November 18, 2017

Spiritual Formation: A Place to Begin

By Chaplain Mike

A.W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” This is the Bible’s perspective, as well.

  • “In the beginning, God…”
  • “You shall have no other gods before me (the one true and living God)”
  • “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
  • You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.
  • “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

This is the most fundamental aspect of “being transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2) that is key to the process of spiritual formation. Such formation involves learning to see and live our life’s story within the story told by the one true and living God. That is why coming to know who God is and what God is like is so important!

That is why I will begin our iMonk emphasis on spiritual formation by recommending a classic book on the subject.

Now, wait a minute. Before you go any further, I must issue a warning.

The evangelical approach to spiritual formation has been dominated by the practice of “reading books.” Nobody loves books more than I do, but I will also be the first one to tell you that following Jesus as a growing disciple involves much more than this. Thankfully, there is a growing recognition of how we have overemphasized opening up people’s heads, pouring in content, and calling them mature.

Jesus didn’t do that. Paul and the other apostles didn’t do that. The early church did not do that. Luther and the other reformers emphasized imparting doctrine more because of their extraordinary circumstances, but Luther in particular did so with pastoral sensitivity, balance, and practical counsel, out of concern for the spiritual formation of ordinary Christians.

Spiritual formation is more like apprenticeship than school, more like learning a trade than mastering an academic subject, more like working on a farm with a harvest in view than working for grades. It is more than anything like walking with Jesus, living with Jesus, eating and drinking with Jesus, watching Jesus work, listening to Jesus teach, asking questions of Jesus, fulfilling the callings Jesus assigns us, and living the life with God that Jesus showed us and makes possible for us.

Having said that, a person does need to know truth, especially truth about who God is and what his story that culminates in Jesus is all about. Jesus taught his disciples. The churches devoted themselves, in part, to “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2). Ephesians 4 tells us that “speaking the truth in love” to one another within the church is a key part of the process by which the Body of Christ grows to maturity. Books are an extension of that, allowing us to hear from the wider Church’s best pastors and teachers for our edification. Book-learning has its place, especially when we find books that combine sound thinking, stimulating writing, and sensitive pastoral concern, and when we read them contemplatively and prayerfully, in conversation with God and others.

Therefore, the book I am recommending as a solid foundation for spiritual formation is Knowing God, by J.I. Packer. This book was an important turning point for Michael Spencer in his spiritual journey:

My youth and music minister, Bill, was a huge influence on my life. As a growing young Christian, we spent hours together. I owe him a great deal of gratitude as a mentor during some tough times in my family. He took an interest in seeing me discover and use my gifts and talents in the service of the Kingdom. One day I brought a book to Bill; a book I was excited about reading because it was taking me into a subject I’d never heard about at our church. The book was J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. This remarkable book of theology was way over my head as a teenager, but the premise was revolutionary to me: the basic fact of my life was living to know my creator. It was my relationship with God that was my basic identity. God was the center of the Christian experience, and salvation was an unfolding of the greatness of the Lord. All this stood in contrast to the version of the Christian life that was all around me.

• Michael Spencer, Wretched Urgency

J.I. Packer’s book asserts strongly that humans were created for a purpose, and the purpose is that we know God. This should be our aim in life. This, in fact, is the essence of what the “eternal life” that we receive in Jesus is about (John 17:3). Packer calls knowing God “the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else.” In the end, it is this profound and personal knowledge of God that brings God most pleasure, by his own testimony (Hosea 6:6). Knowing God “provides at once a foundation, shape, and goal for our lives, plus a principle of priorities and a scale of values.” This is the main business of our lives.

Nor is it enough to merely know truths about God.

Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God Himself the better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are. As He is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so He must Himself be the end of it. We must seek, in studying God, to be led to God. It was for this purpose that revelation was given, and it is to this use that we must put it. (p. 18)

To this end, Packer commends this simple method of transforming knowledge about God into personal acquaintance with God: “It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”

Jim Packer has given us a book that elicits such contemplation.

  • In Part One, “Know the Lord,” he discusses what it means to know God, and introduces us to the Triune God who has revealed himself that we might make his acquaintance.
  • In Part Two, “Behold Your God!” he takes us on a tour of God’s attributes, including his majesty, wisdom, love, grace, and righteousness.
  • The third and final section, “If God Be for Us…” is an examination of the Good News that this God, the one true and living God who created us and has been longsuffering toward us despite our rebellion and sin, has commended his covenant love to us in his Son forever.

