The Secret to Spiritual Formation

In January I will be teaching a Doctor of Ministry Seminar on Spiritual Disciplines and Spiritual Formation. Those of us who know and love Jesus recognize the need to be growing, to be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ even as we confront the idols of our hearts. We strive to balance between legalism and license, realizing our identity in Christ cannot be shaken by our failure, and yet understanding the importance of a life of obedience.

One of the books I am reading in preparation for the seminar has the undistinguished title of The Christian Educator’s Guide to Spiritual Formation, a collection of essays. As I read through them, I came upon the chapter by John Piper I found him quoting from George Mueller, a man whose life epitomized spiritual formation, a life of great faith as he established orphanages across England. In his Autobiography Mueller gives what I think to be the secret to spiritual formation:

“I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. …

“I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began therefore, to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning” (from Bergen, 1906, pp. 152– 154).

Piper comments: “Having our souls ‘happy in the Lord,’ as Mueller says, is not mere icing on the cake of Christian commitment. It is the spring of all true spiritual formation, all true Christlikeness, all true holiness. The quest for holiness and the quest for happiness are one. And the good news is that they are not at odds. Just as there is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Heb. 12: 14), so there is a happiness without which we are not holy. This happiness is the happiness of faith— a happiness of being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. It is not glib or trite or superficial. It is not naive about the pain and suffering in the lives of the saints. It knows the apostolic experience of ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Cor. 6: 10). It knows how to ‘weep with those who weep.’ But it insists that the weeping of compassion is the weeping of joy impeded in the extension of itself to another.” (1998-02-01). Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation, The (Kindle Locations 1235-1250). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I want to recover this simple but vital truth: start the day steeped in the Word, staying there until my soul is happy in God, not because of circumstances of the day, but in spite of them. If we can learn this secret, we will find the spiritual disciplines, to quote Don Whitney, to be delight, not duty.


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