Let me say that again, differently: the wisdom of spiritual formation will save the world.
This week, I was scrolling through Twitter (which I try not to do) and came upon a rather one-sided exchange where Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. attacked Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head Russell Moore.
Moore had tweeted that the situation with migrants at the border was an issue of Christian compassion and character. Strangely Falwell attacked Moore for the statement. It is strange considering both he and Moore are part of the same Christian tradition (Southern Baptist Convention).
But notice: he didn’t attack the statement. He attacked Moore himself.
The response – which I won’t include here because it isn’t worth reading – is an attempt to belittle, degrade, and reduce Russell Moore as a person. Granted, we all lose our temper sometimes and say things we don’t mean. There has been no apology, retraction, or otherwise since the statement was made. The assumption is that this was meant to stick.
When I read that statement the thought that came to mind is this: “This isn’t about issues or perspectives. This is an issue of character formation. It is an issue of spiritual formation.”
And I believe spiritual formation will save the world.
The reason I believe this so strongly is that spiritual formation, as I define it, is this:
the process by which God, through the Holy Spirit and our participation, leads us to live in the wisdom of Jesus as His apprentices.
The response of Falwell, Jr. to Moore wasn’t about disagreeing over politics or policy. It was an unwise, unkind, and judgmental move to reduce another person’s argument to rubble.
Spiritual formation will save the world because it moves beyond factoids and hot takes, and begs a simple question. The question is this: “Given who you are and who you have become, what is the wise thing to do here?”
So many times I watch fellow followers of Jesus wrestle with an action or response by asking, “What does the Bible say?” While not a bad question, it’s more of a starter than a closer. The better question is actually several questions:
“What does the Bible say?”
“How do I in my tradition interpret what it says?”
“What does my past experience (positive or negative) have to say about this?”
“When it comes to what makes sense, what is reasonable to do here?”
“Given all of the above, what is the wise thing to do?”
We are tempted to say, “Wow, that’s really complicated. I’d rather just do what the Bible says.”
That way of living is problematic, honestly. No one really lives that way.
There is plenty that the Bible says that would not be wise given the situation and setting we’re in. For example, greeting one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16) is basically assault in a culture where handshakes are culturally acceptable. They are the new “holy kiss.”
But it is complicated to follow Jesus. And it should be. We are attempting to discern what the Divine One who designed all of creation desires from us. The hope is to walk in the steps of the most compassionate, selfless, and wise people to ever grow to maturity – Jesus. The energy for this kind of life comes from making more and more space in our heart and mind for the animating Spirit of God.
The formation of souls is more like string theory than simple arithmetic. It takes time, thought, and energy.
And yet, this is the ground of being for every human under the sun. Formation happens in the midst of this reality. We’re all being formed into something – every choice we make, word we say, and thought we nurture is making (or unmaking) us.
Which brings me to a bigger point about why spiritual formation will save the world.
The wisdom of spiritual formation will save the world largely because it will teach us how to die.I’m starting to wonder if we should hold back on our speech about the Divine until we have learned how to die. The witness of people who were around Jesus and His people suggests that Jesus’ greatest teaching gave us the ability to lose our fear of a great many “deaths.”
We’ve limited our thinking on this kind of “dying” to literal, physical death but there are all kinds of little deaths that come along the journey of spiritual formation.
But we need to learn to die to our need to be right. Especially on Twitter, but in all spheres of conversation and interaction.
Why? Because the journey to staying “right” often leads to the diminishment of the image of God in others. I do believe that includes being right AND safe by diminishing the image of God in those who are different from us.
Spiritual formation saves us from the world of slavishly maintaining our “right-ness.”
We need to die to maintaining appearances. I’m not talking about “only God can judge me” type ethics here. I’m taking about the “me” we want to present to the world, what is often called the “false self.” The ego we develop early in life is important, but it will become an obstacle to the healthy formation of Jesus-wisdom if we allow it to take control.
Put simply, ego is what drives us to denigrate a person rather than disagree with their perspective.
Ego preservation is what causes us to cling to principles that have long outlived their usefulness because they keep us in our position of leadership or power.
The preservation of the false self is what keeps the lights on when the most beautiful pieces of the spiritual journey await us – in the dark.
I believe spiritual formation will save the world because the primary fruit of formation is wisdom.
Even if you take all of the fruits of the Spirit from Paul’s run in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (5:22-23). It is a wonderful list, honestly. Two things to notice though.
First, these are a result of the Spirit. The point is not to “be more patient,” the point is that the deeper the Spirit is formed in us the more patience that flows out of us. Spiritual formation is the shaping of our spirit by God’s Spirit. The wise move is not to try harder to be patient, but to allow as much space as possible for the Spirit to correct, teach, and guide us.
Second, underneath the whole “fruit” list is this question: “So how do we use these things?” How do we utilize love and joy, especially when we see unlovable and joyless situations like desperate migrants drowned in a river?
The word “how” is the hallmark of wisdom.
When we give ourselves fully to the process of being formed by and into the wisdom of Jesus, we will begin to see our responses to others change. We will begin to read, interpret, and engage with Scripture differently. The realization we will cherish is that winning an argument on social media isn’t actually winning anything.
Spiritual formation will change the world because it will make us wise.
Now more than ever, we need wise people with a deep reservoir for the Spirit to fill and overflow. There is a need for wise people; people formed by both patience and compassion as well as righteous anger and love for justice.
The wisdom of Jesus is our guide for dancing with the divine paradox of dying the little deaths. The point of the little deaths is so that we can live again in that very same wisdom.
So what’s forming you these days? Are you wiser than you were a month ago?
Are you responding to disagreements by attacking people or premises? What is the action forming in your thoughts, emotions, and even your body?
May you discover the way of listening, correcting, and then acting. And may we all grow to be wise enough to know when to die: in public, in private, and yes, even on Twitter.