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~ Christian Formation ~

"That's why the Scriptures say, 'I am the holy God, and you must be holy too' " (1 Peter 1:16). This is the call to formation. Many theologians contend God does some of His best work when external spiritual manifestations look like disasters, shattering our self-righteousness and self-dependence, reforming unholy thinking and acting into His image for His sake and ours. Christ overturns the tables of corruption within us, leaving them empty except for the healing balm of humility.

Many Christians have recognized the further they observed others ascend in holiness, the more the others see and explain how far they yet must go, paradoxically leading them into a sense of increasing unholiness.  C. S. Lewis taught the holier a person becomes, the greater his awareness of his sinfulness. J. C. Ryle, an Anglican bishop of the nineteenth century, observed, "The more light we have, the more we shall see our own imperfection." F. B. Meyer put it this way: "The nearer we live to God, the more sensitive we become to the presence of sin." Compounding this challenging venture is a related interesting dynamic. As we develop in holiness and perfection, our intellectual knowledge surpasses our spiritual integration and practice of them. We increasingly know more than we practice and the distance between the two becomes another part of our formation that is both frustrating and instructive. 

Dr. Dallas Willard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. He addresses the daunting question, "Why aren't Christians more Christlike?" Willard points to the general absence of intentional spiritual formation development. He says, "In my tradition, conversion was very important, but because lives were rarely transformed, we also had revivals where people could rededicate themselves to Christ—and they did frequently. But as a pastor watching this, it became clear that I really didn't have anything to help these folks. All I could say was 'mean it this time' or something silly like that... During my few years as a pastor, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get people to come to church. Then I looked at Jesus, and He was trying to get away from people. The people Jesus taught were experiencing real transformation. As I spent more time studying the Gospels, I saw that Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. I realized I was simply not preaching what He was preaching. I had the gospel wrong."

Indeed, Jesus taught the kingdom of God is "at hand, within you, in your midst." The transformation of those we commonly recognize as saintly exemplars of Christ did not happen in revival meetings, evangelical rallies or teaching conferences. Although there are no indications in Scripture or theological tradition denying we can undergo the transformation Christ's disciples did, such experience of Christlike formation seems elusive and critically dependent on our faith. Yet faith is a gift, not a matter of our will. Transformative faith is not faith in our strength, wills, or in faith itself. God is the complete and full object of faith.

However, by our will, many of us do live driven by circumstances and a sense of self-importance and self-expectation. The maturing of Christian theology and practice was, in large part, developed in the monastic tradition. These enclaves of prayer, reflection, writing, study and work hailed the need for rules of living, of practicing spiritual disciplines at set times during the day, week and year. Other tasks revolved around these anchors that kept the mind and spirit from being pushed and pulled all over the landscapes of life. Jesus and His disciples practiced such disciplines, keeping with the Jewish tradition of set times for prayer, worship and observation of sacred ritual.

Somewhere in the gap between what we know and what we practice is the groundedness of the broken and contrite soul and the concomitant humility that even Christ modeled and practiced. Teaching this does not generate the popular welcome or "Amen!" that themes of prosperity, success and material blessings do. God will, however, teach us dependence, humility and clinging trust in Him through brokenness and hardship. Our painful learning about how far away Christlike holiness appears, and the emotional and spiritual turmoil this learning brings, is used by our omniscient God to advance our spiritual formation.

And also in that gap between knowing and doing is the Immanuel, the God-with-us, who fills it with His grace, love, mercy, guidance and very Self. Crucial to our Christian formation is our ongoing trust in and reliance on that Presence.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
   in the Christian Faith ~

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