Little children, I’m writing to you because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ name. Parents, I’m writing to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I’m writing to you because you have conquered the evil one. Little children, I write to you because you know the Father. Parents, I write to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I write to you because you are strong, the word of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one.
• 1John 2:12-14 CEB
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One fact I did not understand when I was younger is that life is made up of different seasons and circumstances that can virtually define any given time in life, or even the entirety of your life. I could hardly grasp that I would be called to adapt and change and learn and respond differently — sometimes for extended periods of time — regarding aspects of life over which I would have little control. I still find it hard to deal with change and disruption of my plans and expectations. And if this is true of me, one who has lived a relatively trouble-free life, what of others who have faced monumental challenges and tragic life-altering situations?
A lot of “discipleship” does not take this into account either, but comes across as generic and all-purpose, a program for all audiences — read your Bible, pray, get involved in church, find places to serve.
What they never tell you is that you and life and God and work and relationships and the way you think about all these things and what you need to flourish in life and love is different at age 22 than it is at 35 and very different at 50 or 65. Discipleship programs rarely, if ever, let you in on the secret that you may have to trudge through vast swaths of wilderness in your life, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and threatened by heat stroke. Nor do they talk about the challenges of good times and the temptations of prosperity and the successful seasons of life and the fact that they may or may not contribute to one’s personal growth.
They also don’t take into account that each person has his or her own inner landscape, climate, and weather — that life with its seasons and circumstances looks and feels somewhat different to each individual.
There is a conformist tendency in institutional religion which suggests that because we’re all in this together, we must learn to deal with life in basically the same manner. This effectively disregards the apprenticeship approach Jesus took with his disciples and the apostles’ insistence that we live in the freedom of the Spirit.
This presents a great challenge for ministers and congregations who want to encourage spiritual formation in their churches. Taking each person’s unique situation into account and responding with grace and edifying love can be daunting.
Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else.
• 1Thess 5:12-15 CEB
There are many aspects of church life in which we are called to be formed in Christ together — worship through Word and Sacrament and catechesis, to name two — nevertheless all of us must also learn to walk in newness of life as individuals who have died and been raised up in Christ.
As a parent, one of the most surprising things I had to face was how different each of my children would be. I had to learn how to balance giving attention to their individual stories with composing our larger family story. This is the same challenge the church faces. There is no one-size-fits-all discipleship “program.” Run as fast as you can from any church that gives you the impression they think there is.
Another false notion about the seasons and circumstances of spiritual formation is that they lead to perceptible progress in the believer’s life. As though there is a definable pattern of personal development. Over the years, the spiritual life has been likened to a journey. That suggests a road with recognizable landmarks and destinations. It has also been envisioned in terms of climbing a ladder, though Protestants have usually been suspicious of this as advocating a system of meritorious works. And this is not a leftover relic from medieval theology. Mission statements of many contemporary churches are quite explicit that they expect certain measurable evidences of “growth” to become apparent in the lives of their members.
However, in Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, a book of Henri Nouwen’s teachings on the spiritual life, we read this different perspective:
The movements of the Spirit, Nouwen observed within himself and in others, tend to come in cycles throughout our lives, with only a broad and hardly predictable progressive order. Instead of stepping up to higher and higher stages, as if achieving one stage leads to the next level and the next, we tend to vacillate back and forth between the poles that we seek to resolve. We move “from fear to love” and then back “from love to fear,” for example in a dynamic process that is never complete. Rather than resolving the tensions once and for all, the movements continue to call us to conversion and transformation.
As I’ve said before, this leads me to be reticent about promoting the idea of “growth” or “transformation” as though this is something that can be clearly observed or that “progress” can be marked as an unambiguous fact. As Nouwen himself writes:
After many years of seeking to live a spiritual life, I still ask myself, “Where am I as a Christian?” — “How far have I advanced?” — “Do I love God more now than earlier in my life?” — “Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path?” Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. There are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty or forty years ago are still very much with me. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, and for a deeper experience of God. And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.
…it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.
Seasons come and seasons go. We travel onward in our journey with Christ. Where we are on the road at any given point in time is debatable from our point of view. What we can know, and what we must cling to, is that Christ has called and enabled us to be with him on the road, that he is with us, that he will not forsake us, and that he picks us up every time we fall.
The Lord directs the steps of the godly.
He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fall,
for the Lord holds them by the hand.
• Psalm 37:23-24 NLT