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Process Spirituality: Process Versus Product

In our society, we increasingly tend to be human doings rather than human beings. The world tells us that what we achieve and accomplish determines who we are, but the Scriptures teach that who we are in Christ should be the basis for what we do. The dynamics of growth are inside-out rather than outside-in. Process spirituality is concerned with faithfulness during the ongoing journey rather than living from one product to the next. It also focuses on what it means to abide in Christ and to practice His presence.

Recall from the introduction that I created the twelve categories in this book to reflect the various dimensions of biblical truth as they relate to practical experience on a personal and corporate level. Some of them, like disciplined and devotional spirituality, are rooted in historical traditions, but others simply portray hands-on applications of Christian principles. This is especially true of paradigm, holistic, and process spirituality. Process spirituality is concerned with being alive to the present moment and with the step-by-step process of responding to God’s loving initiatives in our lives.

Living in the Future

For many people in our culture, life has become so filled with the if-only’s of the future that today becomes an inconvenient obstacle in the path of reaching tomorrow. As Walker Percy observed in his novel Lancelot, “To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.” During most of our lives, we have a natural tendency to dwell in the future by investing our energies in goals and accomplishments we hope to achieve in the days ahead. The problem is that even when we are able to attain these ends, we are already thinking of the next one down the road. Thus, by moving from product to product, we are rarely alive to the realities of the present. We are fully capable of doing this for decades, but there eventually comes a point where the days ahead are few and the memories behind are abundant. At this point, many people make an unconscious switch to living in the past instead of the future.

I am not saying that being alive to the ongoing process implies the elimination of planning and goal setting. Without a clear vision of the results we desire, we will not move in the direction of creating them, whether in business or in acquiring a skill. In The Path of Least Resistance, Robert Fritz distinguishes primary, secondary, and fundamental choices. Primary choices are choices about major results, and secondary choices help you take a step toward your primary result. A fundamental choice is a choice in which you commit yourself to a basic life orientation or a basic state of being. Fritz argues that it is easy for people to move through life by default without a clear idea of what they really want:

“What do you want?” I asked a man during a workshop.

“I want to get in touch with myself,” he said.

“What will you have once you are in touch with yourself?” I asked, trying to help him focus on the result he wanted.

“Then I can see what holds me back,” he replied.

“What will happen once you can see what holds you back?”

“Then I can overcome the way I sabotage myself.”

“Once you know that,” I asked again, “then what?”

“Then I can stop doing it.”

“What will happen when you stop doing it?”

“Well, I don’t know,” was the reply.

This exchange illustrates two things: first, many people don’t know where their process is taking them, and second, it is better to choose what we want to create than to focus on avoiding what we don’t want.

From a biblical perspective, our fundamental choice should be to know and become like the Lord Jesus, and this in turn should shape our primary and secondary choices in life. This fundamental choice is compatible with living in the present, the only point at which time intersects eternity. This aspiration animates our present, makes us alive to the process of daily experience, and informs our planning.

By contrast, an unbiblical fundamental choice (whether by default or by design) will never satisfy us because it will not address our deepest need as people created to know and enjoy their Creator. In this situation, our lack of contentment in the present will delude us into thinking that it will be found in the future—hence, product-to-product living.

A Step-by-Step Journey

The best metaphor for life as a whole and for the spiritual life in particular is that of a journey. Literature abounds with this imagery (e.g., John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). As followers of the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14, 22), we are travelers on a quest, a voyage, an odyssey, a pilgrimage. If we are following Christ, we are headed for home, but there are stages along the way and lessons to be learned. This is why it is a mistake to view the spiritual life as a static condition or a state of being that can be attained by a combination of technique and information. To follow Christ is to move into territory that is unknown to us and to count on His purposeful guidance, His grace when we go off the path, and His presence when we feel alone. It is to learn to respond to God’s providential care in deepening ways and to accept the pilgrim character of earthly existence with its uncertainties, setbacks, disappointments, surprises, and joys. It is to remember that we are in a process of gradual conformity to the image of Christ so that we can love and serve others along the way.

