Day Two - Counter Formational Practices and Relationships

Week 6

This is the audio recording of the second reading of week six of Start, entitled Counter-Formational Practices and Relationships.

“Discipline, strictly speaking, is activity carried on to prepare us indirectly for some activity other than itself. We do not practice the piano to practice the piano well, but to play it well.”
― Dallas Willard

In this week’s first reading, we said the world is a formation machine. We are continually being formed in ways big and small.

Each of us is formed in part by our decisions. Pastor and author John Mark Comer says, “We make our decisions, and then our decisions make us. In the beginning, we have a choice, but eventually, we have a character.”

We are also formed by what gets our attention. Pastor Eric Geiger says, “We become like the God/god we behold. We appear like the God/god we admire. We duplicate the God/god we deify. We favor the God/god we follow. We match the God/god we magnify.” This truth should not frighten us, but it should awaken us to the importance of recognizing what truly has our attention and affection.

We said in the first reading of this week that we engage the counter-formative way of Jesus through Christian worship and spiritual disciplines. Today we will look at the role spiritual disciplines and healthy relationships play in our counter-formation. In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (emphasis added). Dallas Willard calls this invitation “an alternative to the desolation of a life lived apart from God.”

We may also call it an alternative to a life spent formed by the world. When we commit ourselves to the regular practice of participation in Christian worship and engagement with spiritual disciplines, we place ourselves under the easy yoke of Jesus. We disconnect from the voices of the world that so often make us angry and fearful and invite the peace of God to rule in our hearts and minds. From the early church to today, Christians have linked formation in the way of Jesus to intentional practices that allow us to spend personal time with Him.

Before we get to the “what” of spiritual disciplines, we must say more about the “why.” Because our time and attention are two perpetually endangered resources, we will struggle to faithfully engage with spiritual disciplines if we are not convinced of their value. The following list gives some of the “why” behind spiritual disciplines, with help from the Apostle Paul’s writing in Galatians 5.

  • Spiritual disciplines help us crucify our flesh. Galatians 5:24 says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” The word “flesh” in this context refers to our sinful appetites. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson calls the flesh “the corruption that sin has introduced into our very appetites and instincts.” And Paul makes it clear: this corruption must be crucified. The more we indulge our flesh, the more it controls us. Spiritual disciplines form us in ways that decrease the appeal of such indulgences. When we put our sinful appetites to death, we can walk more closely with the Spirit.
  • Spiritual disciplines help us live in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5 encourages us to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16), be “led by the Spirit” (5:18), and “live by the Spirit” (5:25). It would be difficult to overstate the importance of closeness to the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. He is the one who gives us the power to follow Christ! Our willpower is great, but it will only get us so far. We orient our lives around the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines and experience His power. It’s important to note that the primary purpose of spiritual disciplines is not gaining more knowledge. Yes, knowing the truth of Scripture is essential, but decades of research into human behavior have shown that correct information is limited in its ability to produce lasting life change. To change our lives, we must be counter-formed; through spiritual disciplines, we develop the sort of intimacy with Christ that counter-forms us.
  • Spiritual disciplines are the seeds from which the Fruit of the Spirit grows. Galatians 5:22-23 says, “the Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.” We don’t ‘earn’ these traits any more than an apple tree earns a harvest of apples. Those apples are the natural product of a natural process. In a similar way, the qualities listed above are the supernatural product of closeness with the Holy Spirit. When we engage in the spiritual disciplines, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s power, and He produces the fruit. The disciplines train us to love and obey God. As we do that, the Holy Spirit does His work. The result is spiritual fruit that blesses others and blesses us.

So what are spiritual disciplines? Broadly defined, a spiritual discipline is any practice that helps us grow in our relationship with Christ. These practices lay at the heart of our counter formation training. They don’t earn us favor with God and aren’t markers of spiritual success. Instead, they are practices that equip us to live fully into the reality of God’s transformational presence.

Numerous excellent resources define various spiritual disciplines and give excellent instruction on practicing them. Below, we will examine a few broad categories of disciplines. This is far from exhaustive and is only meant to help you think more deeply about the role spiritual disciplines play in your life:

Meditation/Contemplation– Meditation and contemplation are about slowing down to hear God’s voice. These practices allow us to press pause from our busy lives and be still before God. This practice is especially valuable because it trains us to be conscious of God’s presence with us. Theologian Richard Foster writes, “What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.”Our world subtly trains us to be uncomfortable with silence and stillness, so you may find sitting still in God’s presence difficult. If you do, consider setting a timer for a specific time and committing to staying still and present before God until the timer goes off. Focus on your breathing. If you find your mind wandering, simply whisper “Jesus” to re-center yourself.

Prayer– Prayer is simply talking to God. It takes many forms, and a detailed discussion of prayer would require a whole book. You may find that you enjoy breath prayer, where you repeat a short prayer or Scripture passage. You can also engage in more free-flowing prayer, sharing what’s on your mind with God. One way to organize free-flowing prayer is to use the A.C.T.S. model. A.C.T.S. stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Some people find praying The Lord’s Prayer or reciting the Apostles’ Creed meaningful. Others enjoy prayer liturgies like those found in The Book of Common Prayer. Prayer is a vital spiritual practice, so finding a way of praying that feels comfortable for you is essential.

Bible Study- In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that all who belong to God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” When we study the Bible, we aren’t reading a book with mere human origins. We are reading God-breathed words given to human authors. Studying Scripture is thus crucial to our counter-formation. As with prayer, there are many ways we can study the Bible. Apps like YouVersion provide innumerable Bible reading plans. Some may find they benefit from taking a week or even a month and reading the same passage each day. It can be helpful to invest in a good study Bible to help you make sense of what you are reading. You may want to consider taking Bridgeway’s How to Read Your Bible class to learn basic interpretive skills.

