“Spiritual formation” is the process through which those who love and trust Jesus Christ effectively take on His character. When this process is what it should be, they increasingly live their lives as He would if He were in their place. Their outward conformity to His example and His instructions rises toward fullness as their inward sources of action take on the same character as His. They come more and more to share His vision, love, hope, feelings and habits. In the language of His “Great Commission” to His disciples, they are “taught to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)
This process of “conformation to Christ,” as we might more appropriately call it, is constantly supported by grace, and otherwise would be impossible. But it is not therefore passive. Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort. In fact, nothing inspires and enhances effort like the experience of Grace.
Yet it is today necessary to assert boldly and often that becoming Christlike never occurs without intense and well-informed action on our part. This in turn cannot be reliably sustained outside of a like-minded fellowship. Our churches will be centers of spiritual formation only as they understand what really does make for Christlikeness and communicate it to individuals, through teaching and example, in a convincing and supportive fashion.
01. The Body and the Spiritual Life
Probably the least understood aspect of progress in Christlikeness is the role of the body in the spiritual life.
Almost all of us are acutely aware of how the incessant clamorings of our bodies defeat our intentions to “be spiritual.” The Apostle Paul explains that “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want” (Gal 5:17). And Jesus’s words, “The spirit is willing but the body is weak” (Matt. 26:41), are generally accepted as a final verdict on what human life must be like until we escape the body through death.
On the other hand, if the body is simply beyond redemption, then ordinary life is too. Many Christians seem prepared to accept this–at least in practice. But then “spiritual formation” really becomes impossible. That would be a defeat of major proportions for Christ’s cause, and could never be reconciled with the call to godly living that both permeates the Bible from end to end and resonates with the deep-seated human need to live as one ought.
We are glad, then, to find the scripture teachings about the body and its flesh to run directly contrary to the “hopeless” view. Jesus Himself is the primary witness to the unity of flesh and spirit before God. Long before His entry into history, however, the Psalmist spoke of his body or flesh longing for God (Ps. 63:1), of his “heart and flesh cry[ing] out for the living God” (84:2), and called upon all flesh is to “praise his holy name for ever and ever” (145:21).
The prophet Joel foresaw the time when God’s spirit would be poured out upon all flesh (2:28-29). That prophecy began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-18). Thus the picture of the body and flesh found in the writings of Paul stands in the sharpest of contrasts with the “hopeless” view of the body. The body is presented as a temple inhabited by the Holy Spirit. It is not meant to be used in sinning, but is meant for the Lord, “and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13).
Through the power of God which raised Christ from the dead, Paul tells us, “your bodies are members of Christ himself” (1 Cor. 6:15). Our body does not even belong to us, but has been bought by Christ, who gives it a life “from above” and opens the way for us “to honor God with [our] body” (1 Cor. 6:13-20). Thus we can “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” this being “our spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
02. Human Nature
In order to understand the role of the body–both negative and positive–in the spiritual life, and in life generally, we must take a deeper view of the nature of human personality, character and action.
Each of us grows up in surroundings that train us to speak, think, feel and act like others around us. “Monkey see, monkey do,” goes the proverb. This is the mechanism by which human personality is formed, and it is largely for the good. But it also embeds in us habits of evil that permeate all human life. Humanly standard patterns of responding to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” which the Apostle John said make up “the world” (I John 2:16), seize upon little children through their participation in the lives of those around them. Sinful practices become their habits, then their choice, and finally their character.
The very language they learn to speak incorporates desecration of God and neighbor. They come to identify themselves and be identified by others through these practices. What is wrong and destructive is done without thinking about it. The wrong thing to do seems quite “natural,” while the right thing to do becomes forced and unnatural at best–especially if done because it is right. You can observe this in almost any eight or ten year old child acting freely with their peers or living in the family setting.
The New Testament texts normally uses the word “flesh” to refer to the human body formed in the ways of evil and against God. Not that the human body as such, or even desires as such, are evil. They are God’s good creations, and capable of serving and glorifying Him, as we have seen already. But when shaped in a life context of family, neighborhood, school and work that is godless or anti-God, they constitute a pervasive structure of evil. Desire then becomes the “sinful passions . . . at work in our bodies” (Rom 7:5). Our very bodies are poised to sin, only awaiting the occasion. As God said to Cain in the ancient story, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7) The situation becomes so bad that Paul says “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom 7:18).
When we come to new life in Christ, our bodies and their deformed desire system do not automatically shift to the side of Christ, but continue to oppose Him. Occasionally a remarkable change may occur, such as total relief from an addiction. But this is very infrequent, and it is never true that the habits of sin generally are displaced from our bodily parts and personality by the new birth.
