The Human Spirit in Spiritual Formation
Spiritual formation is increasingly becoming a term used in the academy and in the church here and around the world for a kind of ministry that focuses on going deeper and farther with Christ in the life of the individual Christian and the community of faith. Nevertheless, there is still today a great deal of confusion about what “spiritual formation” really is or should be in the evangelical context, and how it relates, for example, to “discipleship” and “sanctification.” Admittedly, like some of the other terms we regularly use in Christian theology (e.g., Trinity), “spiritual formation” is not actually a scriptural term. Given that, from a biblical point of view it seems most natural to approach the subject of “spiritual formation” through passages that refer to the Holy Spirit in the context of forming, conforming, or transforming one’s life toward Christ-likeness (the Greek morphe and its compounds; e.g., Galatians 4:19). One of the best passages to begin with is Romans 8:26-29:
26 . . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s (i.e., the Father’s) will. 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed (συμμόρφους) to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (NIV)
Thus, one can properly start with the proposition that spiritual formation, rightly understood, is first of all, above all, and throughout, the life shaping (i.e., “forming”) work of the divine Holy Spirit, carried out according to the will of God the Father, for the purpose of conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ his Son (cf. also, e.g., Romans 12:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Spiritual formation consists of the Trinitarian work of God in transforming the lives of genuine believers in Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. A spiritual formation ministry is one that is devoted to stimulating and participating in this work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians through the ways and means revealed in scripture.
There are three primary dimensions of the forming work of the Holy Spirit according to scripture. These are represented by the three concentric circles in the illustration below (Figure 1). Each of them has important implications for any biblically based “spiritual formation” ministry, practice, or program. These three dimensions of the work of the Holy Spirit are intimately bound together, not mutually exclusive or isolated from each other, and have direct impact on the effective working of each other in the lives of believers (see the four lines traversing the concentric circles, with arrows pointing in both directions). Nevertheless, the images, concepts, and institutions on which they are based are distinctive. All three have their roots set deep in the soil of the Old Testament. They also have explicit, meaningful, and traceable trajectories into the New Testament for the church and the Christian life.
First, at the inner core of spiritual formation is deep personal intimacy with God and the personal Christ-like integrity and character worked in us from there by the Holy Spirit who is in us; that is, in our human spirit. This is the main topic of the present essay. The second dimension, represented by the second concentric circle, illustrates the work of the Holy Spirit among us as a redemptive community of faith, building us together into a worship-filled temple of the Holy Spirit in which the love of God and one another abounds. Since the Holy Spirit is actually “present” in us and among us as he works in the human spirit of each believer, the true church is the corporate temple of God the Holy Spirit today. The Old Testament theology of God’s tabernacle and temple presence comes through into the New Testament in the description of the church as a temple “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit,” as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:22.
The third dimension of spiritual formation, represented by the third concentric circle labeled “Prophetic Spirit and Holy Spirit,” is meant to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit through us in the world, making us effective in the Gospel mission, living as salt and light in the world. The foundation for this dimension is in the close relationship that the pouring out of the Spirit has with the prophetic institution in the Old Testament. The quote from Joel 2 in Acts 2 as the main text of the first sermon of the church age brings the prophetic work of the Spirit directly into the church as its basic purpose. Witnessing and preaching the Gospel are by their very nature prophetic acts, and we are all called to this. The church has been an essentially prophetic institution since its inception. In anticipation of the day of Pentecost, Jesus put it this way in Acts 1:8: “. . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The overall point here is that spiritual formation is about what the Holy Spirit works in each of us, among all of us, and through us in the world around us. At the end of the day, this is what we are all called to in our individual lives and our ministries, and this is precisely what spiritual formation is all about.
Discipleship, Sanctification, and Spiritual Formation
There is no hard line of distinction between “discipleship,” “sanctification,” and “spiritual formation.” However, the focus of the terms and their implications shade into different areas. A disciple is primarily an adherent to a particular teacher; a learner, or pupil, or perhaps better, an apprentice. He or she is a committed follower of a Rabbi, so to speak (see, e.g., John 1:38, 49). Our term “disciplined” is a derivative of the term “disciple,” and the focus is just that. A disciple is a disciplined follower. Jesus not only taught us how to live, but he actually lived in such a way that we can see what it looks like to live out what he taught. Jesus commissioned us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20; cf. Acts 14:21).
