This third post in a three-part series is my attempt to briefly address three of the most common concerns and objections I’ve come across in response to contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation. What I most often hear is:
– Centering Prayer is Eastern mysticism wrapped in a Christian package. (Read part one here.)
– Contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation are focused more on self than on God. (Read part two here.)
– Spiritual formation is a form of works righteousness. (Current post.)
In this post, I want to reflect on how spiritual formation is not a form of works righteousness but a means of responding to God’s grace and a way to cultivate a greater awareness of God’s presence in our lives.
Why would someone say spiritual formation is a form of works righteousness?
First of all, any form of discipline can indeed become a form of duty and obligation more than a mindful act. So yes, there is the possibility that someone who is trying to take greater steps in responding to God’s grace could fall into a works righteousness mindset, but again, that is the case for nearly any practice. Spiritual formation is simply any intentional discipline, action, or practice centered around developing a greater spiritual maturity and growing in Christ-likeness. Critics say that spiritual formation opens the door for people to feel like they are earning favor, that they are responsible for their own growth, and that the focus is more on actual practices than on God. This is absolutely a possibility, but the possibility for misunderstanding is not a reason to abandon or disregard spiritual formation altogether.
The more I reflect on my own life and spiritual growth, the more I realize that it does take work—not the type of work that puts me in the driver’s seat—but a work of cultivation. The best parallel I can think of is that of a gardener. The gardener toils, labors, plants seeds, waters, and pulls weeds but the actual growing process is beyond them. The gardener’s job is to cultivate the soil and create the optimum environment for those seeds to grow and mature. Our goal as disciples of Christ is just the same.
We cannot become more Christ-like by our own activity, we can only cultivate the soil, plant seeds, and tend to the weeds. Our preparation and cultivation allows God to do the actual work in our hearts. That is precisely what spiritual formation is all about. It is not about becoming an “advanced” Christian but about maintaining that state of cultivation in which growth is possible.
Crop rotation is an essential aspect to organic farming. If a particular crop gets planted in the same spot year after year, it will eventually deplete the soil of the necessary nutrients and the crops quality will go down overtime (unless of course it is treated with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers). In the same way, in our spiritual lives, if we merely try the same approach over and over again, for years and years, it is quite likely that our growth will shrink, we’ll bear less fruit, and be more susceptible environmental threats (bugs and diseases are attracted to the weakest plants first). The variety of disciplines and practices that spiritual formation teaches can help us with our own spiritual “crop rotation” thus enabling us to remain fresh, attentive, and open to God’s grace in healthful ways.
Yes, spiritual formation does require work, but it is a work of cultivation and preparation—and this is much different from any form of works righteousness or merit based spirituality.
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc. Guatemala]