Spiritual Formation II:The Goal Of Our Formation
by Pete Nicholas

In 2012 in Borja, Spain, a well-intentioned elderly lady tried to restore the priceless fresco of Elias Garcia Martinez’s Ecce Homo. Unfortunately, she lacked both the expertise and a clear sense of what the finished image should look like. The results were disastrous and became an overnight internet sensation as Martinez’s Christ resembled more a distorted monkey than the aching beauty of the original. Similarly, it is vital in our spiritual formation that we have a clear sense of what we are seeking to be formed into. Merely embarking upon a project of personal change, however good our intentions or passionate our zeal may be, no more guarantees a beautiful outcome than 81-year-old Cecilia Gomez was able to achieve in her feeble endeavours. 

In the first article in this series, we noted that in the past decade, there has been an increasing focus on spiritual formation both within and without the church. Multiple factors contribute to this:

  • Globalization and an influx of alternative religions and spiritualities
  • A correction of a skewed focus within the church on orthodoxy without orthopraxy
  • The influences of a culture with an increasing focus on mental health, wellbeing, and counselling and therapy interventions

Whilst this renewed focus may be a good thing, navigating this proliferation of interest in this ‘space’ requires discernment. Therefore, it is wise to pause and ask what the goal of our formation should be. Is there something distinctive about Christian formation, or do we share the same goals as secular psychology, sociology, and other religions, merely seeking to arrive by different ‘Christian’ means? Should the secular goals that are so prevalent in counselling and therapy of diminished anxiety, alleviating depression, and freedom from addiction and negative behavioural patterns (to name some prominent areas) also be the focus of Christian formation? To be clear, such goals are no bad thing, indeed, many of them have their roots in a Christian worldview, and God cares deeply about our psychological well-being. But are they the goal of formation in Scripture, or might they be part of the picture but not the fully restored image? 

The Fully Restored Image

The goal of Christian formation is to be like Christ. In some sense, this should be so obvious that it does not need to be stated, and yet every generation, for different reasons, seems to risk missing this. In the previous generation, the goal too often was ‘making a profession of faith’ or ‘praying the prayer’ as though salvation ended at justification by faith. But, Paul reminds us, ‘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. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (Romans 8:28-30 italics added)

Note Paul’s emphasis on being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ and how this is not completed at justification but glorification. This is why Paul states his goal in ministry, ‘He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.’ (Col 1:28) This is why Jesus Christ urges his followers, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48)

The story of Scripture was memorably summed up in Athanasius’ great work, The Incarnation. ‘For He was made man that we might be made [like] God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.’1

If the church in the West in the previous generation risked reducing the Christian life to making a decision for Christ and then evangelising others to themselves make a decision for Christ, what might be the ways we miss the mark on spiritual formation and becoming like Christ? 

The Difference Between Becoming Like Christ And The Goals Of Secular Psychological Wellbeing

It is often said that ‘the good is the enemy of the best’. Therefore, I wonder if the ‘good’ goals of psychology, whilst they often overlap with areas of Christian formation, pose a risk to Christian formation if they become the sum total or emphasis of what we think Christian formation ought to be. I have written the above in italics because it is important to note that counselling and therapy are important. At Redeemer Downtown, we are hugely grateful for our partnership with Redeemer Counselling Services (RCS). They are an important part of our pastoral approach, and we are in the process of piloting group counselling in partnership with RCS using their distinctively gospel-centred ‘GIFT’ approach. However, what I am seeking to highlight are the trappings of either subsuming discipleship into counselling and therapy or the contemporary excessive emphasis on counselling and therapy within the wider category of personal formation. Why is that?

1. Jesus has not come merely to correct some areas of our life, he has come to renew our whole being.

In Jesus’ famous statement, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10), the word for ‘life’ is zoe. Zoe means more than just the fact of life or mere survival, zoe implies a positive vision of life lived well; what the Greek philosophers would often refer to as the good life. Today, we are better than any other generation before at measuring and quantifying negative psychological and social outcomes; to put it another way, we are very aware of the negative aspects of our formation that we want to rectify, but there is a complete lack of consensus about the vision of the good life. Speak to a conservative or a liberal, a member of Gen Z or a Babyboomer and you will get very divergent takes on what the good life is. 