Our term “sanctification” as a theological concept arises from the Latin sanctus and derives from the Old and New Testament words for “holy” or “sacred” (i.e., the root words qadosh in Hebrew and hagios in Greek). From the same set of terms we get “sanctuary,” referring to a “holy place,” and “saints,” referring to those who have become “sacred/holy persons” by the purifying and sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is our identity before God. We are his “sanctified holy ones,” and the ongoing process of our sanctification is a continuation of the saving work of God in our lives. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.
Returning now to the term “spiritual formation,” and bringing these concepts together, the Holy Spirit is the one who God the Father, at the request of Jesus the Son, has given us in this day and age to guide and enable us to function as sanctified disciples of Jesus (John 14:16-17). With regard to spiritual formation in particular, the important point is that, since the beginning of the church age, becoming and living as a disciple has always been closely linked to receiving and being transformed by the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., Acts 1:5, 8; 2:1-18, 38). This is one of the main emphases spiritual formation brings to the Christian life when it is defined and understood from a biblical point of view.
Spiritual formation is, first, dynamic in its emphasis on the divine power and means of formation, and, second, deep in its focus on the inner workings of the human person. As distinct terms, “discipleship” focuses on learning and following; “spiritual formation” focuses on the dynamic empowerment of the Holy Spirit for that learning and following. “Sanctification” focuses on separation and holiness; “spiritual formation” focuses on the in depth process continually being worked in us by the Holy Spirit to sanctify us even further and deeper, in an ongoing way, in our experience as those indwelt and transformed by the Spirit. It is important to emphasize again here that these are complementary terms. They do not stand in contradiction or competition with one another. For example, when Jesus taught his disciples about sanctification (i.e., holiness and purity) he was concerned that they see it as the kind that penetrates into the heart of the person. He said:
18 . . . the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; . . . (Matthew 15:18-20, NIV).
Thus, discipleship and sanctification deal with the depths of the person too, and they involve dynamic engagement with the Lord in the process.
My point here is that the Spirit of God reaches into the spirit (or heart) of the person to do the core of this work in us (see, e.g., Romans 8:16, 23-27). God has not called us to something without enabling us to do it. He is not sitting by to see how we do on our own. Jesus did not leave us with commands and no power to fulfill them. There is a divine person, the Holy Spirit, continually at work in us, who acts directly on the deepest parts of us – our human spirit. This comes through clearly in certain passages of scripture. The passage that first drew my attention to this is 1 Corinthians 2:10b-13:
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. (NIV)
Thus, according to v. 16, “we have the mind of Christ.” The Holy Spirit knows the depths of God, and the human spirit knows the depths of a person. Spiritual formation is empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit as he takes “what God has freely given to us” in Christ Jesus and brings it to full effect in and through the human spirit of us as believers. According to Romans 8:15-16, we have not received a “spirit of slavery” but a “spirit of adoption, in which we cry out, Abba! Father!” and “it is that very (divine) Spirit (who is in us) testifying to our (human) spirit that we are children of God.” This is what the word “spiritual” in the term “spiritual formation” indicates. At its core, the term “spiritual formation” and the practice of it, properly understood from a biblical point of view, focuses our attention on what the Holy Spirit deals with in us, that is, in our human spirit, and on the dynamics of how he does that. This requires that we seriously consider the nature and condition of the human spirit as it relates to spiritual formation.
The Human Spirit
As every first year Hebrew or Greek student knows, the major terms for both the human “spirit” and the Holy “Spirit” are also the common words for “wind” or “breath” in both the Hebrew Old Testament (ruakh) and the Greek New Testament (pneuma; cf. the English word “pneumonia”). The existence of a human spirit in every person, and the affective nature of that human spirit, is clearly testified to in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider, for example, Jacob’s revived “spirit” in Genesis 45:27, Ahab’s sullen “spirit” in 1 Kings 21:5, Paul’s gentle “spirit” in 1 Corinthians 4:21, and the “spirit” of power, love, and self-control rather than timidity in 2 Timothy 1:7. In fact, one can argue from the Bible that it is precisely the presence of the immaterial “spirit” of a person that makes his or her material body alive as opposed to dead. James, for example, alludes to this when he writes that “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Similarly, Jesus echoes Psalm 31:5 on the cross when he cries out at the point of his death, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
If we are going to engage in the process of spiritual formation, we will need to face directly the substance and dynamics of what is happening in the spirits of people in general, and any individual person in particular. Spiritual formation is a “messy” process because peoples’ lives are messy. The Bible itself says a great deal about this and we cannot avoid dealing with it if we are going to do true spiritual formation. Although the intellect is an important part of the human spirit, it is not the only part. As the passages cited earlier suggest, a person’s “spirit” also includes their will, emotions, attitudes, memories, perspectives on life, and so forth. Since the transformation of all such things is the object of the Holy Spirit’s work, it is essential to engage a person on all these levels in the process of spiritual formation. This includes the corruption that plagues our spirit due to our fallen sinful condition, as described in Genesis 3.
