A Discussion with Scot McKnight Below is an online interview/dialogue on spiritual formation I had with Dr. Scot McKnight, a New Testament Professor at Northern Seminary and the author of Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, The Jesus Creed. This dialectic is offered both here and on Scot’s blog on Patheos.com)
Brad: A few Sunday’s ago, our church in Denver began what we are calling, “Read the Creed.” (More about that here.) This is a seven week, all church study of your book, The Jesus Creed. Our hope is to be spiritually formed over the next seven weeks. Like a sculptor shaping clay to create a replica, spiritual formation to me is the gradual process of shaping (both actively and passively) one’s inner character and one’s outer conduct, in convergence with the movement of the Holy Spirit, to be like Jesus. Scot, we all want to be more like Jesus. What are the keys to successful spiritual formation to you?
Scot: Unfortunately, but certainly not tragically, spiritual formation has become the preoccupation with individual personal formation into individual Christlikeness. I affirm the necessity of both: each of us is called to be formed and each of us is called is challenged to become Christlike. The unfortunate result of this is that we are too preoccupied with individuals at the expense of the group. Put differently, individual spiritual formation is to take place in the context of fellowship in a local church. Too often we do not hear about the local church context in spiritual
But even more, and this is where we will get to the Jesus Creed: the NT pattern of spiritual formation is ecclesial formation. The word “ecclesial” means “church-y” or “fellowship-y” formation. To be spiritually formed in the early church was to be formed into the character and virtues that promoted and deepened the fellowship of the church. Notice how often Paul talks about spiritual gifts and spiritual fruit, and notice how they are both about group — about the church: gifts are designed by God to create unity in the Body of Christ and the fruit are designed by God for relationships with others in the church fellowship.
And what is the first fruit? Love. The context for all spiritual gifts? Love (1 Cor 13). Where did this come from? The Jesus Creed.
Brad: Dallas Willard writes: “Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.” It is about transforming the heart and mind and soul of a person. This is what Jonathan Edwards calls, “changing our affections.” Why is this so hard? How do you coach your students to change their affections?
Scot: It is hard because we are hard! Humans change only over time and often as a result of great effort. Think of it in the simplest of categories: How hard is it for you to begin rising 30 minutes earlier than your pattern? Or to go to bed 30 minutes earlier? It takes effort to change like this.
Dallas Willard here is talking about character formation: only over time, with what Dallas calls VIM (vision, intention, means of disciplines), can we be reformed into the person God wants us to be. What Dallas said about the disciplines is true: they put us in a posture of receiving God’s grace through the Spirit. They make us available and vulnerable to God’s altering work. The same is true of the Jesus Creed, which I see as a “spiritual discipline”: by reciting the Jesus Creed throughout the day we become more aware of love and this consciousness works its way into our heart as we allow God to transform us.
Brad: I think our focus needs to change from more activity for God to a desire for more God. What we desire is perhaps the most important component of our personal formation. Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. A few years ago, Willow Creek released their Reveal study, a professional evaluation of the spiritual growth of thousands of people in hundreds of Evangelical Christian churches. The commonality they found was striking: going to a great church with great Bible teaching and powerful worship songs does not grow your faith very much, if at all. Instead, it is people who actively engage themselves in regular spiritual disciplines (like Bible reading and study, memorization, prayer, service, etc.) that clearly show the most significant growth in their faith. Why do spiritual disciplines, like discussing and memorizing the Jesus Creed, seem to impact our faith so strongly?
Scot: A friend of mine in Australia, Brian Harris, focused on your point in his understanding of evangelicals. They are ACTIVISTS. We are a busy people, an active people, when something needs to be done, evangelicals jump and get it going. We are not, however, DEEP or QUIET people. That is, we’d rather do something about it than go before God in prayer, than to become at our deepest level someone transformed. (By the way, I’m not convinced anyone gravitates to deep-ness easily.) So, let’s begin here: we need to be deeper.
The way to be deeper is to be exposed ourselves to the grace, to the power, that is, to the Spirit of God. As presence with my wife Kris makes me more like her, and as her presence with me makes her more like me — so that over time we develop closer characters and closer instincts and desires, so with spiritual formation: we need to be in the presence of God because God’s very presence is transformative.
Think about it this way: if you spend hours and hours at work or in your neighborhood with a person, that person’s behaviors will rub off on your and yours on them. Your neighbor may like a certain writer, and you take up reading that author yourself and you find yourself in conversation with your neighbor about that author… and over time you both develop characters in that author’s influence. At work, you may attach yourself to a person with a specific kind of leadership and then you find yourself leading the same way.
So with God: the more we are in God’s presence, which takes place through the spiritual disciplines, the more we are exposed to God’s transforming presence.
Brad: Almost a thousand people have signed up at Cherry Creek with one hope: to be more like Jesus in seven weeks than we are now. How are we to do this?
We are applying energy to our faith.
• We are reading the Jesus Creed.
• We are memorizing Jesus’ key Bible passage (from Mark 12:28-31), a passage about which Jesus says all of the Old Testament Scripture hangs.
• We are watching the Jesus Creed DVD and then discussing what we are learning in spiritual formation classes and small groups (of all ages).
• We are singing the Jesus Creed—as composed by our own Evan Mazunik—as a part of worship each week.
• We are learning from sermons based on Bible texts about the Jesus Creed.
• We are surrendering all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength to God anew, and seeking to say “Yes!” to him in every area.
• We are practicing loving our neighbors in practical ways.
It is a walk of faith. We know we cannot read, discuss, or memorize our way to spiritual maturity. We remain dependent on Christ’s work in our hearts through the Spirit at every step. This is the Gospel. Scot, what are the land mines we need to watch for? How do keep from becoming too works-based?
Scot: The biggest land mine will be resistance to what God will reveal or speak to a person in prompting that person to act in love in a new situation. The most common story I get about the Jesus Creed is that people become more and more sensitive to others and begin to see the creeping in of the importance to love others in relationships they’d “prefer” not to have that happen! The Jesus Creed is dangerous for your moral health because it will summon each of us to love others all the time. If we become more loving we will not need to fear works. We will discover that love transcends works and puts works in their proper place.
Perhaps a danger will be superiority complexes: that is, we will think we are superior to other Christians because we are more loving. We need to guard against this sort of temptation: after all, we have learned to love only because God has loved us and taught us what love means.