Who and What Are Forming You?

A classic IM post by Michael Spencer from April, 2007.

Every time I feel like I have lost my way in the Christian life, I find myself back looking at monasticism, and the lessons I learned in two decades of reading Thomas Merton.

I’m not attracted to Catholicism, but I am very much attracted to the tradition of self-conscious, disciplined spiritual formation into a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is a great failing of our side of the church.

As much as we Protestants talk about being shaped by the Bible alone, most evangelicals are thoroughly formed and shaped by the communities where the Bible is handled, taught and practiced according to a “rule” or accepted authority, and by the media that supports and communicates the values of that community.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most appealing and positive aspects of Catholicism that it is self-conscious about its “rules” and authorities for spiritual formation. (Rule as in “way,” as in The Rule of Benedict.) It surely must be humorous to knowledgeable Catholics to look at the various sects, denominations and varieties of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, all claiming to “just read the Bible.”

For a large portion of my recent evangelical journey, I have found myself wandering between three varieties of evangelicalism:

1) Southern Baptist fundamentalism
2) Evangelical Calvinism
3) Generic contemporary evangelical revivalism

All of these communities could be characterized as shaping the spiritualities of believers according to largely unwritten rules and authorities.

The closest thing you get to self-conscious spiritual formation among most evangelicals: Jabez, PDL, or an evangelism course. Or a cruise.

It has occurred to me that at least two of these streams have done much to shape me in the belief that pursuing polemic argument is a primary expression of discipleship. I have been affected by this kind of spiritual “rule,” and when I step away from it, the effects are very obvious.

Lots of time is taken up in finding error, pointing out error, justifying the seriousness of the error (even if it is in a non-essential area), and responding to the error with the proper arrangement of Biblical material.

It’s amazing how many Christians conceive of almost the entirety of discipleship in terms of argumentation. This is seen in the pastoral models they choose, the books/blogs they write and the spiritual activities they value most (debate and classroom lecture.)

These largely unarticulated forms of spiritual formation can be seen in what is not important. I note with interest that one simply cannot say enough bad about most kinds of contemplative prayer, and any sort of silence among many of the reformed particularly. Any kind of intentional approach to spiritual formation, and any kind of intentional approach to discipleship (Dallas Willard, for example) is undertaken amidst a barrage of criticism. If the imagination is mentioned, all fire alarms are pulled and a search for Oprah Winfrey ensues.

Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

The “fully formed” Christian in these traditions is not a person of silence, but of much talking, talking and more talking. Worship is lecture, a rally, or an emotion-centered event. The primary encounter with the Bible is exposition and lecture. Correcting theological error, moral error and ecclesiastical error is the main business of the church.

In other forms of evangelicalism spiritual formation is done under the guise of church growth and using ones “gifts” to grow the church. Or perhaps in the cause of righteous, upright living in the culture war. Again, the kinds of prayer, worship, community life and worship that are generated by these priorities are obvious to most observers, but largely invisible to the participants.

In all the years I was reading Merton’s spiritual direction writings, I can’t recall anything I would call polemic of any kind. He simply didn’t waste his life arguing with others. He read scripture constantly, but as the stuff of prayer, liturgy and meditation, not as the raw material for debate. He went through the “political years” when he was critical of his church for not living up to his standards of peacemaking and justice, but in the end it was the ancient life, the deep life of monastic rhythms that sustained Merton and made him a man and a monk. He worked on himself for a lifetime. Some will say because he didn’t believe in the reformation doctrine of justification. Perhaps. Maybe, however, the path of personal spiritual formation isn’t as instant, passive or automatic as we’ve been told.

I’m not holding Merton up as an ideal. Far from it. I’m simply saying that when one’s spirituality is formed by the pronouncements of pastors who are constantly chasing church growth, the culture war or the latest challenge to Calvinism, you are going to get one result, and when you go back to the sources, find the value of the ancient paths of formation, value silence, read, meditate, contemplate and seek to grow in love, you will get another result.

