Romans 3:23 said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” This verses best describes the basic concept of Christian spiritual formation, that refers to “the process of shaping our spirit and giving it a definite character,” according to Willard (2014, p. 53). We were created and broken, before, but then redeemed and restored (Estep & Kim, 2010, p. 17). Willard continues, that spiritual formation in Christ is the process when we as an individual applies the quality of Jesus Christ’ character into ourselves. This can only happen because we are now justified by Christ.
My own theory of Christian formation basically is about the three dimensions of our being. It starts with our Spirit, which is first transformed when we receive Christ. Then it will affect our soul, which is our emotion, desire, and feeling. The transformed spirit will make a significant change over those areas, which then brings impact to our body, which represents us to the world, through the way we talk, behave, and act.
I am going to evaluate two theories that I find very interesting. The first one is from Dallas Willard. According to him, spiritual formation happens to everyone. It is the process when our human spirit is given a “definite form or character”. He believes that the most wicked and the most popular people have had spiritual formation. People’s hearts are shaped and formed so it results in who they are now, which can be a terrorist as well as saint (Willard, 2002, p. 2).
Willard (2002, pp. 7-9) states that everything comes from people’s heart as the central core, therefore it needs to be “renovated”. To do so, human needs God. Specifically, we need Christ, because He is the way to our heart or spirit. However, Willard emphasizes that letting God invade our lives should not be taken as an “alternative lifestyle option” (p. 5) which can be simply added to our busy schedule.
According to Willard (2002, pp. 67-185) there are six key elements in his theory regarding Christian formation. First is transforming the mind: our thought of life, which determines the orientation and shapes our feelings toward this world. Our thought is the first and most important because it is the source of everything and our feeling is also directed by thought. Second is transforming the mind: our sensation, emotion, and desire through our feeling. Feeling is natural yet it is the most powerful and essential to life. It is very important to master our feeling and take a good care of it.
Third is transforming will and character. He stated that will is the core to who we are as an individual, and the most dangerous thing is when we human falls into duplicity and deception. We tend to do what we want, and we need spiritual disciplines to overcome this. Forth is transforming the body. Willard suggests that we release our body to God, and warns us not to idolize and misuse our body. It is really important because inclination exists in the part of our body. Instead, we should honour and care for it.
Fifth is transforming social dimension. He mentions about being sure of others as the necessary thing for a healthy life, therefore community is really important. We cannot keep our formation to ourselves and God, but we need to interact with others. Sixth is transforming the soul. He states that soul is the centre of human being, and when people keep their heart well, their soul will be “properly ordered under God and in harmony with reality” (2002, p. 169).
The next theory is from Diane Chandler. She defines Christian spiritual formation as “an interactive process by which God the Father fashions believers into the image of His son, Jesus, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit by fostering development in seven primary life dimensions” (Chandler, 2014, p. 19). She starts the theory talking about imago Dei, that we are created in the image of God and it is because of God’s love for us. Because of sin, this image was broken, but now it is restored by Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we acknowledge that Christ died for us, that He paid the price for our sin, and we receive Him through faith as our Saviour, the restoration process begins, as stated by Chandler (2014, p. 17).
Chandler (2014, pp. 20-21) presents these seven formational dimensions mentioned in the definition. They are in order and will affect each other. First is formation of the spirit. This is our faith journey with God, how our spirit grows closer to the image of Christ because the Holy Spirit dwells in us. Second is emotional formation, when we reflect the image of Christ through our feeling, passion, and desire. It is related to the freedom of our past hurts and wounds, too.
Third is relational formation, where we can reflect the image of Christ through our relationship with other people through social interactions. Forth is intellectual formation, which is about the development of our thought, to have a worldview that honour Christ, by reflecting biblical knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Fifth is vocational formation. It is the development in our gift, talent, ability, and skill that bring glory to God.
Sixth is physical health formation, which encourages us to take care of our physical body as the temple of Holy Spirit. By doing so, we can maximize God’s purpose in our life. Sevenths is resource formation. This is about how we manage our resource on earth to bring glory to God, including finance, material possession, and time.
The theories presented by Willard and Chandler basically are pretty similar. I try to find the parallelism and group them to three dimensions of spirit, soul, and body so that it will be easier to discuss when we associate them with the concept of power. They are strongly related because we are talking about change. There must be power behind changes, even if it is big or small.
