As humans, we think in metaphors all the time, so we naturally use metaphors for describing spiritual formation. We even find these metaphors in Scripture, like growing up into the “full stature” of Christ (biological growth, Ephesians 4:13), or being “pruned” like what a gardener does with plants (horticultural, John 15:1–2), or “walking in step with the Spirit” (journey, Galatians 5:16).
Each of these metaphors serves a unique purpose, but I want to focus on the last one, the journey metaphor. If you play out the idea of “walking in step with the Spirit,” it becomes what some have called the “journey metaphor” for spiritual formation. Then, if you play out the journey metaphor, it becomes what I’m calling
The story framework for spiritual formation.
In this post, I want to offer you an extrapolation of the journey metaphor and describe what might be a fresh framework for thinking spiritual formation: the story framework. I have found the story framework to be immensely helpful for thinking about spiritual formation, and as I’ve shared my findings with others, they’ve have found great help by it, too.
So I want to share it with you, as well.
Spiritual formation happens when God forms our spirits and lives to make us holy. This can also be called sanctification, discipleship, or spiritual growth. These terms, when well-defined, mean the same thing. Roughly, they all mean the process of becoming like Christ. Becoming like Christ is the goal of our spiritual formation journey, as God works in us, with us, and through us.
Spiritual formation happens by God’s sovereign hand in our lives as we cooperate with him.
I didn’t come up with this framework entirely on my own; I applied the work other people have done with story to the spiritual life, like Donald Miller.
Donald Miller introduced me to the story framework for life in general, not necessarily spiritual formation, and I have not stopped thinking about it since I read Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which came out in March, 2011.
In this book, Miller offers a basic definition of story that’s captivated me, and I think it’s helpful for thinking about spiritual formation (page 48):
A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.
Story, of course, is more complicated than this simple definition, but this definition offers a helpful starting place. For those who want more, Robert McKee’s book Story offers an excellent deep-dive into the nature of story, but it was written specifically for screenwriters.
Miller’s basic definition describes story in terms of the three core elements:
- A character
- Who desires something, and
- Overcomes conflict to get it.
I believe these three component parts of story provide an excellent way for understanding spiritual formation. In fact, they weighed heavily into how I structured my Spiritual Formation video course.
This post uses Miller’s definition of story as a framework for life and applies it to our journey of spiritual formation. I will take you through the three component parts of story and describe how they comport with our journey toward Christlikeness. I’ve framed them as questions to help you process your own journey as a ‘story’:
- Who Is the Main Character in Your Story?
- What Is Your Primary Desire?
- What Are Your Greatest Barriers to Spiritual Formation?
My goal for your reading this is that you walk away with a better understanding of how spiritual formation works, and as a result, want to go deeper into this by taking my free video-audio course on Spiritual Formation and go through my workbook, Your Spiritual Formation Plan. These will help you take more concrete next steps with God and toward God.
Learn more about this free Spiritual Formation Video Course here.
Who Is the Main Character in Your Story?
Good stories have just one main character, so who’s the main character in your story?
This is a tough one to answer for Christians because we know that God is the main character in the Story of life, not us.
But we could also say, in another sense, that we are the main character of our story. We’re all part of God’s Story, yes, but we each live individual stories within his Story. So, in a sense, we are the main character of the mini-story of our life, while it’s still important to remember that, in the end, each of our stories is just a part of God’s Story.
That’s why the story framework is an analogy, not a reality, because every analogy breaks down at some point.
Our story is real, but God’s Grand Story is reality.
We can’t stake a claim on that! Nor should we.
In reality, we live in humility within God’s masterful meta-narrative where he is the main character.
So, in light of this, we are the main character in our mini-story, which is played out in God’s Grand Story. That’s the sense I’m carrying through this framework for spiritual formation.
In story, the desire of the character drives the narrative, so let me ask you a question…
What Is Your Primary Desire Right Now?
Let’s talk about the role of desire in spiritual formation. Many Christians have learned to “exile” desire in their life, subsuming all their affections under God’s will for their life. We ultimately submit our desire to God’s desire for us—when we’re living in humble submission to Christ. But what role does our desire play in spiritual formation?
What we want carries important implications for determining the shape of our life. It’s important to identify what we want. After all, when Jesus walked the earth, he asked people about their desire. For example, he asked two of John’s disciples following behind him, “What do you want?” (John 1:37–38). All they wanted was to spend time with Jesus. So, it says, Jesus hung out with them for the rest of that day.
Jesus asked the mother of Zebedee’s sons about her desire: “What is it you want?” (Matt. 20:21). She said she wanted her sons to have top positions in Jesus’ kingdom. Then, in the very next pericope, Jesus asked two blind men just outside of Jericho, “What is you want me to do for you?” (Matt. 20:32). “We want our sight,” they replied.
Jesus cared about the desires of those around him while he was on earth.
Throughout Scripture God seems very interested in what we want in general—at least as a starting place. Now, he doesn’t always give us what we want, because our desire might not be his desire for us. God wants to know what we desire because we’re his children and he cares about us.
