I like the term “spiritual formation.” We often use it as another term for discipleship. It is an essential thing, therefore, for every Christian.
So what is it? I was at a retreat a few months ago that defined it perfectly and in a very engaging way. They said: “Spiritual and emotional formation at its core is learning how to love God, others, and yourself well.”
Spiritual formation (and discipleship), in other words, is about love. Love for God first, love for others, and indeed, loving ourselves well. (For if we don’t love ourselves well, we often don’t love others well–just as if you don’t take good care of your car, it won’t help others get around much either.)
Note two things from this definition.
First, we are to love well. Have you thought of discipleship and spiritual formation in that way before? As learning to love well?
Often we speak of love as central to the Christian life, but don’t make the connection that we can love in better or less helpful ways. Perhaps that’s why Paul speaks the way he does in Philippians 1:9: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent [what’s best next!]” (see also the parallel prayer in Colossians 1:9-12).
Second, note that there is a tie between spiritual and emotional formation. For a long time as Christians, we tended to see these two issues as separate. But as Peter Scazzero points out in the landmark book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, you cannot be spiritually healthy unless you are emotionally healthy. For they overlap.
And so learning emotional intelligence, it turns out, is a key part of our Christian maturity and thus discipleship and spiritual formation. This is something we have not given much focus to, but need to.
So love God and love others — realizing that our call is not just to do it, but to do it well, and that affirming and learning how to connect emotionally is central to doing this.