What’s going to make the biggest difference in your life this year? The external circumstances, or your internal state of being?
For some years I taught a course for Westminster Theological Centre on ‘Spiritual Formation’ and soon realised the danger that this could be seen as a niche subject for Christians to consider or even write essays about, rather than the most important question anyone can face, whether or not they believe in God.
What’s forming your spirit?
That’s most important. More important even than what happens to us, is what’s happening inside us.
I don’t just mean that simplistically in ‘self help’ terms of choosing a good attitude, or psychologically how two people can go through exactly the same thing very differently depending on how they see and interpret the matter.
When we talk about what’s inside, the Bible would go way deeper to describe your spirit, and how your life experiences so far have shaped your spirit. Your choices, what you have paid attention to and made important to you.
We have been formed, unconsciously or consciously, and continually – we are formed and are being formed in the depths of our beings by our families, friends and phones, by bosses and bank accounts. For many people social media and gossip posing as news are now the most important spirit of shapers and formers of hearts.
We have physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects to our lives and every human is right now and every hour undergoing spiritual formation, for good or ill, which will affect all the other areas and also have knock on effects with everybody we interact with, for good or for ill.
You know that if you’re suffering physically, that may soon affect you mentally and emotionally (which we may call your soul). But the physical is not the most important part of us, and neither is the mental or emotional. The most important part about you is the spiritual, what the Old Testament writers called the heart. Everything in life flows out of that inner you.
As the wise man said,
Watch over / Guard/ Keep your heart with all diligence (above all),
For from it flow the springs of life.Proverbs 4:23
In other words, you live out of your heart.
Yesterday a very annoying person pulled out dangerously in front of me in traffic. Jesus said what proceeded from my mouth (it was not edifying) at that moment came out of what was not about that person, it was about what was going on in my spirit, my heart.
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”Luke 6:43-45
What comes out of my life flows from what’s in my heart. Being clean on the inside. And what I wanted to try to teach at WTC is I still I believe what is fundamental and vital and all too often tragically missing in the church, in ways that mean we do not change the world but instead are changed to be like it. So it’s going to be an even larger part of what I want to teach to everyone now at Ivy and in every other sphere of ministry, because the gospel, the primary work of God in our lives, is not just to get us into heaven when we die, but to get the life of heaven into and working out through us.
I want to be a lot more intentional about making sure my spirit is being formed the way Jesus wants it to, so that after all he’s done to save me, when he sees me, he sees a good tree, bearing much fruit, for his glory – rather than one that’s just taking up space.
Because the good news is that while the world around us wants to form us after its own pattern for ill, the hope of humanity of which the Church of Jesus Christ is the steward is that for anyone, anyone who will cooperate with his will, word and way, can have our spirits not only reformed but our hearts transformed in the right way—that is, the way of Jesus. He can make me a good tree. If I abide in him, I truly can bear good fruit.
It’s struck me as this year opens up like never before how good the good news is that it really is possible for me and you to be more and more like Christ.
I’m not talking about sinless perfection (as my friend J John says, ‘Christians are not sinless, but we should sin less! It’s true. We can progress, as we follow the process. I’m not saying we try harder to become better, rather that the same grace that saves us can shape us and make us more like the One we love and follow.
That’s what I want more than anything. And it’s possible. Even for me.
I am excited to realise it’s impossible for man, but possible with God. Yes! Jesus wants to lead me, teach me, show me the way, so that I grow in grace.
Grow in grace? Yes, the Bible really says that.
“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.”2 Peter 3:18
I thank God for the grace of my salvation – it happened in an instant and lasts forever from the moment it happens when I recognised and turned away from my put sin and self righteousness and put all my trust and hope in the finished work of Christ on the cross to save me. But he does not want the finished work to end there.
He wants to make me like him. How could anything be more wonderful? That he would take and remake and form my inner world in to be increasingly like Christ himself. He gives more grace. Not just to save my soul, or to one day resurrect my body, but today – to transform my heart, out of which my life and all its actions flow.
Genesis tells us the human story starts with us being made in the image of God.
That image was marred and spoiled by sin. Subsequent generations have been made in the imperfect image of sinners of previous generations. But from the foundation of the world God had a plan to restore that beautiful divine image in us, so he made a way, a way we are remade in the image of Christ, ‘in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found’ (Col 2:3) living in the best way, the way of Jesus, a way that can bless others and please God.
The apostle Paul describes this amazing transformative process in 2 Corinthians 3:18:
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
By grace – from glory to glory. What a way to live!
 Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: (p. 964). Peabody: Hendrickson.