Spiritual Formation III:The Way Of Our Formation
by Pete Nicholas

One of the earliest descriptions of following Jesus Christ, given in the book of Acts, is that it is ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). (Those who have watched the popular Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian might note that the phrase “this is the way” was not first coined by George Lucas but is a variation of this ancient Christian description!). Describing Christianity as ‘the way’, even if it is no longer a common description, is helpful because it draws our attention to the path we are called to walk as we follow Christ. As with any journey, having some sense of what to expect and what the highs and lows of the journey may be, is important. 

In the previous two articles on spiritual formation, we thought first about the distinctives of the nourishment for our formation, the need to be attentive to what we feed our souls, and to get our spiritual food through our union with Jesus Christ. Second, we thought about the goal of our formation, which is not primarily to achieve certain desirable goals of psychological well-being like freedom from anxiety or release from negative habits (good as these things may be), but to become more and more like Jesus Christ, who is the perfect image of God. In this third article, we will finish by thinking about the way of our formation and the nature of the path God calls us to walk. 

Journeying with Christ

In the Psalms, journeying and being a pilgrim are evocative ways of envisioning a life of faith. The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) describe the life of faith as a journey towards Jerusalem, symbolically the place where God dwells, fuelled by a yearning to be with God but navigating challenges and the difficulties of the path to get there. This imagery is made all the more real when we consider that pilgrims would sing these songs as they undertook their pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for Passover, Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Feast of Booths). This imagery is picked up in the New Testament by Jesus, who shows how the pilgrim journey is fulfilled in him and in his journey to the cross. Those who follow him follow this same path:

‘Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”’ (Mark 8:34)

Journeying with Christ highlights a number of important realities about the way of our formation. First, it is a journey. Many today are rightly skeptical about a simplistic approach to spirituality that implies it is just about knowing the answers to a set of questions, as though life were a game of Jeopardy. They are aware of the complexity and messiness of life and need to know that the Christian way has something to say about this. Seeing following Jesus as a journey is dynamic and evolving and speaks into this. Being a pilgrim, journeying with Christ, also guards against the mistake in the church of framing the Christian life as merely praying and ‘making a decision for Christ’, as though that were all there was to it. This may be the start of the journey, and the start of any journey is significant, but just as it would be strange for a mountaineer to remain at base camp and never enter into the challenge, joy, and path of the ascent, so a Christian who never pushes on from receiving Christ as Lord to walk ‘in him’ is a pilgrim who has missed the point and the thrill of the journey!

Second, the journey helpfully balances the importance of the ‘now and not yet’ of the Christian walk. The not yet is important to properly manage our expectations and avoid erroneous triumphalism that claims too much victory, experience, or progress now. We are not yet in the heavenly Jerusalem ‘standing in your gates’ (Ps 122:2), and we do not yet experience the peace, perfect security, and prosperity we will experience there when our journey is done (Ps 122:6-9). However, we are journeying with Christ now, and, therefore, ‘the Lord watches of you - the Lord is your shade at your right hand the sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night’ (Ps 121:5). There are partial yet still substantial experiences of the blessings we will one day fully enjoy given to us and sustaining us in the journey now. Many a pilgrim has stumbled from the path because they have got the interplay between these twin realities wrong. 

Thirdly, and this is what this article will spend more time on, there is a distinctive nature and pattern to the way of walking in Christ that we need to grasp. There are many images that Scripture uses to represent this: life through death, the cross followed by the resurrection, through the valley to rise and get to the mountaintop, weeping followed by joy, and night followed by the dawn (to name just a few prominent examples. All of these descriptions are getting at the same reality. This reality exists on a macro level in the Christian life, describing our overall journey from those who are dead as a result of our sin to those who are raised with Christ and will one day be with him in glory. The nature of this ‘way’ also exists at the micro level, repeated in a hundred small but significant ‘paths’ we must take daily as we follow Christ. Let’s explore the two aspects of this path of life through death, first the valley of death, second the rise to the mountaintop (life).  

The Valley of Death

In arguably the most famous psalm, Psalm 23, David describes his experience walking through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ but looks forward to the day when he will ‘dwell in the house of the LORD forever’. This is the Christian life. It is important to note that David is not describing two ‘modes’ of the Christian life but one way of the Christian life: life through death. Indeed there is no other way. This was the path Christ followed, and since ‘no servant is above his master’ (John 13:16, 15:20), this is the path of those who follow him. 

