Archive for May, 2012

I am often asked, “What is Spiritual Formation?” I prefer to refer to Spiritual Formation as the spiritual transformation of the heart.  I have complied a list of questions that I am frequently asked or heard asked about Spiritual Formation . The following is some of those questions and my answers to them:

1. What is Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual Formation has been a generally recognized movement for the past thirty years that emphasizes lifelong spiritual transformation of the heart. One of its emphases is the importance for us to intentionally seek spiritual growth through practicing various disciplines. This provides us a way to position ourselves for the Spirit to transform our hearts.

Spiritual Formation emphasizes that the Bible is the standard of truth, but does seek truth in other disciplines, like psychology and sociology. However, these teachings from other disciplines cannot conflict with the Scriptures, or they will be rejected. Spiritual Formation also draws on appropriate spiritual traditions from the historical church. It uses the Bible as a means to deeper spirituality, and not Bible knowledge as the end-goal.

2.   What are some ways that Spiritual Formation may differ from the usual  approaches to spiritual growth?

  • Stresses that the Bible is the standard of truth, but does accepts truth not explicitly stated in the Bible from other disciplines, as long as the teachings do not conflict with biblical truth.
  • Emphasizes developing a love relationship with God, rather than just serving God.
  • The focus is on heart change, and not just on knowledge and behavioral change.
  • Emphasizes knowing self, as well as knowing God through the Bible.
  • Stresses that knowing the Bible is a means to transformation, but does not automatically cause transformation.
  • Emphasizes prayer, as well as knowing the Bible, as important for spiritual growth.
  • Values feelings as a means of knowing the heart, rather than regarding them as unimportant.
  • Emphasizes the high value of community in the transformation process, rather than regarding community as an option.
  • Emphasizes living the Bible, as well knowing it.
  • Teaches the practice of a large variety of disciplines to position oneself for God to work, rather than trying to obey Scripture through trying harder.
  • Teaches that God is the change agent, and not us.
  • Helps us realize how sinful we really are and in desperate need of change, rather than just needing a little tweaking.
  • Stresses the need to be intentional about transformation, and not think it just happens as we study the Bible and do ministry.
  • Emphasizes relying on the Spirit, besides fortitude and knowing the Bible.
  • Stresses that God is the one who makes things happen, not us.
  • Accepts that we are in a spiritual war and teaches how to function in this reality, rather than assuming that it is largely a naturalistic world.

 3.  Is Spiritual Formation biblical?

Yes. Spiritual Formation emphasizes that the Bible is the standard of truth, but does seek truth from other disciplines, like psychology and sociology, as long as the teachings do not conflict with the Bible.

4.  What benefit will I likely receive from studying and practicing Spiritual Formation?

  • You can learn to more fully cooperate with God in the spiritual growth process and grow more Christlike.
  • You can become more skilled at recognizing bondages to sin in your life, and take them to God for transformation.
  • You can become a more godly person deep within your heart.
  • You can live a more supernatural life.
  • You can experience a more intimate love relationship with God.
  • You can experience living life with God, rather than performing for him, in deeper way.

5. How does Spiritual Formation work?

  • Recognizes that the Word disciplines are very important to practice to cooperate with God in the spiritual growth process.
  • Provides practices to work with God in putting off the old and putting on the new.
  • Helps you to better recognize sin in your life.
  • Provides many additional practices to cooperate with God in the transformation process.
  • Teaches how to allow the Spirit to lead the way in the transformation process.
  • Helps you to live from your identity in Christ, and not from a false self.
  • Helps you to walk in the power of the Spirit.
  • Encourages and trains mentoring and body-life support.
  • Helps you know what is really going on in your heart, and how to cooperate with God in transforming it.
  • Recognizes supernatural opposition, with prayer and the Holy Spirit as important weapons.
  • Recognizes that the Word is a means to an end, with the end being transformation and ministry fruit.

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Why Pain

We are born thinking that we are alone in this world and that we have to use our wits and wisdom to make it through it. We do not see that we are under the protective care of a loving and strong God who has created us for his purposes (Psalm 23). As a result, we think that we know what is best for us and that we have the resources to make it happen. God uses pain to help turn us from this independent living to learn to rely more on his faithful support to make it through life. God often uses pain in our lives, not for the purpose of making our lives miserable, but for the purpose of making us godlier. “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3).

When we are faced with unfixable problems like chronic pain, loss of a child, divorce, or failure at work or in the ministry, we realize that we sometimes do not have the resources to succeed. We realize that we are not in control and often reach out to him who is in control.  The pain that flows from our over-our-heads troubles is actually good because of the spiritual growth that can occur.[1]

I am currently faced with a ministry failure. Things did not turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. I feel grief, sadness, fear, and hurt. Because of feeling so bad, I have turned to God in prayer and his Word with deep dependence to find God’s will and peace in the midst of the pain. Through it all, I am sensing a greater freedom from an over dependence on good circumstances and the approval of others through this pain. I am also sensing a greater capacity to live and express my true thoughts and beliefs in a spirit of love.

