Let me define Spiritual formation broadly as our life with God. That is, it encompasses not only our times of worship or personal devotion but looking at how all aspects of our life relate to God. I say this to avoid the misconceptions that spiritual formation has only to do with quiet times and prayer. This would fall short of the comparison I am attempting to make here. The issue is not exchanging one focus with another but with upending our approach in a wholesale fashion. Let me illustrate this proposal in the following paragraphs.
We tend to approach our problems by responding to symptoms. If your foot is hurting you go to a podiatrist; if you got emotional problems you go to a therapist; if you are overweight you join a workout program and so on. Our educational and professional apparatus is designed to create specialists. People prepare for a specific career in a specific field. We even tend to evaluate our lives in compartments: how is my marriage doing? How is my career going? How is my health?
What gets missed is how those things may be connected. A lack of holistic approach can lead to an incessant search for the right specialist to address the specific problem. Even more, given the abundance of options available, at times part of the problem is the anxiety of finding the right specialist, program, and diet for our problem. This experience can leave us more frustrated breeding additional problems of their own. Another downside of this approach is that we may find success in addressing one area at expense of others. The person who wanted to lose weight may successfully train and complete a marathon only to find their marriage crumbling or their children distant.
In the evangelical world, our response has been the practical gospel mostly encapsulated in the “3-point” sermon. Every Sunday, preachers will give you a motivational lecture with 3 simple steps to becoming a better Christian, parent, husband, friend or worker. They distill the complexity of Scripture into practical advice not much different from self-help books. You leave the service feeling good about yourself and with a game plan on how to face life.
This short piece is not about rejecting the specialist approach (and all the money-making industries behind it). A lot of people would be out of work if that happened. While recognizing the value of focusing on specific areas and how this can yield positive results, I would ask us to take a step back and challenge our overall approach. What if instead of searching for the right specialist or program that we would instead give priority to our life with God. By this I don’t mean just pray and read more the Bible and your life will be free of problems. While it may include that, what if we were to pay closer attention to our relationship with God? What if we started there first? How many of these symptoms would be addressed if we were to address the root cause of the human condition, namely our need for God?
Food for thought…