Growing up in an evangelical pastor’s home was in many ways a great blessing to me: I became deeply familiar with the scriptures; I was well-versed in Jewish culture; and my church was a joyful, multiethnic community that saw itself in solidarity with other Christians all over the world. Furthermore, my parents’ ministry brought me into the inner city, and eventually I had two African-American foster brothers for several years at a time. My experiences with them and my desire to understand the plight of black American males became a major inspiration for entering political and economic philosophy. My church background is a huge part of who I am today, and I am deeply thankful for that.
However, in my childhood church, the term “discipleship” was very clear; we even had a handbook. In a one-on-one discipleship team, the person who had been saved longer taught the newer believer the basics of the gospel of salvation by grace, followed by training in how to share that with others. So that’s what I thought discipleship was. Reading The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, I felt that someone had finally explained why things in the church often turn out so differently than the life with God that Jesus had and promised to us. I realized that discipleship must be much more than mere intellectual conversion. It’s a process of knowing and experiencing God that leads inevitably to being deeply changed by him. I have come to appreciate the ancient term many have recovered: spiritual formation.
Willard claims that we all have received a spiritual formation. It doesn’t matter if it was unintentionally done. The point is that each person was formed in some way by their various circumstances that influence the way they think about and relate to God. Perhaps he is distant and benign. Perhaps he rewards and punishes you based on your performance—that’s a very popular one. Perhaps he just doesn’t care. These often-unreflective assumptions may be what we were explicitly taught about God, or they might just be our knee-jerk reaction, derived from projecting the human authority figures in our lives onto God. So the first thing to know is that unless we were extremely, exceptionally lucky, we will probably have to unlearn some things in the process of our transformation into Christlikeness. It’s a question worth asking ourselves—what was my spiritual formation growing up?
Willard also claims that the most important thing about us is the idea of God that we have in our minds. While the spiritual formation movement puts an appropriate emphasis on practice over analysis, good theology is fundamental. In my own case, I had to make four major transitions in my theological understanding:
- The Holy Spirit did not abandon the church after Constantine, only to suddenly reappear 1,000 years later in Martin Luther. That may sound funny, but I grew up learning of no medieval believers at all. In graduate school I felt like I had discovered a secret set of siblings I was never allowed to know. I have a fierceness now in my attachment to the likes of Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Aquinas, and Antony of the Desert. This shift in thinking allows for a richer faith, a more substantive Christian philosophy, and a more hopeful ecclesiological narrative.
- I was operating on a severely oversimplified two-pronged story: sin and redemption. But the Christian story is four-pronged: creation, sin, redemption, and restoration. The significance of the creation story isn’t there just to set us up for the Fall. It establishes who God is as the ultimate, necessary being and Creator of the universe from absolutely nothing; who we are as creatures made in his image; and who we are truly meant to be. And while the worldliness of this world will surely go up in flames at the end, God loves this world and will restore this world in the new heaven and the new earth. Heaven is not a place where you hang out and get to have your favorite pizza without gaining weight. It’s a concrete future in which we will have good work to do, as members of the royal household of the great King himself, Jesus.
- Jesus is so much more than just a mechanism for my salvation from hell. Jesus preached the gospel. He had some very good news for us, even though he hadn’t died yet. And that very good news is that the kingdom of God has come very near to us, that it is now being made available to everyone, and that to know Jesus is to know what God is really like. The writer of Hebrews says that he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” He is the King of this universe, ushering in his kingdom. And the good news is so much more than my individual destiny. It is an invitation to be a part of the great divine conspiracy to renew all things under the Lordship of our glorious God.
- Jesus never actually said, “Go into all the world and make converts, intellectually assenting to a certain set of propositions.” He asked us to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to do everything that he taught us to do. A disciple is a follower, a student of the Master. To quote Willard again, “grace is opposed to earning, not effort.” I will never earn or deserve any favor from God because that’s not how God works. It’s grace all the way down. Grace for salvation from hell, and grace for salvation from sin, and grace to be transformed into his likeness. The process of sanctification, that gymnasium Paul talks about, the working it out—requires grace upon grace upon grace. The effort that I make in my own spiritual formation is simply to show up for the grace God has for me. And this is not a merely speculative claim. I think that I can safely say that those who have progressed in holiness are people who understand how very deeply they rely on God for everything. Just as Socrates knew that more knowledge only leads to a greater realization of one’s ignorance, more holiness only leads to a greater realization of one’s dependence on God.
A disciple is also one who undertakes the disciplines of the Master in order to become like him. Just as Jesus went to a quiet place to be with God; so should we. Jesus fasted and prayed; so should we. Jesus surrounded himself with a group of close spiritual friends; so should we. Jesus poured himself out in the service of others; so should we. Jesus welcomed the abandoned and the hated; so should we. Jesus worshipped in the temple and contemplated the scriptures deeply; so should we.
