Monday, May 14, 2007

Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Progress

I was talking with a pastor friend of mine just a few days ago, and he expressed a frustration I have felt from time to time regarding discipleship, spiritual formation, and the progress people make or don’t make. After spending almost two years with a group of young guys in a small group specifically geared toward spiritual growth and formation, he described the amount of progress he had seen by lifting his hand and making the “zero” gesture with his thumb and finger.

How often have we seen that exact thing in the lives of the people we work with, pastor, pray for, and live life with? It has to be one of the most disheartening realities in ministry—people who don’t progress in their walk with Christ.

Why does this happen, and what should be done about it? First of all, I think we all know that true formation to the image of Christ is something only the Holy Spirit can do. We can pray, work, and be as intelligent and clever as we want to be, but if a soul is not ready or open to growth, it probably won’t take place. That being said, however, pastors and leaders need to be as prayerful, intelligent, and attentive as possible when discipling people. The primary job of the spiritual director/mentor/coach is learning how God made a person, where God put that person, what God has given that person, and where God is taking them. From there, the wise director can lead the disciple on a journey of profound discovery and growth.

I had a really ugly experience with a “coach” in which this fundamental rule was broken. He ended up pigeon-holing me based on his latest conference notes, telling me I needed to reevaluate where God had put me (because I didn’t fit neatly into his latest conventional wisdom), and in the end, he questioned my calling. Needless to say, I did not experience the grace of the Spirit in the growth of my soul.

Secondly, there is another difficult reality to note with spiritual growth. In his wonderful little book, Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland speaks wisely to the difference between “being conformed” and conforming myself. The first, the biblical principle, happens solely on God’s time and in God’s way. He does the conforming. The second, the way we like to handle things, requires that we wrest control from God’s hand, time and power. When I try to conform myself (or others), I formulate spiritual growth, erect unreasonable expectations for “input and output” (five days of Scripture reading=a deeper relationship with Christ), and anticipate the same from others. This is a recipe for disaster, confusion, and frustration.

When I allow myself to be conformed, however, the frustration is on the front end. I usually need to wait longer than I want. I tend to see fewer results in the short-run than I would hope for. But when God is allowed to do his work in his way and time, the pay-off will be more than I can even now imagine or hope.

These simple thoughts probably do not go very far in alleviating my friend’s frustration. I think he is a wise and prayerful pastor and leader, but the willingness of the disciple to be discipled…that is a different matter altogether.

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