When life is fairly comfortable, we often fail to ask ourselves the hard questions of life. We tend to value more than anything the desire to feel good, even if what makes us feel good is phony. So, when pain hits, we are thrown off-balance and in the process of trying to get our good feelings back, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves some hard questions that can change our lives for the better. Questions like, “How much am I worth when I am not performing?”, “Is God really enough to satisfy my need to be loved?”, or “Does God really have my best interest at heart?” Deep in our hearts we already have answers to these questions.

Pain can help draw these beliefs out in the open where God’s light can shine on any darkness or unbelief and change them. “If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1John 1:7).  Pain has the power to grow us or destroy us. We all have met people who have never recovered from painful episodes in their lives. Not that the pain of divorce, getting fired or being abused will ever go completely away. But for some reason, these people have not moved passed the pain and found God’s intimacy, comfort and strength to continue walking in the light in these areas.

We often forget that God’s primary purpose for our life is to make us like him in spirit and truth. It is not to make us feel good. Jesus was a man of sorrows. As we grow more like him, our pains will more and more reflect the pains that Jesus feels and felt when he walked the earth 2,000 years ago. We will grieve for the lost and those who refuse to walk in the Spirit, we will be sad by the various satanic bondages that tie people up in mediocre living, and we will fear the painful correction that will come to those who refuse to repent. This kind of pain is not bad because it reflects that we are doing right and living the abundant life.

God promises us pain in this life, no matter how godly we are. It comes with the territory. Because man is not basically good, we hurt each other. This is where much of our pain comes from. We disrespect one another, we fail to show interest in one another and we say things that hurt one another’s feelings.

We also hurt sometimes by submitting ourselves to God’s leadership in our lives. He often wants to do things in us and through us that disturbs our painless hopes. We hurt when we can’t do things we want to do, when things don’t happen on our schedule, and when we don’t get the glory.

The pain we experience when we come face-to-face with God’s plans for our lives, helps us to turn away from the false god’s we may have of achievement, people’s approval, and comfortability. We have the opportunity in our pain to learn to allow God to meet our tremendous needs for worth and love, or double-down on our efforts to earn them. God is calling us in our pain to a more intimate love relationship with himself. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

It will be painful to turn away from our false gods to embrace our true God. We are like the Israelites in the desert who yearned to return to their lifestyle of bondage in Egypt, rather than learn to trust God to meet their needs in the desert. I have been intentionally seeking for several years to turn away from seeking people’s approval at the expense of being who God created me to be, having to be busy all the time to believe my life had worth, and taking how others treat me as the final statement on who I was rather than what God thought of me. I have experienced much anxiety as I have sought to transfer my dependence off my efforts onto God and his promises to meet my needs. At times, I have suffered the pain of criticism, disapproval, and exclusion from others because of relying on God’s approval instead of man’s. Yet, I am excited that through the pain I believe God has enabled me to better reflect his glory in living and speaking the truth in love.

How to Deal With Pain

In dealing with pain, it is good to seek for God’s perspective on the pain. One big reason for this is that if we are not careful, we will begin to lose our belief that God loves us and is all-powerful because he has allowed such pain in our lives.[2] How often have I been tempted to despair lately by the lack of results in the ministry. Yet, God continually challenges me with his perspective that “your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (I Corinthians 15:58).

As we seek God’s perspective, often we will not fully understand why the pain occurred. God says to us, “Trust in Me with all of your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). We have to come to grips with the reality that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Often we need to trust in the goodness of God, rather than our own understanding of the pain. He promises in Proverbs 3:6, that as we acknowledge our dependence on him to help us through the pain, that “I will make your paths straight.”

Often the pain we feel is due to the substitutes we have been using for trusting in God to meet our needs.[3] When we lose the approval of others or fail to be treated with dignity and respect we often feel more pain that we need to because we have allowed others to define us too much. Certainly, how people treat us will always have an effect on our emotions. However, as we grow more dependent on allowing our identity in Christ to be our experience, we will experience greater freedom from bondage to painful feelings and beliefs that say to ourselves “I am what others think I am.” Instead, we will say to ourselves, “I am whom God thinks I am, which is that I am loved, respected, and totally acceptable despite how others view me.”

Another way to deal with pain is to deal with it. We are really good at running away from emotional and other pains by getting busy or repressing the pain rather than facing it. Repressing emotional pain has been a weapon of choice for me for many years. Rather than face the fear of low worth, or the terror of not being approved by certain people, I repressed the feelings and kept busy pursuing achievements and corkscrewing myself into identities that would get me approved. In the last few years, I have been experiencing greater freedom to be myself and not be such a slave to the expectations of others.

