Spiritual Formation I: The Nourishment For Our Formation
by Pete Nicholas

Whether we realise it or not, there is a deep thirst in the human soul for God and his word. Jeremiah portrays a life of flourishing as being nourished by a ‘spring of living water’, but he also portrays the alternative of not being quenched by God and his word as us drinking from ‘broken cisterns’ that will not be life-giving (Jeremiah 2:13). In the same way, I have read that when someone dies stranded at sea they are usually found to have seawater in their stomach. They know the seawater won’t quench them, but their thirst is too strong.

The wider church has had an admirable thirst for spiritual formation in the past decade. Podcasts abound on the theme, and it is in vogue to be a church pursuing ‘spiritual rhythms’. Part of this is a reaction to an anaemic expression of Christianity where the focus was on getting people to ‘decide for Christ’ with little more offered except refreshing that commitment occasionally and waiting for heaven. Dallas Willard memorably named this ‘The Great Ommission’. Part of it results from globalisation and an influx of spiritualities from other religions and cultures. Part of it is a reaction to aggressive secularisation and an increasing sense that materialism is cold and inadequate (83% of US adults today believe they have a soul or spirit, and 43% say they have become ‘more spiritual’ over time with only 13% saying they have become less spiritual).1 We are spiritually thirsty. 

But with so many approaches to spiritual formation in the marketplace of ideas, how can we know that we are drinking life-giving water and not salt water? How do we discern what is healthy from unhealthy and will harm our formation rather than benefit us?

As we start our ‘Formed: Discipleship Wheel’ sermon series, we must consider what authentic and life-giving spirituality looks like ‘in Christ’.

We will explore this in three articles by considering how all authentic spirituality is about Christ. From root to branch, he determines and provides:

  1. The nourishment for our formation 
  2. The goal of our formation
  3. The shape of our formation

So, in this first piece, let’s consider. 

The Nourishment For Our Formation

Think about the scrutiny we often give our diet: calories, % saturated fats, sugars, etc., particularly if we want to ‘get in shape’. Reflect on the even greater scrutiny we give to any medications we take when we aren’t healthy. We wouldn’t dream of going to some backstreet vendor without a license. What about if we want to be healthier spiritually? What about when we become aware that we aren’t well-formed in our psyche at a deeper level, perhaps through symptoms of stress, anxiety, or compulsive thought patterns? Should we not be at least as discerning about what we feed our souls as we feed our bodies? 

Spirituality in the Culture 

In the culture, there is a firmly held belief that when it comes to spiritual matters, what you believe does not matter so much; what matters is that it is your belief, and you believe it sincerely. Such ‘Oprah spirituality’ arises partly from an admirable desire to avoid conflict in an increasingly pluralistic landscape. So, we accept one another’s beliefs because we do not want to be judgemental. But being judgmental is different to being discerning. I can believe someone’s belief is wrong, yet I respect and treat them with dignity. To function well in a pluralistic society with more options than ever requires greater discernment, not a naive acceptance of every alternative. And respectfully, it is naive to think that any spirituality will lead us to being well-formed. That is like saying, ‘All food will make you healthy.’ 

Spirituality is explicitly about the beliefs we hold and the beliefs we hold shape the values we live by and, therefore, shape our actions. For example, if I believe that suffering is merely an illusion caused by worldly attachments and that the path to enlightenment is to free oneself from attachments to people, places, and things (a widely held belief in some Eastern spiritualities like Buddhism). That may sound superficially attractive. However, such a belief is incompatible with values that depend on binding attachments to people, like compassion and empathy. In time, imbibing that belief can’t help but make someone less compassionate and empathetic. We say, ‘You are what you eat.’ In spiritual formation, ‘We become what we believe.’ 

Spirituality in the Church

Similarly, it should not be a surprise that as spiritualities have abounded in the culture, some of these approaches to spirituality have percolated into the church. If the prior generation’s leaning was to promote orthodoxy without orthopraxy (orthodox practices) and a discipleship-lite Christianity, our danger may be an admirable desire for praxis but divorced from orthodoxy. There are frequent warnings in Scripture about the dangers of such an approach and being taken ‘captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition (or spirituality) and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.’ And approaches that ‘have an appearance of wisdom… but [they] lack any value in restraining sensual indulgences.’ (Colossians 2:8+23) In short, such approaches don’t work; at worst, they risk entrapping us. 

Since a thirsty person will not drink nothing but instead anything, the best way to guard against such mistakes is for our spirituality to be richly supplied by Jesus Christ, who is the fount of all true spirituality. Therefore, I want to highlight two main ways Scripture shows us what it means to drink from Jesus as the ‘spring of living water’ (Jeremiah 2:13, John 4:10, 7:38). 

1. Union with Christ

Arguably, the primary description in the Bible of what it means to be a disciple is union with Christ. ‘Christian’ is only used three times in the Bible, but descriptions of union with Christ (e.g. ‘in Christ’ or ‘with Christ’) are used well over 150. And yet, today, union with Christ is hardly ever taught, much less in the context of spiritual formation. 

To be united with Christ is one of the Spirit’s chief works. When we trust in Christ, we not only believe in certain theological realities, but by faith, the Spirit binds us to Christ such that what he has achieved in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension are applied to us. When Scripture talks about us having ‘died with Christ’, we are not being told to merely imagine that we died on the cross as though there is some value in the metaphor. Instead, we are told that because we are united with Christ, we really died ‘in him’. That means (for example) that the penalty for sin he took on the cross is our penalty, and we need not fear the judgement of sin anymore (Romans 3:22-25). It means that the power of sin he broke on the cross is now broken in our lives so that sin has no dominion over us anymore (Romans 6:18). And it is not just Jesus’ death that benefits us, but union with Christ means that all spiritual blessings are ours ‘in him’ (Ephesians 1:3). As Richard Sibbes, the English Puritan said, "In a word, God being ours, whatsoever is in God, whatsoever God can do, whatsoever he hath, is ours, because himself is ours."2

One of the vital implications of this doctrine is that the power for spiritual formation does not come from us but from Jesus Christ by virtue of our union with him. Just as a branch cut off from a plant will not be able to grow, so we cannot grow unless we are united to Christ and ‘rooted’ in him (Ephesians 3:17). 