Seen in this light, the primary point of this earthly existence is preparation for our eternal citizenship in heaven (cf. DeVern F. Fromke, The Ultimate Intention and Paul E. Billheimer, Destined for the Throne). In this life we stumble in many ways (James 3:2) because we are still in process—our sanctification is not yet complete. Sanctification is both an event (we were sanctified when we gave ourselves to Christ; 1 Corinthians 6:11) and a process (we are being sanctified; Romans 12:2; Philippians 2-3; 1 John 2:28). Spiritual formation is the lifelong process of becoming in our character and actions the new creations we already are in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17); it is the working out of what God has already worked in us (Philippians 2:12-13).

The Christian life is not conformity to prevailing standards of holiness, but a step-by-step process. This process of genuine response to what God is doing in our lives is more critical than the visible product. I remember a new believer who in his enthusiasm for having found Christ sometimes swore when he prayed. Laundry-list legalism with its inventory of don’ts (the filthy five, the nasty nine, the dirty dozen) and do’s would measure such a person as carnal and disobedient. But I submit that this new convert, who knew little but applied what little he knew, was more pleasing to the heart of God with his ungainly prayers than a person who is eloquent in public prayer but is harboring unconfessed sin. In this case, the former gives the appearance of disobedience when he is actually obedient to where he is in his journey; the latter gives the appearance of obedience when he is actually disobedient to what he knows. External appearances are often deceptive, and this is why God looks at the heart.

Rahab the harlot had little knowledge about the God of Israel, but applied the knowledge she had (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25); the Pharisees knew the Scriptures but rejected God’s purposes. Since the spiritual life is not a matter of external conformity, it cannot be measured. Instead of comparing ourselves with others (2 Corinthians 10:12), it is better to seek fidelity in our own journey. Holiness relates to where we are now, not where we need to be later.

We are called to be apprentices of Jesus in kingdom living, and this requires time, development, and patience. As the gospels illustrate, knowing and believing in Christ is a dynamic process (consider the disciples in John 1, 2:11, and 16:30-31; the woman at the well in John 4; the man born blind in John 9; and Nicodemus in John 3, 7, and 19). Spiritual formation is gradual, and we become more substantial and real as we cooperate with the process by years of small choices in favor of God’s purposes. Each choice, whether to obey or resist, makes the next one possible.

Growing in Grace

Growth in Christlike virtues such as obedience, patience, courage, wisdom, service, humility, gentleness, and love is never automatic or easy. To use Teresa of Avila’s metaphor, the soul is an interior castle in which we must invite God to occupy room by room. This requires a lengthy series of deaths along the way: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Progress in following the Way necessitates an intentional and ongoing commitment to a protracted course of spiritual formation.

Our task is to place ourselves under the conditions favorable to growth and look to God for our spiritual formation. He uses different paces and methods with each person. Since the inner life matures and becomes fruitful by the principle of growth (1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18), time is a significant part of the process. As nature teaches us, growth is not uniform—like a vine or a tree, there may be more growth in a single month than in all the rest of the year. If we fail to accept this uneven developmental process, we will be impatient with God and with ourselves as we wait for the next growth spurt or special infusion of grace.

In a culture that promotes instant gratification, it can be wearisome for us to wait patiently for God’s timing. Many of us are tempted to bypass grace and take matters into our own hands as we seek some method, technique, seminar, or experience that will give us the results we want when we want them. But the fact is that we are as incapable of changing ourselves through our own efforts as we are of manipulating God to transform us more quickly.

In His grace, the Lord invites us to cooperate with the formative work of His Holy Spirit in our lives by engaging in the disciplines of faith, repentance, and obedience and by trusting in His ways and in His timing. Inevitably, God’s timing will seem painfully slow to us, but as we grow in wisdom, we learn to be more patient with the divine process, knowing that He alone knows what we need and when we need it. Thus, spiritual formation is nourished by years of disciplined fidelity to the sovereign call of God. Indeed, we will fail and disobey and do many foolish and grievous things throughout the process, but fidelity means that we get up and return to Jesus each time we fall. “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). May we allow the ordinary demands of everyday living to drive us to the grace of Jesus, to the Love of the Father, and to the fellowship of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Faith, Hope, and Love

“But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love encapsulate the dynamic of the spiritual life in Christ. Although all three relate to God’s creative purposes from eternity to eternity, faith particularly focuses on Christ’s redemptive work for us in the past, hope looks to the ultimate completion of this work in the future, and love manifests the life of Christ through us in the present.