The reason this is a problem can be illustrated by the difference between the approach of a skilled tradesperson (e.g. an electrician or plumber) and an architect. We get plumbers and electricians to fix one-off problems, a leaky faucet or a blown electric outlet, but they are very different to an architect who seeks to build or renovate an apartment with a coherent vision of the whole. Jesus is no spiritual tradesman, he is the architect of our humanity. He is interested in doing much more than just fixing a few areas where we perceive there to be issues, he is doing a full-scale renovation. He puts before us in his life and teaching a picture of the image of God fully renovated (from the Latin meaning ‘renewed’), and his great agenda for us is far more ambitious than just a bit of DIY, it is nothing less than the full renewal of our being into his perfect image. 

2. Psychological well-being will miss the vital core of the Christian life

The order of the Ten Commandments is important. The first four are about how we love God, and the second six are about how we love our neighbour as ourselves. This is the hierarchy of the spiritual life in Christ; how we love God is more important than how we love our neighbour and ourselves. 

Therefore, if we focus merely on the needs that we become aware of or the needs that psychology identifies, we may attain a fair measure of ‘psychological health’ yet still greatly neglect love for God and worship of him. Does not Jesus warn the Pharisees about a similar error?

‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.’ (John 5:39)

Whilst it is often true that failure to love God and the idolatry that always ensues when we exchange the ‘truth of God for a lie’ (Romans 1:25) leads to psychological problems, it is not always the case. I know many people who do not follow Christ who experience good psychological health and care nothing about worshipping God and glorifying him. Church history is also replete with those (for example, the hymn writer William Cowper) who have a profound love for God and yet battle throughout their lives with besetting psychological problems (in Cowper’s case, depression).

3. We are in danger of confusing the associated benefits with the Pearl Of Great Price

Imagine if I were taking a wedding for a couple, and at the wedding, in the speeches, one of them was speaking about why they wanted to marry their spouse, and they said, ‘I think we will benefit from economies of scale in rental fees by sharing an apartment, I am not a very good cook, and so I will eat better being married to him, and sometimes I feel lonely, and I am hoping getting married will deal with that!’ 

I would find this very alarming, and I imagine so would you! Not because these are not associated benefits that may come from marriage, but because none of these things are what marriage is fundamentally about. In fact, it is pretty insulting to the spouse to make them derivative to these things, it distorts the relationship. 

Similarly, it distorts our relationship with Christ when we focus more on the benefits that may flow from knowing him than knowing him. Not only that but ironically, we may not get the benefits we desire when we focus on them rather than on Christ. First, think about how Christian formation happens. Scripture reminds us that it is by beholding Christ that we are transformed. ‘And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Cor 3:18) This is why we will not be fully sanctified until we see him face to face, ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’(1 John 3:2)

Therefore, the most effective way to become more peaceful and less anxious (for example) is not so much to focus on various strategies to deal with anxiety, good as they may be, but to contemplate and really grasp that the Lord is in control of all things, that because he has died on the cross for those who follow him, there is nothing he will not give us that is in our best interests, that he will never leave us or forsake us. Therefore, what are we anxious about? This is not to deny that there may be strategies for change that secular psychology can give to us, but that, at a minimum, these strategies need to be allied to the formative work of beholding Christ if we really want to change and realise the goal of becoming like him. 

4. What about when following Christ makes our lives harder, not easier?

I remember hearing from a British pastor and friend who was praying with pastors of persecuted churches from the global South. After he had prayed for an end to their persecution and for God to comfort them in the midst of it, one of the pastors prayed immediately words to the effect of, 

“Sovereign Lord, I want to say ‘No’ to my brother's prayer. We do not ask for an end to persecution, but we ask that you keep us faithful to you in the midst of the persecution. You know, Lord, that the church in the West is weak and ineffectual because the enemy has deceived it with comfort and made it forget that we are in a spiritual battle. Our church knows we are in a battle and so our faith is strong. Do not then afflict us with comfort!” 

It might have been a bit awkward for a Brit to be contradicted in this way, but the prayer was profound. We forget at our peril that the goal of the Christian life is not comfort, social harmony, or psychological well-being but conformity to Christ and making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that he commanded. 

For countless millions around the globe today and throughout history who have followed Christ, being a disciple makes their lives harder, not easier. Yes, of course, there is indeed peace in knowing him, and there is joy inexpressable by his side, but the peace is often in the midst of the storm, the joy is in part inexpressable because it is most real in sorrow and grief, for that is when Christ is most precious to us. Christ is very clear on the terms of following him, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’


[1] Athanasius. The Incarnations. S54. Translated by Philip Schaff. Online here.