Spiritual Formation – Part 1

An Introduction

By Rev. Dr. Brent Russett – Asbury Free Methodist

September 11, 2022

            What kind of person do you want to be? When I am sitting with Young Adults, that is a question that I sometimes ask. When I am coaching people, that is a question that I will ask. What kind of person do you want to be?

            When I was in the Arrow Leadership Program, one of the assignments they had us do was to write our own eulogy. What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want people to say about you when you die? That exercise brings into focus what matters.

            Whether you die with $1000 or a million dollars – doesn’t really matter. Whether your lawn was perfect all the time doesn’t really matter. Being a good neighbour, friend, spouse, and father. Those things mattered to me.

There are meaningful things to spend our time at and things that are not so meaningful. Character matters. I discovered that I wanted to be known for the kind of person I was, not so much the things I did. Words like loving, encouraging, grace-filled and kind came up.

            What about you? What kind of person do you want to be? That question is not only applicable to the young. Do you want to be a crotchety old lady or a cranky old man? Probably not.


            If you are a follower of Jesus, then the other question you have to ask is, “What kind of person does Jesus want me to be?” If you have been a follower of Jesus for a while, then you have probably realized that the more similar the answers to the questions “what kind of person do I want to be?” and “what kind of person does Jesus want me to be?” the happier you will be. Life tends to become anemic if you are trying to be something other than what God wants you to be.


            So, how do you become the kind of person you want to be? That is what this series on Spiritual Formation is all about. At least, it might be. I am going to talk about Christian Spiritual formation. So, if you are interested in being someone other than what Jesus would have you be – If he had your personality and lived in your shoes – then this series will not be for you. If you want to be that crotchety old man – this series isn’t for you.


            The reality is that if you don’t want to be who Jesus wants you to be, then you will probably find this church uncomfortable because we are about making and being great disciples of Jesus.

            What must be said in conjunction with that is we are a church where you come as you are – no perfect people allowed. As we looked at last week, Peter was a great disciple, but he wasn’t a perfect disciple. We won’t be perfect, but our desire is to learn to follow Jesus well.


            While none of us are perfect, our goal is to become the kind of people Jesus wants us to be. The word used in the scripture that was read this morning to describe that “becoming” is transformation.

Romans 12:2 (NIV)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

            The word “transformed” is written in a tense that indicates that it is an ongoing process. This series is about how we engage in that process of being transformed.


            I want to put in a disclaimer about this series. Normally I like to preach expository messages where I take a passage of scripture and just work through that passage of scripture. I am not going to do that with this series. I promise you that the messages will be biblical.

            You may be familiar with the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Much of the New Testament is about the forest of spiritual formation. But we can miss what it is talking about by focusing on this particular tree and then that particular tree. I want you to pull a lot of New Testament concepts of spiritual formation together for you.


            With that being said, let me talk to you about spiritual formation. Everyone, your friend, your neighbour – you are in a process of spiritual formation. The television and movies you watch, the books you read, the friends and family you hang out with, the news you watch and the social media you consume are all spiritually forming you.

            Every thought you hold, every emotion you allow to shape your behaviour, and every response you make to the world around you is spiritually forming you. You are either being shaped into the wholeness found in the image of Christ or you are being shaped into someone who is a deformed human being – becoming what we were never meant to be. When we do that, it is not only destructive to us but to those around us.

            But the point is – we are all being spiritually formed. That is really important to understand. When we choose to pray, we are being spiritually formed. When we choose not to pray, we are being spiritually formed. When we choose to read our bible, we are being spiritually formed. When we choose not to read our bible, we are being spiritually formed.

            You cannot be neutral in the spiritual formation process. We are always being spiritually formed. The question is, “into what?”

            The next thing to note about spiritual formation is that it more analogous to a journey than it is to a painting. What I mean by that is that we sometimes paint a picture in our mind of who we want to be. We want to be wise and compassionate and caring and adventurous and a risk taker and joyful. We paint this picture in our minds, and we decide that is who we want to be. The problem with that, of course, is that there is more to being joyful than just choosing to be joyful. There is more to being loving than just choosing to be loving. Those choices may be important, but if you don’t understand that there is a process in becoming loving or becoming joyful, then we tend to get discouraged.

            What generally happens is that we have this ideal that we try to live up to. So often, we fall short of our ideal. So, we try harder. Often this strategy ends in disillusionment. We can’t seem to be what we want to be. Just wanting to be something does not make it happen.

The other thing that happens is that we take this ideal image of ourselves and we pretend that it is us. It is a kind of “fake it until you make it” kind of thing. We fake loving people, even if we don’t love people. Then we believe our own press. I must be loving because I did this and this. But there is a large discrepancy between our image of ourselves and our heart.

            A good name for this image of ourselves is our false self. We all have this to some extent. The worst of it is that if we try to get the lord to help us with this false image of ourselves – it will inevitably fail because he will only deal with what is true.


            That is why I like to compare spiritual formation to a journey. A journey not only indicates that we are moving, but it also shows us that where we are now may not be where we want to end up.

            Lynda and I took some holidays in B.C. this summer. While we were out there, we did a number of hikes. Now, before our holiday, I had been walking for about three kilometres in the morning. But Perth is flat. I think physics works differently in B.C. It seemed that when we were hiking that we were always walking uphill.

