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How Does Spiritual Formation Take Place?

[First Published at langhamliterature.org.]

Spiritual formation: How does one “see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly day by day?” That’s really the point of spiritual formation, isn’t it?


We’ve all had formative experiences that have shaped us into the persons we are today. And yet, most of us would be at a loss to describe exactly how that life-shaping process transpired. What are the ingredients of a spiritually formative process? Disciplines? Sacraments? Teaching? Meditation? Adversity? All the above? Is it God’s work alone or do we play a role?


I found myself asking those questions when I was tasked with teaching discipleship at a seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. My title was “Professor of Discipleship,” which sounds nice, but it forced me to ask myself those questions above. If I had difficulty defining my own spiritual journey of growth, how could I recommend a path to others? What does it mean to grow as a disciple?

Several streams of thought flow through the history of the church seeking to answer that question. The Reformation, for example, relies on catechesis to pass on the centrality of Scripture and the doctrinal foundations of the faith. The stream of pietism contributes a devotional reading of Scripture, prayer and mission. Contemporary writers in spiritual formation have led a renewal in the spiritual disciplines, often drawing from yet another stream — the fathers and mothers of the ancient church. Theirs was a mystical strain, emphasizing the importance of the spiritual community, the sacraments and hearing the word of God in the company of other believers.


While each of those streams have merit, the diversity of experience of spiritual formation may only muddy the waters for the common disciple who is looking for a way to understand how God is at work in and through them to bring about change and maturity in Christ. We need a role model, a real-life character who can show us in everyday experience what it means to do the hard work of laying aside the old and putting on the new.


Enter Peter, the impetuous disciple who seems to speak first and think later. The story that grabbed me and would not let go was Matthew 16. You recall that Peter confesses Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and receives copious affirmation from the lips of Jesus himself! If we had been there and overheard Jesus’s praise of Peter, there would have been no doubt in our minds. This guy had unique spiritual perception and was granted stunning authority. Jesus doesn’t give out that kind of affirmation willy-nilly. Peter’s real progress is apparent.


However, the stunning turnaround comes only moments later after Peter has taken Jesus aside to correct his proclivity for suffering as essential to his kingdom mission. If the affirmation above was glowing, the rebuke was equally stern and unbending. How could it be that Peter, the rock on which the church would be built was now Satan? That the keeper of the kingdom keys was now a hindrance to Jesus? That the one who had received revelation from the Father and was given authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven had set his mind on human things and not the things of God? The passage was an enigma to me. Why such a stark turn around in Jesus’s reaction to Peter? How could Peter be so right and so wrong at the same time? What was the Spirit teaching through this turn of events?


In brief, Peter’s spiritual progress was real, but his expectations of Jesus still needed a complete overhaul. Peter was “all in” as a follower of Jesus but his enculturation to the values of Jesus’s kingdom was at a pre-kindergarten level. The sharp rebuke against the backdrop of a glowing affirmation made it unmistakable. Peter needed transformation at the heart level — where thoughts, feelings and behavior take shape.


Solzhenitsyn’s maxim that the line between good and evil passes through every human heart was evident in Peter. He was clearly on the road of spiritual formation but he had a long way to go. What’s more, Jesus seemed intent on ensuring that Peter made progress. He ruthlessly confronted him with his false expectations, even as he affirmed his genuine spiritual insights.

That passage led me to examine other scenes where Jesus engages Peter directly and relationally to confront him with his shadow self and its false expectations. There were about thirteen such encounters that I began to see as “stations” of Peter’s spiritual formation. Often the common thread was Jesus’s confrontation of Peter’s expectations and his subsequent invitation to Peter to rewire his heart based on the new reality of the kingdom.


Through it all, I was seeing Peter in a new light. I began to realize that Peter was not an impetuous bigmouth as we often hear him represented. Rather, he was a paradigm, a model of discipleship. I began to love Peter. I saw so much of myself in him and I also recognized that the painful spiritual rescripting that Peter went through was not unlike my own process of growth in Christ. It is painful but necessary to realize our core beliefs and values must be overhauled. Peter’s quick responses are not merely the outworking of his strong personality. Rather, those stories are inspired by the Holy Spirit to show us what it means to have our souls shaped in the Jesus way. Peter represents the disciples and, by extension, he represents the church of Jesus Christ — you and me. Peter’s outspoken nature reveals his heart, allowing us to see ourselves in Peter.


I was delighted to see that Peter’s struggles reflected my own as well as the Christian culture that surrounds me. For instance, one of Peter’s kingdom lessons had to do with his centering of his own tribe. Peter had an unexamined expectation that his Jewish community would be privileged in the messianic kingdom. It was totally natural for a Galilean who had been raised on synagogue services and kosher food, but for an apostle who would open the gates of the kingdom of Jesus to people of all tribes and nations, it could not be tolerated. Peter’s centering of his ethnic and religious tribe had to be dismantled. Those kinds of lessons pack a powerful punch in our contemporary world where people of faith are allured by ethnic nationalism even as displaced peoples are showing up in our neighborhoods and churches.


It also struck me how deeply relational was Jesus’s discipleship of Peter. Peter must have reached his wit's end more than once yet the relational bonds held strong: “To whom would we go, Lord? You have the words of life.” That relationality also translated to the early church, but you’ll have to read the book.


On a personal level, Peter’s experience helped me come to terms with loss in the journey of faith. It’s not always the result of a mistake nor is it the outworking of random circumstances over which I have no control. It can be and must be the fruit of following Jesus in an alienated world.


Through Peter, I could see that spiritual formation is for real people who may never darken the door of a seminary or monastery. It’s for fishermen. Spiritual formation in the Jesus way is utterly accessible. All that is needed is the will to follow closely and the humility to suspect one’s own inclinations (i.e. to change) in order to walk with Christ.


The book In Quest of the Rock should be read slowly in tandem with the Scripture passages it discusses. A small group with ample space for honest conversation is the ideal setting. I don’t want to claim more for this book than it is, but I believe seeing spiritual formation through the lens of the Jesus-Peter relationship can be life-giving and provide hope for those of us who feel our journey is unexceptional.

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