Faith

Biblical faith is intrinsically bound up with hope because it is grounded in a Person we have not yet seen (see Romans 8:24-25 and 1 Peter 1:7-9). “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:1, 6). Faith is pleasing to God because it is the measure of the risk we place in His character and promises. Those who trust in Christ are, in effect, “betting the farm” on His claims and credentials; they are hoping that what He has promised, He is able also to perform (Romans 4:21).

The essence of walking in faith is acting on the conviction that God alone knows what is best for us and that He alone is able to accomplish it. The problem with faith is that it goes against the grain of human inclination and culture because it is based on the invisible and uncontrollable. We may give lip service to the proposition that God alone knows what is best for us, but in practice we are inclined to follow our own viewpoints, especially when times are tough.

The risks of faith are pleasing to God since they honor His testimony in spite of appearances to the contrary. A. W. Tozer put it this way in The Root of the Righteous:

A real Christian is an odd number, anyway. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen; talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot see; expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another; empties himself in order to be full; admits he is wrong so he can be declared right; goes down in order to get up; is strongest when he is weakest; richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels the worst. He dies so he can live; forsakes in order to have; gives away so he can keep; sees the invisible; hears the inaudible; and knows that which passeth knowledge.

This faith that pleases God involves three components: knowledge, trust, and action.

Component 1: Knowledge

Unless we know the truth, the truth cannot set us free. Faith in the biblical sense is not based on our feelings and opinions or on those of others, but on the authority of divine revelation. Since the heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects, it is important to understand that biblical faith is not a leap into the dark but a step into the light. It is a faith founded on fact, and there are credible answers to the intellectual barriers that are often erected against Christianity. For example, I’m Glad You Asked, a book I coauthored with Larry Moody, outlines the answers to twelve basic objections to Christianity. The component of knowledge in our faith will be enriched when we renew our minds with God’s truth, and this requires the discipline of regular personal time in the Scriptures.

Component 2: Trust

Faith is only as good as the object in which it is placed. If the object is worthy of our faith, it will sustain us even when our faith is weak. When I was in seminary, one of my professors told the story of his grandfather who wanted to cross the icy Susquehanna River at the turn of the century. Since he was unsure of the thickness of the ice, he began to cross gingerly on his hands and knees. When he was about halfway across, he heard a great rumbling sound. Looking over his shoulder, he was embarrassed to see a large wagon drawn by four horses storming past him on the ice! His faith had been weak, but its object was worthy. There is no more trustworthy foundation for our faith than Christ, the Rock and Anchor of our soul. When we place our trust in Him, we can be sure that He will carry us safely to the other side.

Component 3: Action

Knowledge and trust are best displayed in action. Regardless of what we say, it is what we do that will reveal what our hearts truly believe and trust. Faith in Christ has the property of growing through acts of obedience, and an obedient faith results in a greater knowledge of God. So there is a reciprocal relationship between the faith components of knowledge and action; the better we know Him, the more we want to obey Him, and the more we obey Him, the better we will know Him. Everything hinges on what we trust. If we trust our own wisdom, our hands are too full of ourselves to receive the gifts of God. It is only when we empty our hands of self-reliance, self-righteousness, self-pity, and other self-sins that they will be empty enough to receive the life of Christ in us and display His life to others.

Hope

A few years ago, I attended the funeral of one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. Several months after giving her life to Christ, Emily Meredith was diagnosed with a brain tumor. During the next five years, the courage, love, hope, and peace she displayed could only be explained by the power of the Holy Spirit in her life. In spite of her ordeal, she was never known to complain even once. The Christlike quality of her life made an indelible impact on hundreds of people, and by the age of 21 she had accomplished the purpose for which she was sent and was ready for her heavenly homecoming. While her family grieves her passing, their sorrow is tempered by an unflinching hope in the promises and character of God (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Hope is a powerful biblical motivator because it is related to the promise of long-term gain. We just observed that faith and hope are linked together; faith takes the risk of commitment before knowledge, and hope gives us the reason for the risks of faith. Each of the men and women of faith listed in Hebrews 11 understood that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him and risked the temporal in order to gain the eternal. Moses, for example, chose to endure ill-treatment with the people of God instead of enjoying the passing pleasures of sin, because he considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Hebrews 11:25-26).

Worldly hope tells us to pursue passing pleasures, but biblical hope warns us not to sell ourselves so cheaply. God calls us to give ourselves to the things that will last and will not disappoint us in the end. If we focus our hearts on the eternal, we will enjoy the temporal as well; but if our primary pursuit is the temporal, we will not only lose the eternal, but also the temporal.

