Not only does the theology of spiritual formation aim at the wrong target, spiritual formation seeks the wrong kind of change.
What is spiritual formation?
The theology of spiritual formation assumes I can transform myself from a position of lesser spirituality to a position of greater spirituality through “spiritual disciplines” like fasting, routine prayer, meditation, quiet times, church attendance, service, etc. While spiritual disciplines focus on success at outward righteous behavior, the Bible teaches that the goal of spiritual maturity is a strong unshakeable faith.
Additionally, biblical spiritual maturity is an inward reality; not an outward reality. Spiritual disciplines can only change outward reality.
An “outward reality” is something I put on like an actor. Most spiritual disciplines are outward behaviors (e.g. fasting, routine prayer, meditation, etc) that I practice on the outside with the goal of changing who I am on the inside.
Others are also outward but not obviously so. For instance, creating emotions of grief through contemplation, music, or readings is an outward reality while genuine grief over my sin is an inward reality. Making time in my schedule to thank God is an outward reality while genuine gratitude toward God is an inward reality. That raises two questions:
First, having changed your outward practices, have you done enough? No, if changing my outward behavior is sufficient, then the Mosaic law would have worked and we would have no need for a savior. Most people can improve outward behavior with enough time and effort. That kind of change does not require the Spirit of God and does not change my basic sinful nature.
Second, does outward change produce genuine inward belief and spiritual maturity?
Do outward practices produce genuine inward maturity?
Advocates of Spiritual Formation claim outward change necessarily leads to inward change usually for one of three reasons.
1) One theory is what I call the “gravity” explanation. These folks claim outward practices inevitably produce inward change like gravity inevitably makes objects fall. So they claim fasting effects my biology to make me more sensitive to hear word of God; routine prayer naturally relieves stress and promotes gratitude; rest and contemplation fit our natural biological rhythms which increase joy and contentment, etc.
2) Others claim spiritual practices work because of supernatural laws, not natural laws like gravity. Thus, reading the bible and memorizing scripture will make me more godly because God has supernaturally made it so. One speaker even argued that memorizing Scripture is like water running through a funnel. The water purifies the funnel as it passes through regardless of whether the water is retained or not; similarly Scripture running through my mind changes me regardless of whether I understand it because reading Scripture is a supernaturally blessed activity.
3) Finally, some claim spiritual practices work through divine blessing, not natural or supernatural laws. They claim God blesses my spiritual disciplines in response to the fact that I have sought to please him. Essentially, God said “do this (pray, tithe, fast, meditate, fill in the blank) and I will bless you.” We act and He blesses in response.
I would argue the Bible teaches that spiritual maturity is an inward reality which is impossible to achieve through self-effort or outward disciplines.
Spiritual maturity is strictly a gift which God gives by His grace, on His timetable, according to His plan, independent of any practices I practice. If He wishes, He can use my outward practices; or if He wishes, He can work in spite of my practices or lack thereof. When I grow in spiritual maturity, it is because God has made it happen as a gift of His grace.
Consider Colossians 2
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians 2:20-23
The Apostle Paul claims in Colossians 2 that while rules, regulations and practices seem holy and wise, in the end they have no value because they do not and cannot produce inward change.
Some false teaching had crept into the Colossian church which claimed true spirituality was found in rules and asceticism. Paul urges them to hold fast to the gospel they first believed and not be taken in by other ideas cooked up by men. The other ideas seem wise and attractive, but they have no value in solving the problem of sin.
Spiritual disciplines dangle the promise of making it possible for me to do what I can not do: make myself acceptable to God. But practices can never do that. That misguided promise makes Spiritual Formation attractive and gives it the “appearance of wisdom.” But changing my outward reality cannot change my sinful nature, and my sinful nature is what needs changing.
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