Posted in discernment, theology

Spiritual Formation: What is it, and is it as innocent as it sounds?

By Elizabeth Prata

It’s encouraging for me to hear from women who ask penetrating and insightful questions, and are training their discernment to detect truth from error. Ladies who adhere to sufficiency of scripture, who want to engage with people on the basis of the Rock, and not feelings. I’m so grateful for sisters in the faith.

I received a question about Spiritual Formation. What is spiritual formation, and how do I help a sister who is caught up in it?

Spiritual formation…it’s a New Age practice. The danger is that it sounds like something we should do. There IS such a thing as spiritual formation in the sense that the Holy Spirit in us forms us into His likeness and does so through the means of grace, our prayer, illuminating the scriptures to our mind, sanctifying us through worship and all the rest. But that is not the kind of “spiritual formation” that the world speaks of. That one is the New Age kind of spiritual formation.

There are many methods people employ to advance their sanctification. Spiritual Formation is one of those methods. John MacArthur notes in the 2nd link, that there are lots of ways man has created to sanctify themselves, but there is only ONE WAY that will restrain your flesh and that is totally and only the Holy Spirit.

Blog essays:
What is Spiritual Formation and Why does it Matter?

John MacArthur on Spiritual Formation and Biblical Sanctification

His series on spiritual formation continues in further links.

What are some Spiritual formation practices?

The bad kind of spiritual formation has its foundation is mysticism. It teaches that if you DO certain practices you will find God, or find truth (however the proponent defines God). At root, it’s a move away from the Rock of truth, away from the Bible, away from solidity and points to one’s self. Some of the practices promoted within spiritual formation groups are:

— reflective reading, “A more ‘right-brained’ approach is to read a text to hear how it ‘resonates’ with our inner life and personal experience” as one website explained. It urges you to read the Bible and see how you feel about it or see how it matches with experiences you had, rather than ask the only question to ask, ‘what does it mean; what did the Spirit intend it to mean?” It’s taking a good thing, inductive questioning, and pushing it further out, to outside the boundaries into emotion and subjectivity.

–centering prayer, where you take a word and repeat it over and over to ‘center yourself’ in preparation for the next spiritual formation practice of contemplative prayer. It should be ‘a sacred word’ and if your mind drifts, you’re supposed to repeat it again. This is just an adaptation of Buddhist meditation.

–contemplative prayer, after you ‘center yourself’ as described above, you pray contemplatively. You sit still, and wait. This is not just reflecting on scripture. It’s the opposite. You’re supposed to have emptied your mind so you can better hear God personally ‘speak’ to you. Or wait to ‘feel his presence.’ This was especially popularized in Sarah Young’s book Jesus Calling, and Ann Voskamp too, author of One Thousand Gifts, AKA ‘practicing the Presence.’

–Lectio Divina, popularized (and sadly legitimized) by Beth Moore and others at the Passion Conference in 2012. It’s a Catholic practice of a certain way reading scripture, that focuses on emptying the mind so as to feel your way through scriptures. That’s a huge generalization, but again, it’s not about studying the Word for what it says, but in the end is a practice that brings you back to yourself instead of edification about Jesus.

Where did spiritual formation come from?

It’s been around since Apostle John battled the Gnostics, but in modern times it is thought that the post Vatican II reforms where the priests were trained in new ways, melded with the touchy-feely 70s and the 80s push to re-unite Catholics and Protestants, and it entered evangelical seminaries. All the above practices were practiced by Catholic mystics. In the late ’80s Protestants like Richard Foster and especially Dallas Willard ‘found’ the ‘desert fathers’ AKA mystics and began teaching and using these practices in evangelical corners. It didn’t take long to spread, as Paul noted, gangrenous doctrines spread fast.

Bob Dewaay in his Critical Issues Commentary, writes at length about Dallas Willard and the origin of spiritual formation. None of it is biblical, DeWaay notes –

The spiritual disciplines, as we have seen, are bodily activities that we engage in hoping to become more Christ-like. So we decide what discipline we need, perhaps with the help of a “spiritual director.” Since we have established (and Willard admits) that most of these disciplines are not prescribed in the Bible, we have to decide which ones will work for us. The problem is that this is the very opposite of what the Bible says about discipline: “and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives'” (Hebrews 12:5, 6). God, not man, determines what each of us needs because only God knows exactly what each of us needs.

How to combat spiritual formation?

Here, Compelling Truth explains,

Biblical spiritual formation is about actively engaging with God and following His commands. Paul told Timothy to train himself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). Biblical spiritual formation is a training program, an intentional effort to be godly, not in our own strength but through the power of Christ (John 15:5).

The worst of the spiritual formation adherents, like Dallas Willard, teach that we are not thoroughly depraved, but we are innately good, just spiritually starved. We need to DO these practices to nourish ourselves and thus advance our sanctification. Thus, in speaking with a spiritual formation practitioner, you could point to the doctrine of total depravity and that we need someone OUTSIDE ourselves to save us, (if they have been taught that SF saves them) or that if they are saved, that our advancement in sanctification comes from the Holy Spirit alone as we worship, pray, read the Bible etc.

You could talk about the dangers of waiting to hear from God apart from what he has already said in the Bible, because there is no sure way to determine if it’s God, and also the canon is closed. You could talk about how daily obedience to Jesus in submissive walk under His commands advances our sanctification, not practices we do, though of course we do pray, congregate at church, give, sing, etc as part of our expression of joy and obedience to Him.


The best false doctrine and the best false practices are slyly almost true. What’s the matter with contemplative prayer? they say. I’m thinking about God! What’s the matter with centering yourself, I’m focusing on God? What’s the matter with trying to please God in these practices? I’m obeying God! But they are all just enough off center and outside the bounds as to be dangerous, because of what is behind the practices, their origins, and their intent.

This is a tough one, because of the above, and also because it’s become so ‘normal’ taught in seminaries and practiced in churches, and promoted by bigwigs like Moore, John Piper and the others, that people won’t want to believe you that it’s a dangerous practice.

It all comes down to one truth: there is only one way to restrain the flesh, and that is submission to the Holy Spirit. If a person has tried spiritual formation for very long, they will be tired, and they’ll notice that it isn’t ‘working’. But relying on the Spirit seems so simple, our flesh wants to DO rather than SUBMIT. Remind them that His yoke is light (despite Dallas Willard’s misuse of that verse, more on that in DeWaay’s essay). It’s really light, if we just submit and obey. No need to follow man-made practices that don’t work, just refresh one’s self with the Word, prayer, worship, and a life walking joyfully under His holy goodness toward us.

True spiritual practices are eternal, mysterious, wonderful, but simple. We need not add anything to our sanctification other than what the Bible says to do. Ultimately, you can detect if a practice is of God or not if you ask yourself this: does this practice allow me to know more of Jesus, or is it focusing on myself?

spiritual formation


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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