Having established the marks of spiritual formation, it is equally important to explore those means by which one moves towards a life characterized by those marks. Relational, transformational and vocational growth emerge from what the Bible calls the heart. In the Scriptural worldview, the heart is not the seat of the emotions, but rather the core of the human self out of which all thinking, emotion and behaviour arise. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts” observes Jesus in Matthew 15:19; likewise in Matthew 12:35, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” One can try, through force of will, to change one’s thoughts, emotions or behaviour, but lasting change cannot come by working directly on these ‘externals.’ The mal-formed heart will, sooner or later, bring them back into line with itself, as the author of James insists: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (3:11-12; see also Matthew 7:18). Therefore, the Lord prescribes a change of heart, teaching his listeners to “clean the inside of the cup and dish and then the outside also will be clean” and to “make a tree good and its fruit will be good” (Matthew 23:36 and 12:33). Solomon similarly urges his students, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). When the heart is transformed, good comes easily and naturally – in fact, it is evil that becomes awkward and unnatural, as such thinking, feeling and acting no longer reflects the heart. This is what Willard calls “the secret of the easy yoke”, referring to Jesus’s saying in Matthew 11:30 that His yoke is easy and His burden light (1988, 1-10).
This means that the core question of the means of spiritual formation is how to change the heart. Scripture appears to offer two contradictory answers here. First there is a collection of passages that indicate that our heart is changed by our own efforts. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul teaches his readers to train hard for the spiritual life the way an athlete does. Later, he instructs Timothy to be dedicated like a soldier (2 Timothy 2:4). In Ephesians 4:22-24, he urges his audience to put off their old selves and put on the new. On the other hand, other passages insist that human effort is useless or even detrimental to heart-change, for it is God alone who transforms us. Paul famously rebukes the church at Galatia “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3). He likewise warned the Colossians that living according to strict rules does not help one resist sin (Colossians 2:20-23). Finally, there is the Lord’s assurance mentioned above: “My yoke is easy and by burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). This paradox is contained in a single sentence in Philippians 2: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling [growth is our job], for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose [growth is God’s job]” (vv 12-13).
The resolution of this paradox can also be found in a single sentence. In John 15:5, Jesus states that “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” It is clear in the passage’s context that spiritual vitality is entirely due to God and not to our own effort: “No branch can bear fruit by itself” (v 4). However, this does not mean that there is nothing for us to do. Jesus instructs us to “remain in me” (v 4) or “abiding” as older translations rendered it, intentionally placing ourselves before Him to be transformed. Thus, the divine Vine supplies everything; we merely need to remain connected to it. The entire spiritual life is receiving a gift; as it was at its beginning, so it must be the entire way. This is the middle ground between the paired temptations of activism – relying on one’s own efforts to transform oneself – and quietism – passively waiting for God to do it all.
What, then, does this abiding consist of? We abide in Christ by undertaking those activities known as spiritual disciplines or means of grace. Any activity can function as a spiritual discipline; for instance, Brother Lawrence famously experienced God’s presence most richly while washing the pots in his monastery’s kitchen. However, some common disciplines are taught in Scripture and have been widely practiced throughout Christian history, such as prayer, Scriptural meditation, fasting, solitude and silence, Sabbath-keeping, fellowship, and the Sunday service. Engaging diligently in these activities connects a Christian with God, thereby avoiding quietism. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that these activities have no intrinsic, spiritual power in themselves. Their value consists solely in how they connect a person to God. Keeping this truth in the front of one’s mind prevents the error of activism.
Our society worships heroic effort – striving in the moment of crisis to do the right thing. By then, however, it is largely too late. Our attitudes, dispositions, reflexes and knee-jerk reactions have already been set and are in motion before our intentional, rational judgement can come to the fore. This is why we find ourselves so often doing things that “aren’t like me” (see Romans 7:15). We are already set to fail before we even begin, and often the most Herculean effort in the moment cannot change that. The true path to obedience is to retrain those dispositions and reflexes when we are not “on the spot” (Willard 1988, 1-10). Like athletes, musicians and soldiers, we prepare for the moment of crisis by performing seemingly unrelated drills – training by indirection. The dispositions and reflexes inculcated by that training, however, are what carry the day. Similarly, Christians obey Christ, not by trying to obey “on the spot”, but by training through the spiritual disciplines the way He showed us, so they are ready to obey when the time comes. The motto of spiritual formation, then, is “don’t try; train.”
Stay tuned next time for a practical method by which we can implement these means!