Peter K Nelson is a friend and now the pastor of a wonderful church in Goshen, Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia (my favorite and hometown city!). In 2010 he published a book on Spiritual Formation that I have found helpful and which breathes a great spirit of pastoral care. I asked Peter if he would do an interview for Monday’s Discussion. Here it is.
1. Peter what led you to write the book, Spiritual Formation: Ever Forming, Never Formed?
Getting older! Actually, that’s not really true—I’d been concerned about these topics when I was a young adult too. But walking with Christ through several chapters of life and across a few decades (pot-holes included) can help some of the complex realities of Christian life come into focus. In our youth we don’t tend to anticipate what the drawn-out and chronically unfinished process of spiritual maturation really feels like. I preached a series a couple years ago called “Under Construction,” and I think that metaphor has some mileage for looking at the Christian life.
2. What is the “snapshot” of the book?
The book offers practical encouragement for believers struggling with sin by confronting misconceptions about spiritual life (like rosy expectations) and presenting a pathway for authentic growth. To be true to the Scriptures, God’s people must learn to be at peace while still imperfect, and yet persist in seeking God and pursuing holiness—that is, to be discontent contented followers of Jesus.
It’s a book for people who value Bible study; all along the way the burden of this project is to probe the Scriptures and then point the way for God’s people who earnestly desire to be formed and shaped more and more into the likeness of Christ (Roman 8:29). And it’s a book that would especially appeal to, shall we say, “reflective” believers—that is, those who pause to ask WHY a lot and who want to understand how the array of biblical and practical pieces of our Christian lives fit together in a coherent whole. In addition, it’s a book for people who want to sort out what’s possible here and now in terms of spiritual transformation, and what must await the life to come.
3. What was the most surprising discovery you made as you studied the topic?
The way that many authors, in order to call believers beyond complacency and excite them with notions of all that God wants them to be and to experience beyond a hum-drum life, overstate or oversimplify what the Bible really teaches about our spiritual victories this side of heaven. We look at sinful patterns and wrong thinking in the church (and maybe in our own hearts), and we want to say, “Stop it, just don’t do that, do what’s right, obey God…” And we want to imagine that a quick fix is possible. But the biblical picture is more humbling than that: God’s usual way of bringing about meaningful change in our spiritual lives is by a gradual process (it may be “three steps forward, two steps back”) over time and with the wonderfully imperfect input of other believers into our lives: spiritual formation is a community project.
The more I read, the more I found ambitious authors and speakers envisioning spiritual experience that sounded like virtual perfection—that we can banish sin from our lives and experience heaven here and now. I’m looking to make a more nuanced and careful statement that both calls for a bold assault against our sins but also speaks God’s peace upon his faltering children. You might say I’m trying to help believers plan ahead for the fact that they’ll still be sinners tomorrow and yet not (perish the thought!) plan to commit sin.
4. What is missing in the whole spiritual-formation conversation from your perspective?
I think there can be a shortage of careful study of Scripture and an overemphasis on the categories and concerns of the social sciences. Since spirituality is a hot topic in our day, and since both Christian and non-Christian visions of spiritual life are all about, I think it’s wise to proceed in a way that looks to the Word of God first and foremost.
I also think that the spiritual disciplines might be seen by some as a job description for working one’s way into God’s favor. NOT that they should be taken this way, of course; God-honoring habits for the way we use our minds and bodies have a good and rightful place in the daily outworking of our Christian faith. But it’s important to be crystal clear that such actions flow from hearts that already revel in the saving and sustaining grace of God (just as it’s important that Ephesians 2:10 follows and doesn’t precede Ephesians 2:8-9).
5. Anything else you’d like to put out there about the book?
As I’ve read on this constellation of topics (e.g., spiritual formation, maturation in faith, discipleship), I’ve found a great many godly believers, from our day and past generations as well, saying something like this: the more you progress in your walk with Christ, the more you realize how far you still have to go (I give many examples of such statements in ch. 6).
In an article in Christianity Today (“Impractical Christianity,” Sept. 2005), I put it this way: “Imagine the novice mountain climber setting out to scale the grand peak called Holiness. Although the summit isn’t visible from base camp, the eager mountaineer imagines that it can’t be ‘that far’ away. It’s only after ascending well beyond the foothills that the majestic summit finally comes into view, and it leaves the climber’s jaw hanging. A true sense of the scale of the venture begins to register.”
This kind of paradoxical quality of spiritual formation is at the heart of what I want to bring out in my book—and I think it’s the kind of thing you tend to see and deeply grasp as you spend time on the journey with Jesus. Believers who are “not so young” will resonate with this. And yet, younger Christians would do well to look ahead and take the long view of spiritual progress on the journey with Jesus.