James reminds us that “each one is tempted when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). Peter urges us, “as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (I Peter 2:11). Paul tells us that if we live in terms of the flesh we will die, “But if by the spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). Elsewhere he cites his own example as one who “beat[s] my body to make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). And all of these are statements to Christians of long standing.
03. Christlikeness Must Be Planned For
Admittedly, this sounds strange in today’s religious context. It is a simple fact that nowadays the task of becoming Christlike is rarely taken as a serious objective to be thoughtfully planned for, and the reality of our embodied personality dealt with accordingly. Before many church and para-church groups I have inquired what is their plan for putting to death or mortifying “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” or flesh (e.g. Col 3:5). I have never had a positive response to this question. Indeed, mortifying or putting things to death doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing today’s Christians would be caught doing. Yet there it stands, at the center of the New Testament teachings.
When Jesus taught about discipleship, on the other hand, He made it very clear that one could not be the servant of the body and its demands and also succeed in His course of training. This is the meaning of what He said about denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and “losing our life” for His sake and the Gospel’s (Matt 8:35, 10:29, 16:24-26), and about “forsaking all” to follow Him (Luke 14:25-35). It is the same theme that is struck by Paul: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). He puts in contrast those who make a god of their belly (Rom 16:18, Phil 3:19), the “belly” being the bodily center of desire.
Of course one cannot overcome the hardened patterns of desires by force of will alone. Rather, it is as we by faith place our bodily being in subordination to Christ that we experience a new presence in our members, moving them toward the good things of God and allowing the old bodily forces to recede into the background of life where they belong. Thus, it truly is “by the spirit” that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body.” The natural desires, and my body itself, remain with me, of course, but now as servants of God and of my will to serve Him, not as my masters.
Our part in this transformation, in addition to constant faith and hope in Christ, is purposeful, strategic use of our bodies in ways which will retrain them, replacing “the motions of sin in our members” with the motions of Christ. This is how we take up our cross daily. It is how we submit our bodies a living sacrifice, how we “offer the parts of our body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Rom 6:13).
04. When Direct Effort Fails
Sometimes, of course, submission to God means just to do what pleases Him. Ultimately that is always our aim. But frequently we are unable to do this by direct effort. Often when we come to do the right thing we have already done the wrong thing, because that is what was sitting in our body “at the ready.” Intention alone cannot suffice in most situations where we find ourselves. We must be “in shape.” If not, “trying” will normally be too late, or totally absent. Instead, our intention and effort must be carried into effect by training which leaves our body poised to do what Christ would do well before the occasion arises. Such training is supplied by the disciplines for life in the Spirit.
Now a discipline is an activity in our power, which we pursue in order to become able to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Disciplines are required in every area of life, including the spiritual. Therefore Jesus directed and led His disciples into disciplines for the spiritual life: fasting, prayer, solitude, silence, service, study, fellowship and so forth.
For example, Jesus told His closest friends that they would run like scared rabbits when His enemies came to capture Him. They emphatically and sincerely denied it. But the body has a life of its own which far outreaches what we know of our selves. The readinesses actually in their bodies would not support their intention. Jesus, of course, knew this.
When He took Peter, James and John into the Garden of Gethsemane with Him to aid Him in His struggle, they fell asleep. He awoke them and told them how they could succeed with their good intentions, which He never questioned. How were they going to die for Him if they couldn’t even stay awake with Him for an hour? So he said: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matt 26:41). He tried to help them understand how their body was influencing them and what they could do to keep it in line with their spirit. “Watching,” or staying alert to what was happening, and praying with Him, was something they could have done. Surely participation with Jesus in the awesome events of the Garden would have fortified them against failure to stand with Him later. As it turned out, what was in their bodies and souls–fear of death and shame–remained unchallenged and their “temptation” did overwhelm them.
Quite generally, now, the teachings of Jesus are viewed as so “hard” only because our embodied personalities are formed against them. Take, for example, His teaching in Matthew 5:22 that we should not speak insultingly of or to others, calling them “fools” (i.e. “twerps,” or worse). I have known many “faithful Christians” who use vile and contemptuous language on others that do not perform just right in a traffic or work or even a home setting. They say “That’s just me,” or “I can’t help it.”
Similarly for the lustful stare that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5:28, or the striking back by word or fist which He deals with later on in this chapter, or the practicing of religion for human applause which he deals with in the next chapter. No law of nature forces the “easy” and disobedient response in these situations. It is just a habit embedded in our body, and of course habits always produce powerful rationalizations for themselves.
