"Spiritual formation" is the process through which those who love
and trust Jesus Christ effectively take on His character. When this process is
what it should be, they increasingly live their lives as He would if He were in
their place. Their outward conformity to His example and His instructions rises
toward fullness as their inward sources of action take on the same character as
His. They come more and more to share His vision, love, hope, feelings and
habits. In the language of His "Great Commission" to His disciples,
they are "taught to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matt.
This process of "conformation to Christ," as we might more
appropriately call it, is constantly supported by grace, and otherwise would be
impossible. But it is not therefore passive. Grace is opposed to earning,
not to effort. In fact, nothing inspires and enhances effort like the experience
Yet it is today necessary to assert boldly and often that becoming
Christlike never occurs without intense and well-informed action on our part.
This in turn cannot be reliably sustained outside of a like-minded fellowship.
Our churches will be centers of spiritual formation only as they understand what
really does make for Christlikeness and communicate it to individuals, through
teaching and example, in a convincing and supportive fashion.
Probably the least understood aspect of progress in Christlikeness is the
role of the body in the spiritual life.
Almost everyone is acutely aware of how the incessant clamorings of their
body defeat their intentions to "be spiritual." The Apostle Paul
explains that "The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the
Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so
that you do not do what you want." (Gla 5:17) And Jesus's words, "The
spirit is willing but the body is weak," are generally accepted as a final
verdict on what human life must be like until we escape the body through death.
On the other hand, if the body is simply beyond redemption, then
ordinary life is too. Many Christians seem prepared to accept this--at least in
practice. But then "spiritual formation" really becomes impossible.
That would be a defeat of major proportions for Christ's cause, and could never
be reconciled with the call to godly living that both permeates the Bible
from end to end and resonates with the deep-seated human need to live as one
We are glad, then, to find the scripture teachings about the body and its
flesh to run directly contrary to the "hopeless" view. Jesus Himself
is the primary witness to the unity of flesh and spirit before God. Long before
His entry into history, however, the Psalmist spoke of his body or flesh longing
for God (63:1), of his "heart and flesh crying out for the living God"
(84:2), and calls upon all flesh is to "praise his holy name for ever and
The prophet Joel forsaw the time when God's spirit would be poured out upon
all flesh. (2:28-29) That prophecy began to be fulfilled on the day of
Pentecost. (Acts 2:16-18) Thus the picture of the body and flesh found in the
writings of Paul stands in the sharpest of contrasts with the
"hopeless" view of the body. The body is presented as a temple
inhabited by the Holy Spirit. It is not meant to be used in sinning, "but
is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body."
Through the power of God which raised Christ from the dead, Paul tells us,
"our bodies are members of Christ himself." Our body does not even
belong to us, but has been bought by Christ, who gives it a life 'from above'
and opens the way for us "to honor God with our body." (I Cor.
6:13-20) Thus we can "offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and
pleasing to God," this being "our spiritual act of worship."
In order to understand the role of the body--both negative and positive--in
the spiritual life, and in life generally, we must take a deeper view of the
nature of human personality, character and action.
Each of us grows up in surroundings that train us to speak, think, feel and
act like others around us. "Monkey see, monkey do," goes the proverb.
This is the mechanism by which human personality is formed, and it is largely
for the good. But it also embeds in us habits of evil that permeate all human
life. Humanly standard patterns of responding to "The lust of the flesh,
the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life," which the Apostle John said
make up "the world" (I John 2:16), seize upon little children through
their participation in the lives of those around them. Sinful practices become
their habits, then their choice, and finally their character.
The very language they learn to speak incorporates desecration of God and
neighbor. They come to identify themselves and be identified by others through
these practices. What is wrong and distructive is done without thinking about
it. The wrong thing to do seems quite 'natural', while the right thing to do
becomes forced and unnatural at best--especially if done because it is
right. You can observe this in almost any eight or ten year old child acting
freely with their peers or living in the family setting.
The New Testament texts normally uses the word "flesh" to refer to
the human body formed in the ways of evil and against God. Not that the human
body as such, or even desires as such, are evil. They are God's good creations,
and capable of serving and glorifying Him, as we have seen already. But when
shaped in a life context of family, neighborhood, school and work that is
godless or anti-God, they constitute a pervasive structure of evil. Desire then
becomes the "sinful passions at work in our bodies." (Rom 7:5) Our
very body is poised to sin, only awaiting the occasion. As God said to Cain in
the ancient story, "Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you,
but you must master it." (Gen 4:7) The situation becomes so bad that Paul
says "nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh." (Rom 7:18)
When we come to new life in Christ, our body and its deformed desire system
do not automatically shift to the side of Christ, but continue to oppose Him.
Occasionally a remarkable change may occur, such as total relief from an
addiction. But this is very infrequent, and it is never true that the
habits of sin generally are displaced from our bodily parts and personality by
the new birth.
