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The Formation Of Intimate Spirituality
Thomas F. Fischer
What is spiritual formation? How does it occur?
Spiritual formation is not simply "discipleship," "growth," "Bible Study" and learning the truths of the Bible. Though these "content" issues are definitely important, they are important not as the end or goal of spiritual formation, but as the means to spiritual formation.
In my perspective, Spiritual Formation has to do with relationship. Specifically, this refers to an ever-growing intimate relationship with God. This relationship has as it's goal not just "love" but something much, much deeper. It is a relationship characterized by "intimacy."
By intimacy, I mean all those aspects of a genuine, whole relationship which affect and drive our deepest emotive stirrings of the soul. Intimacy is the ability to relate in such a manner that one can freely talk, fully trust, and exchange even the most difficult and deepest feelings with another. Note what this entails.
First, it entails "trust." I believe "Trust" is an over-used cliché among Christians. A better concept in English, I believe, is "vulnerability." This means an openness to being changed and a willingness to bear and expose even the deepest hidden weaknesses, secrets and stirrings of the soul. It also means that, after these are revealed, that one is willing to submit to the loving care of another and, though it be painful, to be vulnerable to the One who can provide the healing.
Second, it entails a more focused understanding of "Grace." Also an over-used cliche in many circles, I suggest that a better way to communicate the concept of grace is "unconditional non-abandonment." This, I believe, is the absolute, essential basis for a relationship of total, absolute, unconditional vulnerability. When combined, this concept of "grace" and "trust" provide the kind of "safe" haven for spiritual formation.
With this basis, the main challenge of spiritual formation can be dealt with. That challenge is "fear." Rooted in the shame of original sin (Genesis 3), it has been fear that always impedes spiritual formation. Fear always will. "Fear" is the doubting of unconditional non-abandonment and the resistance to vulnerability. Fear ALWAYS results from and in the deterioration of our RELATIONSHIP with God which, as I said above, is the REAL goal of spiritual formation.
What's the best example? The Fall recorded in Genesis 3. When God came into the Garden asking, "Where are you?" He was not just coming in judgment. Instead, from a relationship point of view, He was seeking relationship. He had been accustomed to seeing Adam and Eve daily in the cool of the day. He enjoyed the exchange of love, trust, vulnerability, and intimacy--all essential components of relationship.
From this perspective, then, God was looking for His friends, His beloved ones. But they abandoned Him in fear. They broke the relationship because they didn't trust. Such abandonment, I believe, hurt God so deeply that it reinforced His conviction that He would have to send a Savior (as He decided before the creation of the world).
Why? Because He wanted the relationship back. It hurt Him, pierced Him, and cut Him deeply. The abandonment was so very, very, painful that He sent a savior so they would never have to experience it themselves. God would always, ALWAYS be with them "until the end of the world." Isn't that why these were Jesus' last words on earth? They are words of relationship.
So, then, spiritual formation continually requires that the relationship--this intimate relationship--be strengthened, reinforced and tested. There are many example of this. Abraham is ultimate. But most ultimate is Jesus' words on the cross. Though forsaken and abandoned by God note that Jesus demonstrated the very pinnacle of the goal of spiritual formation.
In spite of the feelings and actuality of abandonment by God, Jesus concluded His life saying, "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." This is the ultimate trust, ultimate vulnerability, the ultimate reliance on the unconditional non-abandonment of grace.
Since "fear" is always the issue, spiritual formation must counter and deal with the fear. This fear is covered/masked by addictions to substances (alcohol, food, drugs), things (materialism), people (other relationships), and activities (gambling, sports, compulsive behaviors). Fear also creates many defense mechanisms to prevent these fear-covering devises from being exposed. Why? Because of the fear of abandonment.
Spiritual formation requires that we understand, live, and fully experience the unconditional non-abandonment which God gives. Thus, as the relationship with God grows, we grow through three different stages:
1) We get to know about Him;
2) We get to appreciate the experience the joy of the relationship; and
3) The relationship must grow through pain and challenge so that it's genuine nature and essential character of unconditional non-abandonment and trust can grow.
Spiritual formation requires a willingness to go through these steps. It must recognize that when God sends pain, we must go THROUGH the pain to experience God's total grace relationship and plan for us. That is why David said in Psalm 23, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will FEAR no evil."
One more thing. What is the one phrase which marks and introduces the Gospel? "Fear not" Whenever these words are said, they are addressed to the fear which is brought by original sin. Whenever these words are said, they also point to the goal of spiritual formation: talking, trusting, and feeling with God in intimate relationship of grace and relying on unconditional non-abandonment in Jesus Christ.
As we are more able to understand that even if God tells us to sacrifice our son as God told Abraham, we need not fear. Instead we can have the same confidence that Abraham had when the writer of Hebrews said that Abraham believed God could raise his son from the dead if necessary. But, at the sacrifice, God provided...in the thicket.
That's what spiritual formation is all about. Each pain, every struggle we face is God's moving us one step further into this plan of growing intimacy. Each time this testing happens, He's really preparing us for death which, in the Christian mind, is the greatest experience of intimacy with God in heaven. There we shall see Him "face to face."
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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:35 PM