One of the ways this rubs with us today is with the ‘strong negative’ of following Christ (as Francis Schaeffer called it). Quite often, people criticize Christianity for being ‘so negative’ and ‘denying our desires’. After all, even in the Ten Commandments only one (‘Honor your father and mother’) does not contain a negative ‘do not’. This is obviously out of step with the spirit of contemporary Western culture that frequently frames denial as ‘dangerous’ and ‘repressive’ and portrays flourishing as coming through ‘doing what you truly desire’ (sometimes adding the rider ‘as long as you do not harm anyone). 

As superficially attractive as this may be, it is deeply unrealistic. James Bond has had enduring popularity in the West. For many years his appeal was that he lived a life without consequences. He has a license to kill, but not only that, he seems to have the license to do whatever he wants (drink, gamble, and sleep around). But, he never faces the real-world consequences of his actions. In the real world, killing someone (even if on the rare occasion it might be lawful) leads to trauma and devastation, drinking leads to getting drunk and a hangover, gambling usually means the house wins, and sleeping around has consequences ranging from a reputation to child support payments. Little wonder that in 2006 the Bond franchise had become tired and needed a reboot. From Casino Royale onwards, we saw a more realistic James Bond, a Bond who had to live with the consequences of his actions. In Casino Royale, after he killed someone, he climbed into the shower with his love interest Vesper. Only this time, it was not to seduce her; the clothes were kept on, but to comfort her as she dealt with the trauma of what she had just witnessed. The theme of the third film in the trio, Skyfall, is ‘think on your sins’. How revealing for a secular hero who previously lived a life without consequences. 

Similarly, we cannot grow, achieve meaningful goals, and experience flourishing without the strong negative. Every good athlete knows if they want to succeed they must say no to eating whatever they want or going out whenever they want so they can be nourished properly and train well. The great musicians speak about the sacrifices they have had to make to practice hours a day to hone their skills. Good parents know that giving a child whatever they desire, whenever they desire it, does not produce a well-balanced adolescant but a young person who (and the word is used instructively) has been ‘spoilt’. This is the way of all formation, there has to be a strong negative if we are to experience the life of flourishing. 

One of the ways most common ways Scripture frames this is ‘putting to death’ (Rom 8:13, Col 3:5, Gal 5:24) or ‘count yourselves dead to sin’ (Rom 6:11). This is not hyperbole, antiquated language, or merely the way that some conservative ‘puritanical’ Christians like to speak, but a recognition of at least two things. First, that in Christ we have died by being united to him, and therefore our relationship to sin whereby we were under its power is now truly dead. We are not under the power of sin any more! Second, the language of ‘death’ recognizes that sin is a predator and cannot be domesticated or pacified. If we seek a compromise arrangement with sin in our life, sooner or later it will bear its teeth, overpower us, and leave us with the scars. In Christ, as those who have been set free from sin, we have to take radical action to put it to death before it does that to us. 

The Rise to the Mountaintop (Life)

The strong negative and dying to self is the first part of the path of following Christ. But, vital as it is, it is only half of the way. Sadly many stop there as though all there is to Christianity is self-denial. But, after the cross comes the resurrection, after a time in the valley of death comes the joy of rising out of the darkness and ascending the mountain heights, after the weeping of the night joy comes in the morning. We say ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and so does formation. If we merely take off sin, but do not displace it with a godly action, thought, or character-trait then we will swiftly revert back to our old ways. The Gospel does not end on Good Friday but Easter Sunday. Jesus did not stay dead but rose to new life and now as the risen and ascended King, he sends his resurrection Spirit into our lives to fill us and empower us to live.

To put it another way, as we put sin to death and rid ourselves of it, we need to live in the power of the Spirit and clothe ourselves with Christ’s life (Col 4:12-17, Gal 5:16-18, 22-25). There is a principle of displacement that is going on here. First, as we die in Christ and we are released from the dominion of sin, it is so that we can be resurrected in Christ and brought under the gracious rule of the Spirit and life (Rom 6:8-10). Second, as we live under grace, every vice and negative behaviour taken off needs to be replaced by a virtue and life-giving action that results from living for Christ. This is the pattern that is ingrained in all formation: Putting off then putting on, putting to death followed by offering ourselves to God. 