Why should we imitate the Master? Because he knows the secret of human life. He knows that human flourishing comes from abiding in God. We learn to abide in God by establishing certain habits. Jesus loves and trusts his Heavenly Father so completely that to do his will flows out of Jesus naturally, and this is the very life he is inviting us to participate in. Since God is altogether good, then to do his will is our very best option. The main obstacle to this for us is nothing but the same sneaking lie that the snake told to Adam and Eve in the first place; that God wasn’t what he claimed to be. That he didn’t actually have our best in mind. That he was the same kind of jealous and petty kind of being that we are. This is why James Bryan Smith uses the phrase “mind-discipleship”—it is absolutely imperative that we retrain our brains to have the truest and most glorious thoughts about God.
Let me describe what this looked like for me. In 2010, when I really delved into the spiritual formation movement, I was in the middle of a divorce, I was struggling badly with unrelenting mental obsession, and I was seriously overcommitted at work. It was at this time that I first realized that for all my intellectual engagement with the Christian faith, I was (excuse the harsh language here) a spiritual zero. What I mean by this term is that I had no regular interaction with God. I didn’t pray, I called whatever I decided to do God’s will, I was exhausted, and most of all, I was very, very tired of myself. For some reason I had just come to the end of myself. I couldn’t stand to live this way any longer.
It was at that time, while I was going through all these struggles, that I read The Divine Conspiracy. Willard’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount was a revelation to me because I had never seen Jesus that way before. I had never seen how smart, how wise, and how genuinely loving he was. I had never thought of him as the Master of human life. Something about that book made me see Jesus, I mean really see him, as a person, for the first time. And as the old saying goes, to know him is to love him. I fell in love with Jesus; this figure who I had trusted with my eternal destiny now became someone I could trust with today, and tomorrow. I was ready to surrender.
For the first time in my life, I decided to surrender my will to God’s will, and I was going to let go of the outcome. It may seem strange to you that the concept of surrendering to God’s will had never occurred to me before, but I assure you, it hadn’t. Looking back on it now I see one possible explanation for this gaping blind spot. While I mentioned earlier many of the good things about my spiritual formation as a child, one of the bad things was that I was pretty severely neglected. I was consistently forgotten, left behind, left alone and unprotected, waiting for someone to come get me. I learned that the people who loved me were not thinking about me. They did not have a plan for me. When trouble came, I would just have to figure something out. I just did what I could and hoped it would all work out. It was all up to me. After all, who could I trust? Surrendering to the process of spiritual formation meant giving up that automatic reliance on myself and learning to trust God instead.
What did that surrender look like? It looked like dropping out of every extra-curricular activity I could. Slowing down. I started hanging out at the Carmelite once a week for an hour, trying to learn to just be still for one hour. It looked like reading The Practice of the Presence of God and The Imitation of Christ on my lunch hour instead of sitting with certain colleagues and complaining about students. I even had to confine myself to the Psalms for a period of time because my brain wouldn’t stop intellectualizing everything I was reading in the Bible, turning it into an argument about this or that doctrinal issue. I had wrapped my whole identity around my critical, analytic mind and was for the very first time able to read something in a receptive, devotional manner.
It looked like writing letters to God in my journal every day, including a gratitude list, and hearing what he might be saying back to me. It looked like silent retreats at the Abbey – just making some room to hear his still, small voice. It looked like confessing absolutely everything, down to the most embarrassing detail, to one other human being, and to God, letting go of the shame and the secrets. It looked like, in a kind and straightforward manner, putting some distance between myself and certain people in order to heal old wounds. It looked like flying to New Jersey so that an older InterVarsity couple could pray with me through the memories of my childhood issues.
Today, it looks like being committed to my faculty Bible study and to my small group—building real, authentic relationships with the people God has placed in my life. It looks like making my bed and keeping my house clean out of respect for myself, looking my kids in the eyes when we talk and really listening to them, picking up the phone when one of my mentees calls in distress and being of service to her. Today, it looks like refusing to react to our insanely polarized political atmosphere and staying my eyes on whatever is true, and whatever is good, and whatever is noble. It looks like getting enough rest in a year with a new marriage and the sudden deaths of both my own father and my father-in-law.
The point of the disciplines isn’t to say we did them. It isn’t to come up with a to-do list that we can check off at the end of each day. The point of the disciplines is to abide. As Jesus abided in the Father, he says to his disciples, abide in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide. Draw upon his power, his grace, every day. I don’t know what disciplines you will need in order to do that and I don’t need to know. Rely on him completely – there is no detail too small that he is not presiding over it. When I abide in Christ I am able to live this life he has given me more and more as he would live it if he were me. This, this is the treasure that was hidden in the field. This is the thing that it would be idiotic not to sell everything you have to attain. Everything you have is nothing in comparison to what you are gaining when you follow Jesus Christ, when you abide in him, and through him, in the Father, the very Creator of this universe, Love Itself. Abide.