Spiritual Formation - Part I

November 2019

Recently I was given a list of books that were recommended by the leadership of a large Fortune 500 company. The leadership was asked which thought-provoking books they recently read inspired them.Within the list of twelve books they recommended were several that I found most interesting. At the top of the list were two books that dealt with meditation and one that dealt with trying to understand God through human reasoning.

One of the books on meditation was written by an author who boasts of being a Tibetan priest. The world is ever exploring how to find God within themselves through Far Eastern meditation; while Buddhist meditation principles have also crept into the church unawares. It began with yoga and now has expanded with spiritual formation. A recent Christianity Today article says, “Spiritual formation is in.” Although the term spiritual formation sounds innocuous, its tenants are spiritually dangerous and harmful.

Over the last thirty years we have seen a departure from the truth of God’s Word. What has been filling the void is a move toward mysticism. Few Bible teachers saw this avalanche coming and are now buried in a cesspool of unbiblical error. One of the consequences of ignoring or minimizing the correct doctrines of the Word of God has been the rise in mystical experiences. The escalation of these experiences are presented to convince the unsuspecting that Christianity is more about feeling, touching, smelling and “seeing” God” than believing or understanding His Word.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton believed what was lacking in the modern church was mysticism. The foundational idea behind spiritual foundation was to introduce the idea of mysticism to awaken God’s people. Mysticism was and is practiced by Roman Catholic mystics—those known as the Desert Fathers and others—who used far Eastern meditation to enhance their experiential knowledge of God. Thomas Merton had learned from a Hindu swami named Mahanambrata Brahmachari that anyone could obtain mystical properties from the Catholic mystics. Merton set out to bring mysticism, often called contemplative prayer, to the Catholic and Christian world. However, due to an unexpected early death, Merton was not able to fulfill his goal.

Richard Foster picked up Merton’s mantle and in 1978 introduced his book, Celebration of Discipline. In a pastoral letter Foster wrote: “When I first began writing in the field in the late 70s and early 80s the term spiritual formation was hardly known, except for highly specialized references to the Catholic orders. Today, it is a rare person who has not heard the term. Seminary courses in spiritual formation proliferate like baby rabbits. Huge numbers are seeking to become certified spiritual directors to answer the cry of multiplied thousands for spiritual direction.

Countless Christian evangelical leaders have jumped on the Foster spiritual formation train. Rick Warren considers the spiritual formation craze to be “a worthy wake-up call.” Warren would extol the need for the church to reemphasize its need for this neglected purpose. He claims, “A re-emphasis on developing believers to full maturity has been the focus … authors such as …Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have underscored the importance of building up Christians and establishing personal spiritual disciplines.”

What Is Spiritual Formation?
A Christianity Today article summarized spiritual formation in this way: “Formation, like the forming of a pot from clay, brings you mind shaping and molding, helping something potential become something actual. Spiritual formation speaks of a shaping process with reference to the spiritual dimension of a person’s life. Christian spiritual formation thus refers to the process by which believers become more fully confirmed and united with Christ.

What is conveniently left out of their statement is, what is the process of how it is done? The how is done through spiritual disciplines. The most ardent of the disciplines is the discipline of silence. The silence is an altered state that is reached through a mantra-like meditation, sometimes referred to as breath prayers. When you go into this silent state, you will eliminate distractions, most particularly your thoughts. Only then will you be able to hear God’s voice. He in turn will transform you to be like Christ. An interesting caveat to this practice is the “Who” that can practice this meditation to become like Christ. According to Richard Foster and other spiritual formation teachers, anyone can become like Christ—a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, even an atheist.

Richard Foster’s mentor, Thomas Merton, said this: “I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race … now I realize what we all are … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth … This little point is the pure glory of God in us … I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism and to these great Asian (mystical) traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own Christian traditions … The most important need in the Christian world today is this inner truth nourished by this Spirit of contemplation … without contemplation and interior prayer, the church cannot fulfill the mission to transform and save mankind.”

Notice that he emphasizes the “spirit of contemplation” instead of the Holy Spirit. Merton believed that God dwells in all people and we are in fact, all part of God. In other words, spiritual formation is carrying on the Hindu message of “God is in all things”; this is known as panentheism. He further believes that God is all things—pantheism. This teaching negates that man is sinful and heading for eternal damnation and in need of a Saviour.

Dallas Willard
Dallas Willard is another proponent of the spiritual formation teaching craze. Here is what he says about spiritual formation: “Sometimes we think of spiritual formation as a formation by the Holy Spirit. Once again. That’s essential … But now I have to say something that may be challenging for you to think about: spiritual formation is not all by the Holy Spirit …We have to recognize that spiritual formation in us is something that is also done to us by those around us, by ourselves, and by activities which we voluntarily undertake … There has to be a method.” In other words, spiritual formation, as taught and believed by Foster, Willard, and Warren is a works-based substitute for biblical Christianity. Warren identifies Willard as a key player in the spiritual formation movement.

Willard quotes from past contemplative Roman Catholic mystic figures, universalists, inter-spiritualists and New Age teachers in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Warren did the same in his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life.

Next month, we will dig deeper into this movement. In the meantime, every believer must understand that it is the working of the Holy Spirit alone that does the work in us as we place our faith solely on Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

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