The Strange and Fascinating Twists of Spiritual Formation

fictionI read in the last year or so that author Richard Foster said in an interview, “We are always being spiritually formed.” For whatever reason—and although a relatively simple idea—I haven’t been able to put this away nor have I been successful at fully unpacking the reasons why these words and this thinking continue to reverberate for me.

It’s my opinion that in the world of spiritual formation we have entered a time that requires next-level thinking. Although the integrated counseling movement has moved the flywheel, so to speak, we’ve yet to establish a definitive understanding of what it means to be spiritually formed. While not a student of spiritual formation, I nevertheless have been afforded the opportunity to consider what it means, how it happens, and the heart of the matter for the last several years.

I’m convinced that “story”— both the Larger Story that God is revealing, has been revealing, and will to continue to reveal as well as our own stories (that is, where we have come from and what we have experienced and what we have felt and what we have seen and the people that have spoke into our lives both functionally and dysfunctionally)—play a crucial role in how we are spiritually formed. In fact, taking Foster‘s words into account, I could say that “story” is the absolute means by which we are spiritually formed: at every second of every day we are being spiritually deformed, reformed, and transformed, one upon another like layers of the atmosphere, not really sure where one begins and the other begins until we’re either colder or warmer, breathing easier or heavier.

Its easiest to think of this process as a critical path for demolishing the false selves, (also understood in terms of strongholds quite possibly) we have created. We are born in Saving Private Ryan, as John Eldredge suggests, and as we storm the beaches of our own stories through our adolescence and youth we realize a couple of things: (1) the bullets are live and (2) the stakes are high. So as we make our way from point A to point B we are able to deflect some of enemy’s shots, while unable to avoid others as they hit their mark. We are wounded. And into these wounds the enemy, our antagonist and the villain of our stories, speaks lies. Over time, like a boxer receiving short blows to the body over the course of his bout, we agree with the paralyzing lies of the enemy. These agreements lead to vows, the “I’ll never” vows, that create the false selves that stand in immediate and direct opposition to the person we were created to be.

Unfortunately, these disorienting events take place before we have enough experience to place them into their appropriate context. So what we assume to be “normal” as a child, for instance, we begin to understand as something other than normal as adults—or do we? Inherent in this paradigm is the sentiment that, yes, we have fallen as a result of Original Sin and continue to be plagued with all the resulting circumstances, but with our new hearts we are also able to recover, to some degree, Original Glory as God’s image bearers.

The critical path for demolishing the false selves is the same critical path that also lights the dusty roads that point us back toward our Original Glory. And even though we can never completely overcome our depravity on this side of life, we can live out of it less and less, while living out of our glory more and more.

So why all of this now? Oddly enough it’s the result of a novel I’ve recently picked up. Even though spiritual formation continues to be a part of my internal dialog, being exposed to John Irving’s latest novel Last Night on Twisted River at least for me begs a re-imagining of spiritual formation. All his books tend to present childhood as a very dangerous, heavy-handed, and unwieldy place, but Last Night on Twisted River—so far—is chilling in exposing the pitfalls, land mines, and live ammo we all face in the earliest, most formative years.  In so many ways Irving is able to capture this leg of the “story” for all of us in that’s it’s messy, unpredictable, and even offensive. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is his ability to articulate heartbreak without ever saying it. You’ve just got to be willing to go on the journey with him. (And also willing to suffer the first 100-120 pages. Pretty doggone dry.) And I would add that this—so far—is my favorite Irving novel since The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp.

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