In their helpful book, A Layman’s Guide to Applying the Bible, Walt Henrichsen and Gayle Jackson describe four kinds of people: those with no hope, those who have a misplaced hope, those who have an ill-defined hope, and those who have a proper hope.

1. Those with No Hope

Few people can live for long without some sense of hope. The venerable Bede portrayed human existence without the resurrection as a bird that flies out of complete darkness into a window of a brilliantly lighted banqueting hall, only to dart briefly across the light and music of the hall and fly out another window into the blackness of night. If this earth is all there is, life is a brief episode between two oblivions; it mocks our deepest aspirations and longings for more than this planet seems to offer. Some existentialists counsel us to accept the idea that life is meaningless and to live with courage in spite of the absurdity of existence. But no one can live consistently with such a hopeless philosophy.

2. Those who Have a Misplaced Hope

Almost everyone we meet lives with some kind of hope, some reason for getting up each morning and going on with life. But it would not take much probing to reveal the shallowness and inadequacy of the things in which most people put their faith and hope. When men put their hope in money, power, and position for their sense of self-worth and fulfillment, they will discover, as countless others have before, that these things will let them down. When women hope first in their family, their possessions, or their social status to satisfy their longing for security and significance, they too will be disillusioned.

Those who know Jesus are by no means immune to the problem of misplaced hope. Many have slipped into the trap of hoping in Christ for their eternal salvation and hoping in the world for everything else. I believe the reason so many can swallow the camel of eternity and strain at the gnats of the temporal is that this earth seems so real to them while heaven seems so vague and distant. With this mindset, it takes less faith to trust Christ for the afterlife than it does for this life.

3. Those who Have an Ill-defined Hope

Bob Hope once told a story about being in a plane that was struck by lightning. “Do something religious!” shrieked a little old lady across the aisle. “So I did,” he wisecracked. “I took up a collection.” People have a tendency to “do something religious” in life-threatening situations. I heard the testimony of an Atlanta businessman who described an experience he had before putting his faith in Christ. He was staying at the Hilton in Las Vegas when a fire broke out in the hotel. Thinking he was going to die, he cried out to God to deliver him. As he later reflected on this terrifying experience, he observed, “I didn’t pray to the gods of work, money, golf, or family.” It is during times of tribulation and adversity that we clarify the nature of our hope (see Romans 5:3-5). Hope developed in good circumstances tends to be unreliable because it is untested. But God uses times of adversity and few alternatives to bring us into contact with a hope that will not let us down.

4. Those who Have a Proper Hope

The only firm foundation for our hope is the unchanging character of the living God. It is when we find our refuge in Christ that we lay hold of a hope that is an anchor of the soul, a hope that will not disappoint because it is both sure and steadfast (Hebrews 6:18-19; 1 Peter 2:6). This biblical hope provides us with stability and direction because it draws us toward the promises of God. Since these promises are an extension of the Lord’s character, a proper hope is founded on a willingness to trust in Him. The key to trusting Him is knowing Him, and the key to knowing Him is the time we spend walking with Him day by day.

The apostle Paul lived out the truth that “the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). In the same way, the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 welcomed the promises of God from a distance and longed for a reward that was unseen by earthly eyes. Their faith was the assurance of the things for which they hoped, and the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

Paul revealed his heart when he wrote to the saints in Philippi of his longing for completeness in his relationship to Christ: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

The apostle avoided the morass of complacency and self-satisfaction through his understanding of the spiritual life as a process that leads ever higher and deeper in the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Creator and Sustainer of all things in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16-17). In his singlemindedness (“one thing I do”), he concentrated on the goal of growing conformity to Christ.

The world’s agenda burdens us with a multiplicity of worries and “desires for other things” (Mark 4:19) that can never satisfy the spiritual hunger of the human heart. But our calling is higher than this. Our Lord wants us to lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, so that we can run with endurance the race that is set before us as we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Paul lets us in on a discipline that can revolutionize our lives: “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead . . . .” A. W. Tozer wrote that “we must face today as children of tomorrow. We must meet the uncertainties of this world with the certainty of the world to come.”