Romans 8, in fact, makes a direct connection to the corruption and pain of our sinful condition immediately following the adoption passage in verses 15-16, where we cry out “Abba! Father!” cited earlier, and immediately preceding verses 26-29, which were cited at the beginning of this paper regarding the Spirit, Father, and Son together in spiritual formation. Between these two sections, Paul refers to the inheritance we have to look forward to as joint heirs with Jesus Christ of the richness of God’s kingdom. More to the point, this is so even though, for the time being, as those who have the first fruits of Spirit of God in our life we suffer and groan in the midst of the anxious longings, futility, and groans of all creation as it suffers the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:17-23). Yes, we have hope, but in the meantime we need the help of the Spirit “in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:24-26).
Thus, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:18-26, along with all creation, we suffer and groan until the time of redemption. Genesis 3:1-13 tells us about the fall of man and woman into sin, and Genesis 3:14-25 tells us about the curses that were God’s response to the fall. This narrative, like others in the Bible, is “archetypal.” That is, it explains to us not only what happened in the garden but also what continues to happen in our lives. We keep replaying the fall and suffering the consequences. In other words, even though we were created with dignity in the image of God, we do not necessarily live in dignified ways, and even when we do, the world does not necessarily treat us with dignity. We have become corrupt and we live in a world that is corrupt.
The Fallen Dynamics of Our Human Spirit
Here it will be helpful to trace the dynamics of the fall step by step through Genesis 3:1-13 as a narrative theology of sin that finds its roots in the fallen human spirit (see Figure 2). Other passages will be considered along the way, but Genesis 3 is the key text. First came deception. One element of fallenness in our human spirit is that we are “deceived.” As the story goes, the serpent was “more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made” (3:1), and as the woman put it to God, “the serpent deceived me, and I ate” (3:13). These two references encase the fall narrative in craftiness and deception. Because he was crafty, the serpent knew that the nature of the man’s relational commitment to the woman as recounted previously in Genesis 2:22-25 made them vulnerable to attack through that relationship. The link between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 is clear from the general line of argument, but the play on words between “naked” (‘ārûmmîm) in the statement that “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” in the last verse of chapter 2 (v. 25), and the word “crafty” (‘ārûm) in the first verse of chapter 3, is especially significant. They are homonyms and constitute a play on words.
One of the questions that naturally arises in considering the events of Genesis 2-3 is the problem of how Adam and Eve could sin even though they had no sinful nature and had never sinned previously. This question has given rise to various longstanding debates in systematic theology about the relationship between the fall into sin and the decrees of God, especially the “lapsarian controversy.” “Was the first sin of man, constituting the fall, predestinated,” (i.e., supralapsarian), “or was this merely the object of divine foreknowledge” (i.e., infralapsarian). Actually, the only answer the Bible gives to the problem of how they sinned even though they were not sinful that I can find is that they were deceived into it. The impetus came from the serpent, neither God nor the man or woman, at least not directly.
The woman was deceived, not the man (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12-14). This does not mean that women are more easily deceived than men, or anything of the sort. Rather, it follows the logic of the narrative. The natural inclination of the man was to stay “united” (NIV) with his woman, cleave to her (Genesis 2:24b; better translations are NASB “shall cleave to” or NRSV “clings to,” since the verb is active, not passive or middle). Recall how the man responded when God first presented the woman to him (2:22-23). She was made for him (2:18), and he was truly taken with her (2:23). Since this was so, the clever serpent only needed to deceive the woman into going in the wrong direction. The man would naturally follow as he clung to her. The man is not excused, and the woman no more accused than him. They are both held fully accountable (3:14-25), but the serpent was crafty indeed. And this is often how deception works. It uses good things to entice people to do bad things for all the wrong reasons.
