Practicing Jesus: Part 3, The Third Mistake of Spiritual Formation

To review, the first mistake of spiritual formation is approaching it as an educational problem, trying to teach your way into being Christlike. 

The second mistake is approaching spiritual formation as a Trolley Problem, assuming life is a series of ethical dilemmas where we ask ourselves "What would Jesus do?" 

In discussing these problems we've pointed toward practices that form us and instill habits. At this point we all know what comes next in the conversation, a discussion of spiritual disciplines and practices. But that conversation brings us to the third mistake of spiritual formation.

Ever since Richard Foster published his seminal Celebration of Discipline in 1978, spiritual disciplines have been on everyone's radar screen. This is very well-trod territory. Any moderately serious Christian, if asked, can name some spiritual disciplines: Prayer, fasting, Bible study, worship, Sabbath, rule of life. You can also drill down into particular disciplines. When it comes to prayer we can talk about structured prayer, breath prayer, meditation, the prayer of examen, contemplative prayer, silence, and healing prayer. 

The great majority of these practices focus upon our vertical relationship with God rather than our horizontal relationships with each other. The goal of spiritual disciplines is to draw us closer to God. The assumption is that as I grow closer to God this intimacy will cause me to be more kind, gentle and loving toward others. I call this the "Trickle Down Theory" of spiritual formation.

This "Trickle Down Theory" is the third mistake we make about spiritual formation, the assumption that pursuing intimacy with God through spiritual disciplines reliably and consistency impacts our interpersonal behavior. 

Now, to be very clear, I'm not denying the profound need for spiritual disciplines that focus upon God. My day is structured around such practices. Nor am I denying that a practice like contemplative prayer has impact upon how I treat others.

The problem I am highlighting here, though, is a chronic indirectness in how many pursue spiritual formation, especially in regards to virtues like the fruits of the Spirit. For example, if you want to become more kind you could pray about that. And I think those prayers will be helpful. You could also do a Bible study about kindness. And that would be helpful as well. But both of those approaches are indirect. My point is this: If you want to be kind, why don't you just practice being kind? Interpersonally and directly?

The third mistake of spiritual formation is how a chronic indirectness haunts most of our efforts in forming ourselves into Christlikeness. When in comes to interpersonal (e.g., kindness, gentleness) and emotional (e.g., self-control, patience) virtues we keep directing our time, energy and focus vertically, toward God, and never get around to focusing on the horizontal, interpersonal dimension, doing the thing directly. For example, revisiting the point about practice from the last post, if you want to be more kind, if you want kindness to become an automatic holy habit, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practicing kindness. That's not to say prayer can't help with this, but 10,000 hours of practicing kindness is the only way to acquire this virtue.

We talk a ton about things like fasting, prayer, liturgy, Bible study, and Sabbath, but what is missing from almost every spiritual formation effort is direct, interpersonal practice of the interpersonal and emotional virtues. It's pretty simple. If you want to acquire a habit, you have to do the thing, directly. 

To form the fruits of the Spirit you have to practice. Yet nobody does.

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