Too many of us allow the present to be dominated by the regrets and the successes of the past. Paul learned the practice of deliberately forgetting the past, not in the sense of blotting out his memory, but by refusing to allow the past to control the present. If he had dwelled on his successes in Judaism, he would have been inclined to put his confidence in the efforts of the flesh rather than the grace of Christ. If he kept reviewing his failures and shortcomings, he would have been paralyzed by a sense of inadequacy and discouragement.

All of us have said and done things we wish we could undo or redo. In varying degrees, we have also experienced the pains of mistreatment and rejection. Though we cannot change the past, we can change our understanding of the past as we embrace the unconditional love of Christ who blesses us with forgiveness, healing, and restoration. The Scriptures exhort us to overcome the bondage of the past by living in the light of the future to which we have been called. The past is inalterable, but our lives in the present have a direct bearing on the quality of eternity. When we learn to see our past in light of our future, we see that our past has relevance, but our future reforms our past and determines who we are. In this way, we avoid the common pitfalls of camping permanently in denial or of camping permanently in sorrow.

This is why Paul added the positive statement, “reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This is a metaphor of a runner who strains his body in his determination to win the race. The apostle’s life was compelled by a singleness of purpose that shaped all of his activities. Like an athlete in a race, he had a clearly defined goal, and he disciplined himself to attain it. But the prize he had in mind was not a fading laurel wreath; it was the reward of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Elsewhere he wrote that “everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26; see Acts 20:24; 2 Timothy 4:7-8).

If we applied the same zeal in our walk with the Lord that we use in our sports and hobbies, many of us would be farther along the course. It takes time and discipline to “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” but this discipline must be set in a context of a transcendent hope and dependence upon the Spirit of Christ who indwells us and enables us to run in His victory.

Thus, the meaning of the present is largely shaped by our understanding of our destiny. There are two telling lines in The Iliad of Homer that seem to encapsulate the worldview of Greek mythology: “Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows.” We live in unhappiness and death ends all—with such a perspective, it is not surprising that many Greek thinkers sought refuge from absurdity in variations of Stoicism and Epicureanism. But for the believer in Christ, the ultimate context of meaning and purpose is our participation in the everlasting kingdom of God. Each “today” in Christ can be animated by an eschatological spirituality of hope.

Love

The gospel decisively deals with the twin problems of guilt over the past and anxiety about the future. In Christ, we enjoy forgiveness of sins (past) and anticipation of heaven (future). Unfortunately, this is where we often stop. But the gospel is more than forgiveness and eternal life: it is also the power to manifest kingdom living in the present. As I heard Darrell Bock put it, the gospel is the offer of God’s ability to make us into the people we were meant to be all along. In Christ, we have been freed from the bondage of the past and apprehension about the future so that we can enjoy the liberty of being alive to the opportunities of the present. The gospel is not a negative matter of keeping sin at bay, but a positive manner of walking with Christ and of loving and serving people through Him.

The blood of Christ paid the penalty of sin, the cross of Christ overcomes the power of sin, and our resurrection in Christ will remove the presence of sin. We live today between the cross and the resurrection, but even now Christ’s resurrection life empowers us to live and love in the present. We have been engrafted into the life of the ascended Lord, and as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). This makes it possible for us to have an intimate connection between faith and practice, between being and doing, so that what God has already done in our inner life will become increasingly visible through His transforming work in our outer life. In this way, the hope of our glorious future can be incorporated by faith into our present relationships and circumstances.

Life in Christ is the life of Christ in us—appropriated in the past, active in the present, and anticipating the future. “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three: but the greatest of these is love“ (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love is the greatest virtue because it is the application of faith and hope to our relationships in the present:

FAITH

LOVE

HOPE

Appropriated in the PAST

Active in the PRESENT

Anticipating the FUTURE

Forgiveness and Grace
(Gospels)

Love and Community
(Acts)

Purpose and Hope
(Epistles)

Salvation

Sanctification

Glorification

Positional
(Deliverance from the Penalty of Sin)

Progressive
(Deliverance from the Power of Sin)

Ultimate
(Deliverance from the Presence of Sin)

Significance

Satisfaction

Security

Hindsight

Insight

Foresight

History

Our Story

His Story

Humility

Obedience

Trust

Knowing

Doing

Being

Mind

Will

Emotions

Seeing

Acting

Expecting

Life

Love

Light

Since eternal life is a new and ongoing quality of life in us that will last forever, the journey of spiritual transformation with its pains and joys and its failures and advances is a process of rendering this new creation increasingly visible.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Sanctification