By Ginny Jensen
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. – Philippians 1:18b-19
Early in my faith journey, I clearly understood the choice between following the world and following Christ. What I had difficulty reconciling was how I would be transformed to be like Him.
I struggled with verses like Philippians 1 and 2 which seemed so contradictory. In chapter one, Paul petitions God to complete the work… in the lives of his beloved readers (Phil. 1:7). In chapter 2, Paul then challenges his readers to work out their salvation because God is working in them (Phil. 2:12-13). What does working out one’s salvation mean and who is the one doing the work? These are complex questions requiring a fuller study of the doctrine of sanctification. But, in summary, I interpreted these passages to mean that working out my salvation meant I needed to demonstrate His work though my work. Ministry became my indicator of maturity.
My discipleship training experiences further reinforced this incomplete definition of transformation. I was strongly encouraged to have a daily quiet time for prayer and Bible study, and then to serve in some capacity. Don’t misunderstand; all of these are good practices, but I had interpreted God’s invitations as mandates.
God became like a taskmaster to me. I continued to be very involved in service and outreach but it was no longer a joy. I was burning out serving God. As Ruth Haley Barton says in her book Sacred Rhythms, ministry had become a misery. I knew that there needed to be more, and over time, I began to recognize that the transformation encouraged through Spiritual Formation married these two verses. My service to others flowed from His intimacy with me. The working out of my salvation is an inner work, a heart work.
Work–that word can have different implications. I grew up on a farm. The work was hard and never-ending. The family culture taught that if you were to do anything, you must do it well. Though I know my parents were proud of me, they were not always forthcoming with that praise. When I was in high school, I was in the honor society. I was one of the top two in my class of senior year. I so wanted to be first, and I worked hard to make it happen. Looking back, I think the harder I worked, the less successful I became. When it was announced that I was the salutatorian, I was very disappointed. I had not done enough. I had not done it well.
Those early patterns become very ingrained. Without realizing it, I had transferred them to my relationship with the Lord. Making my questions to the Lord, “Have I done enough? Have I done it well?” This is not the work for my spiritual formation or yours. This inner work is becoming aware of and releasing the self in order to allow Him to give us the grace for change; to complete His work.
Henri Nouwen compares spiritual transformation to the workings of a wheel. Our heart is the hub where the focus of our work should be. From the hub, the spokes become a community to practice our faith, and the rim is our outreach or service. What does this heart work look like?
I am coming to understand that Spiritual Formation is the process whereby I labor to be available and open to God’s invitation to transform me for good of others. This work Nouwen refers to as the hub. God works the changes in us as we work to make ourselves available to Him. The disciplines of Bible reading and prayer require us to intentionally step away from distractions to be with Him. He then gives us grace to do the disciplines (practices). As one grows more intimate with Him, new disciplines may become a part of the inner work–always drawing us closer to Him. These spiritual disciplines are not more work to do but are often His invitations to think differently about our identity in Him…doing the same things for different reasons. Sometimes the disciplines require that we do less work, to free up our schedules, minds, and hearts for more time with Him.
Using Nouwen’s metaphor, our heart work is refined and tested in the communities, or those spokes of our lives. Sometimes we need others to walk closely with us on our journey. A discipline available for those times of needed guidance is Spiritual Direction.
In direction, the director listens with you for what invitations the Lord is giving you. Direction provides a safe, confidential place to become more aware of the areas in life where we are not free. Then we have the choice to stay in bondage or choose the freedom He offers. Spiritual Direction has provided me with the community of a gifted companion to explore next steps for growth and to celebrate transformation progress.
In Romans 12, we are given a choice to be conformed or transformed. (ESV) These two words have the word form as their root. They describe a very different formation. In our natural body, we are quick to conform to the acceptable social standards. Transformation on the other hand, is a thorough or dramatic change in our character. Spiritual Formation provides a path to that dramatic change. The choice we make, determines our formation – in an image more like Him or the world.
Drawing nearer to God is a joint effort; we work to be available to Him and in His grace. He invites us to become more like Him. He shows us the areas we need to die to and invites us to accept His freedom to be who we are intended to be. Freedom to be our true selves draws us closer to Him. Who does the work? We do the work of dying to self, and He works to complete the good work in us.
To explore Spiritual Formation, contact Ginny Jensen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash