The Power of Spiritual Formation
Hey all, you won’t believe this, but I got a letter a year ago inviting me to participate in a special iron man triathlon next week. There is a big sports drink company that is sponsoring me, and they are giving me a big contract even if I don’t win. All I must do is finish the race. I have been getting ready for this all year. I have been reading books on triathlons, I have bought a bunch of T-shirts with inspirational statements like this one, and I have watched every triathlon I could find on television. I think I know about as much about triathlons as I can possibly know.
The triathlon I’m invited to has three parts. There is a 2.5-mile rough water swim in the ocean, a 112-mile bicycle race, and a little over 26-mile run. That sounds pretty grueling, but I believe God is going to help me through it. I have had a year to pray about it.
I got magazine subscriptions for Running Magazine, Cross Training, and Bicycle Racing. Oh, and I read a book on how to swim in the ocean.
Let’s see, for the swimming part, I got a new bathing suit a while back. For some reason, it seems to have shrunk in my drawer, it’s a little bit tight, but that should just make me go faster through the water. I’m not a great swimmer, so I picked up some water wings and swimming noodles.
For the bicycle event, I read all about how to ride a racing bike. I even went out and bought a special bike to ride when I get there. That cost me a lot, so I’m sure it will work great when I ride it. I have my water bottle, and my glasses turn into sunglasses, so that saved me some money. And I have a cool set of racing shorts and a shirt as they told me I should get.
For the marathon part, I shopped around and found the best running shoes. I have a headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes.
It took me a year to read and get the equipment I need for the iron man, but I think I am all ready! I can’t wait to try everything out.
I have been listening to inspirational messages, and I am now completely confident. After all, the Bible says I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Isn’t that great?
Oh, I found this guy on Facebook to follow who does Iron Man triathlons. I am trying to follow his diet. But he eats 18 eggs for breakfast, along with toast, sausage, and a gallon of milk. I keep trying, but I can’t finish all of that. He says he averages about 1600 calories per meal. I have a hard time eating that much, so I have been eating a lot of Twinkies, cupcakes, and potato chips to help make up the calories I need to keep up with him.
The race is Monday. They are going to fly me to Hawaii today after church. I’m all packed. I don’t think I have forgotten a thing. It should be a piece of cake. Don’t you think?…
What’s wrong with my story? I mean I studied everything I could find about the Iron Man Triathlon, and I have all the right equipment like everybody else. But what’s going to happen to me if I just show up for this Triathlon, even though I had a year to prepare, without ever doing any physical preparation? I’m going to go about 50 feet before I get myself totally in trouble and someone is going to have to rescue me.
I can know all about the Iron Man Triathlon. I can dress like the athletes, carry the same water bottle, and even eat the same food, but it won’t make a difference when the starting gun is fired.
Most people try to live a Christian life rather than train to live a Christian life. We buy Christian shirts, we read Christian books, and listen to Christian music and sermons. We hang out with other Christians that do the same things. We even read the Bible, but we read it the way we read other books, just for information.
I don’t know about you, but I want something more. I want a relationship with the Lord. If we are to have this kind of deeper relationship, we must engage in spiritual formation. This is what will lead us to the point where we can love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We can forgive those who have hurt us and release the bitterness and pain that grows deep inside. We can have the kind of relationship with Jesus that will transform us.
Reading the Bible is good. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading the Bible. Simply reading the Bible will go a long way toward changing us as it gets inside of us. But if we only read for information, and we are not transformed, it is like me preparing for an Iron Man Triathlon without ever physically doing anything to prepare. The information contained in the Bible can change our lives, but only if we apply it.
Christians, figuratively, show up for the Iron Man without ever training. They may read, and know a lot about the Iron Man, they may have read a book about swimming, biking, and running, but reading and studying only go so far. If you or I showed up at the Iron Man competition without any training, we wouldn’t ever make it to the finish line, not even close. And then, we pile guilt on ourselves because we were not able to do it. We can’t live a Christian life with just willpower. We need the Holy Spirit in our lives to change us, to empower us, to help us.
We all live busy lives. Things get chaotic. We watch TV till bedtime, eating Twinkies, cupcakes, and potato chips. Then when the crisis comes, or we face a trial or a temptation and give in to the temptation to sin, we can’t understand why.
Trying to live life as a Christian without spiritual formation is like competing in an Iron Man competition without training for it. The things Jesus calls us to do take training in spiritual disciplines. Unfortunately, most churches no longer teach this. Many churches want to preach an easy Gospel that doesn’t require anything of us. They get people saved, and then teach them that their life should be great from then on.
You know, looking at the life of the Apostle Paul. If the prosperity preachers are right, and our life is blessed beyond measure, we will be wealthy, healthy, and wise, then the Apostle Paul must have been a failure as a Christian.
Jesus said we should count the cost of following him. It costs us something. There are spiritual disciplines that will change us.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Some of us in this room were athletes when we were younger. Maybe some on Facebook still are. An athlete knows they must deny themselves Twinkies, cupcakes, and potato chips. They must exercise and train hard to accomplish their goals.
This goes against what society tells us today. Our society is suspicious of anyone or anything that denies itself pleasure. Our society worships feeling good. Not the kind of feeling good that comes from working hard or training for an iron man competition, but the feeling good from eating junk food, and every pleasure of the flesh.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a spiritual race. Paul tells us in this passage that we should run our race in such a way as to get the prize. So how do we do that?
Let’s start with a definition of spiritual formation. Dr. John Coe is a professor at Biola University. He teaches a class called Introduction to Spiritual Formation TTSF 501. On August 30, 2011, during a lecture, he gave this concise definition of Christian Spiritual Formation, “Spiritual Formation is the divinely sanctioned process by which the person (spirit and body) is conformed to the image of Christ by union with the Holy Spirit and in conjunction with our own will and efforts, which begins in this life and continues into the next.”
The Bible says in Colossians 3:1-4, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
So what does all that mean? Spiritual Formation is a process. We cooperate with the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. I remember once helping someone through a huge crisis. They were going through one of the toughest times of their lives, as they had suddenly lost a loved one to death. They paid me the highest compliment I have ever had. They told me later when they looked me in the eyes, they saw Jesus. That should be our goal, that when people look at us, they see Jesus.
Paul makes the contrast between how the world operates and how the Christian should live in the Spirit. Let’s look at this:
Galatians 5:19-25 (Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Now, everyone is being formed spiritually. Whether you are a Christian, or not, you are being spiritually formed. There are influences in your life that are making you look like the world, or look like Jesus Christ. When you become a Christian, you are instantly changed into a new creature. The Holy Spirit goes to work changing and sanctifying you. We can choose to passively allow God to transform us, and he will over time. Or we can get involved in the spiritual transformation and seek to become more like Jesus and we can see a dramatic change. It’s not about willpower, but rather it is practicing spiritual disciplines that will change us.
But it doesn’t do any good to just learn about spiritual formation, without beginning to practice spiritual disciplines. Some of the things I am teaching you may seem foreign to you. Some of the things may come from different denominations than you are used to. There may be some things that have come to be known as rituals. But everything I am going to teach you is Biblical.
We live in a loud, noisy world. Most of the time, there is so much noise, it is hard to hear the still small voice of God. In Quaker churches, they have times of silence as part of their worship service. They still themselves before God and listen.
There is a passage in 1 Kings 19 that describes this. “And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him”
Sometimes when we are worshipping God we may want to raise our hands and be loud. The Bible talks about us having a great deal of emotion when we worship the Lord. The Bible says that at one time, King David danced mightily before the Lord as he worshipped him.
Raising hands to God in worship can be found as far back as the book of Exodus. You may remember Israel was fighting against an army from Amalek. Moses raised his hands in worship to God, and the Israelites would start pushing the army of Amalek back. When he got tired and dropped his arms, the army of Amalek would push the Israelites back. So, Joshua and Caleb, had Moses sit on a big rock, and they held up his hands. The Israelites were able to defeat the enemy army of Amalek.
There are many passages in the Psalms that talk about raising our hands to the Lord. One of them is Psalm 28:2, “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.”
Nehemiah 8:6a says, “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands.”
1 Kings 8:54, “Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and plea to the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven.”
There are probably 100 different verses that talk about raising your hands in worship to the Lord.
Now I know what some of you are thinking, “But Pastor, those are all Old Testament scriptures.”
Let’s look at just a couple from the New Testament:
Luke 24:50 says, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.”
1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;”
I remember when I first went to a church where a lot of people raised their hands while we were worshipping. I thought it was strange, and uncomfortable to watch. Then, abruptly the pastor stepped out stopping the worship. He opened the Bible and showed us some of these passages about raising holy hands to the Lord. I had read the Bible through a couple of times by then, and I honestly didn’t remember ever seeing these verses, but there they were. I had been taught that raising your hands was just too emotional, but God commanded it in the Old Testament, Jesus practiced it with the disciples, and Paul said he wanted everyone to do it in the New Testament. That is hard to argue with.
I want to encourage you to consider raising your hands in surrender to God as you worship him. That is what you are doing. You are surrendering to the will of God when you do it. It may feel awkward at first like everyone is watching you. But they should not be watching you, they should be worshipping the Lord themselves, so don’t worry about what other people think.
I want to invite you to give up your own will today. Surrender to the Lord today and allow him to move in you however he wants.