“Stay away from that stuff,” I was warned. Not drugs, but worse--I was considering Spiritual Formation. Surprised, and duly daunted, I thought I had just entered a twilight zone: a Christian theologian was discouraging me, a Christian, from pursuing a doctorate in Spiritual Formation. My inauguration into the controversy had begun. For me, the term “Spiritual Formation” was an apt descriptor for my desire to pursue formation in the image of Christ. But as I came to understand, spiritual formation is an umbrella covering biblical and unbiblical beliefs. Though my friend the theologian was right in being wary, I came to believe he was wrong in his all-inclusive toss of the proverbial bathwater.
Here’s the problem. The positive elements of Spiritual Formation are thrown out by conservatives rejecting anything that comes with the term, while on the other side, the liberal Christians seem to embrace whatever comes with it. Both are in danger of not testing the spirits by the word of God (1 Jn. 4:1). If we are truly in pursuit of Christian development, “Spiritual Formation” must not be seen as a single spirit, but rather the individual tenants within its nomenclature must be considered individually.
Fasting, prayer, Bible reading, and service are all clearly biblical components of Spiritual Formation. Contemplative prayer, though it sounds good, can mean the clearing of all thoughts from the mind in an effort to truly commune with God, whose thoughts are said to be beyond human capacity. Therefore, the closest one can come to communion with the infinite God is to not think. The roots of that belief can be traced back through various spiritual schools of thought, but not to the Bible. Though it is true that proponents of this belief often point to biblical passages, it is not within the wider context of the biblical passages.
My real concern is for those who are not rooted in a growing biblical faith. Perhaps someone has been reading one of these Christian mystics and is moved by the deep thoughts offered within their works that articulate well the beauty of God, and a desire to be one with Him. But when the author’s name is mentioned, another member overhears who has been reading a different kind of book, one that lists that author as a Spiritual Formation heretic, and he then slams the person for reading that author: Christian development squashed in the name of Christ.
I’m not saying that I would endorse the reading of the first book or discourage the reading of the second book. The wider issue is that what moved the first person was a passage about the desire to grow in oneness with Christ, and in condemning the author, the second person was inadvertently condemning a biblical thought--the ruling passion of Christ that we would be one with Him (Jn. 13-17).
As a church known for keeping a lukewarm distance from God (Rev 3:14-18), we should admire the overruling motivation of Spiritual Formation writers to be one with God. But if we do not seek that oneness according to His Word, then we will miss the mark we aim for. Both individuals in my little scenario represent growing factions in our church. But if they individually determine to worship God according to His Word, they will grow in that oneness with Him and each other.
Though as a doctoral candidate, I must be familiar with Spiritual Formation authors to have credibility with others in the field, I go to the Word for my spiritual formation.
Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”