We also need to not let our pain define our reality. I have through much of my life let my feeling be my guide. If I felt important, I was important. If I felt appreciated, I was appreciated. If I felt like a worm, I was a worm. However, this is not true. We are important period. We are appreciated period. We are not a worm period. God defines true reality, not my feelings and the pain in my life.

I remember when I first became a Christian I was letting my feelings determine my reality. “Are you a Christian?” was the question. My answer was, “I don’t know because I do not feel like a Christian.” Yet, I needed to learn that my true reality was that I was a Christian based on sincerely receiving Christ and not on how much I felt like I was a Christian. Likewise, in pain, we are tempted to feel that God does not love us or does not have the power to change things. Yet, our true reality in pain is that God continues to be our Good Shepherd and promises a great future for us here on earth and in heaven (Psalm 23:6).

Application Questions and Exercises

1. What is a pain you are facing today. Ask God what he is accomplishing through the pain. What thoughts come to mind?

2. Is there a hard question you need to ask yourself in the pain you are now experiencing? What is that question?

3. Ask God if there is any pain in your life that you still have not fully dealt with in a godly way. What did he bring to mind?

4. Think of a time that doing God’s will created pain in your life. Thank God by faith, if necessary, for the good he accomplished through your pain.

5. Ask God to help you make a list of several good things that are in your life today because of your experience of pain?

6. How has relying on who you are as God’s precious child comforted you as you faced the pain of rejection, failure, or being ignored?

7. How important do you feel right now? How important do you think you are to God right now? Why the difference if there is one?

[1] Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams, (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2004), 26-35.

[2] Gary W. Moon,  “Finding God in the Midst of Pain and Suffering,” Conversations- A Forum for Authentic Transformation, (Fall/Winter 2011): 4-5.

[3] Ruth Haley Barton, “The Promise of Pain,” Conversations- A Forum for Authentic Transformation, (Fall/Winter 2011): 72-76.

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The Vision

The hit song from the Sixties called “Alfie” had a lyric in it that asked, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” The song was a message to a self-absorbed Alfie that there was more to life than using it for his own selfish pleasures. That something was loving others. God would adjust this to say that life was about a love relationship between himself and us, and us and others. The greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and the second greatest is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-39).

Imagine living in the presence of someone who is very strong, and who is head-over-heels in love with us. Imagine someone whose smile slowly melts away our fears and tensions, for “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).Imagine someone who is always there for us, but gives us space when we need it. Imagine someone who will never reject us no matter how weak and unbelieving we are, for God says to us, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Imagine someone who enjoys being with us and delights in who we really are.

Such is the love that God has for us, his children. There are no strings attached to his love. He gives us his love as a gift. It is too good to be true, yet it is true. We can do nothing to cause God to stop loving us, and we can do nothing to cause him to love us more. His love is already as high as the heavens are above the earth (Psalm 103:11).

He knows our every weakness and every sin that we have buried deep in our hearts, yet he still loves us. His love for us comes from who he is, not from our performance. He wants us to rest in his love for us, and let him satisfy our needs for worth, safety, and being acceptable. He does not want us to keep striving to earn worth, love, and safety, for it is so unnecessary and is only an illusion. Yet, we will need to be “diligent to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11).

God wants us to live increasingly in this reality of his intimate love for us. He wants us to soak in his love and be transformed by it. “Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). He yearns to transform our lives from striving to be loved and valuable, to resting in the glory of being his precious children.

It Will Not Be Easy

So, why do we know so much about God’s love for us and yet often fail to experience it? One major reason is that we were born that way. We were born to live a life without experiencing his love, which comes through not depending on him.  We were born to hide from God, or, if necessary, try to earn his love by being good. “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11).

In addition, we were trained by our parents, schools, friends, and society that there is no free lunch, and that we must jump through various hoops to get love, acceptance and worth. No matter how godly our parents were, they did not perfectly reflect God’s deep love and delight in us. So, we learned not to trust in being loved without some strings attached. For me, it was being strong, being smart, and playing by the rules.

Now, the problem does not go away just because we receive Christ and are born again. We carry this baggage of a spirit that is oriented and trained to earn love into our relationship with God. So, we will tend to relate to God the way we related to our parents and others. This would include seeking to impress him, compensating for our bad by being good, hiding our bad from him, and seeking to live our lives without his help. We fail to realize that God is greatly different from anyone else we have ever related to, and that we need to be retrained to live in a love relationship with him.

