What Is Spiritual Formation?

These days the term “Spiritual Formation” is thrown around a lot. It is used just enough that we all feel like we should already know what it means and so nobody asks. But most of us really only have a small understanding of what is meant when people say Spiritual Formation.

So what is Spiritual Formation?

For Christians, it is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

But what does that mean?

In Matthew 22, a man asks Jesus what is the most important law.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

According to Jesus, directing all of your heart, soul, and mind towards the divine is the most important thing for you to do.

But what does that mean?

It’s hard because these words are ambiguous in our language as well as the language the Bible was written in.

The word he uses that we translate as heart, καρδια (kardia), was, in Jewish culture, the deep part of our being that receives and responds to revelation.

Where we say “mind,” Jesus said διανοια (dianoia). In Greek philosophy, which was (and still is) pretty influential in the way people understood the brain. There were two words we often translate as mind, the first is the one Jesus uses here. διανοια is not what you understand, necessarily, it is what you know.

The last word, soul, is the hardest one for us to understand. It has such a loaded religious meaning for us that it is hard to get past that. Jesus used the word ψυχη, which is where our word psyche finds its roots. ψυχη is not a transcendent, immortal, spiritual existence. It is the life behind man. It is your desires and affections as well as your fears and avoidances and how they affect your actions.

Jesus has just described what we can call three parts of our being. We can visualize it like this


But all good venn diagrams have a common area, which we have blank here. We’ll fill it in later. First, another question you may ask.

Do I have to “do” Spiritual Formation?

Everyone is being formed. The question is, is it a positive or negative formation?

For Christians, spiritual formation is being conformed to the image of Christ. Paul tells us that in Romans 8. But in Romans 12 he warns us against what we might otherwise be conformed to.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind . . .

So, no, you don’t have to “do” spiritual formation. It is happening to you whether you are passive or active. But if you want to be conformed to the image of Christ instead of the world, you should be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

In English we read “mind” and if you’re paying attention you might think it is διανοια. But if you’re paying close attention you might remember that there are two minds in Greek. The word Paul uses here is νους (nous), which is the higher mind. νους is our perceptions, intuition, reasoning, understanding. It informs every other area of our being and when it is transformed, we are transformed with it.


In Greek thought it was the νους that separated man from animals. It was a gift of the divine that allowed us to understand the divine. For Paul, having your νους renewed transformed your WHOLE being.

Refocusing your  καρδια, ψυχη, and διανοια on God renews your νους . Renewing your νους transforms you to the image of Christ.

Spiritual Formation by Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Orthopathy

How do we refocus our heart, soul, and mind on Christ? Through orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. Or, right belief, right action, and right feeling.


  • In orthodoxy we focus our mind on God through the study of theology, history, and  scripture.
  • In orthopathy we focus our heart on God through relational practices like prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
  • In orthopraxy we focus our soul on God through our actions  like church attendance and worship, fasting, and caring for the poor.

(None of those lists are meant to cover every way that we can practice orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy).

Is Spiritual Formation Legalism?

A legitimate concern you may have is that this sounds like I am saying that if you just force yourself to practice these things you will become Christlike. The truth is, conforming you to the image of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. But these practices create the space and opportunity for the Spirit to do that work.

One of my favorite stories is about a young monk who goes to an older monk to express concerns about his spiritual development.

The younger approaches the older and says to him, “I have been praying the hours, fasting, reading the scriptures, attending mass and yet I do not feel as if I have made myself anymore like Christ.”

The older responded, “You can not make yourself more like Christ anymore than you can command the sun to rise.”

Annoyed, the young monk asked, “Then what is the point of all these disciplines?”

“You can not make the sun rise, but you can make sure you are awake when it does.”

Orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy will not magically conform you to the image of Christ. But they will help you to stay awake for it to happen.