I can’t help but think there is an “internet Christian” spirituality as well. Formed by reading blogs. Expressing itself in writing. Concerned with all the perceptions of reality that run rampant on the net. I’m sure this isn’t a good thing either.

Spiritual formation happens in the real world. It’s not just reading, but it’s discussion and asking questions of those further down the road. It’s having leaders who are humble before the Word, and not leaders who take the word and become the pictures of arrogance. It’s seeing your sin in the light of holiness, not excusing your sin in the light of the latest crisis.

Much evangelical spirituality has become like fantasy baseball. We have our own league, our own team, our own statistics, our own insulated world in which all of this matters. We can give great speeches and write long posts (and I am the chief of sinners here) on what doesn’t matter much at all. These days, we don’t all get our 15 minutes of fame, but we can all worship a pastor, go to a winning church, opine on a blog, imagine our arguments are significant in the world.

Meanwhile, we start to look and act more like a fantasy league junky, and fewer and fewer people have any idea what we are talking about.

Here is where I have come out on this:

Get the devotional books out. The old ones.

Read Peterson, and Nouwen, and Groeshel, and Bonhoeffer and Whitney. With a group of others who care about the same things.

Turn it all off for a couple of hours every day.

Find the silence.

Chew up, meditate over, digest the scriptures.

Repent of living in the community of unaware evangelicals who devalue spirituality and overvalue polemic, argument and debate.

Look for the sins that grow in this mess, and root them up.

23 thoughts on “Who and What Are Forming You?

  1. I would suggest the Ignatian Spiritual exercises, Thomas A’Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, and a more modern (Catholic) philosopher, Dietrich vonHildebrand’s Transformation in Christ. And of course Br. Lawrence is a must-read.
    I have benefited greatly from Catholic spirituality and have no problem with an at-odds Protestant- Catholic dynamic– in fact I believe the two are complementary, for the most part.

    Great post.


  2. The Benedictine and other orders have what are called Oblates who do not live in the community, but are attached to it and try to apply Regula monachorum to their daily lives insofar as is practical. Some things apply directly, others, not so much, but may have some indirect application.


  3. I think it’s interesting that Christian monasticism arose largely in response to a mainstream church that had become consumed by relentless argumentation and entangled in the political intrigue and power positioning that marked the imperial era of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries. And I suspect that the similarities between that era and current Western Christianity have a lot to do with why we are seeing the rise of new forms of monasticism, experiments in Christian community, and alternative expressions of church. Maybe it’s partly just an escapist reaction to the complexities and stresses of modern life — but, like those early monasticists, I think a lot of us are genuinely seeking real spiritual growth and a deeper walk with Christ. And while some people have the drive and self-discipline to pursue these things individually, most people (like myself) need an encouraging environment and social context. Of course, that’s what the church was originally designed to do — to provide followers of Christ with a social framework for not only collective worship, but also for mutual support, encouragement toward growth, and the hands-on, personal kind of discipleship that involves people investing themselves deeply in the lives of others. Like you point out, Mike, discipleship in current Western churchianity has become too much about equipping Christians with the theological and Biblical weapons needed to defend the positions and practices of each particular church or denomination — and too little about people collectively pursuing the fullness of Christ in their lives and relationships.


  4. Luther said something like “Man is like a drunk getting up on a horse. He falls off on one side of the horse, gets back up, and falls on the other side.”


  5. “This is what the LORD says:
    Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
    ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.”

    Jeremiah 6:16

    One of my all-time favorites. It gets truer and deeper to me every year.


  6. St. Augustine’s Confessions. When read slowly and purposefully they are fantastic. I read them for a Church history course and went quickly and did not get very much out of it. Then we had to read it again for our Theology 1 course. Blew my mind when I started to pay attention.


  7. Denise, While some rules aren’t adaptable for us non-monastics, others are. I have some books that talk about adapting the Rule of St. Benedict to ordinary life.

    I think that it provides a pattern to base our lives, just like the regular fabric that a counted cross stitcher uses provides the base, but the stitcher provides the pattern, the colors the workmanship that makes an attractive piece.