For example, let’s say that the Spirit convicts me of a greedy materialism in my life that results in a near constant dissatisfaction with what I have. Colossians urges me to ‘put to death… covetousness’, but, not to stop there. Recognizing God’s generous provision to me in all things, my covetousness needs to be replaced by thankfulness (Col 3:16) and generosity. I should think of practical ways to ingrain this into my life. For example, when I next want to buy something that I do not need, rather than buying it, why not set the money aside and give it away to a gospel cause or to the church? Or as another example, I start the day by reading Scripture and praying. However, rarely when I wake up in the morning do I fully want to do this. Because the spiritual life is a battle, I frequently find many other things more attractive (reading the news, checking my emails etc.) So first, I need to put these other desires that are pulling me away from God’s word to death. Then having said ‘no’ to them, I need to put on an active and tangible practice of uninterrupted time in God’s word and prayer. Letting ‘the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (Col 3:16). 

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Just as we have died in Christ and now live in the life of the Spirit awaiting our full resurrection at the last day, so the way of formation is seen in this pattern worked out in a hundred ways every day: life through death, a putting off followed by a putting on. 

The Danger of a Valleyless Christianity

Given the culture’s expectation that life comes through eschewing the negative and only accentuating the positive, and this has led to a valleyless Christianity or one where talk of putting sin to death seems overstated and outdated. It should be no surprise that this has crept into the church, but I want to suggest that this is deeply problematic. 

First, it significantly misrepresents the call to follow Christ. In the early church, people were acutely aware that the call to take up Christ’s cross and to die might not be a mere metaphor. Whilst it is true that following Christ is full of joy, peace, wonder, and life, Jesus warns his followers time and again of persecution, displacement, hostility, and sacrifice in following him. If people are not clear on the cost of following Christ then they will rapidly turn away when things get difficult. This is sadly very common, when suffering comes (as Jesus promises it will) many turn away feeling that this was not what they signed up for and lamenting that if God loved them there lives would be easier not worse. Moreover, when the church embodies this mistake then it changes from being a hospital where people are nurtured, pastored, and cared for with compassion and empathy (and all the associated practices of lament, proper pastoral care, and regular repentance) and instead it can morph into a triumphalistic social club where we try to put on programs to meet the desires of an ever more consumerist culture. 

Secondly, a valleyless Christianity will be misaligned with God’s priorities. One of the main issues I find Christians battling with today is the problem of suffering. Certainly this is in part due to the challenges and pain of the past few years and particularly the pandemic, but I think a large part of it is a shift in expectations. In my experience of pastoral ministry in the developing world, the question of suffering occurs much less, even though the reality of personal suffering is much higher. God is a good Father, and he does want us to be happy, but more than that he wants us to become like Christ (Romans 8:28-30), and he is prepared to allow us to walk through the valley in this life, as he tenderly walks with us, so that we might yearn for his Son and grow in him. 

Thirdly, we will be frustrated and experience little progress in the Christian life despite all the resources God has given us to change (supremely his Word, the Spirit, and his Church), because we are not following the way of Christ. If Christ had to set his face to the cross and die so that he could rise again to save us, then as those saved by him, this is our path too; life through death. The devil offered Christ an alternative false path, of glory without the cross (Luke 4:5-8), but Jesus knew there was no such route. Similarly, we may want a path of growth without self-denial, life without death, restoration without repentance, but there is no such path. David reminds us that he has to pass through the valley so that he can dwell in the house of the Lord (Psalm 23). 


Formation is all about Christ. I love walking in the mountains and my favourite point is when I have climbed to the top of some peak, and then pause, happy, exhausted, fulfilled, and look back and see the view of where I have come from. Similarly, when the Apostle Paul has navigated his way through the valleys and mountains of the gospel in Romans chapters 1-11 he pauses to take in the view. It is as though the view takes his breath away and he explodes into spontaneous worship: 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! 

How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 

“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 

“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and for him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Rom 11:33-36)

That last phrase shows the heart of Paul’s worship and the center of the view that takes his breath away, ‘For from him and through him and for him are all things’. Similarly, I wonder if you can pause for a moment and take in the view that all formation from the nourishment of our souls, to the goal we are seeking to become like, to the very way we must walk is all about Christ. He is our spiritual food, he is the person we are to become like, his path is the one we must follow. In one sense, it is so simple and obvious that it is strange we get this wrong, in another sense there is a depth and significance to this that we will gaze on for eternity and never exhaust. To him be the glory forever! 


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