I remember the first time I planted seeds to make a garden.
I tilled. I prepared the soil. I planted. I watered. I waited.
Eventually, things began to grow, and I had a chance to watch the plants mature each day. It was a series of holy moments.
I cannot think of a better metaphor to help describe Christian spiritual formation. The planting of the seed of the kingdom of God in our hearts through salvation, and cultivating that seed through habits and disciplines produces spiritual fruit. This is a great way of explaining Christian spiritual formation.
There are many, however, who believe spiritual formation, Christian or otherwise, is some sort of evil add-on that smells like earning salvation through human effort. In order to address this head-on, it is important to build on the foundation of what the Bible says about spiritual formation.
My working definition of Christian spiritual formation, which I pray is helpful for you, is this: “Spiritual formation is the process God uses to transform our whole lives, through the Holy Spirit, so that we live as Jesus would live if he were in our shoes.” How does the Bible’s overall theme support this definition? Let’s use the image of gardening as a guide.
We are all gardeners.
The beginning of God’s story takes place in a garden. God’s commission to human beings is to tend the garden (Genesis 2:15) and, in the process, to grow closer to God. Scripture teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). These words have stirred hearts and yet puzzled man for centuries, but the basic premise is that we were created to resemble and represent the Master Gardener. We were created to plant seeds and grow life-giving things. The point and purpose was to live in contentment and cultivate crops and relationships that give life. There is something of an “apprentice gardener” present in us, even apart from a life with God at the center (Acts 17:26, 27).
But we have “brown-thumb” disease.
The problem is, we kill what we try to grow. We turn green things brown on a regular basis, most often because we aren’t content with the crops that grow as a result of our work. We want more than God wants to give us (Matthew 6:33), which is motivated by a desire to be the god of our world (Philippians 3:19), or to fulfill the need for God that was left in us after our eviction from the garden. We’ve lost connection with the Master Gardener, our skills get rusty, and we start gardening awkwardly. We cultivate the wrong seeds, or we neglect the soil, or we pour Red Bull on our plants instead of water. This is the heart of sin—following broken and self-absorbed methods for living that are totally contrary to the way we were designed to live, and contrary to the way the world was designed to function (Romans 7:21-25).
God is intent on dealing with that disease head-on, which is why he went to great lengths to pursue his people and form a covenant with them (Exodus 19:4-6); it’s why God sent his Son to be present in the mess (Philippians 2:5-11) and to destroy the powers of evil intent on distracting us from our God-crafted purpose of planting seeds of eternal life.
Everyone is undergoing the process of spiritual formation, but are we being formed into something that gives life and hope or something that is destructive and broken? That is why it is critical to talk about Christian spiritual formation. Following Jesus is what forms our spirit, shaping it into what God designed it to be (Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:19). The obstacle in our way is brown-thumb disease, which causes us to use logic to pursue a “good life” that withers and dies before our eyes because it isn’t the life God designed for us.
We need gardening lessons.
So what is the solution? It appears early in the Bible. God gives commandments, examples, and his own tangible, mysterious presence that puts the whole spiritual transformation process into warp speed. This is the key piece we often miss about the Old Testament: God is neither harshly legalistic nor a discontented dictator commanding helpless human beings. God is saying, “I came and rescued you to remind you that you were once with me, and I want you to be with me—in every way—again.” We recover our identity and THEN find ourselves following Jesus and learning to garden again (Colossians 2:6, 7).
Christian spiritual formation is driven through the activity of discipleship. Following Jesus, listening to the Holy Spirit (John 14:23-26), and being shaped and changed by the Scriptures and prayer are basically gardening lessons that remind us how life was supposed to work from the beginning.
The primary verse the Bible uses to describe itself is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” The verbs teach, correct, rebuke, and train are all key components in Christian spiritual formation. They are exercises that prepare us for the life of gardening. The Bible teaches us how to garden, how to listen to God, and how to operate in the way we were designed. This is the heart of Christian spiritual formation—that the spirit of Christ would be formed in us so our inner compass and outer direction are synchronized (John 14:6) so we begin to look more like Jesus.
Discipleship is like becoming an apprentice gardener. In the Gospels, Jesus tells the disciples to go and baptize and teach (Matthew 28:19, 20). In other words, make people like yourselves who have had a front-row seat to see the Master Gardener living in the real world right beside them. When we forgive as we’ve been forgiven, we pass on the skills and plant the seeds God desires to see growing in the world. When we give as we’ve been given, we plant the seeds of generosity so that hope and help may grow.
Finally, we need practice with seeds and soil.
The biggest challenge in talking about spiritual formation is answering this: Why all the “practices” or “disciplines”? Are we trying to earn God’s favor or salvation? The answer begins with all the present tense, active verbs in the New Testament that describe the work of being a follower of Jesus.
Paul talks about sowing seeds of the Spirit that lead to eternal life (Galatians 6:8) and working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). The key here can be found in the metaphor we’ve been discussing—you don’t become a gardener by reading all the books and watching the Master Gardener at work. We’re driven and compelled to put our hands in the dirt, hold the seed in our hands, and cultivate healthy soil where we are planted. God’s Spirit is at work during the entire process, which is measured against the example of Jesus and originates with God’s original purpose. Christian spiritual formation is participation by invitation. We are invited to come and die and let our lives be hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2, 3) so that we may fearlessly open our lives to be filled with God’s grace and power (Romans 6:1-4); these things transform us into the gardeners we were intended to be.
Spiritual disciplines or soul-training practices are simply ways to train ourselves to be better gardeners and to cultivate soil in which the seeds of the kingdom of God can grow. We fast so we can release our dependence on satisfying our body and increase our dependence on God by living on the bread others know nothing about (John 4:31-34). We meditate on Scripture to fill the space on our mental hard drive so that distracting, disturbing, destructive thoughts can be taken captive more easily and made to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). We engage in community to learn how to forgive, love, and grow through sharing life with others (Acts 2:42-44).
Spiritual disciplines help bring about the change in us that God so passionately desires, but we are unable to accomplish this change directly. You cannot, for example, become less angry by trying harder. You end up failing and feeling guilty, and then you give up. Instead, we train ourselves with spiritual disciplines to open up spaces for God to plant seeds in us to grow new life. We do have a role in the formation process, however. Any good gardener knows if you don’t plant seeds in good soil, at the proper depth, and in a place where there is adequate sun, then nothing is going to grow. Spiritual disciplines like fasting are simply ways for us to prepare the soil of our hearts to receive the seed of life that God wants to plant in our lives. Spiritual disciplines are also a way for us to allow God’s Spirit to produce growth in us through his grace.
Now, go tend your soil.
The good thing about metaphors is they help us understand complicated things by using simple images. But metaphors are rarely big enough to cover every angle. There are questions and issues I haven’t covered, but I pray I’ve started a discussion between gardeners that will lead to good produce growing on every acre of your life in Christ. My hope is you begin to see how the great and wide story of Scripture leads us to a God who is, above all things, planting new seeds in us every day. We simply must prepare the soil.
Casey Tygrett is spiritual formation pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.