However, churches have often failed to properly support and encourage us in this lifelong development of an ever-deepening love relationship with God. Once we are stabilized in our faith, the focus often shifts to getting busy for the Lord in various ministries. We often are not properly equipped to increasingly enter into a deep experiential love relationship with God that empowers our lives and ministries supernaturally. Churches often teach to be suspicious of experiencing God in circumstances, in the still small voice, through the Body of Christ, and in nature. Some churches teach that God can only be experienced through the Scriptures.

Experiencing the Vision

We can know truth without really experiencing truth at the heart level. For example, we can know God loves us, and yet fear his rejection through being weak and unbelieving. We can know God loves us, yet try to increase his love for us through achievement. We can know God loves us, yet fear the future he controls. Our feelings and actions show we really do not fully understand or rely on his love at the heart level. So, we need truth to percolate from our heads to our hearts.

One discipline that is helpful in embracing the reality that God deeply loves us is to meditate on his Scriptures that he uses to tell us how much he does. Prayerfully meditating on Scriptures such as Psalm 23, Psalm 91, Psalm 131, and Psalm 139 help us soak in the reality of his love. I often feel my fears begin to melt away as I allow the truth of his love to sink deep within my heart.

I know from much personal experience how being in the presence of love is a great anecdote for fear. Living at my Grandma’s house at various times during my childhood, I experienced godly love and found release from my fears in the presence of this godly woman. She never looked at me like she was evaluating me, but always in admiration and love.

As the years went by, my times at Grandma’s house became less and less, for my family had moved two thousand miles away. When I was twelve, I began to experience some strong anxieties as I faced the transition from childhood to being a teenager. I became depressed and began to develop some other emotional problems. However, God rescued me and led my dad to move back to Illinois near my Grandma and other loving relatives. In the presence of their warm and loving acceptance of me, my fears melted away within a month and I became happy again.

I now use sanctified imaginative sessions (committing the time to God for his control), in which I revisit Grandma’s house with Jesus there and experience being loved by Jesus and Grandma. These times are helping to transform my heart, feelings and thoughts that mere cognitive knowing never touched. Having said this, I always check these experiences to ensure that they are consistent with the truths of Scripture.

Another discipline that can help us experience being loved by Jesus is to place ourselves in gospel scenes like Matthew 11:25-30, Mark 6:45-52, and Luke 12:22-32 through our imagination.Then, we become an eyewitness to experiencing Jesus’ love being shown to his disciples as we see, feel, taste, hear, and touch what the original participants experienced, to increase the reality of his great love for us. We need to particularly pay attention to how Jesus looks at us, and what he says to us in these imaginative sessions. I personally believe God uses these times to speak truth and reveal his deep love for me.

Another excellent discipline to experience God’s love for us is participating in a small group. God’s love is in each Christian to some extent, and he wants to use each of us to love one another. Yet, human love is always tainted with self-interest to some extent, but often gives us a taste of love that helps us to want to receive God’s perfect love.

Finally, one of the key disciplines that we need to be practicing is to “lay aside the old self, and put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24) in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is critical if we are to grow in experiencing his love and fellowship, for, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness [in the old self], we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). When we are clinging to our baggage, such as respect from others determines our worth, or achievement increases our worth, then we are living in darkness in these areas. “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run” (Hebrews 12:1). When we do not intentionally deal with these lies we rely on, our ability to experience the joy and peace of God’s never-failing love for us will be hindered.

I am currently learning to identify satanic lies that I have trusted in for most of my life. Also, I am identifying the corresponding truths from God’s Word and asking God, through his Spirit, to enable me to put off the old and learn to rely on his truth. The lies I have relied on at the heart level include the fallacy that my weaknesses may cause God to reject me. In addition, I have relied on the lies that God will love me more if I achieve, and that I am loved if people approve of me. A corresponding truth that I am depending on the Holy Spirit to increasingly make experientially real to me is that God will never reject me no matter what. In addition, I am learning to rely more on the fact that God is head-over-heels in love with me and will never love me more. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). Finally, I am learning to live more in the reality that I am loved by God, no matter how people respond to me.

Excerpt from the book Experiencing God’s Transforming Love

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A strength my dad had was perseverance. He used to boast to me that he had never lost a fight as a boy. He said that one reason that this was true was because the other guy would often get tired of beating him up, and quit. So, my dad would win! He modeled perseverance to me in many ways as I was growing up.

Perseverance is so important in winning the battle of living in this fallen world. I shudder to think where I would be today if I had not followed my dad’s example and persevered. I would not be pursuing my dreams today if I did not plan to persevere. I think the major difference between those who succeed in life, and those who do not, is often perseverance.

God has promised us his daily support to persevere. “As your days, so shall your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25). We need to take him at his word and wade into the pain and obstacles of life knowing that he will enable us to persevere.


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