Fifteen years ago, I taught a course on spiritual formation at a beautiful Christian college. The term “spiritual formation” generally refers to the process by which the Holy Spirit makes us more like Jesus, but in the context of church history or current practice it usually focuses on a few distinct practices; things like solitude, service, meditation on Scripture, prayer. My dozen students and I would drag our chairs out to the courtyard, where we would sit in the sunshine among the bird of paradise and in that golden light discuss the history and masters of these practices.
It was glorious.
On alternate days, we studied luminaries of the past–Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairveaux–alongside the disciplines which they advocated: meditation on Scripture; prayer; solitude; service. On the other days, we practiced various disciplines, positioning ourselves, in the words of spiritual formation giants like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, for spiritual growth.
In that season, I had space to take personal retreats here and there–my Bible, my keyboard, my own thoughts. I would write music and pray. I served my students and my church.
It was a sweet time.
The next year, I met and married my husband Joel. We moved cross-country, got married, built a lot of IKEA furniture, and both began new careers, because we seem to specialize in stuffing as many life-stresses into one short period as possible. And I discovered that marriage was beautiful, miraculous–and the most intense spiritual formation I had ever experienced.
Why? Because I could not escape the reality of my own selfishness. Suddenly there was another person to take into account, someone with his own thoughts, dreams, ideas, expectations. Being called to serve daily only revealed my self-centered spirit.
And then I had kids.
There are women who seem to float effortlessly into their role of mothering. They are tired, yes, but they glow. They are strong and powerful. They seem to glide down a highway, picking up speed, tired, yes, but so capable.
Then there are those who enter with a bump and keep bumping along like an old jeep on a torn-up back road.
Hormones out of whack. Adjusting to new everything. Sleeplessness, a colicky baby, and suddenly being home with a tiny person who needs you for everything.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I was in love. She was perfect. She was amazing. She still is.
But I wasn’t. My beautiful little one revealed new depths of love in my heart, and also new depths of self-centeredness. Of reluctance to serve. Of idols of control and comfort and Please Leave Me Alone So I Can Just Do What I Want. And there was simply no escape! It drove me to Jesus, but I had no energy, no capacity to “position myself for growth” through the disciplines.
Growth was happening. The Holy Spirit was making it happen. And he wasn’t using a book or hours in Scripture–he was using the verses I had tucked away over the years, and drawing me to repentance and prayers that might be just a few words. He used the sermon on Sundays.
Marriage had been a crucible of spiritual formation because I was faced in a new way with my own sin. Motherhood turned up the heat.
Your crucible may be work. It may be your marriage. It may be in caring for aging parents. It may be a deep an authentic friendship in which God is constantly revealing new realities about your heart.
Your crucible is where the bad news of the gospel–that you need a Savior and you can’t save yourself–meets the overwhelmingly good news of the gospel: that Jesus can. It is where you are faced with your own selfishness, the idols to which you have turned instead of turning to Jesus.
Our friend Scott Moore preached at our church on Sunday from Philippians 3. It was one of those sermons that his you between the eyes. Paul says that everything he had previously considered “gain” he now counted as “loss.” Really familiar words.
So, what is my gain? What is yours?
Your gain is all those things that you have been taught are the source of your importance, significance, love, esteem, power. The things we were taught are Very Important.
Be confident. Smart. Good. Thin. Rich. Responsible. Have great kids, the perfect marriage, the right house, the great car.
Paul isn’t saying, “Oh, those things aren’t great for me.” He is saying, these are IDOLS that are a liability. They put up a wall between me and Jesus. They are lies that prevent me from hearing the gospel.
Whenever I encounter the anger that comes from someone knocking into one of these idols, it is a holy moment. Jesus is calling through his Spirit, pointing it out: Look. This is something you see as Gain but it is actually Loss. It is drawing you away from me.
We usually blow past them.
Jesus invites us to pause, to confess, to repent, to ask for the grace to even want to repent. He invites us to on him, and in gazing on him, we am transformed into his likeness. (2 Cor. 3:18) As we reflect on him, we begin to reflect him.
He invites us to spiritual formation.
He invites us to become more like himself, which is the whole point.
Jesus, my day will unfold just moments from now. Let me welcome your voice. Help me not to be bound by the expectation that you will only form me in particular ways–instead, open my eyes to the multitude of ways that you reveal my sin, call me to repentance, and make me more like you. Free me from the preconceived ideas I may have of what spiritual formation should look like, and instead simply form me by your Spirit. Let me be intentional in studying your word, even as I rest in the reality that you are faithful and will complete your work in me. (Phil. 1:6).
I don’t want to settle for Gain when you offer me yourself. Help me trust in you instead of all of the things I have been taught to trust in. Apart from your Spirit, I will cling to these things, but you offer me the joy of clinging to you instead. Help me to be more mindful of you as I move through the tasks and demands of the day, trusting you to make me more like you. Thank you for your work in me, for your grace that saves, for your Spirit who convicts, for your power that brings dead things to life. In the powerful and transforming name of Jesus, Amen.