“Spiritual formation” is a hot topic today. But does it work? The Old Testament prophet Haggai would answer no.
Spiritual formation is “an intentional Christian practice with the goal of developing spiritual maturity that leads to Christ-likeness.” This theology is based on the premise that doing certain practices (typically daily prayer, fasting, solitude, confession and/or meditating on scripture) will make us more like Christ.
While everyone agrees that prayer and bible study are beneficial, does regularly practicing them guarantee spiritual growth?
Haggai would answer no, obedience alone does not guarantee blessing.
The book of Haggai is a series of four prophetic messages from God to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem after the exile in order to resettle the land and rebuild the temple. The people became discouraged and stopped working after laying the temple foundation (Ezra 4:24).
In the first message through Haggai, God challenges the remnant to “consider their ways.” They respond in obedience and resume work on the temple, but quickly become discouraged.
In the second message through Haggai, God responds to their despair, encouraging them to “work for He is with them”.
Then, as the remnant obediently resumes building, God addresses the temptation to believe obedience guarantees blessings. They are now doing their part of the bargain, so God must do His part, right? After all when they disobeyed, God brought them drought and famine (Haggai 1:7-11), so now that they are obedient, God must be obligated to shower them with blessings, right?
In other words, we are diligently practicing our spiritual disciplines, so isn’t God obligated to bless us with maturity and growth? Does obedience guarantee growth?
No, God corrects this theology, telling them: grace isn’t fair, grace is free.
On the twenty-fourth of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to Haggai the prophet, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Ask now the priests for a ruling: If a man carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and touches bread with this fold, or cooked food, wine, oil, or any other food, will it become holy?” And the priests answered, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean from a corpse touches any of these, will the latter become unclean?” And the priests answered, “It will become unclean.” Then Haggai said, “‘So is this people. And so is this nation before Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.'” — Haggai 2:10-14
We might phrase that question today, if sinful people practice spiritual disciplines, does it make them holy?
God reminds them that in a battle between clean and dirty, dirty always wins. If my child has a cold and I kiss him, I will not make him well; he will make me sick. If my house is clean and I walk in with muddy shoes, my shoes will not be cleaned by the floor, my floor will become dirty.
Disease (not health) is contagious. Dirt (not cleanliness) spreads. “So it is with this people.” Building the temple won’t make them holy. Obedience now does not negate prior disobedience. Our real problem is not that we are disobedient, our real problem is we are sinful.
After this theology lesson, God reminds them grace isn’t fair (as in: “I did my part; God must do His”); grace is free (as in: “I don’t deserve it and all the obedience in the world won’t gain it for me because I am sinful”). If God treated us fairly, we would all be facing judgment. Instead He gives us what we do not deserve: grace and mercy.
‘But now, do consider from this day onward: before one stone was placed on another in the temple of the LORD, from that time when one came to a grain heap of twenty measures, there would be only ten; and when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there would be only twenty. ‘I smote you and every work of your hands with blasting wind, mildew and hail; yet you did not come back to Me,’ declares the LORD. ‘Do consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month; from the day when the temple of the LORD was founded, consider: ‘Is the seed still in the barn? Even including the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree, it has not borne fruit. Yet from this day on I will bless you.'” — Haggai 2:15-19
God tells the builders, even though they are sinful (2:17), He will bless them anyway (2:19). The change he wants is a change of heart, not perfect spiritual practice. We do not practice spiritual disciplines in order to obtain God’s blessings. Spiritual disciplines result from God blessing us. Spiritual practices are not our gift to God; they are part of God’s gift to us.
Haggai teaches us that dirtiness spoils cleanliness and obedience will not wipe out disobedience. That is true of everyone and everything in this world – except Jesus. In Jesus, we see the opposite.
As Jesus is hurrying to heal a sick child (Mark 5:21-35), there is a woman in the crowd stricken with a disease that makes her bleed continuously. Her illness not only made her anemic and sick, it made her an unclean, outcast who was prohibited from taking part in the life of the community. In desperation, she touches the hem of Jesus’ robe.
What should happen? Dirt should win; disease is contagious. Yet, in this case, health wins. She is healed and Jesus tells her that her faith has saved her (Mark 5:34).
The solution to our spiritual disease is not spiritual formation. The change we really need is a new heart and the “health” of Jesus Christ. Perfect attendance to spiritual practices does not overcome our sinful nature — that requires the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God, like the woman who touched the robe of Jesus, we too can be healed because grace is free.
Usual Disclaimer: I am heavily indebted to other thinkers and teachers. These posts are my attempt to clarify my own thinking, reading and research. I hope to either learn why I’m wrong or articulate why the theology of spiritual formation is flawed. I am NOT questioning the sincerity, faith or motivations of advocates of spiritual formation. As with any controversial topic, my goal is: 1) to know what I believe and why and 2) to understand the other side well enough to know why it fails to persuade.