This talk was presented to faculty who gathered at a recent Urbana conference in St. Louis.
Hello, my name is Rachel, and I am a recovering sinner. (Hi, Rachel). George Stulac and John Inazu asked me to talk to you today about spiritual formation, and since I’m 100% certain that I don’t have more insight than either of them on the topic, I’ve opted to include a lot of great quotes from Dallas Willard, so at least you’ll walk away today with something useful. (Hey, it’s not plagiarism if you cite it!) Truly, though, I’m not a theologian or even a philosopher of religion – my area of expertise is political and economic philosophy – but I’ve learned that if nothing else, I always have my own story to share.
Growing up in an evangelical pastor’s home was in many ways a great blessing to me: I became deeply familiar with the scriptures, with Jewish culture as well, my church was a joyful, multiethnic community that saw itself in solidarity with other Christians all over the world. Furthermore, my parents’ ministry brought me into the inner-city quite often, and eventually I had two African-American foster brothers for several years at a time. My experiences with them and my desire to understand the plight of black American males became one of my two main inspirations for entering political and economic philosophy. My church background is a huge part of who I am today, and I am deeply thankful for that.
However, in my childhood church, the term ‘discipleship’ was very clear; we even had a handbook. In a one-on-one discipleship team, the person who had been saved longer taught the newer believer the basics of the gospel of salvation by grace, followed by training in how to share that with others. So that’s what I thought discipleship was. Recently, some have re-adopted the more ancient term, spiritual formation, in order to paint a different, fuller picture.
Dallas Willard claims that we all have received a spiritual formation. It doesn’t matter if it was unintentionally done. The point is that each person was formed in some way by their various circumstances that influences the way that they think about and relate to God. Perhaps he is distant and benign. Perhaps he rewards and punishes you based on your performance – that’s a very popular one! Perhaps he just doesn’t care. These often unreflective assumptions may result from what we were explicitly taught about God, or they might just be our knee-jerk reaction, derived from projecting the human authority figures in our lives onto God. So the first thing to know is that unless we were extremely, exceptionally lucky, we will probably have to UNLEARN some things in the process of our TRANSFORMATION into Christlikeness. It’s a question worth asking ourselves – what was my spiritual formation growing up?
Second, Willard claims that the most important thing about us is the idea of God that we have in our minds. While the spiritual formation movement puts an appropriate emphasis on practice over analysis, there’s something fundamental about our theology at this point. In my own case, I had to make three major transitions:
) the Holy Spirit did not abandon the church after Constantine, only to suddenly reappear 1000 years later with Martin Luther. That may sound funny, but I grew up learning of no medieval believers at all. Graduate school felt like discovering a secret set of siblings you were never allowed to know about. I have a strange fierceness in my attachment now to the likes of Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Aquinas, or Antony of the Desert. This shift in thinking allows for a richer faith, a more substantive Christian philosophy, and a more hopeful ecclesiological narrative.
2) I was operating on a severely oversimplified two-pronged story: sin and redemption. But the Christian story is 4-pronged: creation, sin, redemption, and restoration. The significance of the creation story isn’t there just to set us up for the Fall. It establishes who God is as the ultimate, necessary being and creator of the universe from absolutely nothing, who we are as creatures made in his image, and who we are truly meant to be. And while the worldliness of this world will surely go up in flames at the end, God loves this world and will restore this world in the new heaven and the new earth. Heaven is not a place where you hang out and get to have your favorite pizza without gaining weight. It’s a concrete future in which we will have good work to do, as members of the royal household of the great King Himself, Jesus.
And 3) Jesus preached the gospel. He had some very good news for us, even though he hadn’t died yet! And that very good news is that the kingdom of God has come very near to us, that it is now being made available to everyone, and that to know Jesus is to know what God is really like. The writer of Hebrews says that He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”. Jesus is so much more than just a mechanism for my salvation from hell. He is the King of this universe, ushering in his kingdom. And the good news is so much more than my individual destiny. It is an invitation to be a part of the great divine conspiracy to renew all things under the Lordship of our glorious God!
Jesus never actually said, “go into all the world and make converts, intellectually assenting to a certain set of propositions”. He asked us to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to do everything that He taught us to do. A disciple is a follower, a student of the Master. And this brings us to the fourth major theological shift. To quote Willard again, “grace is opposed to earning, not effort”. I will never earn or deserve any favor from God because that’s not how God works. It’s grace all the way down, people. Grace for salvation from hell, and grace for salvation from sin, and grace to be transformed into his likeness. The process of sanctification, that gymnasium Paul talks about, the working it out… requires grace upon grace upon grace. The effort that I make in my own spiritual formation is simply to show up for the grace God has for me. And this is not a merely speculative claim. I think that I can safely say that those who have progressed in holiness are people who understand how very deeply they rely on God for everything. Just as Socrates knew that more knowledge only leads to a greater realization of one’s ignorance, more holiness only leads to a greater realization of one’s dependence.
