The external manifestation of Christlikeness is not the focus of Christian spiritual formation. When outward forms or behaviors are made the main emphasis, the process will be defeated, falling into deadening legalisms. This has happened in the past, and it is a major barrier to wholeheartedly embracing spiritual formation in the present. Peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization are just not the point.
Externalism, as we might call it, was a danger in New Testament times. But “that Christ be formed within you” is the eternal watchword of Christian spiritual formation (Galatians 4:19).1 This word is fortified by the deep moral and spiritual insight that while “the letter of the law kills, the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
To illustrate briefly, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5 – 7) refer to various wrong behaviors: acting out anger, looking to lust, heartless divorce, verbal manipulation, returning evil for evil, and so forth. To strive merely to act in conformity with Jesus’ expressions of what living from the heart in the kingdom of God is like is to attempt the impossible.
The outward interpretation of spiritual formation (emphasizing specific acts) aims to increase “the righteousness of the scribe and Pharisee,” but this will not “go beyond” (Matthew 5:20) to achieve genuine transformation of who I am through and through — that is, Christ’s man or woman, living richly in his kingdom.
But Christlikeness in the inner being is not a human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace. Spiritual formation is the way of rest for the weary and overloaded, of the easy yoke and light burden (see Matthew 11:28 – 30), of cleaning the inside of the cup and dish (see Matthew 23:26), of the good tree that cannot bear bad fruit (see Luke 6:43). And it is the path along which God’s commandments are found not to be heavy or burdensome (see 1 John 5:3).
For some people, coming to faith has felt a bit like a bait-and-switch operation. At first, we hear mostly about grace. We hear we are saved by grace and that salvation is a free gift. But after a while, we are encouraged to try to be good. Yet it is exhausting to try to be good. We think, This so-called free gift costs more than my puny self can buy. I’ll never make it. Consider the disastrous results of trying to be good. When we seem to be successful at growth, our spirituality becomes about us, not about the power of God in our lives. When we try hard and fail, we berate ourselves and spend tremendous energy on guilt and hopelessness instead of letting ourselves be drawn into the divine life by becoming fascinated with the great example of Jesus in the Gospels.
This weight of trying to be good is an unnecessary load because the way to God is the way of all-encompassing inner transformation. God will work in us (see Philippians 1:6). We have a part in cooperating with God, which is what we’ll explore in this book. But even then, we must not make it our project. We need to ask God to show us what the next small steps are and how to take them.