One of the challenges in the spirituality of Christians is understanding the ongoing nature of our spiritual formation. For some of us, even the language of formation is not nearly as familiar as discipleship. There are multiple reasons I prefer language of formation instead of discipleship, but one of the primary reasons is that the idea of discipling or discipleship carry in my head a connotation of a novice being initiated by an expert. I don’t think there’s anything in the term itself that necessitates such an image or understanding, but it’s nevertheless what I imagine. Maybe it’s because people further down the path of discipleship are often speaking of the importance of discipling new followers of Christ. Regardless, for me, and I suspect many others, it has this aura of a period of time where you’re learning the basics, and the essentials of the faith. And even what you’re learning seems to be more about concepts, doctrine, and moral precepts rather than practices, and disciplines connected to a way of life.
Formation seems to point me to a lifelong process we all are undergoing. I may learn the core concepts of the Christian Faith, but I am always being formed spiritually. Another reason I favor the word formation is because it seems to keep clearer in my focus that God is the one who forms me. Often in our day to day language we speak of someone discipling another. I must confess at times I’ve taken on an overinflated sense of importance in the process, because I am the one discipling. I lose sight of the image that one person plants a seed, another waters it, but only God makes it grow. Formation reminds me it is God who is shaping and forming each person into the likeness of Christ.
In the first letter addressed to Timothy, Paul speaks to this young emerging leader in the church about his training. He asserts there is one kind of physical training that is important to health. He then encourages Timothy to “train” in a way which can refer to athletic preparation or as a metaphor to discipline in a specific area of life. The word connotes the ongoing, continuous nature of the training. This isn’t preparing for one event, or even one season, but for a lifetime of contests. In short, Paul reminds Timothy spiritual formation is not a quick fix or beginners lesson, but a lifelong learning experience.
Most of us don’t doubt the logic of this lifelong process in theory, but how many of us have the humility, and hunger to continue seeking out new ways of understanding and applying the message of Jesus Christ? How many of us adopt new spiritual disciplines into our ongoing formation? When’s the last time you learned from a new teacher who approaches the Christian faith from a different denominational, ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic background? My hunch is we all have a lot more learning to experience.