A disciple is also one who undertakes the disciplines of the Master in order to become like Him. Just as Jesus went to a quiet place to be with God, so should we. Jesus fasted and prayed, so should we. Jesus surrounded himself with a group of close spiritual friends, so should we. Jesus poured himself out in the service of others, so should we. Jesus welcomed the abandoned and the hated, so should we. Jesus worshipped in the temple and contemplated the scriptures deeply, so should we. Why should we imitate the Master? Because he knows the secret of human life! He knows that human flourishing comes from abiding in God! We learn to abide in God by establishing certain habits. Jesus loves and trusts His Heavenly Father so completely that to do His will flows out of Jesus naturally, and this is the very life He is inviting us to participate in! Since God is altogether good, then to do His will is our very best option. The main obstacle to this for us is nothing but the same sneaking lie that the snake told to Adam and Eve in the first place; that God wasn’t what He claimed to be. That he didn’t actually have our best in mind. That He was the same kind of jealous and petty being that we are. This is why James Bryan Smith uses the phrase “mind-discipleship” – it is absolutely imperative that we retrain our brains to have the truest and most glorious thoughts about God.
Let me describe what this looked like for me. In 2010 when I really delved into the spiritual formation movement, I was in the middle of a divorce, I was struggling badly with unrelenting mental obsession, and I was seriously overcommitted at work. It was at this time that I first realized that for all my intellectual engagement with the Christian faith, I was (excuse the harsh language here) a spiritual zero. What I meant by this term is that I had no regular interaction with God. I didn’t pray, I called whatever I decided to do God’s will, I was exhausted, and most of all, I was very, very tired of myself. For some reason I had just come to the end of myself. I couldn’t stand to live this way any longer. I have no way to explain where the willingness came from, but I suddenly decided that I was going to surrender. I was going to surrender my will to God’s will, and I was going to let go of the outcome. It may seem strange to you that the concept of surrendering to God’s will had never occurred to me before, but I assure you, it hadn’t. Looking back on it now I see one possible explanation for this gaping blind spot. While I mentioned to you all earlier many of the good things about my spiritual formation as a child, one of the bad things was that I was pretty severely neglected. I was consistently forgotten, left behind, left alone and unprotected, waiting for someone to come get me. I learned that the people who loved me were not thinking about me. They did not have a plan for me. When trouble came, I would just have to figure something out. I just did what I could and hoped it would all work out. Little did I know then what constant intervention God was enacting in my life. He was with me, all along.
I do have one theory as to why something really clicked in 2010, though. I read Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy and was particularly struck by his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. I had never seen Jesus that way before. I had never seen how smart, how wise, and how genuinely loving he was. I had never thought of him as the Master of human life. Something about that book made me see Jesus, I mean really see Him, as a person, for the first time. And as the old saying goes, to know Him is to love Him. I fell in love with Jesus, this figure who I had trusted with my eternal destiny now became someone I could trust with today, and tomorrow. I was ready to surrender.
What did that surrender look like? It looked like dropping out of every extra-curricular activity I could. Slowing down. I started hanging out at the Carmelite once a week for an hour, trying to learn to just be still for one hour. It looked like reading The Practice of the Presence of God and the Imitation of Christ on my lunch hour instead of sitting with certain colleagues and complaining about students. I even had to confine myself to the Psalms for a period of time because my brain wouldn’t stop intellectualizing everything I was reading in the Bible, turning it into an argument about this or that doctrinal issue. I had wrapped my whole identity around my critical, analytic mind and was for the very first time able to read something in a receptive, devotional manner. It looked like writing letters to God in my journal every day, including a gratitude list, and seeing what He might be saying back to me. It looked like silent retreats at the Abbey – just making some room to hear His still, small voice. It looked like confessing absolutely everything, down to the most embarrassing detail, to one other human being, and to God. Letting go of the shame and the secrets. It looked like, in a kind and straightforward manner, putting some distance between myself and certain people
in order to heal old wounds. It looked like flying to New Jersey so that an older Inter Varsity couple could pray with me through the memories of my childhood issues.
Today, it looks like being committed to my faculty bible study and to my small group - building real, authentic relationships with the people God has placed in my life. It looks like making my bed and keeping my house clean out of respect for myself… looking my kids in the eyes when we talk and really listening to them. Picking up the phone when one of my mentees calls in distress and being of service to her. Today, it looks like refusing to react to our insanely polarized political atmosphere and staying my eyes on whatever is true, and whatever is good, and whatever is noble. It looks like getting enough rest in a year with a new marriage, and the sudden deaths of both my own father and my father-in-law.
The point of the disciplines isn’t to say we did them. It isn’t to come up with a to-do list that we can check off at the end of each day. The point of the disciplines is to abide. I abide in Him, Jesus said, now you abide in Me. I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide. Draw upon His power, His grace, every day – I don’t know what disciplines you will need in order to do that and I don’t need to know! Rely on Him completely – there is no detail too small that He is not presiding over it. When I abide in Christ I am able to live this life He has given me more and more as He would live it if He were me. This, this is the treasure that was hidden in the field. This is the thing that it would be idiotic not to sell everything you have to attain. Everything you have is nothing in comparison to what you are gaining when you follow Jesus Christ, when you abide in Him, and through Him, in the Father, the very Creator of this universe, Love Itself. Abide.