Now suppose that we decided to learn how to do what Jesus says we should do in these cases. Suppose, for example, we wanted to train ourselves to bless and pray for anyone who does something in traffic that endangers or displeases us. Instead of calling him a fool or a stupid jerk or worse, we are going to use words of blessing and let our hearts go out in generous good will toward him. Could we do it? Of course we could, if we took appropriate steps. It is not the law of gravity that makes us assassinate the humanity of others.
05. How We Can Change
And how would we do it? First, we would begin by acknowledging the good of what we were going to do, and asking God’s assistance. Second, we begin to practice controlling our tongue. Not by trying not to insult people when they shake us up. No, we begin further back from the target situation. Possibly we step out of the realm of words by not speaking for a 24-hour period–even by dwelling in silence with TV and radio off. This probably will require that we go into solitude for the period of time.
Note that all of this is something we do with our bodies. We relocate and re-orient our bodies in our world. We learn a new relation to our body–specifically, ears and tongue. This pervasively impacts our minds, hearts and souls, as it gives opportunity to explore our world in silence and find our proper place in it. This in turn allows us to gain insight into why we use the accustomed foul and insulting language.
Of course it is because it gives us a sense of power over the “jerk.” It lies on a continuum with shooting him. That insight then opens up better ways of viewing what is actually going on in traffic or elsewhere–indeed in life. Suddenly we see what pathetic behavior “exploding” is, and find attractive alternatives to it. We can even begin to develop the habit of blessing now, for we see the goodness of it and know that we are capable of silence, where we find God present. The words of James become very meaningful: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19).
We enter into each of the teachings of Jesus by choosing different behaviors that are relevant, finding the space–making the arrangements–in our lives to put them into action, and “re-visioning” the situation in the new behavioral space including God. The interaction between new uses of the body and inward re-positioning toward the context is essential. Learning to do what He taught is not just a “mental shift” without assistance from a modified use of the body, for behavior and life are not mental.
The lustful look also is bodily behavior and based on bodily behavior. We choose to be in position and posture to engage in it. Millions of people say they cannot stop it, just like those who rationalize their verbal assaults on others. But it is, in fact, only a habit of self-indulgence. It can easily be broken when that is earnestly wanted. You do not have to look at the bodily parts of others, and you can train your thoughts away from lusting if you cultivate chaste habits of thought and attitudes generally. Appropriate disciplines of study, meditation, and service, for example, can break the action of looking to lust, as many have established by experience. Here too the use and training of the body is the place where faith meets grace to achieve conformity to Christ.
What we find, then, is that the body is the place of our direct power. It is the little “power pack” that God has assigned to us as the field of our freedom and development. Our lives depend upon our direction and management of them. But the body can acquire a “life of its own”–tendencies to behave without regard to our conscious intentions. In our fallen world this life is prepossessed by evil, so that we do not have to think to do what is wrong, but must think and plan and practice–and receive grace–if we are to succeed in doing what is right.
But Christ shows us how to bring the body from opposition to support of the new life He gives us, “the spirit” now in us. He calls us to share His practices in sustaining His own relationship to the Father. Indeed, these practices–of solitude, silence, study, service, prayer, worship, etc.–are now the places where we arrange to meet regularly with Him and His Father to be His students or disciples in kingdom living.
Some may think it strange that such practices, the disciplines for life in the spirit, are all bodily behaviors. But it cannot be otherwise. Learning Christlikeness is not passive. It is active engagement with and in God. And we act with our bodies. Moreover, this bodily engagement is what lays the foundation in our bodily members for readinesses for holiness, and increasingly removes the readinesses to sin — “So that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:20-21).
06. For Further Reading
Foster, R. (1998) Celebration of discipline (Rev. ed.). San Francisco: Harper and Row. A contemporary classic on the disciplines for the spiritual life.
McGuire, M. (1990) Religion and the Body: Rematerializing the Human Body in the Social Sciences of Religion, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 283-296. An excellent entree into philosophical and academic interpretations of the body’s role in personality, with bibliography.
Taylor, J. (1992) Holy living and holy dying, “Classics of Western Spirituality” series, New York: Paulist. Many other editions. Practical directions on the use of the body for spiritual growth by a great Christian of the sixteenth century.
Willard, D. The spirit of the disciplines. New York: Harper and Row. Especially chapters 1 through 7, which deal with basic points in a theology and soteriology of the body.