A recent self-study at Willow Creek Church in Chicago found that at least a fourth of the folks in their church who described themselves as “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered” felt stalled in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the Church’s ability to help them grow in Christ. My guess is that Willow Creek’s numbers reflect the general rule and not the exception for churches across the country. I know many folks who at one time or another have felt “stalled” in their spiritual growth. I know one of them pretty intimately – me.
At Southland, we’ve begun the discussion of what it means to join God on his mission of redeeming the world. At the forefront of that discussion is not strategy or technique, but simply knowing God and being formed into his image. This coming week’s sermon and small group Bible study will focus on the topic of spiritual formation, that is, the process by which we as God’s children become more like him. In the past we might have called that discipleship. Regardless of what name we give to the process, we often think of spiritual formation by thinking of the tasks or disciplines that a believer engages in – prayer, meditation, Bible study, fasting, service, etc.
No doubt these are a part of the process. We often, however, misunderstand the part they play. We think that if we master the “tasks” of spiritual formation that we will be spiritually formed. There are several problems with this approach. First, we make ourselves the ones responsible for the change in our lives. The problem with this way of thinking is simple – it moves us away from the gospel of grace to a gospel of works. This leads us to the second problem. Because we put the emphasis upon what we can do or accomplish, we’re bound to fail. Who can master any one of these tasks? No wonder we keep stalling in our spiritual growth.
“To be formed in Christ,” writes Daniel Vestal, “means to receive grace, to believe in grace, to experience grace, and to live by grace.” Therefore the goal of spiritual formation isn’t to master certain tasks, but rather to place ourselves in the position of being mastered by the love of God. The goal isn’t to become better prayers or students of the Bible or whatever. The goal is to become better receivers of God’s grace in our lives. What these tasks or disciplines do is place us in the proper position to receive (not achieve!) that grace.
Philip Yancey gives an insightful story on this front in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? He writes, “A rabbi taught that experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.’ His student asked, ‘Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?’ The rabbi replied, ‘To be as accident-prone as possible.’”
May we, God’s children, be as accident-prone as possible today.
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence – 2 Peter 1:2-3.