James reminds us that "each one is tempted when by his own evil desire,
he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth
to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (James
1:14-15) Peter urges us, "as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain
from sinful desires, which war against your soul." (I Peter 2:11) Paul
tells us that if we live in terms of the flesh we will die, "But if by the
spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live." (Rom
8:13) Elsewhere he cites his own example as one who "beats my body to make
it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be
disqualified." (I Cor 9:27) And all of these are statements to Christians
of long standing.
Admittedly, this sounds strange in today's religious context. It is a simple
fact that nowadays the task of becoming Christlike is rarely taken as a serious
objective to be thoughtfully planned for, and the reality of our embodied
personality dealt with accordingly. Before many church and para-church groups I
have inquired what is their plan for putting to death or mortifying
"whatever belongs to your earthly nature" or flesh. (Col 3:5 etc.
etc.) I have never had a positive response to this question. Indeed, mortifying
or putting things to death doesn't seem to be the kind of thing today's
Christians would be caught doing. Yet there it stands, at the center of the New
When Jesus taught about discipleship, on the other hand, He made it very
clear that one could not be the servant of the body and its demands and also
succeed in His course of training. This is the meaning of what He said about
denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and "losing our life" for His
sake and the Gospel's (Matt 8:35, 10:29, 16:24-26), and about "forsaking
all" to follow Him. (Luke 14:25-35) It is the same theme that is struck by
Paul: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature
with its passions and desires." (Gla 5:24) He puts in
contrast those who make a god of their belly (Rom 16:18, Phil 3:19), the 'belly'
being the bodily center of desire.
Of course one cannot overcome the hardened patterns of desires by force of
will alone. Rather, it is as we by faith place our bodily being in subordination
to Christ that we experience a new presence in our members, moving them toward
the good things of God and allowing the old bodily forces to recede into the
background of life where they belong. Thus it truly is "by the spirit"
that we "put to death the misdeeds of the body." The natural desires,
and my body itself, remain with me, of course, but now as servants of God and of
my will to serve Him, not as my masters.
Our part in this transformation, in addition to constant faith and hope in
Christ, is purposful, strategic use of our bodies in ways which will retrain
them, replacing "the motions of sin in our members" with the motions
of Christ. This is how we take up our cross daily. It is how we submit
our bodies a living sacrifice, how we "offer the parts of our body to him
as instruments of righteousness." (Rom 6:13)
Sometimes, of course, submission to God means just to do what pleases Him.
Ultimately that is always our aim. But frequently we are unable to do this by direct
effort. Often when we come to do the right thing we have already done the
wrong thing, because that is what was sitting in our body "at the
ready." Intention alone cannot suffice in most situations where we find
ourselves. We must be "in shape." If not, "trying" will
normally be too late, or totally absent. Instead, our intention and effort must
be carried into effect by training which leaves our body poised to do
what Christ would do well before the occasion arises. Such training is supplied
by THE DISCIPLINES FOR LIFE IN THE SPIRIT.
Now a discipline is an activity in our power, which we pursue in order
to become able to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Disciplines are
required in every area of life, including the spiritual. Therefore Jesus
directed and led His disciples into disciplines for the spiritual life: fasting,
prayer, solitude, silence, service, study, fellowship and so forth.
For example, Jesus told His closest friends that they would run like scared
rabbits when His enemies came to capture Him. They emphatically and sincerely
denied it. But the body has a life of its own which far outreaches what we know
of our selves. The readinesses actually in their bodies would not support their
intention. Jesus of course knew this.
When He took Peter, James and John into the Garden of Gethsemane with Him to
aid Him in His struggle, they fell asleep. He awoke them and told them how
they could succeed with their good intentions, which He never questioned. How
were they going to die for Him if they couldn't even stay awake with Him for an
hour? So he said: "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into
temptation. the spirit is willing, but the body is weak." (Matt 26:41) He
tried to help them understand how their body was influencing them and what they
could do to keep it in line with their spirit. "Watching," or staying
alert to what was happening, and praying with Him, was something they could have
done. Surely participation with Jesus in the awesome events of the Garden would
have fortified them against failure to stand with Him later. As it turned out,
what was in their bodies and souls--fear of death and shame--remained
unchallenged and their "temptation" did overwhelm them.
Quite generally, now, the teachings of Jesus are viewed as so
"hard" only because our embodied personalities are formed against
them. Take, for example, His teaching in Matthew 5:22 that we should not speak
insultingly of or to others, calling them twerps, fools and so forth. I have
known many "faithful Christians" who use vile and contemptuous
language on others that do not perform just right in a traffic or work or even a
home setting. They say "That's just me," or "I can't help
Similarly for the lustful stare that Jesus speaks of in verse 28, or the
striking back by word or fist which He deals with later on in this chapter, or
the practicing of religion for human applause which he deals with in the next
chapter. No law of nature forces the "easy" and disobedient response
in these situations. It is just a habit embedded in our body, and of course
habits always produce powerful rationalizations for themselves.
