Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on August 22 2009.
2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:13; Colossians 3:9-10
Today’s sermon is unusual in two respects. First, I’m preaching it at the request of folk in our church, namely our Spiritual Formation Team that has planned our Spiritual Formation Retreat next weekend. Second, this sermon will be more personal than usual. You could call it my “spiritual formation testimony.” I’m being personal so you’ll understand why I feel so strongly about spiritual formation, and why I’m hoping you’ll decide to participate in our retreat next weekend.
I want to begin with something David Fouche (our retreat leader) said in his sermon last Sunday—spiritual formation is not a choice. The formation of our spirit is happening minute by minute, day by day whether we know it or not. This is what David Fouche means when he says “all of life is spiritual formation.”
One of the most helpful books I’ve ever read about spiritual formation is Robert Mulholland’s Invitation to a Journey. Much of my sermon today is shaped by that book. In his book Mulholland writes, “Everyone is in the process of spiritual formation! Every thought we hold, every decision we make, every action we take, every emotion we allow to shape our behavior, every response we make to the world around us, every relationship we enter into to, every reaction we have toward the things that surround us and impinge upon our lives—all these things, little by little, are shaping us into some kind of being.”
Viewed that way, I’ve been undergoing spiritual formation from the time I was conceived. What are the forces that have formed me? The genetic information that stamped out my identity as a human being. And, after I was born, my bodily needs that let me know I was hungry for food, and desperate for sleep. By the way, my bodily needs and urges still shape who I am and what I do.
As a young child my parents were obviously a seminal influence in my life. Early on my parents took me to church, and the culture and belief system of the church had a huge impact on me. Not surprisingly, no single book in this world has shaped me more than the Bible.
When I was five years old, I started kindergarten. And by the age of 32, I had 24 years of formal education, so there’s no denying that the academy has shaped my spirit. Along the way, I developed a love affair with my mind, and only recently have I come to understand how my brain has held sway over my soul.
In high school and college, my friends began to assert themselves in my development, and my fraternity at Wake Forest University became a formidable influence over my thoughts and behavior. During the same time, I became aware of my deep need to succeed, and be thought of as a success. My family put a lot of emphasis on accomplishments. To this day, I believe my brother and I are the only two brothers from the same family to be elected Student Council president of our high school. Later, I would be elected president of my fraternity, and an officer in student government at Wake Forest. Later, I would graduate near the top of my class at Wake Forest and Princeton Seminary, in part because of my need to succeed and be considered a success.
Fortunately, my best friend coming out of Wake Forest was a coed named Joani Ray who reintroduced me to Jesus Christ, someone I had forgotten in college. In time, Joani and other close friends from college and seminary helped me reconstruct a faith that had been deconstructed in the classroom. And to this day a small group of about 8-10 Christian friends have a unique input in my soul, with my wife Joani heading the list.
Over the last 30 years (Tim turned 30 this week!), I have learned more from my kids than they realize. Over the last 32 years, I have learned a lot from the churches I’ve served, including this one. For the last 15 years, I have learned from many wise Christian authors and leaders, too many to name here, about the life of the Spirit. And for the last two–and–a-half years, I have learned to develop what the spiritual masters call “a rule of life,” a pattern of sacred rhythms that have taken the formation of my soul to a new place.
There have been other formative influences in my life, of course, like the constant messages of mass media and the appeal of Madison Avenue. But these are the most formative agents of my life.
Here’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way about spiritual formation—what forms you rules you. If you’re full of anger, anger is your God. If you’re obsessed with money, greed is your lord. If you insist on fully understanding anything before you believe it, intellect is your Supreme Being. Whatever forms you most rules you most.
Here’s another truth about spiritual formation that ought to be obvious, but we’re prone to forget it—spiritual formation is a life-long journey, not a moment in time. Like many of you, I grew up in a Baptist church that stressed conversion far more than transformation. I heard a lot in virtually every sermon about what a sinner I am and how much I needed to give my life to Jesus and be baptized. I heard far less about the ongoing process of spiritual transformation that would out of necessity require the rest of my life.
Like many of you, I have longed for spiritual transformation that would come as quickly and easily as a MacDonald’s Happy Meal. But I have learned that there is little that is instant about my spiritual formation. It takes place on God’s time, not my time. And it will continue to the day I die.
The best definition of Christian spiritual formation I know is one I’ve borrowed from both Robert Muholland and Ruth Haley Barton. It defines Christian spiritual formation as “the process by which Christ is formed in us for the glory of God, the abundance of our own lives, and the sake of others.”
We’ll put aside, for the moment, what makes up the process of Christian spiritual formation. Notice that the goal of the process is to shape us slowly but surely into people who think, and live, and love, and serve like Christ.