Second, the deception was meant to raise doubt. This too is one of the dynamic features of our fallen human spirit. We doubt two things in particular: (1) the goodness of God (3:1b, 5) and (2) the repercussions of rebellion against God (3:4). This is what the serpent was working to produce in the heart and mind of the women. Is it really “good” that God has forbidden them to eat the fruit of the trees: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (3:1b). And if they could eat from any of the trees but one, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9b) “in the middle of the garden” (3:3), then why not that one? The answer, according to the serpent, is that God is withholding something good from them, even the best: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).
Think about it. How much of our sin really reflects the underlying belief that what God has already given is not good enough? We are deceived in our human spirit, and because we are deceived we doubt the goodness of God. Similarly, the serpent specifically denied the truth of what God said would happen if they did eat of the forbidden fruit: “You will not surely die” (3:4; cf. God’s warning in 2:16-17 and the reflection on this in 3:11). Under the influence of this kind of deception we not only doubt that God is good, but we doubt the repercussions of rebellion against him. We feel, think, or perhaps even say things like this: “Sin and rebellion against God really isn’t all that serious, is it? God’s warnings really aren’t that important, are they?! I can get away with it and not do any harm. In fact, if I do this, won’t I be even a better person? More knowledgeable, wise, effective?!” These are the rationalizations of the heart and mind of the one who is deceived and doubting. These things are part of the poison in our human spirit, and spiritual formation needs to get at them.
Of course, the whole process involves deception, but that, in turn, also produces doubt, which adds to the thrust that eventually drives them through to disobedience and all that comes with it. One thing leads to the other, and each of them adds another driving dynamic to the account here and to the realities of the fallen human spirit that we all struggle with. We need to understand the weight of the accumulated effect of all this in our own lives and in the lives of others to be able to meet people where they and take them where they need to go are in spiritual formation. Different people are deceived about different things, but we are all deceived in the very core of who we are as fallen people. Different people have different doubts about God, but we all have them. So we find it hard to trust.
Third, after doubt we can add to the mix illegitimate desires for things forbidden: “the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (3:6a). At this point the forbidden thing began to look good, and she wanted it right then and there. It would not have even occurred to her to want it if she were not already deceived and doubting, because it would not have occurred to her to doubt God about matters of good versus evil. She would not have wondered about whether or not it would be good to eat of the forbidden fruit. She would not have questioned the truth of God’s warning against it. One thing leads to the other, and so it is with us too. Like the woman in the garden, if we were not already deceived and doubting, we would not want the things that we illegitimately desire.
It is not that desire itself is bad, or that all of our desires are illegitimate. Even in the garden before the fall in Genesis 2, for example, Adam desired Eve, they both desired food, etc. These were good and legitimate desires, and they still are. For example, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be intimate with one’s mate in the marriage relationship, not just physically but in every other way too (2:25). In fact, this is the way God designed the relationship between the man and his woman. Nothing should stand between them on any level, and they both need to be there for the other (cf., e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:1-5; Ephesians 5:21-33). Yes, we have desires that are legitimate and good, but with the fall even our will became corrupt, and that is part of our human spirit and its corruption. We struggle with desires for things that are not legitimate.
Fourth, the illegitimate desire led to disobedience toward God in sin and rebellion against His commandment not to eat from that particular fruit: “she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (3:6b). There have been many attempts to define sin, and there are, in fact, several different words for sin in the Old and New Testaments. From the perspective of this passage, perhaps one of the best ways to define sin is that it is any violation of God’s design. Adam and Eve were not designed to have “the knowledge of good and evil,” and neither are we. God warned them not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” but they did it anyway through a process of deception leading to doubt leading in turn to illegitimate desire and finally disobedience. The previous spiritual dynamics of the fall discussed above combined to lead finally to the fall itself, and the same dynamics are worked out in our life as well, as we keep replaying the fall in our own lives.
