Home > 52 books in a year, Theological Reflections > Invitation to a Journey: Some Reflections on Spiritual Formation

Invitation to a Journey: Some Reflections on Spiritual Formation

 

I took a must needed break from my rhythm of writing on here so that I could focus on two papers that were due this week. I am finding that my wealth of words has turned more into the slow drip of molasses rather than a fountain of overflowing sentences. Still, it has been a rich experience to press on and write what I could offer. Also, while the material in my courses is not terribly hard to understand or grasp at one level, they are deep and full of ways that intersect with my life and training. Those are the fun books to read and papers to write! They are also the most time consuming. Here is one of the things that I wrote this week.

Introduction

In Invitation to a Journey[1], Mulholland invites his readers to a spiritual journey of becoming conformed to Christ for the sake of others. He claims that spiritual formation happens with or without our consent (p. 24). That is, we only have say in what forms us. Society provides alternative answers to Christ as the source of such formation (e.g. consumerism). We are either being shaped into the likeness of Christ or into some “horribly destructive caricature of that image” (p. 23). Christian spiritual formation goes against the grain of societal values of consumerism, individualism and instant-gratification (p. 22-23).

In this paper, I will briefly summarize some important points from Mulholland’s book. Then, I will discuss three ways in which spirituality and mission intersect with each other. His emphasis throughout the book is that our individual spiritual formation occurs so that we can be conformed to Christ and that Christ can work in us to minister to others.

How the Invitation to a Journey is a Road Map for Spirituality

The central thesis of Mulholland’s book is: “We are being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others within the body of Christ and for the sake of others outside the body of Christ” (p. 168). As Christians, we find our primary source of life and meaning through Christ as we seek a relationship with Him through prayer and Scripture. We are not able to conform ourselves to who God wants us to be. Rather, through grace, God works in our hearts and lives to bring us into the image of Christ (p. 26). Our role is to make ourselves available to God’s work in our lives. Underlying this difference is the issue of control – we cannot control our own spiritual formation (p. 25). That is, we cannot earn a higher spiritual level, understanding or gift – our spiritual journey and the wholeness we seek is a matter of God’s grace (p. 26).

In many ways, this is an individual process. God has endowed us with personality, passions and gifts that make us uniquely set apart from any other human being. However, holistic spirituality needs to learn from others and the uniqueness that they bring. We can learn and grow through being challenged by others. Holistic spiritual formation takes place in the context of relationships (p. 43). Moreover, as the body of Christ, our combined unique individualities provide a holistic body of Christ to minister to each other and the world around us.

A key point for Mulholland is that we are conformed into the image of Christ not merely for our own sake, but for the sake of those around us. In fact, he makes the bold claim that we cannot grow spiritually without caring for others. He writes that spiritual formation is “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 the world” (p. 25). As we become conformed to Christ’s image, we will see that the natural outflow of this will be to serve others as Christ did.

There is much in this book to provide a framework or road map for our spiritual formation. Mulholland writes about various spiritual disciplines, giving both practical and theoretical insight. Moreover, he outlines some of the common features of spiritual formation that many Christians throughout the centuries have experienced. However, I want to focus on three lessons that have been shaping my understanding of “missional spirituality.”

Lesson 1: Holistic Spirituality

                Mulholland speaks of what he calls “creation gifts” – aspects of our personalities, talents and make-up that God has endowed to us through creating us as unique individuals. Using psychological research, he outlines the Myers-Briggs personality dimensions that people find themselves on a continuum. The four designations are: Introvert (I)/Extrovert (E), Intuitive(N)/Sensing (S), Thinking (T)/Feeling (F), and Perceiving (P)/Judging (J). Our four-letter combination speaks to our dominant ways of interacting with the world. For example, my dominant way is INFJ. He then details the strengths and weaknesses common to each combination plus our tendencies and vulnerabilities in our spiritual formation journey (p. 66). As an introvert, I tend to be reflection rather than action oriented. My preference is for solitude, private prayer and individual study of scripture and I tend to emphasize the individual experience. As intuitive, I rely on imagination and insight rather than concrete or sensual aspects to inform my decision making. I thrive with metaphors and symbolic explanations and get frustrated with a purely literal approach. I tend to be spiritually aware, and, according to Mulholland, struggle with serving others. I am slightly bent towards feeling and therefore rely on subjective values including feeling and memory, focus on relationships and devotion. Lastly, I tend to score slightly higher as judging, which means I have a preference for order, what we ought to do, and systematically approaching issues.