One slightly silly illustration that makes this point is if you imagine you saw me at a local airport about to take a light aircraft for a flight. You would be understandably perplexed if, sometime later, you caught me trying as hard as I could to push it along the runway. Confused, you might ask me what I am doing. I explained that I know the plane has to get up to over 60mph to take off, so I’m trying to push it to that speed so that I can fly. You would rightly ask me why I was not sitting in the cockpit and using the engine! Similarly, many followers of Christ put admirable effort into personal formation and want to follow Christ. However, they feel exhausted and see a lack of fruit because they do it in their strength, not Christ. They are not ‘in the cockpit’ so to speak, and they aren’t accessing Jesus’ power. 

This is why Jesus said to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Mark 14:38) We will see little progress and bear little fruit if we are not pursuing our formation in Christ. 

2. Active-Passivity

Since we grow and bear fruit in the spiritual life ‘in Christ’, what does this mean for how we live? We should not be pursuing spiritual formation in human-centred effort, but does faith in Christ mean that we should live as many pithy phrases tell us by, ‘not trying but trusting’ or (my personal favourite) ‘Don’t wrestle, nestle’!? It seems unlikely that the answer is an absence of effort when we have an example of Jesus who prayed so earnestly that he sweated drops of blood (Luke 22:44), and the Apostle Paul testifies, "I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)

So what is the place of effort and how does it intersect with faith? In his excellent work True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer coined the phrase ‘active passivity’, "True spirituality is not achieved in our own energy… It is the power of the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, by faith."3

Active passivity highlights that there is effort in the spiritual life because (as has often been noted) the opposite of grace is not effort but earning. However, the effort in the authentic spiritual life is different. It is the effort to trust God and not ourselves; it is the effort to pursue our formation in the power of the Spirit and not in our power, the power of the flesh. 

Think of it like this: How can the life of discipleship be described both as a ‘fight’ as it frequently is in Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7) but also as ‘rest’ (Hebrews 4:6, 1 John 3:19)? The answer is not that these represent two different ‘modes’ of following Christ, a bit like sometimes I am active and sometimes I am resting, the answer is that the fight is to rest in Christ. That’s why when God encourages us to ‘Put on the full armour of God’ (Ephesians 6:11), we do that, as Ephesians 6 goes on to outline, by standing in the truth of the gospel (v.14), believing more fully the righteousness given to us in the gospel (v.14), being ready to live out the peace of the gospel (v.15), and persevering in faith in the gospel (v.16), as we hold on to our salvation in the gospel (v.17).

Let me try to give an example. When I am tired, I tend to be grumpy, which can lead to being short-tempered with my kids. A few years back, I was convicted about this and noted that I could be like this, particularly at the end of the week. So, I foolishly tried in my strength to change. However, I kept defaulting to my old ways and, despite my efforts, continued being grumpy and short-tempered. Two things helped me change. The first was praying and saying, ‘Lord, I am feeling tired, and I know that in my strength, I will be negative and intolerant of the kids. Forgive me for this. I know I can’t change by my effort, so I need your help. By the power of the Spirit, please change me.’ 

Praying like this, both before and in the moment, helped enormously. It may seem simple, but it is essential to realise and admit that ‘Apart from me (Christ), you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5) When we realise this, God delights to magnify his strength in our weakness as the power of being united with Christ flows into our life.

The second thing that helped me live ‘actively passive’ in this situation was reminding myself of the gospel in a specific way. Since a big part of my sin was impatience, what does the gospel say about patience? 2 Peter 3 talks about God’s patience meaning salvation. Therefore, I reminded myself that for twenty years, I did not know Christ. What if God had been impatient with me? I would be lost. But, as it is, God was patient, giving me the time to come to Christ. If God has been so patient with me, surely I can be more patient with my children? The more I reflected and meditated on this, the more the specific reality of the gospel and God’s amazing patience with me, changed my impatience with my kids. What we believe shapes the way we live. Believing the gospel more deeply in a specific and applied way as I admit my weakness and inability to change in my own strength is what it means to put in ‘faith-filled effort’ and live actively passive. Doing these two things helped me to grow. 


The Apostle Paul writes, "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness." (Colossians 2:6-7) 

Just as salvation is in Christ, so root to branch our formation is in Christ. In a world and church scene of myriad approaches to spirituality, authentic and fruitful formation is ‘in Christ’. We need to be nourished by him, moment by moment drawing the energy we need to grow from our union with him because only he can give us the living water our souls crave. We do this by living actively passive, engaging our wills in faith to resist self-reliance and by applying the gospel specifically to our areas of growth we rely on Jesus and his Spirit. 

In our next blog in this series, we will consider how Christ is also the goal of our formation. We want to become more and more like Christ, the perfect human being and the true image of God.



[1] Spirituality Among Americans. Dec 2023. Pew Research Report. Here and Here.

[2] Sibbes, Richard. Sermon: The Infinite Comforts Of Union With Christ

[3] Schaeffer, A. Francis, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: Volume Three, A Christian View of Spirituality, Westchester, IL, Crossway Books. p.255