Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Spiritual Formation

How do we know that Christianity is true?

The other day I had lunch with a guy who used to be a Mormon. He was a serious Mormon--a high priest or something like that. He knew all of the secret handshakes, had full access to the temple--the whole deal. But then one day he realized that it was all smoke and mirrors. He didn't believe it, and over the next few years he worked up the chutzpa to renounce his faith. A few years after that, he was involved in a Christian community, met Jesus, and became a Christian. Now he is a missionary. Very cool story.

When I was talking to him, the question on my mind that I wanted to ask, but didn't know how (the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss this guy's spiritual journey), was "Does Christianity 'work' better than Mormonism?" What I mean by that is, "Now that you are a Christian, do you have a newfound spiritual power that you did not have when you were a Mormon? Is there a noticable difference?"

I've been reading a lot of Paul lately. He was a pretty intense guy. Didn't pull any punches. He wrote, "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation-- but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." (Rom 8:9–14 NIV)

Starting in verse 9, Paul says something to the extent of, "How do you know if you belong to Christ? If the Spirit of God lives in you, you belong to Christ." Notice that the known proposition in this statement is whether or not the Spirit lives in you, and the unknown proposition is whether or not you belong to Christ.

Paul also wrote, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing-- if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Gal 3:2–5 NIV)

In this passage, Paul proves that justification is through faith and not works of the law because the Galatian community received the Spirit by believing what they heard. In other words, the known proposition was that the Galatians had received the spirit by faith, and the unknown proposition was whether they would be perfected by faith or by works of the law.

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul used the Christian community's experience of the Spirit as proof that what he was saying was true. In short, the Holy Spirit's work in our lives is "proof" that our faith is true.

So that brings me back to the question for my former-Mormon friend--Does Christianity "work" better than Mormonism? Does it "work" better than Islam? Buddhism? Paganism? Therapy?

In Galatians 5, Paul writes about what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like in your life. He writes, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Gal 5:22–23 NIV)

I hope to teach a class on spiritual formation in the Spring, and I am wrestling with what spiritual formation looks like and how it is fostered. Spiritual formation is easy if you measure it in terms of how often you read the Bible, how often you pray, how often you go to church, etc. But, if spiritual formation is measured in terms of how loving you are, how joyous, how peaceful, patient, and kind you are, then it becomes a lot harder.

What 12 steps do you give someone to make them more loving?

But then again, isn't that the heart of the Gospel? Isn't that what the Holy Spirit is supposed to do in our lives? Shouldn't it be a no-brainer? Paul seems to take it for granted that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Christian communities, making the Christians more loving, joyous, etc.

I have wrestling with my own heart lately. Richard Foster summarizes human vices in three character flaws--lust, greed, and pride. I think that about sums it up. So, as I prepare this spiritual formation class, I am asking myself, "Am I less lustful than I was a year ago? Am I less prideful? Am I less greedy?" If I can't answer those questions, "Yes," then the way I practice my faith is not working, and therefore it is not of the Spirit and it is not true.

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