Now suppose that we decided to learn how to do what Jesus says we should do
in these cases. Suppose, for example, we wanted to train ourselves to bless and
pray for anyone who does something in traffic that endangers or displeases us.
Instead of calling him a fool or a stupid jerk or worse, we are going to use
words of blessing and let our hearts go out in generous good will toward him.
Could we do it? Of course we could, if we took appropriate steps. It is not the
law of gravity that makes us call him a jerk.
And how would we do it? We would begin by acknowledging the good of
what we were going to do, and asking God's assistance. But then we begin to
practice controlling our tongue. Not by trying not to insult people when
they shake us up. No, we begin further back from the target situation. Possibly
we step out of the realm of words by not speaking for a 24-hour period--even by
dwelling in silence with TV and radio off. Probably this will require that we go
into solitude for the period.
Note that all of this is something we do with our body. We relocate and
re-orient our body in our world. We learn a new relation to our
body--specifically, ears and tongue. This pervasively impacts our mind, heart
and soul, as it gives opportunity to explore our world in silence and find our
proper place in it. This in turn allows us to gain insight into why we use the
accustomed foul and insulting language. Of course it is because it gives us a
sense of power over the 'jerk'. It lies on a continuum with shooting him. That
insight then opens up better ways of viewing what is actually going on in
traffic or elsewhere--indeed in life. Suddenly we see what pathetic behavior
"exploding" is, and find attractive alternatives to it. We can even
begin to develop the habit of blessing now, for we see the goodness of it and
know that we are capable of silence, where we find God present. The words of
James become very meaningful: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to
speak and slow to become angry." (1:19)
We enter into each of the teachings of Jesus by choosing different
behaviors that are relevant, finding the space--making the arrangements--in our
lives to put them into action, and re-visioning the situation in the new
behavioral space including God. The interaction between new uses of the body and
inward re-positioning toward the context is essential. Learning to do what He
taught is not just a "mental shift" without assistance from a modified
use of the body, for behavior and life are not mental.
The lustful look also is bodily behavior and based on bodily behavior. We
choose to be in position and posture to engage in it. Millions of people say
they cannot stop it, just like those who rationalize their verbal assaults on
others. But it is in fact only a habit of self-indulgence. It can easily be
broken when that is earnestly wanted. You do not have to look at the bodily
parts of others, and you can train your thoughts away from lusting if you
cultivate chaste habits of thought and attitudes generally. Appropriate
disciplines of study, meditation, and service, for example, can break the action
of looking to lust, as many have established by experience. Here too the use and
training of the body is the place where faith meets grace to achieve conformity
So what we find, then, is that the body is the place of our direct power. It
is the little "power pack" that God has assigned to us as the field of
our freedom and development. Our lives depend upon our direction and management
of it. But it has and acquires a "life of its own"--tendencies to
behave without regard to our conscious intentions. In our fallen world this life
is prepossessed by evil, so that we do not have to think to do what is
wrong, but must think and plan and practice--and receive grace--if we are
to succeed in doing what is right.
But Christ shows us how to bring the body from opposition to support of the
new life He gives us, "the spirit" now in us. He calls us to share His
practices in sustaining His own relationship to the Father. Indeed, these
practices--of solitude, silence, study, service, prayer, worship, etc.--are now
the places where we arrange to meet regularly with Him and His Father to be His
students or disciples in Kingdom living.
Some may think it strange that such practices, the disciplines for life in
the spirit, are all bodily behaviors. But it cannot be otherwise. Learning
Christlikeness is not passive. It is active engagement with and in God. And we
act with our bodies. Moreover, this bodily engagement is what lays the
foundation in our bodily members for readinesses for holiness, and
increasingly removes the readinesses to sin -- "So that now as always
Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to
live is Christ and to die is gain." (Phil 1:20-21)
Foster, Richard J., Celebration of Discipline, revised and expanded
edition, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988. A contemporary classic on the
disciplines for the spiritual life.
McGuire, Meredith B., "Religion and the Body: Rematerializing the Human
Body in the Social Sciences of Religion," Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion, 29, 1990, pp. 283-296. An excellent entree into
philosophical and academic interpretations of the body's role in personality,
Taylor, Jeremy, Holy Living and Holy Dying, "Classics of Western
Spirituality" series, New York: Paulist Press, 1992. Many other editions.
Practical directions on the use of the body for spiritual growth by a great
Christian of the 16th Century.
Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines, New York: Harper and
Row, 1988. Especially chapters 1 through 7, which deal with basic points in a
theology and soteriology of the body.