Spiritual Life: The Essence

When I finished the previous post on the spiritual life as a dance, I saw in my mind’s eye the healed man outside the Temple walking, leaping and praising God (Acts 3:8).  I watched St. Francis dance down the road with Clare and their friends. I remembered that Paul put joy second only to love in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  And I recalled how my friend, David McKenna, always ends his letters by writing “With His Joy.”

Before we look at the elements of spiritual formation, we must see the essence of the spiritual life.  Among the many good descriptions, my favorite one is from Henry Scougal, “the life of God in the human soul.” [1] Here is our point of reference, and the rest of this series will revolve around it and unpack it.  Today, we look at the big picture.

When we do, we see the source of the spiritual life: God.  This should be obvious, but too much contemporary spirituality has been anthro-centric rather than theo-centric.  The human factor is there, as Scougal’s definition shows. But it is not the starting point, and it is not the central thing.  When this becomes so, spiritual formation is reduced to a religious self-help effort. [2]

Years ago, in a conversation with Eugene Peterson he told me that his greatest concern about spiritual formation was that it too often and too easily failed to begin with God.  In fact, he had just come from a major national conference where he felt that was the case.  We talked about the necessity of keeping God at the center, and the personal, ecclesial, and social perils which arise when we do not.

If you are familiar with his writing, you know his repeated emphasis on a God-sourced and God-sustained spiritual formation.  One of his most powerful statements comes from a comment he put into ‘The Message Bible’ in the introduction to Genesis, “First, God. God is the subject of life. God is foundational for living. If we don’t have a sense of the primacy of God, we will never get it right, get life right, get our lives right. Not God at the margins; not God as an option; not God on the weekends. God at center and circumference; God first and last; God, God, God.” [3]

In the Wesleyan tradition, we say the same thing directly in referring to God and indirectly in using the word grace.  My friend, Bob Tuttle, rightly notes that every time we read the word ‘grace’ in Wesley’s writing, we see God.  I mention this because it is the segway into the second big-picture feature of the spiritual life: “in the human soul.”
The life of God is present in us through the Holy Spirit (the indwelling Christ) as grace. Grace is the reminder that God is God…and we are not–another essential revelation if the ego (the false self) is to be dethroned so the imago (true self) can exist and mature.  Grace is the content of the spiritual life, and the human soul is the container.  God is the wine, and we are the wineskins.

This big-picture view reveals God’s invitation to abundant living, and our necessary response to grace.  It is not a formula, but it is a principle: grace + response = growth.  This is the dynamic described by Scougal as “the life of God in the human soul.”  The word ‘in’ is operative–engaged, not passive.  It is the dynamic that generates the dance between Lover and beloved.  It is the aim which spiritual formation seeks to establish and mature in us for our good, through us for the good of others, and all for the glory of God.

[1] Henry Scougal, ‘The Life of God in the Human Soul,’ originally written in 1677 a.d. it is still in print today in traditional and ebook formats.

[2] We are being spiritually deformed today by such things as fundamentalist (legalistic, retributive) religion, imperialistic Christianity, the prosperity gospel and an institutionalist view of the Church–all of which arise from egotism, enthroning the false self, preserving egocentric/ethnocentric power, and expressing the classical deadly sins.  Philip Yancey has written about this in his book, ‘Vanishing Grace.’

[3] Eugene Peterson, translator, ‘The Message Bible’ (NavPress, 2002), 19.

[Just a reminder: if you have only now found this series, you can go to the “In-Formation” category on the sidebar of the Oboedire home page and read previous posts.  The posts are periodic installments which will become a kind of ebook when the series ends]

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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