Spiritual Formation and the Sovereign Self

Blayne Banting
We are all creatures of our context, despite our protests to the contrary. Part of that context for those of us who live in the contemporary West (by which I mean Western Europe and North America – not British Columbia!) is a rather sharp focus on the self as the locus of identity and authority. Termed by some as expressive individualism, this is life defined by the individual for her/himself. Each of us is affected by this perspective since most of us long to be authentic selves. Wanting to be an authentic person doesn’t seem like an evil thing, especially considering its alternative. Who wants to be an inauthentic person? It’s when this personal desire eclipses all other aspects of life that the trouble begins. Even our desire to be spiritually formed persons can seem to emphasize the individual over the more communal aspects of our faith. Speaking of formation automatically conjures up pictures of solitary seekers longing to heroically rise above the insensate masses mired in spiritual mediocrity. Even though we are taught the importance of corporate spiritual disciplines, it can be our default mode to want to rise above the rabble to achieve newer heights of spiritual maturity. In many ways, the self is sovereign. The self is supreme.
So much for the obvious. Individualism is a fashionable punching bag these days. Everyone knows we are fractured and self-centered. The contemporary mantra of many is “I am my own and I belong to myself.”1 This condemns us to a life-long identity crisis as we are thrust back on ourselves to determine who we are and what is right (for us). What is seen as a hero’s journey of self-actualization and a coming of age where we determine what is right and when we want it used to be understood as the chief issue in adolescence. So much for growing up! Even admitting this embarrassing reality, we just seem weak in finding ways that speak a deeper truth into this selfish inclination we all share as sons of Adam. What resources has God given us to grow in him together? There are many of these even though they may not receive the same attention as many of the more solitary disciplines.
It all starts simply and foundationally with the church. We are called to grow to be more like Jesus together. More than a decade ago Jim Wilhoit described community spiritual formation using these six phrases: 1) is intentional; 2) is communal; 3) requires our engagement; 4) is accomplished by the Holy Spirit; 5) is for the glory of God and the service of others; and 6) has as its means and end the imitation of Christ.2 This is pretty much Spiritual Formation 101. Not much to dispute here. However, we can also blithely overlook the communal dimension of this definition in our practice of our formation because we are so prone to go it alone. In sum, many of us are formed more by our screens than by the Scriptures. And to be honest, many of our experiences with our sisters and brothers in Christ tend more to arrest our development than assist it. Where can we turn?
The Apostle Paul is rather fond of a little phrase he uses in several ways amid his letter writing campaign. He refers to us being “in Christ.” This little phrase and its close cousins “in him, in the Lord,” etc., explode off the page to reorientate our preoccupation with our individual selves. Along with being shorthand for our new status before God as being intimately connected with our Savior, it is an intensely social phrase. All who belong to Jesus are “in Christ.” It is the very arena in which our spiritual formation is accomplished. No solo acts here. No prima donnas (or donalds). Whether we like it or not, we’re in this together.
Still, this is hardly news to most of us. It’s the practice of it that can give us pause. We are so conditioned by the power of the sovereign self that even our views of community can be swayed. Rather than true community, which is easily prescribed but much harder to practice, we can settle for a collective of individual selves held together by common commitments. This is close enough to true community that it can fool many of us, at least for awhile. We may find satisfaction because it gives us a sense of identity, or we can be fulfilled because we have decided to volunteer to serve the greater group. These all point back to ourselves as individuals and our need to remain in control. Let the unifying commitment falter and this pseudo-community splinters like good firewood. We’ve seen this at work during the past months of the pandemic. Surely there’s something stronger than this.
The Apostle comes to our rescue again with another of his favorite words – one another (it’s two words for us but one for him). Paul calls us to a communal life of one-anothering (loving, forgiving, teaching, warning, submitting, etc.). Among other things, this challenges the absolute sovereignty of the self. It calls us to self-giving rather than self-promotion. We find there are limits to ourselves and our personal agendas. There are new challenges to meet as we grow in faith together with people much different than ourselves. Sounds a bit messy, doesn’t it? A bit impractical? Rather inconvenient? All the above! What is true is seldom easy or convenient – it’s just…true.
So, we are called to this seemingly impossible task of learning how to grow into the measure of the fullness of Christ – together. We may never ‘get there’ but we can get closer (with the help and grace of God). It’s one of those cases where the means justify the ends. Left to our concern solely for ourselves, we often think the ends justifies the means. But we are not in control, we are in Christ. This is life turned upside down (or right side up). This is life in the Kingdom. This is our life together. And when we are tempted to go back to our old individualistic ways of the sovereign self, there are two phrases that keep us from caving in: You are not your own; and You are not alone.

1 Cf. Alan Noble, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2021).
2 James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 23.

Blayne Banting has served for the last 3 years as Dean of the Seminary at Briercrest College & Seminary. He is married to Peggy and they have 4 grown children and 3 grandchildren.