01. A New Relationship, a New Reality
We all have these moments, these life-giving moments. They are moments of clarity, perspective, faith, depth of meaning, and understanding. They are emotionally touching, profoundly moving, and inspiring. They are spiritually connecting. They are sometimes the fruit of considerable inner work. They sometimes spontaneously come upon us unrelated to our efforts. These moments are ultimately given as a gift that cannot be earned or controlled.
Life-giving moments come in a variety of ways. Perhaps it’s the aha moment of a freeing insight. Maybe it’s an experience of being deeply known and fully loved. It could be a simple moment of quiet in which you realize in your innermost being that God is with you, that God loves you, that you are not to be compared to another, and that everything is going to be all right.
We all also have these moments, these life-suffering moments. They are moments of darkness, doubt, bewilderment, and sometimes, a lack of perspective. They may be moments of fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, depression, hopelessness, or grief. They may involve guilt, shame, rejection, or loneliness. They can be spiritually disconnecting but also spiritually motivating.
Life-suffering moments also come in a variety of ways. It could be a severe illness, a failure, a mistake, homelessness, a loss of reputation, or a tragedy that ushers in moments like these. Perhaps we experience these moments in grieving the loss of a loved one. Maybe the anguished sense that God is not with us or for us leads to these moments.
Life-giving and life-suffering experiences are not mutually exclusive. I recall an instance when a life-giving reality broke into a life-suffering experience. I was alone at home, standing at the kitchen sink on a mid-fall day, washing dishes. I was looking through the window above the sink onto a backyard scene of fallen leaves on the dying grass below our sycamore tree. It was two months after my mother had died following a six-year struggle with dementia. I got unexpectedly caught up in an anguished outpouring of grief—not just tied to my mom but related to all the suffering I had witnessed in several lives over recent weeks. Amid my sobbing, I recall saying to God, “I can’t believe how hard life is.”
After five cathartic minutes, a new reality appeared. This was a gift. I did nothing to cause it. Suddenly I was immersed in beauty—the beauty of the fall colors, the blessing of my mom’s life, the tender compassion I had seen people show one another during a season of suffering, the miracle of the presence of God breaking into my despair. I recall saying to God, “I can’t believe how beautiful life is.”
This experience of God creating life-giving moments in the midst of life-suffering moments made an indelible mark upon me. I have since been captivated by the power of God to draw us into a new reality. I have been thirsty for that new reality. I have been preoccupied with how central to the Christian faith is God beckoning us to embrace a new reality. Everywhere in the life of Jesus Christ we see the invitation to a new reality. The “good news” of the gospel is the “good news of a new reality.” Citing Karl Barth, Kenneth L. Carder says, “Karl Barth suggests that Scripture is the doorway into a strange new world. Barth reminds us that the stories of the Bible provide a new lens through which to view reality.”Kenneth L. Carder, Ministry with the Forgotten: Dementia through a Spiritual Lens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019), 29.
At the heart of Christianity is a new reality in which we are loved unconditionally,See John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Titus 3:4–8, Ephesians 2:8–9, Jeremiah 31:3. a loving Father works all things together for His glory and our good,See Romans 8:28–29. and Jesus transformed suffering as the way to new life.Paraphrase of Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1996), 68. In this reality, we are fulfilled by God being glorified, God is glorified by Christ being formed in us, and we love each other as Christ has loved us—by laying down our lives for each other.See John 15:12–13. It is this new reality that broke through at the kitchen sink.
The wellspring of this new reality is a new relationship. It is a mutually indwelling relationship with the Father and the Son.See John 14:20. It is in relationship with God, in knowing GodSee John 17:3. through the making-everything-new ChristSee Revelation 21:5. that we experience a new reality. Christian author Larry Crabb says, “True life is knowing God. Jesus said so. And the life is Christ himself, not the bread He could multiply or the corpse He could resurrect, but Him. Being in Him, having Him in us, living with His energy, chasing after His purposes, loving what He loves, seeing him form in us until we’re actually like Him—that’s life.”Larry Crabb, The Pressure’s Off (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2002), 72. We find the abundance of life as we are drawn into the loving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
02. Spiritual Formation Is the Purpose
Applying Larry Crabb’s words, the fruit of the new relationship that leads to a new reality is that Christ is formed in us “until we’re actually like him.” Christ being formed in us leads to a deeper relationship with God and to greater participation in a new reality as a sacred cycle is engaged.