When it comes to our purpose for living, we have to talk about that purpose on two levels: that unique calling God extends to each individual human being, and the general purpose that applies to all believers. Joani and I follow the same Lord but have different callings. She is wired to be a teacher, and I was shaped by God for pastoral ministry.
But there is a purpose we share in common with not only every other believer, but with every other human being on the face of this earth. That purpose is nicely summarized by our scripture for today. Let’s read it again together: We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory…until we all…become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ…since we have taken off our old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
If you are wondering why you are here, if you are wondering what your soul privately longs for more than anything else, it is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Remember, that image of Christ was imprinted on our souls when God first created human beings in his own image. When creation fell into sin, two things happened—we were estranged from God, and the image of God inside us became broken and distorted. But when we are saved in Christ, two new things happen—we are reconciled to God through Christ, and we are set on a path that can restore the image of God, and the image of Christ in our souls again.
Today, you may not even be aware you have a soul, much less a longing in your soul. But I can assure you you have a soul, and it is that part of you that is far truer than your profession, possessions, or reputation. And I can assure you that in the deepest places of your soul you long to be not only reunited with Christ, but reengineered to look and live like Christ. This is the deepest longing of your soul. Because your soul knows when you become conformed to the image of Christ, you will be living from the inside out, and your truest self will emerge.
Now, for an over-achiever like me, what I am about to say is hard to admit—I’ve learned I cannot transform myself into being like Christ. Only God can bring about that transformation.
Notice what the Apostle Paul says and doesn’t say in today’s scripture. He doesn’t say, “We transform ourselves into Christ’s image.” He says, “We are being transformed into Christ’s image.” The verb is not in the active but the passive voice, affirming a clear biblical truth—no matter how smart or capable we are, we cannot transform ourselves into the image of Christ. God, and only God, can do that.
Robert Mulholland observes that whether we want to admit it or not, most of us are control freaks who believe we can get any job done on our own terms if we can just learn enough and become skillful enough in managing ourselves and our affairs. I may not have said as much, but my behavior did. For example, the first thing people notice when they enter in my office is that books jam every shelf. What I’ve learned about me is that I’ve unconsciously assumed for years that what I most need I can learn from a book. I can learn how to access God in a book. I can learn how to lead this church from a book. Given time and opportunity, my Ph.D. brain can figure out what must be done, and how to do it.
But what I’ve learned, especially over the past two years, is that the most important things in the world can’t be learned in a book. There are mysteries of the soul and life that aren’t solved at the cognitive level. They are only known at the soul level. And they are only imparted by God.
While God drives the process of spiritual formation,and your part is this:
1) Plant yourself in a community of faith committed to spiritual formation.
2) Begin to learn about and engage in the historic spiritual practices or sacred rhythms of the faith like solitude and silence.
3) In your solitude and silence, invite God into the broken places (what Paul calls, the “old practices”) of your life.
When you do your part, God will most certainly do his to transform you
Why plant yourself in a community of faith? Because Christian spiritual formation is not a solo act. It is no accident that all the pronouns in today’s scripture reading are plural. Christian spiritual formation is what we do with each other and the Holy Spirit, not what I do alone.
Many of my best spiritually formative experiences have come precisely at the moment when I am relating to other persons, especially when we are connecting at a deep and honest level. And one litmus test of spiritual growth is my ability to relate positively others. Am I more loving, more forgiving than I used to be?
If you’re serious about being formed into the image of Christ, you won’t stay home next weekend and try doing it by yourself. You’ll join our faith community and do it others.
Why engage in the historic sacred rhythms of the Christian faith? Because God’s Spirit can mold us and make us in powerful ways when we consistently engage in practices like silence and solitude, meditating on scripture and praying throughout the day. As I have said on many other occasions, these practices don’t turn us into Christ—no human practice can do that. But they give God time and space to do the work in our souls only God can do.
Finally, why invite God into the broken places of our lives? For goodness sakes, I don’t want to dwell on my broken places! That’s too depressing, and our world is already depressing enough. I’d far rather focus on my strengths and good points and forget the rest.
But here is a secret of spiritual formation. God does some of his best work when we get quiet and honest with him about the broken places and the old sinful practices of our lives. I used to tell people I didn’t practice silence and solitude because I didn’t have time. The truth is, I didn’t practice silence and solitude because I didn’t have the courage to sit with God in my broken places. It was too scary, too uncomfortable. What I didn’t know is that I was depriving God of the opportunity to heal me and transform into a new person.
The truth is, some of you are avoiding next weekend’s retreat not because you have too much to do, but because you’re anxious about where this process might take you in your own soul. The bad news is, you cannot be transformed and avoid spending time with God in the broken places. The good news is, God loves you so much he will not only help you through it, he will heal you through it.
I ought to know. I’ve been there and done that. And I’m still doing it. And parts of me that I never thought would change or heal are slowly changing and healing.
If God can do this in me, he can do it to you.
Thanks be to God!