  8. I’m a young(er) Christian, and God is currently in the middle of saving me from the “fantasy league” perils that Monk aptly describes.

    It is a wonderful, and painful, and humbling process.


  9. Not sure which “rules” you are referencing, but when I think of Brother Lawrence and how practical his ideas were/are, both on and off the monastery, I’d echo Patrick and say “Why not ?”. If the rules are Christ centered, who knows more than HE how to make something work “across the lines” so to speak. And maybe the monasteries can return the favor and use some of our “lay, secular, tools” though I gag at the labels.

    Pax unending, in HIM
    Greg R


  10. “The Devil sends errors in matched opposing pairs, so in fleeing one we commit the other.”
    — C.S.Lewis (from memory)


  11. On the internet I’ve come across a bunch of posts about lay people creating “Rules” (again as in Rule of St. Benedict) for themselves. I can see the appeal, but I also think that life in the outside world vs life in a religious order is so different that it wouldn’t hold much every day value.

    Not sure though – what does everyone else think? Worth the effort of creating one?


  12. Definitely will echo that Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” is wonderful.

    Benedict Groeschel has written like 20+ books so it depends what topic you want to read on. “Listening At Prayer” is in keeping with the post’s idea that sometimes we could all use a little silence.
    Same thing with Nouwen – he’s written so many – especially a bunch on prayer. I enjoyed The Only Necessary Thing: Living A Prayer Filled Life


  13. IMO, any Willard (Revolution of Character), Peterson (Living the Resurrection, and, A long obedience in the same direction), Nouwen (the above mentioned along with The Return of the Prodigal and, One Necessary Thing) is solid, and most of Merton. Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Life Together are excellent. A “new kid on the block” is James Bryan Smith’s, The Good and Beautiful God and The Good and Beatiful Life which are a lot of Willard’s stuff made more readable/applicable. Richard Foster’s Devotional Classic’s series are good samplers of various writers throughout the history of the church


  14. One problem I find in evangelical spirituality, and in Christian spirituality in general, is two extremes in regard to how the individual Christian is to respond to sin. On one hand, it is a dangerous optimism that uses words like “victory,” and seems deliberately naive to the reality of the fallen nature of man. On the other hand, there is a spirituality of self-flagellation and paralysis in the Christian walk.

    God has, by His mercy, kept me from the arrogance of believing that justification does not mean immunity from sin. It means, to me at least, the gift of being a disciple despite sin. At the same time, I do not want to simply wallow in a perpetual state of victimhood. If there is sin in my life, there was a point where I allowed myself to be enticed and chose to act outside of the holiness of God.

    I make feeble attempts at love because God first made an unfailing attempt to love me. Neither prideful bliss nor prideful debasement draws me closer to Christ.


  15. He was referenced in the article: I’m reading Dallas Willard’s “The Great Omission” , a book on discipleship and spiritual formation. I can’t recommend it emough. And Monk is right: Willard has been (I’m told) grossly misunderstood for the intentionality of discipleship, as if he did not understand justification.

    More later, awesome re-post, Chap Mike, VERY timely for me.

    Greg R


  16. As far as books that God has used to reshape me, from the list of authors mentioned above, I would include Nouwen: The Inner Voice of Love, The Way of the Heart, and The Genesse Diary; Dallas Willard: The Spirit of the Disciplines; Peterson: Working the Angles, The Contemplative Pastor.

    I’m sure that others will list their favorites as well.


  17. On one of my favorite Christian forums I had to bow out for a while because of that kind of thing. I kept taking the bait to get into arguments about certain pet-peeve subjects of mine and I found myself over-reacting, getting angry and just being cranky and graceless.

    I must say, however, that spiritual formation has become more and more important to me lately. Some of the seeds of the desire for spiritual formation were probably planted here at internetmonk.com. Probably the one book that helped the most (other than my BCP) was Spirituality for Everyday Living by my grandparents’ priest, Brian C. Taylor. It’s an adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict for everyday, non-monastic folks.


  18. This is a wonderful post. Can anyone suggest any specific books from the list of authors mentioned?


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