John R. W. Stott says, “The eternal and ultimate purpose of God by his spirit is to make us like Christ.”As quoted by David Kineman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 151–152. Paul says in Romans 8:28–29 (NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ):
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
Spiritual formation, formation into the likeness of Christ, is the purpose of our lives. It’s fitting to measure our lives by this purpose. Those life practices that serve this purpose we ought to embrace.
03. Spiritual Formation Is the Task of the Church
I love the candid clarity of the first two sentences in James C. Wilhoit’s book, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: “Spiritual formation is the task of the church. Period.”James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2008), 15. I also love the next three sentences.
It represents neither an interesting, optional pursuit by the church nor an insignificant category in the job description of the body of Christ. Spiritual formation is at the heart of its whole purpose for existence. The church was formed to form.Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered. 15.
The purpose of the church—“the task of the church”—is to support the process of spiritual formation. Everything should be viewed through the lens of that single purpose. To the degree that the church is helping people be formed into the likeness of Christ, it is fulfilling its purpose.
04. The Soul Care Commission Is the Mission of the Church
If spiritual formation is the task of the church, the Soul Care Commission is the mission of the church—to provide the care of souls that promotes spiritual formation. The Soul Care Commission is the Biblical mandate that calls Christ-followers to care for the souls of others—to join with God to promote and renew the well-being of persons, in the midst of their circumstances, in such a way that they are increasingly formed into the likeness of Christ. This is the mission Jesus declared as he opened his ministry in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke by reading from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1, NIV).
If this is Jesus’ mission, this is our mission—as individuals and as the church.
A beautiful example of the church fulfilling the Soul Care Commission took place in the third century as Christians rushed into plague-stricken cities in the Roman Empire to minister to those stricken by disease after unbelievers left the cities to save themselves. Christ-followers stayed behind and helped those who were ill and dying at great risk to themselves. Historians argue that such compassion convinced unbelievers that Christians revered a God who must be real. This made a significant contribution to the conversion of the Roman Empire.
A disturbing negative example of the church ignoring the Soul Care Commission is told by Diane Langberg. She tells the story of visiting Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. She said,
Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced through its dungeons and through the door of no return onto slave ships. . . . Two hundred men shackled and chained together lived in that dungeon for about three months before being shipped across the Atlantic.Diane Langberg, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2015), 4.
She described standing in one of the dungeons, listening to the ghastly story of those imprisoned in them, and learning that the chapel was above the dungeons.
The evil, the suffering, the humiliations, the injustice were overwhelming, and the visual parable was stunning. The people in the chapel were numb to the horrific trauma and suffering beneath them.Suffering and the Heart of God, 5.
05. The Implications of a New Relationship and a New Reality
C.S. Lewis paints a picture in his “Meditation in a Toolshed.” He describes standing in a dark toolshed with a sunbeam coming through the crack at the top of the door.
From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.C.S. Lewis, Meditation in a Toolshed, Originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945), accessed November 13, 2023, http://ktf.cuni.cz/~linhb7ak/Meditation-in-a-Toolshed.pdf, reprinted in God in the Dock (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1970), 212–15.
He describes how he then moved so that the beam of light fell on his eyes. In an instant, the previous picture disappeared.
Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”Meditation in a Toolshed.
That image has become iconic for me. I am captivated by the difference between the reality in the toolshed and the reality outside the toolshed. I now liken the move from a new relationship with God to a new reality in God to moving from seeing the beam to seeing along the beam. I think about the purpose of our spiritual practices being one of helping us move out of the toolshed and into the backyard. In the toolshed, we experience a limited or distorted view of ourselves and reality. We may see ourselves as unlovable. We may lose hope that God is for us or that He can be trusted to help us.
Outside the toolshed, we experience a relationship with God leading us to a new reality in which we are loved unconditionally, in which God works all things together for our good and His glory, and in which God uses everything in our lives to form us into the likeness of Christ. The key then becomes what things we engage to help us move from the toolshed into the backyard—to help us welcome life-giving moments in the midst of life-suffering moments.
Recently, I was walking into the church building where I work when I encountered one of our pastors visiting with a man in an outdoor sitting area who needed to move from the toolshed into the backyard. He was sitting a bit bent over, with his elbows on his knees and a lit cigarette in his left hand. Tears were streaming down his face. I learned that “Chad” (not his real name) is homeless. He shared that he has had “a bad past.” His family recently told him they wanted nothing to do with him. With a tremble in his voice, he said he doesn’t have a home, a car, a job, or any place to sleep. His life was filled with life-suffering moments.