            We were on this one hike. The map said it was a 4-kilometre loop. That was just outside my comfort zone – but totally doable. I am not sure who measured the loop, but my apple watch told me that it was almost six kilometres when we were finished. More than that, it seemed to be all uphill. The worst of it was that there were a lot of mosquitoes. They weren’t bad when we were walking, but when we stopped, we got swarmed. So, here we were – walking uphill – not being able to stop – and going away past my distant comfort zone. It reminded me of some of the stages of my life.

            Here is the thing. It was easy walking in flat Perth to pretend that I was getting into hiking shape. But those hills exposed me for what I was. I have a long way to go to get into shape.

            What does that have to do with spiritual formation? The level of our spiritual formation shows up in “everyday life.” There are times when we are walking in the flats, and life is going well. We think, “hey, we have this Christian journeying thing down. Then we start to walk uphill.”

 Here is what I have noticed about Christians. We are generally nice people, kind people, good people – until we get bumped, or offended, or somebody does something we don’t like – then our spiritual fitness gets shown for what it is.

            If our spiritual life is shown to be wanting – we can either measure ourselves against that mental image of ourselves and then get down on ourselves, or we can try to justify our response, or – and this is the better response- we can say – God has me on a journey and my reality has just been exposed. God can work with that. I’m on a journey that isn’t completed yet. This series is all about how God works with the reality of who we really are.  

            Let me give you a definition of Christian spiritual formation.

            “Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for our sake and the sake of others.”

            I want to spend some time this week and next week – fleshing out this definition. There are some things that are in here that people sometimes ignore to their detriment.

A process

            First of all, it is a process. I find that my heart often wants something different than a process. If I am struggling with a besetting sin or a bad attitude – if I want to be more peaceful and more loving – what I want is for God to zap me. I want him to fix me and to fix me now. I want him to remove the mountain in front of me.

            Some of you grew up with a version of that kind of spirituality. What you needed to change was a trip to the altar. If that didn’t work, then what you needed was another trip to the altar. Or what you needed to change is to have and a particular experience like being filled with the Spirit, or being delivered, or having a vision or having a mountain top experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to minimize the significance of transforming spiritual moments. They are important. There are sometimes when God ministers to us. I am not sure if I would have made it through parts of my journey had God not shown up in mind-blowing ways. But there is something about spiritual wholeness that is more comparable to growth than it is being zapped.

            Peter says

1 Peter 2:2 (NIV)

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,

            John talks about the children, young men and fathers of the faith. The whole point is that our spiritual formation is a process where we grow into maturity. We are not zapped into maturity.

            We live in an “instant gratification” world. We think that if we read our bibles and pray today, that it should bear fruit today. That is kind of the same as going to the gym once and pumping some iron and then looking for muscles. It doesn’t work that way. Spiritual formation is a process. As Eugene Peterson, the translator of “The Message Bible” put it, it is “a long obedience in the same direction.”


            I have noticed that God does some of his best work in our spiritual formation in the wilderness. Sometimes God can seem distant, our spiritual lives stagnant, and our relationship with God weak – we are spiritually dry. Assuming that you have examined your heart, and there is no unconfessed sin – you wonder, “what is going on.” But God knows what he is doing. He can do things in the wilderness that he can’t do any other place. If you don’t understand that your spiritual life is a journey, and sometimes that journey can take you through the wilderness, it can shake you up.

            Back to our definition.

            “Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for our sake and the sake of others.”

            “Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ, a journey into becoming persons of compassion, persons who forgive, persons who care deeply for others and the world, persons who offer themselves to God to become agents of divine grace in the lives of others and their world.”[1]

            Robert Mulholland, who authored part of this definition of spiritual formation, says,

            “Now, if I had said spiritual formation was a process of “conforming ourselves” to the image of Christ, I suspect we would have been much more comfortable. The difference between conforming ourselves and being conformed is the vital issue of control.”

            Most of us want to be in control. If you want to see how important control is to you, watch your internal response when something or someone significantly disrupts your day. Here is the challenge – The dual realities that “Jesus is Lord” and our desire to control everything war against each other. This is especially true in regard to spiritual formation.

            We tend to think that if we do the right things, then we will be the right kind of Christian, as if we control the process of becoming Christlike. We will look at it more when we talk about spiritual disciplines, but there is a relationship between what we do and God acting. But if you are going to be transformed into the image of Jesus – it will be about what God does in you, not about what you do. It is God’s job to conform you to the image of Christ. It is your job to cooperate with him.


            I need to wrap this up for this week. We will pick up the definition of spiritual formation next week. But let me end with this.

            Jesus said, “What would it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose their soul. What would one give in exchange for their soul.” In our world, there is a war going on for your soul. This isn’t just a war to decide whether you will make it to heaven or not. This is a war to decide what kinds of human beings will live on this world.

            Will we be compassionate, caring, contributing people to the betterment of others, or will be self-absorbed, uncaring, unloving people who are really deformed as human beings. That war has entered the church in North America. What has become evident in the last couple of years is that the transformation that is promised by the gospel has not gone as deep as it needs to go. We are nice on the surface until we are disrupted.

            People, we can’t change the whole church, but we can encourage and help each other to be like Jesus and let the transformation that God promises to sink deep into our souls. That is my hope for this church. My hope is that when people see us, we will remind them of Jesus. 

            My hope is over the upcoming week that I can give you some encouragement to deeply engage in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for your sake and the sake of others.”

[1] Invitation to Journey – Robert Mulholland kindle location 147.