Thus, we are introduced to the God who is, the God who has revealed his character to us, the God who has acted on behalf of humankind and all creation to provide redemption and eternal hope. And Packer does so with such profound theological insight, such depth and breadth of Biblical understanding, such clarity of expression, and such compassionate understanding of our human weaknesses and failures, that each sentence and paragraph cries out for further consideration.

The best I can do in this brief recommendation is to let Knowing God speak for itself. The following passage is from the chapter, “The Majesty of God,” answering the question, “How may we form an idea of God’s greatness?” First, he says, we must remove any thoughts from our minds that would limit God’s greatness. Second, we must learn to compare God with things that are great from our finite human perspective.

For an example of what the second step involves, look at Isaiah 40:12ff. Here God speaks to people whose mood is the mood of many Christians today—despondent people, cowed people, secretly despairing people; people against whom the tide of events has been running for a very long time; people who have ceased to believe that the cause of Christ can ever prosper again. Now see how God through his prophet reasons with them.

Look at the tasks I have done, He says. Could you do them? Could any man do them? . . . Are you wise enough, and mighty enough to do things like that? But I am; or I could not have made this world at all. ‘Behold your God!’

Look now at the nations, the prophet continues; the great national powers at whose mercy you feel yourself to be. Assyria, Egypt, Babylon—you stand in awe of them, and feel afraid of them, so vastly do their armies and resources exceed yours. but now consider how God stands related to those might forces which you fear so much. ‘Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket. . . ‘Behold your God!’

Look next at the world. Consider the size of it, the variety and complexity of it; think of the three thousand-odd millions who populate it, and of the vast sky above it. What puny figures you and I are, by comparison with the whole planet on which we live? Yet what is this whole mighty planet by comparison with God? . . . The world dwarfs us all, but God dwarfs the world. . . . ‘Behold your God!’

Packer continues this meditation by following the text and showing how Isaiah compares God to the world’s great men who wield their impressive power over multitudes, and finally, to the stars of the heavens.

The most universally awesome experience that mankind knows is to stand alone on a clear night and look at the stars. Nothing gives a greater sense of remoteness and distance; nothing makes one feel more strongly one’s own littleness and insignificance. . . . It is God who brings out the stars; it was God who first set them in space; He is their Maker and Master; they are all in his hands, and subject to His will. Such are His power and majesty. ‘Behold your God!”

And so, throughout Knowing God, Packer not only teaches, but also leads us in the practice of thoughtful, prayerful, imagination-rich contemplation of the one glorious and gracious God who invites us to know him and to live in the light of that relational knowledge.

Ultimately, that is the point of spiritual formation.

Comments

  1. A great recommendation. I might put others before this one but it would certainly make the list.

  2. One of the problems is that the passage in Romans translates nous as mind. While not entirely wrong, its not entirely correct, either. The nous is that faculty in man through which we apprehend God. It is different than the mind, yet different than the “heart” (in terms of emotion), although it is, at times translated as that as well.

    Thus, we are transformed by renewing our capacity to apprehend God – not know things about Him, but rather know him. The traditional ascetical practices are intended to help bring such renewal about.

    • Jeff,

      I very much appreciate your clarification of the Greek meaning.

      Would you elaborate a bit on what you mean in your last sentence?

      Thanks and God’s blessings…

      • I’m Orthodox (of fairly recent conversion), so I’m still learning. All of the sorts of traditional activities like fasting and prayer are intended to make ourselves decrease (to take some liberties with what St. John the Forerunner said). We cannot rightly learn to truly love others when our own passions are first and foremost in our mind. If we cannot truly love others, then we cannot be Jesus shaped.

        • Hi Jeff; I was received Pentecost 2009.

          Chris, just to be clear, in Orthodox “vocabulary”, passions are not things about which we are enthusiastic. They are essentially the good things about our inner workings that we us wrongly to serve our selves and our own survival, thus leading us into habitual sin and inability to give oneself in love. Fr Meletios Webber’s “Bread, Water, Wine & Oil” is a very good “entry level” discussion of the nous and how Orthodox understand the capacity to apprehend God.

          Dana

        • Thanks for the explanation, Jeff.