The fact of the matter is that, now that we have this knowledge of good and bad we have absolutely know idea what to do with it, and we frequently show how poor we are at handling it in thought, word, and deed. One can see similar sets of dynamics elsewhere in the Bible as well. For example, James 1 begins with an exhortation to “consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (v. 2), since such trials can serve to mature us in the Lord if we ask for God’s wisdom in it (vv. 3-5). However, one must ask without “doubting,” since a doubting person is unstable. Later in the chapter James writes specifically about being “tempted” (v. 13), explaining that it does not come from God but from the enticement of our own evil (illegitimate) desires, which leads to “sin” (“disobedience”), which eventually “gives birth to death” (vv. 14-15; cf. Genesis 2:17; 3:3-4, 19, 22).
James goes on to say, “don’t be deceived, my dear brothers” (v. 16). Don’t be deceived about what? Don’t be deceived about the fact that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (v. 17). God really is good, and He gives His children only good things, at least only the kinds of things that He intends to use “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” those whom God Himself has “. . . predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . .” (Romans 8:28-29). God’s original design was that we leave the decisions about what is good versus what is evil in His hands. We were not designed to handle it well, because He is the only one who can. We are not God, even though we are created in His image and likeness.
One can readily see the correspondences between James 1 and Genesis 3. Compare also the sequence in Romans 7:9-11 and the devil’s three temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11 (and parallels). The point is that the pattern of sinful dynamics we see in Genesis 3 is also reflected elsewhere in scripture. This is what we deal with as fallen people, and spiritual formation that is truly spiritual is driven at the core by the Holy Spirit working to transform us in regard to these matters.
Fifth, their sinful disobedience led to shame – a central key dynamic in our fallen human spirit: “then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Contrast Genesis 2:25, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” This is, of course, an image of childlike innocence. Who else just naturally runs around in the world naked and not ashamed except little children. The effects of sin were first felt in the personal and sexual relationship between the man and the woman. Absolute openness and uninhibited intimacy were lost. Instead, there was now “shame” and “covering.” And these go together. If a person feels shame the most natural thing to do is to cover up and hope no one sees us in our shame. So the last thing said in chapter 2 about the good and natural dispositions of the man and woman in the garden paradise is the very first thing undone immediately when they defied God’s command.
Shame is a key factor in the lives of people that we need to pay close attention to in spiritual formation. The last thing we want to do is shame a person. It shuts them down and drives them away. Perhaps I can illustrate it by thinking of an instance in which a person might get embarrassed. Consider what commonly happens if one trips and stumbles as he or she is walking up a set of stairs. There is a sense of clumsiness and embarrassment. We might look around and hope no one saw that, and if they did we might blush, smile sheepishly, or look away hoping they don’t say anything about it. Or we might deflect it in some other way. Embarrassment is a relatively slight form of shame. Full-blown shame is many times more powerful. It drives the person inward and away from involvement with other people and even God. Think of it as this great big sore full of yellowish infectious pus down deep inside each one of us, at the very core of our being. When it erupts it spews its pus all over our inner person, our spirit, and out into our relationships with God and people. Right now, as I write this, I am not feeling shame, but if someone pushes the right buttons I will feel it immediately, full force. Yes, it is part of every one of us, a very ugly, sickening, and frightening part.
It is no coincidence that shame first reared its ugly head in scripture in relation to sexuality, and that the Bible says so much about sex and male/female relationships – both perversions of it (see, e.g., Leviticus 18:6-30, Romans 1:24-27,1 Corinthians 5, and 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, etc.) and the beauty and proper expressions of it (see, e.g., Proverbs 5:15-19, The Song of Solomon, 1 Corinthians 7:1-6, and Hebrews 13:4, etc.). The more a person or group of persons is pressed in areas of shame, the more severe is their felt need to cover up no matter what. One of the most natural places to be pressed is in our sexuality, and in male and female relationships before and during marriage, and sometimes in lieu of finding a mate. The problem begins in childhood and extends throughout one’s life.
I am not suggesting here that every problem people face goes back to sexuality, but it is an important factor. After all, God’s first command to the man and woman whom he created together in the image and likeness of God was “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Furthermore, when God took up the matter that “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18), he did not make another man. He made a woman. And he made her in such a way that man was very impressed with her (2:23), and as a result it is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world for a man to separate from his parents and become one with his wife (2:24).
