The successful pursuit of any human endeavour – from learning to type, to saving for retirement, to raising a child – typically requires two things. The first prerequisite is a clear vision of the goal, and the second is a clear idea of how you’re going to get there. Without the second you’ll have no idea what to do in order to progress, and without the first you’ll have no idea if you’re making progress (because without a well-established goal you won’t know if you’re getting closer to it). Therefore, this spiritual theology consists of a description of the marks of spiritual formation and the means of spiritual formation.
When considering the marks of spiritual formation, there are several ways of framing the question. What are the characteristics of a spiritually mature Christian? What is it about persons we see as holy – not simply religious, but truly, luminously holy – that makes us consider them so? What fruit are we expecting to see in our lives as we are spiritually formed? While the Scriptures do not offer a systematic treatment of the subject, several passages highlight these marks. First and foremost is the list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:16-25: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is neither an exhaustive inventory nor a to-do list for virtue acquisition, but rather an illustration of what would naturally emerge from the lives of those who keep in step with the Holy Spirit. Similarly, 2 Peter 1:5-11 catalogues the Christian graces: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love, which the believer should possess “in increasing measure.” A third picture of Christian maturity can be found in the descriptions of the qualifications of elders in the Pastoral Epistles (namely 1Tim 3:1-13 and Tit 1:5-9). These surveys include such characteristics as an unimpeachable reputation, healthy family relationships, self-control, humble gentleness, a hospitable disposition, not greedy, and godly knowledge (combined with the ability to transmit it to others).
Apart from these lists, there are other passages that address marks of spiritual formation in passing. The capacity to take “solid food” is a sign of maturity (Hebrews 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-3), as is the ability to discern good and evil (again Hebrews 5:14). Those advanced in the Lord’s service can love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) and are equipped for good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The godly are also marked by their stability amidst storms (Ephesians 4:14, Matthew 7:24-25, and Psalms 1:3 and 15), due in part to their treasure being placed in heaven (Matthew 19:21).
As is typical of Scripture, there is no single systematic presentation of spiritual maturity to be found in the pages of the Bible; that is the work of the spiritual theologian. An excellent definition of spiritual formation was developed by Bob Mulholland and refined by his student Ruth Haley Barton: The process of being transformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others. From this definition, one may ask: what are the signs in a person’s life that spiritual formation is progressing? “The image of Christ” is technically true but too vague for evaluation. Fortunately, Glen Scorgie offers a balanced solution with his threefold measure of spiritual growth found in A Little Guide to Christian Spirituality.
The first sphere of growth is relational, or what Scorgie calls “Christ with us,” where “Christ is restoring our intimacy with God and others.” Within this sphere of connecting there are two distinct areas of growth. As the Christian grows spiritually, she develops a closer relationship with God or what the ancients called piety. Unfortunately, a “personal relationship with God” has become Evangelical lingo for personally entering into a legal arrangement with God so that my own guilt before God has been absolved. However, Scorgie is more focused on the personal relationship as an experiential reality – an ongoing, conversational relationship with God. Where this is a growing experience in a person’s daily life, they are growing in piety. The other aspect of relational maturity is a growing capacity to enter into and sustain rich and healthy relationships with others, or genuine fellowship. This includes the ability to take the risks associated with revealing one’s inner self to others, as well as the humility to not treat others as mere objects to flatter one’s vanity but rather to engage with them in what Martin Buber called I-Thou relations. Most significantly, true fellowship requires personal proficiency in the third way of responding to conflict: neither fight nor flight, but rather courageous engagement in the loving process of reconciliation described in Matthew 18:15-17.
The second mark of spiritual maturity is transformation, or “Christ in us” where “Christ is purifying and healing our true selves.” There are two aspects to this growth, as well. First, true spiritual formation will result in an increase in virtue and a reduction in vice, or holiness. That is to say, God can do something more with your sin than merely forgive it; God can also deliver you from it – or as Charles Wesley wrote in his great holiness hymn, God “breaks the pow’r of canceled sin.” What Paul called putting off the old person and putting on the new (Ephesians 4:22-24) was understood in the medieval church to mean that the seven deadly vices of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride would be not merely extinguished but also replaced with the seven heavenly virtues of purity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Furthermore, transformation will result in the healing of the deep inner wounds that are the wellspring of much of the strength of the vices and a great hindrance to the virtues. To put it another way, we develop a false self as a defense mechanism to survive in a personal universe cut free from the moorings of an identity as God’s child. Accordingly, this false self is characterized by fear, performance, anger, protectiveness, materialism, possessiveness, manipulation, competition, self-promotion, indulgence, and distinction-making. However, spiritual growth involves shedding the false self and becoming a “true self hidden with Christ in God,” with a corresponding healing of intrapsychic wounds.
Scorgie’s final arena of spiritual growth is vocational, or “Christ through us” where “Christ is rebuilding purpose and meaning into our lives.” In response to the activism of our day, much spiritual formation literature advocates the importance of being over doing. However, this runs the risk of overcorrection, elevating the contemplative life at the expense of the active life – two seeming opposites the monastic masters like the Desert Fathers and Benedict of Nursia managed to keep together. One of the many gifts of Evangelical spirituality to the rest of the church is the example of a godly activism. The first part of vocational growth is growth in discernment, or the ability to identify – amongst a host of good things that could be done – the best thing God has equipped and called you to do. This includes the boundaries to say a gracious “no” to those other good things that would constitute a distraction from one’s core calling. This discernment is an ongoing practice, following close after God so that when He issues a call to something new, so as not to waste years or decades keeping faithful to a calling that has long since ossified even though it may still manifest the outward signs of success (see Mark 1:32-39 for an example in Jesus’s ministry). Having discerned that call with God, the spiritually mature also live it out with God in a blend of competence and weakness. In other words, the journey of spiritual formation is one of learning to pursue one’s vocation in God’s strength rather than in one’s own talents, gifts, and experience. This is not to legitimate an “ultrasupernaturalism” that denigrates all training, planning, or preparation; rather it is the ability to undertake an appropriate use of means while fundamentally relying on God for the outcomes.
Happily, these three areas of growth are mutually reinforcing. For example, as one is healed of inner wounds, it becomes easier to sustain healthy relationships with others and maintain the boundaries to say no to distractions from one’s calling. Nonetheless, it is important to keep a holistic vision of the marks of spiritual formation so as to identify a lopsided growth that has neglected one or more of these areas.
Stay tuned next time for the means by which we move towards these marks!