First is Spirit. Chandler (2014, pp. 67-70) states that our spirit is the most foundational formation dimension. By restoring the human spirit, we are formed spiritually inside out. Why is it important to restore our spirit? Chandler explains that before the fall, Adam and Eve were tempted to doubt God. Once they started to doubt, they were deceived, which led to “illegitimate desire”, which then led to “wilful disobedience”. There was when sin entered human heart and we became corrupted. Therefore Christ came to redeem humanity and we who believe in Him can have our spirit transformed. Then the process of the formation itself is ongoing, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In my opinion, this dimension belongs to God’s sole power and grace.
Then we have soul as our second dimension. This includes our thought, desire, feeling, will, and emotion. Chandler (2014, p. 84) defines emotional formation concerning “the capacity to identify, understand, express and reflect upon one’s and other’s feeling, desire, and passion in healthy and God-honouring ways”. Willard (2002, p. 81-93) also suggests that thought and feeling are the most important parts for spiritual formation. Both of them believe that this dimension is controllable, which means that we have the power and responsibility to master them.
This dimension is very broad and related to each other. It can be said that everything comes from our thought. Therefore “the power of positive thinking” term is really popular in secular context. Willard also mentions about this, that we need to apply our thinking to the word of God (2002, p. 74). Then we have to master our feeling, too (p. 92). Chandler also reminds that it is important to heal the emotional wounds (2014, p. 96) and we are the one who can make them happen, because it cannot occur without acting and doing something about it (pp. 102).
Willard states that everyone should be active in this process of transformation to be Christlike, although the initiative comes from God. This transformation is actually a gift from our justification before God, only by His grace. However it does not mean that we can be passive about this.
Willard (2002, p. 81) also mentions about spiritual disciplines for our formation. As long as it does not become legalism, I agree that we also need to actively take part in becoming more Christ like day by day, because although God has the initiative, He does not force us since we have free will of choice. However, just as Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love Me, keep my commands,” we should do it out of our love to Jesus, not because anything else.
The third dimension is body. Both Chandler and Willard agree that we need to take a good care of our physical body because it is our responsibility. We are not allowed to misuse and idolize our body (Willard, 2002, pp. 138-139). I understand that we have power over our body. We can decide whether to eat healthy food, exercise regularly, sleep well, or vice versa. However, sometimes we are also powerless about it. There are times when our body betrays us, which is understandable because we live in a broken world and we are part of the brokenness, too.
These three dimensions impact one another, including our life purpose and calling, talent and gift, ability in handling material resource, and so on according to Chandler, especially our relationship with other people in the community. Basically both of them believe that we have power in our own spiritual formation and it will be seen through our relationship in social dimension. They highlight that spiritual formation cannot happen without interaction with other people.
The formation theories that they both suggest look like focusing more on individual development. It is important to be aware that we see it through the corporate perspective, but I believe that we need to deal inward first before we deal outward with other people. Therefore, formation starts from us, but it has to be within the community, church, in this case, because it shapes us.
I think when spiritual formation happen in each individual, the church is in the process of having their spiritual formation together. This is something beautiful, and also important because together, we have the power to represent Christ better to the world. After all, we are more than an image bearer. We are His icons (Crouch, 2013 p. 87). Although the process might not be easy. Willard (2002, pp. 21-23) mentions about “rotten church” and “mean Christians”, while Lawrenz (2000, p. 16) also mentions that heresies happen when spiritual formation happens without formative teaching and discipline. He believes that formative growth will result in constructive change. He symbolizes it like the process of planting, watering, and growing (p. 31).
The process of growing sometimes happen through suffering and crisis. Just like the parable of a coal that needs pressure to turn into a diamond, Chandler (2014, p. 81) mentions that “through the ages, men and women have been shaped into Christlikeness through suffering”. This power that presses us, then, will shape us spiritually depending on how we deal with it. So there is also power from our thought, feeling, action, and so on that we have formed spiritually, that will then face this pressure of suffering, and will result in whatever we turn out from that pressure.
In conclusion, there is power that make spiritual formation happens. It is the power of Holy Spirit, the power of our thought, feeling, action, relationship, community, and so on that shape and form us. Those aspects then make change to our spirit, thought, feeling, action, relationship, and community, not only in a parallel way, but also orderly and progressive. I imagine this as the same principle as Christ lives in us and it is reflected outward, so does the spiritual formation that happens within us that impacts our community and the world.