Sixth, the shame led to fear, certainly a significant feature of the fallen human spirit: “He (the man) answered (the Lord), ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid’” (3:10). The most natural response to shame is fear – fear that someone will see us in our shame. So in the garden the man and woman hid from God after the fall, rather than running to Him. Not only did they seek to cover themselves from one another, but they even sought to hide from God under cover of the trees of the garden. In other words, the immediate effects of the fall into sin were also felt in the personal relationship, which the man and the woman had with the Lord God in the garden (3:8-10). Simple confidence and fellowship were lost. Instead, “fear” and “hiding” characterize the relationship. Note the opposites here. They go from confidence to fear, and from fellowship to hiding. If God walked in the garden before the fall the most natural thing would have been for them to run to Him, but after the fall the most natural things was to run away from Him. Walls have gone up not only between the man and the woman, but also between both of them and God.
Have you ever noticed that when someone feels shamed they have difficulty making eye contact? Like the ostrich with only its head lowered and hidden behind a rock, but it’s entire body exposed, the shamed person instinctively hopes, “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me.” This is true in our relationships not only with one another but also with God. We naturally run away, but God graciously draws and sometimes even drives us to Himself, and if we come to God, He also calls us to come back to people in a genuine way (see, e.g., the two great commandments in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-37). We really only have two options in life. We can either allow the things we feel and experience in life to cause us to run away from God and people, or we can allow them to drive us back to God and people. Now that we have “the knowledge of good and bad,” the only good and right thing to do with it is to run to God and submit it to Him and His guidance in our lives. This is spiritual formation. Without Him we have no hope in this life or in the next.
Seventh, the fear and the combined force of all the other dynamics discussed above led to scrambling, as reflected in Genesis 3:7-13:
7 . . . they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves . . . 8 they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden . . . 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 . . . The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Deception led to doubt, which led to illegitimate desire, which led to disobedience, which led to shame, which led to fear, all of which drove them to “scrambling,” that is, scurrying about trying desperately to handle themselves, each other, God, and the world. There is absolutely no “rest” here. They are in a panic, and when people are in a panic they really do not care about anyone else. Others get ignored, or even run over.
Scrambling is a very foolish and wicked thing, and it happens just naturally. Neither God nor anyone else told them to scramble in the garden, and since we are heirs of the fall, no one has to tell us to scramble either. It was a natural disposition that arose immediately from within the man and the woman in the garden – from within their personal human spirit – and manifested itself in the relationship between the two of them and between them and God. Since that day it has been a most natural disposition in all of us, and it affects every part of our life, right down to the very core of who we are in our spirit and out into all our relationships with God and people.
If it were not so disastrous, it would be comical. They scramble around to cover themselves. How good do you suppose clothing would be that is made of fig leaves? God did not think it was so good, so later He made them clothing out of leather, 3:21. How much sense does it make to try to hide from God? How much sense does it make for us to do the same? But how many act as if they can, and perhaps convince themselves that He is not even there. Of course, they had never tried to hide from God before, but it shows the foolishness of the whole enterprise of scrambling.
Then we come to the blaming. The man’s answer to God is classic: the woman whom, by the way, you God gave to be with me here, she is the one who gave me the fruit to eat. I didn’t start this, she did. It’s her faulty, and, in fact, you created the problem in the first place by giving her to me. This is actually a realistic and natural reading of the text in Hebrew as well as in English. There is, of course, truth in what the man said, but it is all slanted in a particular direction, away from his own culpability. This is part of his scrambling, and, unfortunately, we show it today in much of what we do as well when we scramble. Similarly, the woman’s answer to God has truth in it, but this is also slanted toward deflecting the blame away from herself: the serpent deceived me and that’s why I ate. No one says, yes, it’s my fault.
In this shifting of blame we have not only walls going up between the man and the woman and between both of them and God, but now also enmity and battle. Now “bombs” are being “lobbed” over the walls. This gets expanded in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, which is also part of the Genesis 2-3 account. Cain killed Abel, his brother, because of the shame he was feeling, and he was not willing to let go of it and turn to God for help with the shame. As a result, the shame turned to rage, and the rage to murder, the murder of his own brother.
