Definitions matter. They provide a simple clarity to what a thing or idea is. A few weeks ago my doctoral students and I were talking about the definition of Christian spiritual formation. The most common definition is “being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” I have used this definition for years, and I have found it attributed to several authors.
Defining Spiritual Formation
A definition I more recently adopted was proposed by Jeffrey Greenman in Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspectives, edited by Greenman and George Kalantzis. His is a more developed definition:
Spiritual Formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world (24).
There is so much about this definition that I really like, which I hope you will notice too. However, my reflection here is on what one of my students, Mike Conan (a Presbyterian pastor), noticed was not there. During our discussion he said, “I’m bothered that the purpose of spiritual formation is ‘for the sake of the world’ or ‘for the sake of others’ and not for the sake of God.” Many commented that God’s mandate to us is to love the world, just as Jesus Christ did. Therefore, formation in Christ’s image leads us to that outcome, loving the world and loving others. I’m bothered that formation is for the sake of the world & not for the sake of God. Click To Tweet
However, I continued to think about Mike’s comment, and I think he is right. We are becoming more like Christ for the glory of God and for the sake of the world. Our purpose as ‘lights of the world’ and ‘priests and ambassadors of reconciliation’ is to glorify God. Otherwise, we can become overly absorbed with our own well-being and pious activities. This became even more apparent to me after meeting Pastor Helen outside Salem, India this March.
Learning About Spiritual Formation in India
While in India doing Spiritual Mentoring Community training, I traveled to visit another student, Sam Stephens, who is head of India Gospel League. India Gospel League’s purpose is to plant a church in every rural village (85% of the Indian population live in rural villages). The church then becomes a center for social transformation in that village. This is a completely indigenous movement, not tied to any denomination or western mission agency.
Sam’s daughter, Becky, took me to see one of the village churches and its pastor. Thus I met Pastor Helen. We did not speak. We didn’t know each other’s language. People in her church greeted me and my fellow trainer, Barry. I held her hand and our picture was taken.
She planted the church, which in itself is quite remarkable for a woman in rural India. Her church had a day care for the village children before and after school (parents worked long days). Her church had a group of women who started a successful micro-credit loan enterprise and had improved their families’ living standard through small businesses. And built onto the back of the church was a small sewing business. The eight women had learned to sew at the church, created portfolios for government certification, and then began a business successfully procuring contracts for clothing and bags. Most of the women were the sole providers for their families.
Pastor Helen had become more Christ-like for the sake of others in her village. She was accepted as a pastor despite her gender, and she had committed herself to improving the spiritual and social life of her community. Yet there was more to learn about Pastor Helen.
Later that day after returning to the guest house, I asked about her story. And I heard it, and ever since I haven’t stopped reflecting on it. Because of her story I wondered more deeply about the ultimate purpose of formation. Is formation a self-improvement process so we are better activists in the world or a primarily a regeneration process so we with our lives are glorifying our Creator and Savior?
Helen and her husband attended Bible school in the mid-80s with a vision for rural church planting. After graduating they began work in a village that had no church. Several years passed. They had 3 children and the church was established. Then her husband just left, not to be heard from again. Helen moved to a different village and began another church plant. It was difficult. Soon afterwards her baby accidentally drowned in a bucket of water. Some years later her daughter at the completion of her secondary education, hanged herself inside the front of the church. Three devastating blows in her life. The village turned against her believing she had an evil spirit because of all her misfortunes. A fourth blow. She stayed on. For the sake of God, she stayed on. Eventually people were curious, and then inspired by her faithfulness to a God who seemed to dislike her. After which the transformation in the village began.
Who of us wouldn’t have been crushed by such circumstances? Who of us would not have found some fault or blame in her? She clung to Christ for the sake of her love for God, and not for any other reason. She looked worse, not better to outsiders. Her witness was shaken. Yet she stayed on for the love of God, for the glory of God.
The Point of Spiritual Formation
In the end the point of becoming more like Christ is not that we are better people doing more good for others. In the end the point of becoming more like Christ is that God is glorified by our faithfulness. Nothing more. Pastor Helen inspires this truth. Mike was right.
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. ~Maya Angelou Spiritual Formation: Conformed to the image of Christ for what purpose? Click To Tweet
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of his body, which is the church…so that the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations but now is manifest to his saints…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. ~Colossians 2:24-26 (sections)
A Revised Definition of Spiritual Formation
Spiritual Formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the glory of God and for the sake of the world (24).