Learning about spiritual formation

One of my priorities in my personal growth plan for 2012 was to better understand spiritual formation. I wanted to be able to define spiritual formation in other ways than just spiritual disciplines and I wanted to better understand what things should be taught in our pre-field training in the area of spiritual formation. One of the learning activities associated with that priority was to read a book by +David Teague entitled Godly Servants: Discipleship and Spiritual Formation for Missionaries. The book has very short chapters, and the author has made a deep subject very accessible. To my surprise, Missio Nexus featured my review of the book in their recent “Book Look”, and so those of you who have created a profile on Missio Nexus will have recently received this review in your email. You can also find it on Amazon or here.

But the second learning activity that I chose in the area of spiritual formation was even more helpful than the book. I listened to a series of five lectures on spiritual formation by Dr. John Coe, Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University. This series of lectures in MP3 format, together with all the handouts and supplementary reading, is available as a free download from the Biola website.

Dr. Coe helped me understand the significance of “a dark night of the soul” — what God is doing in our lives during those times when we no longer find the same pleasure in our relationship with God that we experienced when we were new believers. During a dark night, our “quiet time” seems dry and boring and we get the impression that God is silent. Using the analogy of weaning a baby off the bottle, Dr. Coe talks about how God removes the pleasure we initially experienced in our walk with God to help us come to a deeper understanding of both ourselves and God.

Coe also talks about the ongoing “dark nights” that older believers experience, believers in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.  These older believers have solid characters and regularly practice spiritual disciplines, but have plateaued in their experience of intimacy with God.   They often resign themselves to thinking that their experience of God is all there is, and give themselves to ministering to others as a substitute for pursuing God.  Others may be blessed through their ministry, but they are not satisfied; they realize that their ministry and even their Christian character is not stemming from the rivers of living water.   They feel like they are in a desert.  These older believers experiencing this ongoing dark night must resist the temptation to think that this is all there is to the Christian life, or to try to fix oneself.   God is seeking to show us that much of what we have been doing has been done in the power of the self, and to move us to a deeper experience of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

I would highly recommend this series to those who want to understand how to draw near to God when He seems far away and everything about their personal walk with God seems dry and dusty. I don’t feel that I currently am in a dark night of the soul, although I definitely have been and I coach and work with those who are. But regardless of whether we are presently experiencing God’s absence more than His presence, these lectures greatly enriched my understanding of God’s work – and His desire for my ongoing growth in intimacy with Him. As a result of what I have learned through these lectures, I have begun to pray that God would reveal to me the sin in my heart that is hidden from others, and often from myself, but which God sees so clearly. I have also learned to more fully appreciate God’s grace and acceptance of me, given what He already knows about me and what is in my heart.

The final lecture (lecture #5 – How to Put on Christ: Doing Spiritual Disciplines from the Heart in the Spirit) looks at the role of the spiritual disciplines in training us for godliness, as well as how we can consistently respond in obedience to what God is saying to us.   Only God can transform our characters, but we can train ourselves through spiritual regimes, spiritual rhythms and spiritual intentions.   As Coe says,

“The Spiritual disciplines are not intended to fix the self or transform us but are opportunities for presenting ourselves to God in obedience for the Spirit’s transformation work (Rom. 12:1-2, 6:12-13).”

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