So what we end up with is a bunch of scramblers bouncing off each other’s scrambling, doing damage to one another in the process. This is reality. This and the effects of God’s curses in the next section of Genesis 3 are all part of the groaning and pain referred to in Romans 7-8. Some people learn to scramble in more acceptable ways than others, but we all scramble. In fact, each one of us develops a characteristic way of scrambling – a manner of scrambling that has been hammered out on the anvil of our own personal experiences in life. It has even worked for us to one degree or another, in particular ways. Unfortunately, often people do not see their scrambling for what it is. They think of it as “just who I am,” or even “who God made me to be.” But these things do serious damage to us and our relationships with God and other people, often even the people we care about the most. Certainly, God made each one of us to be unique individuals, and the image and likeness of God is still alive in us, but our “scrambling” takes us all into the dark alleys of life in all sorts of ways.
Soul Rest and Spiritual Formation
We find ourselves in the disastrous situation described above, and continue to make it worse because of the many ways we continue to reject God and His design for us and our world. Nevertheless, He has stayed involved with us and there really is a redemptive “rest” to be found amid the “mess” that we are and in which we live. This is what spiritual formation is about. We stand somewhere within the historical stream of the outworking of God’s redemptive program. Yes, eventually there will be a remaking of all things new and pure (Revelation 21-22). In the meantime, one of the most helpful ways of characterizing the dynamics of redemption and spiritual formation is with the biblical concept of “rest.” The opposite of “scrambling” is “resting.” Evidently, this is how the pre-flood population of the earth understood the issue too. In the naming of Noah in Genesis 5:29, Lamech said, “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD has cursed” (NASB). The name “Noah” (nōakh) means “rest” and the root of the verb “give us rest (or ‘comfort’)” is nākham. So we have here another play on words. The hope was that Noah would bring “rest” rather than unceasing toil, pain, and scrambling. They thought of themselves as being in need or “rest/comfort” in the midst of the mess.
From here we turn first to the offer Jesus made to those who are weary and loaded down with heavy burdens in Matthew 11:28-30:
1- “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
2- Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
3- for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
4- For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The “rest” Jesus offers here has nothing to do directly with sleep, relaxation, or going on vacation, although it is true that some people can’t sleep, relax, or truly enjoy a vacation because they are not “at rest” within themselves and/or in their relationships with others.
Jesus certainly does not condone irresponsibility, idleness, laziness, escapism or anything of that sort. Elsewhere in the same Gospel Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; the parallel in Luke 9:23 says we are to do this “daily”). Peter calls us to “make every effort” to grow in the Christian virtues (2 Peter 1:5-8) and remain pure (2 Peter 3:14), and to “be on your guard” against the error of lawless men (2 Peter 3:17). There is no “let go and let God” here. No, there is both “rest” and “yoke,” and notice that Jesus speaks of the two alternately (compare “rest” in 1 and 3 with “yoke” in 2 and 4, above).
One would not normally think of putting “rest” and “yoke” together, since a yoke was a means of harnessing animals for work. Here Jesus is calling us to take on His yoke so we can learn from Him, and His yoke is not tiresome or heavy, since He is “gentle and humble in heart” toward us. The term “yoke” is used in various ways elsewhere in scripture. In Acts 15, for example, there were those who wanted to make it a rule that gentiles who came to faith in Christ “must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (v. 5). Part of Peter’s response to this proposal was: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (v. 10; cf. Galatians 5:1). By way of contrast, he added: “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:10-11).
It seems that the “yoke” in Matthew 11:28-30 is the yoke of the Mosaic law, or more specifically, the exceedingly burdensome way the leaders of the Jews in the days of Jesus taught the law. His response to their view of the sabbath in Matthew 12:1-14 immediately following this rest passage seems to suggest this, as do some other passages (e.g., Matthew 23:1-4; cf. Matthew 5:20, etc.). Moreover, in Jeremiah 5:5 the term “yoke” refers to the rebellion of Judah against the Lord: “with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds.” This is especially significant because when Jesus said, “you will find rest for your souls” in Matthew 11:29, he was citing from Jeremiah 6:16:
This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”
“Rest” and the “yoke” of Jesus belong together. In fact, the “rest” comes from the fact that by coming to Him for rest for our souls we cast off the yoke that others have placed on us, or that we have fashioned by our own hand and placed on ourselves. We set aside the harsh and burdensome yoke of our lives and, instead, we take on what Jesus refers to as his “yoke,” which is “easy” and he even gives us a “light” burden to pull with the yoke (Matthew 11:30). After all, there is only one to please, and he is the all-powerful Lord of all things who is “gentle and humble in heart” toward us, who does not wish to overburden us. His yoke is simple and plain. It amounts to two basic commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). In fact, if one does this he has fulfilled “all the Law and the Prophets” (v. 40).
