Spiritual formation means becoming like Jesus.
Jesus is the perfect, complete human. As a human being, Jesus shows us the ideal for humanity; he is “man fully alive.” To become like Jesus is to become what we’re meant to be, to attain our true self. It means being transformed in every aspect of our being, beginning with our minds.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)
Spiritual formation, or becoming like Christ, requires transformation of our thought-life. To be transformed into people who resemble Jesus we must first address the ideas, images, information, and thinking that take up space in our minds. (See Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart, chapter 6.)
Having our minds transformed is not the sum-total of spiritual formation. We are more than our minds, and so growth means addressing other aspects of our being, such as our emotions, will, and body. But the mind is where we start.
Dallas Willard says, “As we first turned away from God in our thoughts, so it is in our thoughts that the first movements toward the renovation of the heart occur. Thoughts are the place where we can and must being to change” (Renovation of the Heart, p.95)
Consider the following quotes from Scripture about our thought-life and spiritual formation:
The Book of Psalms begins with Psalm 1, telling us how important our thought-life is, calling us to direct our thoughts towards the Lord and his word, warning us against the “counsel of the wicked,” and wooing us to meditations that lead to a “blessed” or flourishing life.
Paul is saying the same thing in Philippians 4:8, “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
What can we do in this process, to see our thought-life transformed?
Meditation is an act of focused thinking, mulling over something deeply. The Hebrew word for meditate, hagah, also means to murmur or mumble; imagine reading over something, softly mumbling the words, repeating it again and again, letting the meaning sink in, letting it soak into your mind like water into a sponge. This is biblical meditation: not emptying the mind, but saturating it, not seeking to void one’s mind of thought, but to fill and form one’s thought-life.
Meditation naturally leads to memorization. In memorization, we focus and repeat our meditating to the point that, not only our thoughts, but even our memory is filled and formed.
As a boy in Sunday School, my teachers helped me memorize verses and short passages, such as Genesis 1:1, John 3:16, and Psalm 23. At that point in life, I was motivated more by pleasing my teachers and getting a reward (gold star, cookie) than by the Scripture itself. I look back with much gratitude now, however, for the Scriptures I absorbed then have shaped my entire thought-life as an adult. It is very important to train children in this way, whose minds and attitudes are ripe for memorization in the early years.
One of the first passages I memorized on my own, without external motivation, was James chapter 1. I don’t know why I chose James, except that it seemed like a book full of wisdom, and at that time of my life as a teenager, I strongly desired to be more wise. I think that anyone wanting to put Scripture to memory should choose passages that have some direct relevance to their present life and felt needs. For example, Proverbs and James might be particularly suited to people in their teen years, whereas a book like Ecclesiastes might be more relevant to older people or those who’ve experienced the disappointments and disillusionments of life.
If you want to learn how to meditate on Scripture, I recommend this video created by members of The Journey West County, which teaches the ancient practice of Scripture meditation known as Lectio Divina: https://www.facebook.com/221605001210678/videos/605030587048893/
For memorization, here is one of the simplest and most effective methods I’ve used:
Ideally, memorization will also be meditation. It is one thing to memorize words. It is another to think about those words, and to let the words transform your mind, pierce your heart, and influence your actions.