On Saturday, June 24th, we came together as a church to learn from Wade Bradshaw from Trinity Presbytery in Charlottesville (go Hoos!). He challenged us to examine our spiritual formation, to stop pitting grace vs. effort, and gave us helpful practices for spiritual formation.
Self-examination questions of formation
He opened the talk with the following questions: What forms what you think is true? What forms what you think is important? What forms what you aspire to? They may not be questions that we often ask ourselves, but as Wade said on Saturday, “forming my loves, and correcting where my loves have been malformed, and being wise about what forms them is important for Christian discipleship and the ultimate goal of union with Christ.”
Here is a basic diagram showing an example of ideal life: all areas of our lives connected to Christ. Christ is the fixed center that should govern and ground our movements (or all areas of our lives)—a center who is a stable, constant reminder of who we are and were made to be. But none of our lives make a perfect circle like this. Ask yourself: what areas need to be surrendered and connected to Christ? In which area do I need to be formed (or under-developed)? Where am I malformed (or over-developed, and need to be reduced)? Trust that as we continue to confess and surrender, the Holy Spirit will form what is true.
Grace vs. Effort
Grace and effort are often falsely pitted against each other. I admit that I sometimes will stray too much on the grace side because I want to be “authentic” or “sincere” – meaning that I won’t do something if I feel it would be fake or doesn’t come naturally. I don’t want to fall into legalism. But we must also seek what is right regardless of how it feels and do it loyally with discipline. To expand this idea, Wade pointed us to the great Scriptural metaphors of agriculture, athletics, and military. All require Effort! Duty! Struggle! (And more)...
"You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard rom me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good solider of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (2 Timothy 2: 1-7)
But most importantly, God’s love for us precedes our efforts!!! We must all be continually reminded of the truth that God loves us! It is uncomfortable to know that you are loved so deeply by God and it is an effort to receive His grace. Trying to be “authentic” and relying too much on grace will cause us to miss effort, duty, and discipline. God calls us to both, relying daily on Him. We must balance grace and effort by being honest with ourselves and God about the state of our hearts, and train our hearts and our loves so that we experience true authenticity. Authenticity that is no self-cultivated but is Spirit-cultivated and comes from the practice of grace and discipline.
Practices for Spiritual Formation
Finally, Wade gave us practical tools for ascesis (Greek for “training”). These practices are not an end but the means to spiritual formation – aligning your spirit and life to Christ (as diagrammed above). Wade’s church in Charlottesville practices these 9 Practices for Spiritual Formation: Common Worship, Parish Small Groups, Education, Morning and Evening Prayer, Reading the Bible together, Sabbath, Confession/Mentoring, Annual Retreat, and Service.
It is important to note that Wade emphasized that we should not be focused on adding all of these into our lives at once. Friends, I confess I am competitive and an overachiever, and I want to add all of them because that means that I can check them off my list. But that is not the point (and would err too much on the effort side and most likely not be sustainable long-term). As Erik said at the beginning of his sermon series on an “Always Growing Church,” to grow we can just pick one thing at a time. For example, if you never read the Bible, don’t decide that you are going to read it every day for an hour; that is a sure fire way to get burnt out. But maybe you commit to reading it for 20 minutes, one-to-two times a week. THAT IS IMPROVEMENT. This principle applies to these practices. Pick one. Ask yourself: which of these practices am I not doing? Which would I be interested in adding? Which would be most helpful? The effort of pursuing the practice will help you receive grace more! Go for it with the expectation of experiencing a deeper union with Christ! He has promised to meet you as you draw near to Him (James 4:8).
One practice in particular which I found challenging was confession. Am I allowing my friends and my church community to really be sinners? Meaning, am I allowing my friends to confess their sins to me and be true? Am I listening? Do I pause my crazy thinking to actually stop and listen to the people that I care about? Or am I just trying to think of the next best thing to say? Do I allow my friends to know that it is okay to confess their struggles because I am also confessing mine. Let’s be a church who listens and confesses.
I found the time together to be truly refreshing. I love when City Church has the opportunity to come together and spend time together, grow, and learn. I encourage everyone to consider our spiritual formation, to stop pitting grace vs. effort, and consider adding one of these helpful practices for our spiritual formation.
If you missed our time together on June 24th, we hope you'll listen to the recordings below.