The Spirit of Adoption and Spiritual Formation
The plain fact of the matter is that this invitation from Jesus stands at the center of the Christian gospel. It is an open invitation to those who are in trouble and they know it. We do not gain acceptance before God and relationship with Him from a position of strength, but by coming to Him in our desperation. This is the point in Romans 7-8 too. There has been an ongoing debate about the general natured of the argument of Rom 7:14-24, where Paul describes the frustration of “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15). Some scholars argue that Paul is referring to himself in his unsaved condition, and others think he is referring to his battle with sin as a Christian. Perhaps there is a better option than either of these. It seems to me that Paul is talking about how the dynamic of living by the law works whether you are a Christian or a non-Christian. He is treating the law generically in terms of its inherent dynamic if one attempts to live by means of it as their principle of life. There is another dynamic that sets us free from this one. It is the Holy Spirit at work in our human spirit, bringing things freely given to us by God fully to bear (see the remarks on 1 Corinthians 2:12 above the discussion presently).
At the end of Romans 8 the Apostle comes to the conclusion that deliverance is found in what Jesus Christ has done our behalf. There is “rest” in him and him alone, because according to Romans 8:1, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This sets us free from the tangle of the pervious chapter and puts us on a course toward the “spirit of adoption” that is the main topic of Romans 8 (note esp. v. 15). As the “wind” of the Holy “Spirit” blows into and through our lives, we become able to bear the groaning of this life (Romans 8:22-25) as we are progressively more and more “conformed to the likeness of his Son” through the difficult circumstances of our lives (vv. 26-30). God really does make all things work out for good in this way. Moreover, we become deeply impressed with God himself, the things he has freely given to us in Christ, and the fact that there is nothing that “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39b, in the context of vv. 31-39). Romans 8 ends with what is essentially a hymn of confidence in the things freely given to us by God, especially our adoption.
The point is that a very important part of a biblically focused spiritual formation agenda will attend to the work of the Holy Spirit in the human spirit. This is the very essence of spiritual formation at its foundation. We ourselves cannot actually “do” spiritual formation, but the Holy Spirit can. He does it by working deeply and powerfully in the believer’s spirit, thereby transforming every aspect of the believer’s life. This transformation includes even our personality or personal character: “. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . . Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23, 25). This “fruit of the Spirit,” of course, is the opposite of scrambling, which is the essence of “the works of the flesh” listed in the previous verses (Galatians 5:19-21).
Admittedly, it is difficult to grasp the concept of the human “spirit” fully. Perhaps it helps to recall what Jesus said to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit in John 3:8, “The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (pneuma).” Thus, the Spirit of God is like the “wind,” and wind is not something we can lay our hands on (or our minds) in such a way that we can control it (John 3:8; Acts 2:1). Yet wind is an important and most powerful physical force in the world, and the Holy Spirit is likewise important and powerful as his work is brought to bear on a person’s human spirit in ways that are deeply transforming. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of scripture through the prophets (Hebrews 1:1 with 2 Peter 1:20-21; cf. also theopneustos “God breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16) brings the truths of that very same scripture to bear upon us, especially the truths about “what God has freely given us” in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:12b).
Now, recall Romans 8:16 again, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” By the very nature of things, our knowledge of God through his Holy Spirit is intimately bound up with our knowledge of ourselves, that is, our human spirit, and vice versa. This is the so-called “double knowledge” that Calvin discusses in the first chapter of his Institutes. Finally, recall once again 1 Corinthians 2:10-16. We truly know God only when the Holy Spirit of God, who knows God deeply, is “received” into the very realm of our human spirit, which, in turn, knows us and our scrambling deeply. Thus, “we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (v. 13, NRSV), so we actually “have the mind of Christ” (v. 16b).
It is the Gospel that transforms us as the Holy Spirit brings its various truths to bear upon us. Moreover, the Gospel is always “good news” to everyone, non-Christian and Christian alike. Even if we are already genuine believers, there are always ways in which the impact and significance of the Gospel still needs to be worked into our human spirit, and from there into every aspect of our lives. This is what spiritual formation is all about at its core – the work of the Holy Spirit in our human spirit.
© 2005 Richard E. Averbeck