What stood out for me in Mulholland’s account was how we need those who are different from us to complement to provide a holistic approach to spirituality. That is, I need people who have four-letter combinations with E, S, T and P in my life and that we should be intentional about spending time with people who differ from us. In my early days of living in an intentional community, I struggled with the member of our house who was extremely extraverted. It wasn’t until we showed hospitality yet again to a large group that I recognized how extremely beneficial he was to the mission of the house and that he complemented me quite well. Mulholland has made me take this thought a step further – relationships with those who have different personalities are vital to my own holistic spiritual formation. That is, I need others – and specifically others who are different from me – to challenge and encourage me to grow in other ways so that I might become whole in Christ. Moreover, I cannot holistically minister to others if I do so only out of the preferences endowed by my “creation gifts.” Others can show me different ways to grow in my relationship with Christ as well as form me in ways that can minister to others who are different from me.

Lesson 2: Spirituality for the Sake of Others

Not only do I need others to challenge and encourage me to grow spiritually, my spiritual formation is for the sake of others. Throughout my church years, I have experienced a separation from spirituality and mission. Spirituality is something that I do in the context of my home while mission is what I do when God calls me beyond my home. Spirituality takes the form of private prayer and studying scripture and spiritual growth is measured by how close I feel to God and whether he answers my prayers and I am sinning less. It has only been in recent years that I have realized that this spirituality really has nothing to do with my neighbour – that’s the work of being missional.

Mulholland looks at what it means to be conformed to Christ. Christ “gave himself totally, completely, absolutely, unconditionally for others. This is the direction in which the Spirit of God makes us towards wholeness” (p. 41). He claims that we will become who we fully are as we are conformed to the image of Christ (p. 33). Moreover, this is the deepest hunger in our lives (p. 34). The spiritual journey of becoming conformed to Christ will lead us to giving ourselves “totally, completely, absolutely, unconditionally for others” as well.  God uses us to become His agents of grace in others’ lives (p. 154). This seems so intuitive when I think of who we are called to be like, however, I think I somehow missed this message! The gifts and fruits of the spirit might benefit me in some ways, but they are primarily for the building up of the community and for blessing others. Mulholland writes, “Our unique individuality is one of the gifts we bring to the body of Christ. Others need the gift of our preference type in their growth toward wholeness. We need the gifts of others’ preference types in our growth toward wholeness (p. 144).” That is, we cannot be maintain a holistic spirituality without serving and being served by others. Moreover, my privatized spirituality divorced from others will provide a false evaluation of where I am at in my spiritual journey. For example, it is fairly easy to be kind to others if I never have anything to do with them. As we open ourselves to being formed by Christ, God will work in us to enable our spiritual growth to encourage and minister to those around us, sometimes calling us out of our social bubbles and friendships with people who are like us.

Lesson 3: Personal and Social Holiness

In a similar vein, it is not possible to achieve personal holiness without a social holiness and vice versa. Personal holiness is developed through spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting as we make ourselves available to God forming us through His grace (p. 166). In my background, personal holiness takes priority. When I first attended an Anglican Church, I was offended by the language of “we” in the confession: why must I say sorry for things that others have done, and how do I know that others truly repent? I am only responsible for me! However, if I as the member of the body of Christ seek holiness, then I also partake in the corporate body of Christ. Therefore, corporate holiness is an essential component to individual holiness.

Moreover, in Mulholland’s words, “Personal holiness […] is conformity to One whose life was given unconditionally for others” (p. 166). Therefore, personal holiness is not so easily separated from a corporate holiness. Corporate holiness calls us to hold one another accountable and to stand up for justice in our world. The sins of the whole church – both present and past – are ones that should grieve my heart as they are ways in which we have failed to be or misrepresented the body of Christ. Our binding together enables us together to be the “agents of God’s healing, transforming, and yes, disturbing presence in the life of the world” (p. 162).

Conclusion

In conclusion, spiritual formation is a journey that can be directed through spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study. Spiritual formation is a path of God’s grace conforming us to the likeness of Christ. Each of us brings our unique individuality to spiritual growth, however we are challenged and encouraged by others who have different gifts and personalities. We need each other for our own growth and formation. More importantly, we are being conformed to the likeness of God so that we can be agents of God’s grace to others.


[1] Mulholland Jr., M. Robert. “Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation.” (Downers’ Grove: IVP Books, 1993).

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