Spiritual Formation and James Bryan Smith

Another re-post from an older blog space. From early 2016 as we were beginning to make a push for spiritual formation in the Valley.

James Bryan Smith is the author of The Apprentice Series — three books comprising his curriculum for Christ-likeness. He developed these books — The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community — over a period of years based on his experiences as a teacher and as a student at the feet of men like Richard Foster, Rich Mullins, and Dallas Willard (who personally challenged Smith to write these books).

Since discovering Smith’s books in 2011, his approach to spiritual formation has been enormously helpful to me as a Christian and a teacher. As my 8&H community moves toward a renewal of our commitments to being formed as cruciform, Christ-like followers, I thought it might be helpful to share the basics of his model here.

In the opening pages of The Good and Beautiful God, Smith lays out a model for spiritual formation that involves four main components. As we look toward deepening our culture of discipleship at 8&H, each of these components will find a place in our approach.

Stories

The first is story-telling. Smith points out, correctly, that we are story-telling creatures. We use stories to make sense of the world, to pass along what is valuable to us and what is “normal,” and (most importantly) to imagine what the world should be. Stories motivate and shape our decisions, and in doing so shape our character and interactions with one another. With all this in mind, it is no surprise to find Scripture is largely a collections of poems, narratives, and reflections on what those stories might mean for our lives.

As Smith points out, the challenge is we often discover the stories we tell about God, ourselves, and others simply aren’t true, and so long as we live out of these false narratives, we will be essentially malformed. As such, one of the primary tasks of spiritual formation is to learn to tell better stories. For example, it will matter enormously over time whether one speaks of God as an “angry God” or “a loving God that sometimes gets angry.” To those who’ve grown up believing God is looking for an excuse to send them to Hell, it is life-changing to discover the truer biblical story of God’s love and grace.

Telling better stories — first, about God, and then about ourselves and the world — is the primary task of preaching, teaching, and much of our small group discussion from the vantage of spiritual formation. These are tools used to expand, transform and calibrate what I call our “holy imagination,” as we learn to tell (and live out of) good stories about who God is and what he is doing in the world. Once again, the notion is that as we give our stories and our imagination over to God, our lives will follow (cf. Matthew 6:19).

Soul-Training

We cannot stop with stories, however. As the theologian James K.A. Smith points out, Christianity is an embodied faith. It does not exist purely in our head as some abstract, intellectual exercise. Cruciform living requires every part of our body. The challenge here is that even as our stories begin to change, our bodies have become habituated to the older stories, and habits are harder to change than stories. This is where the ancient practice of Christian disciplines come into play. (Smith calls them soul training exercises.)

These disciplines are embodied practices that help us bring our bodies, “second nature” reflexes, and ingrained responses on board and form new habits. Much like working out to increase strength, flexibility, and mobility for real-life tasks, spiritual disciplines help us learn to respond in Christ-like ways. The discipline of fasting helps us learn to say “no” to ourselves and be content in a world that thrives on the stories of consumption and excess. The discipline of being silent draws us back to God as the source of our identity and worth in a world enamored with popularity and co-dependency. The discipline of hospitality challenges the many judgments we automatically make about those around us on a daily basis.

Learning new stories is essential, but the disciplines help us reattune our entire beings toward God and what he has in store for us. This is why each week, our small groups will focus on introducing a discipline to help embody the new stories we are learning to tell.

Community

Third, Smith emphasizes spiritual formation must be done in community. We need encouragement. We need support. We need accountability. We need to learn from each other. We need to be challenged by each other. As we often say in Celebrate Recovery, Christ-likeness is never a solo sport.

The apostle Paul loves to talk about the church as the “body of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 12, he points out that each follower of Christ is unique and makes up one part of larger body. Each part is essential for the body. Each part depends on the body. So for instance, an eye, no matter how sharp its focus, cannot be all it is intended to be apart from a body. In the same way, a heart, no matter how strong, cannot survive detached from its body.

It is only in the context of a body that individual members are able to grow and thrive as disciples. As such, Smith argues that formation must be done in community — hence our focus on consistent, intimate small groups that provide a context for real formation to happen.

The Spirit

Last, Smith points out the Spirit is essential to spiritual formation. The presence of God’s Spirit permeates every facet of the discipleship process.

When we think of spiritual formation, we understandably focus on what we need to do, and to be clear, we do have a part to play. Following Christ is a relationship and those are always two-way things. So, we need new stories and we do play a role in seeing those come to fruition. We do have to engage the hard work of forming new habits, and this can be an intense and difficult task. At the same time, there is a larger picture we must always remember: it is God who forms us.

Here, I find the language of Romans 8:29 helpful. Succinctly, God’s purpose for us is Christ-likeness — that we would be conformed to the image of his Son. Yet, note a few things. First, this is an artist’s language, drawing to mind a sculptor working with hunk of granite or clay. Second, as followers of Jesus, we are the recipients in this text. It is not “conform yourselves,” but we will be conformed. Paul pictures us as God’s work of art. He is forming us. Anything we do is merely yielding to his artistry.

A helpful way to show how this looks practically is to look one more time at the practice of the disciplines. Occasionally, those who aren’t familiar with the disciplines will assume they are meant to garner some favor before God — “Look at how righteous I am! I fast twice a week!”- and, of course, this can be true. Yet, this is not what the disciplines are really for. Those most familiar with the disciplines will point out they are not done to impress God, but to yield one’s life to God’s transforming power and work.

For instance, the discipline of simplicity clears clutter out of one’s life, making room for God to do his work in us. The practice of silence may still our own voices long enough to discern what God intends for us. In this way, the disciplines become a way of opening ourselves to what God wants to do with us through his Spirit. It is developing a life rhythm that makes room for God to work in, on, and through us.

As we enter more intently into the world of spiritual formation, we will want to make sure we maintain an awareness of how God is working on us.

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Spiritual Formation and James Bryan Smith

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