset button on the shape of our life with Jesus. We’ve now got a real opportunity (and need!) to return to some of the basic practices of following Jesus and to incorporate them into our lives.
So over the next five weeks, we’ll look at some of the essential practices that enable us to know, love, and enjoy Jesus. Every Monday we’ll post a short article about one practice, give you some recommendations on how to incorporate it into your life, and then point you in the direction of some resources for further study. Here’s the tentative schedule:
Week 1 – Introduction to Spiritual Formation: Becoming like Jesus
Week 2 – Rule of Life: Ordering our lives to be with Jesus
Week 3 – Bible & Prayer: Listening to and speaking with Jesus
Week 4 – Silence & Solitude: Being with Jesus
Week 5 – Sabbath: Resting in Jesus
Introduction to Spiritual Formation: Becoming like Jesus
Let’s start with a basic explanation of what spiritual formation is. First, the term “Spiritual Formation” is just a general way to talk about discipleship, growth, sanctification, becoming like Jesus, etc. At Trinity, we often use the language of spiritual formation, because it highlights the Holy Spirit’s formative role in our lives. Here’s an attempt at a working definition: Spiritual formation is the process by which God renews His image in us by making us more like Jesus through the ongoing work of his Spirit.
The assumption, of course, is that we need to be transformed. God’s image needs to be renewed in us, which taps into the bigger story of the Bible. The Bible begins with God creating us as His image bearers to dwell with Him, with one another, and with the world around us in joyful wholeness (Gen 1-2). But in our sin, we rejected this God of love and have marred His image in us (Gen 3). We’ve plunged God’s good world into a state of sin and brokenness, and we stand justly condemned before Him (Rom 3:23; Eph 2:1-3). But the good news (literally, “Gospel”) of the Bible is that God didn’t leave us there! He sent His Son Jesus to live, die, and be raised for us. When we trust Jesus by faith, we are united to him, and every blessing of his life, death, and resurrection comes to us in and through our union with him (Eph 2:4-10). God is now at work remaking His image in us (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:9-10). So God not only deals with the legal problem of our sin by forgiving us and imputing Christ’s righteousness to us; he also deals with the experiential problem of our sin by bringing about real transformation in our lives.
How does God bring about that transformation? The most central place is in gathered Sunday worship where we pray together, hear His Word together, and come to His Table together. He also does this through our Community Groups and other gathered times of prayer, fellowship, Bible study, and service. But the focus of this series will be on individual spiritual practices.
What are Spiritual Practices?
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” -John 15:4-5
One of most illustrative images of our life with Jesus is found in John 15. Jesus tells us that he is the vine, and we are the branches. As branches, we share in the very life of the vine—the life that Jesus describes in John 10:10 as “abundant life” or “life to the full.” We are in him, and he is in us.
In this passage, Jesus describes both a potential problem and a promise of spiritual formation. The problem is one with which we’re all familiar: attempting to pursue real change apart from him. Jesus says we have no hope of bearing any fruit unless we’re abiding in the vine. And for many of us, that’s the struggle when it comes to spiritual formation. We try to follow Jesus and become like him by sheer willpower, but we fail over and over. So most of us end up frustrated and disappointed, and we start to wonder whether any kind of real change is even possible. The reality is that on your own, you can’t change yourself—at least not in any lasting way. Why not? Because you can’t change your own heart. That’s part of what Jesus means when he says that apart from him you can do nothing. That might sound discouraging, but the opposite is true! Jesus knows that lasting change apart from him is impossible, and so he gives us a better way, which is his promise in spiritual formation.
The promise of spiritual formation is that real change is possible. Jesus promises that as we abide in him, we will bear fruit. The key is abiding. What does it mean to abide? J. C. Ryle describes it beautifully: “Abide in Me, cling to Me, stick fast to Me, live the life of close and intimate communion with Me, get nearer and nearer to Me, roll every burden on Me, cast your whole weight on Me, never let go your hold on Me for a moment.” So how do we do that? In the language of our core commitments, we do that by engaging in formative spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are the means by which we “abide in the vine.” They are the ways we open ourselves to the transforming power of the life of the vine. They are ways we put ourselves in a position to be changed by God’s Spirit. So while we do put forth effort to engage in spiritual practices, Jesus is the one who ultimately brings about change. Richard Foster writes, “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.” Spiritual practices enable us to experience change that we could never bring about on our own through our own direct effort.
One final point: Spiritual practices are more than just learning new information. There’s a real temptation (especially in our Reformed theological tradition) to think that you just need to read the next book, listen to the next lecture, or attend the next seminar to experience real change. Don’t misunderstand me—I love to read, and we do need our thinking to be changed. But the point is that’s not all you need. You can’t merely think your way into a changed life. Why not? Because you are an embodied soul whose heart, desires, emotions, and thoughts need to be transformed. We need embodied practices that engage our whole person, which is what we get in spiritual practices. Here’s Dallas Willard’s definition of these practices: “The disciplines are activities of mind and body purposely undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order. They enable us more and more to live in a power that is, strictly speaking, beyond us, deriving from the spiritual realm itself.”
As we abide in Jesus, we really will bear fruit. We really will experience change. We really will enjoy the abundant life that is ours in him.
PRACTICE OF THE WEEK: Reflect upon, discuss, and journal answers to the following questions.
- What are your biggest obstacles to growth in Jesus?
- In what areas of your life do you find it particularly difficult to follow Jesus?
- How would you describe your spiritual life right now? Where are you discouraged? Where are you encouraged?
- What do you long for in your relationship with Jesus?
- Write a prayer to the Lord based on the way you answered the previous question. Feel free to use John 15:4-5 as a guide.
For Further Study
“Introduction to Spiritual Formation,” Brian Davis