Worship- Worship is a word most often used in religious contexts, but the truth is that everyone worships. In 2005, writer and professor David Foster Wallace – who is not a Christian- gave a remarkable speech at Kenyon College. In the speech, he declared, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He explained the problems with worshiping money, beauty, power, and intellectual ability. When we worship God, we are giving our worship to the only one worthy of it. Worship can be done in private, but it is also essential that we engage in corporate worship or worship with others. Times of corporate worship – usually church services – can equip and inspire us to be worshippers throughout the rest of our week. Often we express our worship through singing, but that is only one form of worship. As with other spiritual disciplines, we must recognize that worship isn’t simply something we do. It’s something that forms us.

As stated earlier, this list is far from exhaustive. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook lists over 50 different spiritual disciplines. We should not stress out trying to practice all of them. Instead, we will be well-served by determining what spiritual disciplines are most formational for us and then prioritizing those disciplines in our daily lives.

Personal disciplines are incredibly important to our counter formation, but as social creatures, we are also deeply formed by our relationships. Put differently, we were not made to thrive on our own. We are living through nothing short of a friendship crisis in America, where more adults than ever report having zero close friendships.

God made us for more than this.

He exists in community and has made us for relationships with Him and others. In a society forming us toward loneliness and isolation, we are called to be counter-formed into people who invest deeply in relationships that will enrich our lives and help us grow spiritually.

We can look at the life of Jesus and see that He was intentional about investing in three different kinds of relationships:

  • He was deeply connected to His Father. (Up)
  • He was constantly investing in His disciples and spiritual family (In)
  • He sought out those far from the Kingdom of God and invited them in (Out)

Jesus lived a three-dimensional relational life, and we are invited into that same kind of life. In the remainder of this reading, we’ll look at how Jesus lived into Up, In, and Out relationships and how we can do the same.

Looking UP

The first thing Jesus did was prioritize time with His Father. Scripture tells us that He only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19). In Luke 6, in the midst of challenging and hectic days of ministry, we see that Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. We don’t have access to Jesus’ shared Google Calendar, but even a cursory glance at the gospels shows us that Jesus took time to pray.

Jesus knew He needed to be connected to His Father. We, as relational beings, are made to live in that kind of connection with our triune God. In his classic book The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer writes, “God formed us for His pleasure, and so formed us that we, as well as He, can, in divine communion, enjoy the sweet and mysterious mingling of kindred personalities. He meant us to see Him and live and draw our life from His smile.” (emphasis added)

The point of our Up relationship with God is to know Him and delight in Him. Knowing God, like knowing another person, takes time and intentionality. And, similar to a human relationship, the more time we spend with God, the greater His formational impact on us.

Diving IN

Jesus also valued relationships with His disciples and those close to Him. He had the twelve disciples with Him throughout His ministry, and Scripture gives us ample evidence that Jesus maintained a wide range of relationships with men and women seeking to follow Him.

We need these kinds of relationships. “In” relationships give us a place to be known, cared for, encouraged, and held accountable. Notably, in Genesis 1, God calls everything He has created “good” but says it is not good that Adam is alone. Even with unmatched access to God, Adam needed people in his life.

Since we are made for relationships with other Christians, it’s no surprise that the phrase “one another” frequently occurs in the New Testament. For example:

  • Serve one another in love. (Galatians 5:13)
  • Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
  • Consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)

We obviously cannot do those things on our own. When we love and serve one another well, our community will become attractive to a watching world. In John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Buy this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”

Reaching OUT

Look at Luke 6:17-19:

“And (Jesus) came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of His disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch Him, for power came out from Him and healed them all.”

Jesus finishes praying and immediately engages with the brokenness of the world around Him. He welcomes people close to Him and heals the sick. Amid brokenness, He is present and accessible. Jesus knew He was on a mission to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), so He intentionally made space for those far from God. In the same way, we are called to continue Jesus’ mission by sharing Him with those who don’t yet know Him.

What’s notable about Jesus’ pursuit of “out” relationships is that it was never about crowds, numbers, or attention. He was about showing love to those who didn’t know the Father and was constantly full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He looked upon those far from God with compassion and kindness (Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 20:34).

If we are going to be whole in our “out” relationships, we need to follow Jesus’ example and not isolate ourselves from those who have yet to experience His love. Jesus affirmed the value and dignity of all people by making Himself available to them, and we are called to do the same.

The Importance of Up, In, and Out

Relational counter formation involves living into Up, In, and Out.

The early church understood the importance of these relationships, and that is a big part of what catalyzed its growth. In his book Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green says, “Their fellowship was so vibrant, their lifestyle so attractive, their warmth so great that it was infectious. People were drawn in, as to a vortex. God added to the church those who were being saved.” We believe that is possible today.

We desire Community Groups to be strong in Up, In, and Out relationships. They are a place to “Make friends (In) and make a difference (Out) with Jesus at the center (Up).”

In an increasingly isolated world, participation in a Community Group is an act of counter formation, and it will help you experience the relational wholeness you were made for.

My Response

  • What spiritual disciplines are most life-giving or exciting to you? Which do you have a more challenging time with?
  • What limits the role of spiritual disciplines in your life? Be as specific as possible. (For example, instead of saying, “busyness,” consider the particular demands on your time)
  • What is one practical way you prioritize counter formational spiritual disciplines in your life? What is one practical step you could take to prioritize them more?
  • As you look at your life, how would you rate the health of your Up, In, and Out relationships on a scale of 1-10? Why did you give yourself the ratings you did?
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