Chad said he desperately wanted to turn his life around. He wanted to get counseling to help him do that. He said he had had a relationship with Christ in the past and he is motivated to reengage that relationship. It was a privilege to be in a conversation God ordained to take place outside a church that has a partnership with a counseling ministry—Formation Counseling Services. I thought, “This is how the Soul Care Commission is fulfilled.” We want people to come to the church at their point of need and find the resources that will transform them through the love of Christ. This became a life-giving moment for Chad—one reality breaking in upon another. In his first session with his counselor, he said the kindness of a security guard at the church and the pastor who sat down with him fueled his motivation to turn his life over to Jesus once again.
06. Try This at Home and at Church
What if we used these four concepts—a new relationship, a new reality, spiritual formation, and the Soul Care Commission—as lenses through which to view what it means to live the life of Christ? And could these four central Scriptural themes provide a way to reflect on how we are fulfilling God’s mission for the church?
The life-giving moments I experienced at the kitchen sink, moments we all experience, cannot be earned or controlled. They are given as a gift. But we can join God to create a life that welcomes them, fosters them. We can let those life-giving moments remind us that there is a new reality into which God is inviting us—a reality that can break in upon us, even amid those life-suffering moments when we can’t believe how hard life is. Perhaps we can hold ourselves accountable to a more practical, integrative, clinical theology,“Clinical theology” is an integrative term that I find extremely helpful. It was first introduced to me by Gary Moon and traces back to the work of Frank Lake and his book by the same name. to practicing the types of spiritual disciplines that draw us deeper into our relationship with God in a way that leads to the experience of a new reality. We do well to ask ourselves, “What are the things that move us from the earthly reality of the toolshed into the reality of the Light in the backyard that washes us in God’s love, His perspective, His promises, and His purposes? What things in our lives promote formation into the image of Christ?”
Dallas Willard said,
My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. . . . We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) ix.
What those practices might be is as different for each of us as we are from each other. But we have a model for what basic practices to include by asking, as Dallas Willard did,
What activities did Jesus practice? Such things as solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God’s Word and God’s ways, and service to others.The Spirit of the Disciplines, ix.
To be embraced is that Dallas Willard included “service to others” in the list of activities Jesus practiced to “remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.” As above, Jesus proclaimed the care of souls as central to his mission. He gave the command of loving others as one of only two commandments he charged us to fulfill. Service to others, caring for the souls of others, and loving others do not represent merely morally good things we do if we are “good Christians.” They are the deepest essence of what it means to express the life of Christ.
This means the Soul Care Commission is central to our lives as Christ followers. We are called to imitate third-century Christians who rushed in to minister to those suffering from the plague. This is a life-giving calling as we fulfill it by God’s grace alone. Conversely, to sit in the chapel numb to the trauma and suffering around us is to distort what it means to love Jesus and to imitate his life.
Holding our churches accountable for fulfilling the Soul Care Commission is crucial. Many ministries reflect this quintessential calling to minister to the poor and brokenhearted. Formation Counseling Services (FCS) is a ministry devoted to the single purpose of assisting the Spirit-driven process of forming Christ in people’s lives. In the story of Chad, it was a pleasure to see FCS and the church work together to minister to someone in need of care for his soul that could transform his life.
Jesus said, “I came to give life—life in all its fullness” (John 10:10, NCVScripture quotations marked (NCV) are taken from the New Century Version®. Copyright 1987, 1988, 1991 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). In Christ, we find that fullness of life by cultivating a mutually indwelling relationship with God, stepping through that relationship into a new reality, engaging spiritual practices that assist the Spirit-driven process that forms us into the image of Christ, and loving others through caring for their souls in ways that foster all of the above.
Dr. Marty Goehring is a clinical psychologist and the director of Formation Counseling Services (https://formationcounseling.org/). He holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also an ordained Cumberland Presbyterian minister and served as an adjunct faculty member at Richmont Graduate University for twenty-seven years. Dr. Goehring’s passions are integrating Christian spirituality into the process of counseling, inspiring the church to be the primary provider of soul care in the community, exploring and teaching the spiritual disciplines, and doing anything he can to make his six grandchildren laugh—sometimes even resorting to bad grandpa jokes.