What do you want right now?
Perhaps you want a new job, a break from your current life, or deeper friendships. As you answer this question, name what you want in general right now. Don’t worry about how “spiritual” your answer might be. Too often we separate our regular life from our spiritual life, but go ahead and answer truthfully regardless of which “compartment” of your life it seems to fit.
Perhaps you struggle to know what you want because you’re used to thinking about what you should want, not what you actually want. With all of life’s obligations, you’ve stopped asking what you want. Your desires don’t matter because only what God wants matters. Yet, the life of Christ reveals how he often asked people what they wanted. And sometimes God’s desire for us and our desire is not that different.
Naming what we want helps us live authentically, even if our current desire is not where we want to be one day.
While it might feel counter-intuitive, we can more effectively seek what God wants for us when we name our desire, because we’re living from where we actually are, not where we ought to be or where we wish we were.
Perhaps your desire is directly “spiritual,” and you want to connect with God through prayer, for example. But maybe your desire isn’t so spiritual. Yet, it’s your real desire in life right now: you want to find a spouse or to have children or to be successful in your career or to finally find rest. Whatever your desire, name it. There’s room in your relationship with God for your true self. In fact, honestly naming your primary desire may be an important step toward making real progress in your spiritual formation journey.
I suggest naming your primary desire. We often desire many things, but name only one. I’ve found those living a compelling story have only one desire. Other desires they have don’t drive them like their primary desire. So, I challenge people to pick only one desire. I call it your “primary desire.”
You Get Only One Desire
I talk about your primary desire because while we desire many things, only one of them drives us. Characters in good narratives have only one primary desire; their other desires don’t drive them like that one thing does. So, pick only one of your desires at this point.
What is the one desire driving your story right now?
Think of great stories like The Jungle Book.
Everyone in The Jungle Book wants only one thing. Shere Khan wants to kill Mowgli, Bagheera just wants to protect Mowgli, and Baloo wants honey. But what does Mowgli want?
He wants one thing: to be part of the pack. In the 2016 version of this film by Disney, he actually says as much: “All I’ve ever wanted, my whole life, is to be a wolf. For others to see me as an equal.”
Mowgli wanted community, to be a part of the pack.
Great stories have characters who want only one thing.
You probably desire many things, but that’s not the question! The question for this exercise is about your primary desire in life right now.
God can reform your desires to what he wants, but let’s start with what you currently want.
How to determine what you want right now (you might want to get out a sheet of paper or a journal):
- Be willing to honestly admit what you want.
- List out the desires you have that come to your mind.
- Then, land on the primary one.
Naming your primary desire right now doesn’t mean you’re naming what you should want. This just helps you take your next step forward by being honest.
So, what are your desires in life right now?
Of these, what is your number one desire?
This exercise is part of my workbook Your Spiritual Formation Plan, which you can use to complete your whole formation plan—starting here.
Assuming your primary desire is headed in the direction of God, the next important question is…
What Are Your Greatest Barriers in Spiritual Formation Right Now?
Once we know what we want, the next question to answer is, “What barriers are you up against?” As God forms us, what walls will we run into? Obviously, sin harms and hinders our growth, but which ones will you face?
The vast majority of the narrative length of good stories is spent on overcoming challenges. Now, that’s just the movies, and one challenge can be overcome in an instant, but we still face challenges. Even in Christ, we’re fighting battles and facing demons.
So, in this section, I want you to identify your greatest barrier right now during this season of your life.
Really, it’s two types of challenges I want you to identify: a surface-level and a heart-level barrier.
Your greatest surface-level barrier.
When I ask this question of people without providing any sort of parameters or qualifications, people almost always provide a surface-level barrier at first blush. It’s busyness, distraction, or not knowing how to take the next step. These are real barriers, no doubt, but they’re surface-level challenges. They are usually more practical or logistical. Yet, there’s always more to what’s on the surface, something that goes much deeper.
So, as I’ve talked with people, I’ve learned to make space for both surface-level and heart-level barriers. The truth is that we’re up against both kinds of barriers in our journey: surface-level barriers, which we can easily identify and deeper, heart-level barriers, which can require more effort to identify.
Your greatest heart-level barrier.
Deep, heart-level barriers keep us from God and often have to do with identifying the root cause of a sin struggle, for example. Other heart-level barriers for you include an incomplete understanding of the gospel, unresolved anger or hurt, or abiding issues of the heart like guilt and shame. Sometimes we’re unaware of these deeper barriers in our lives, which requires more time to discern.
Answering these questions also requires vulnerability, humility, and hope. When we honestly share our struggles, we expose our heart—at least to ourselves but also to God, and perhaps a trusted mentor or friend. Confession requires a certain amount of humility, and it also requires hope. Most people don’t typically admit a problem unless they are certain of a possible solution. So, take heart that our hope is in Jesus Christ, and in Christ there is no condemnation because we are set free by the Spirit (Rom. 8:1).
Remember, Jesus is our hope, he’s our solution, and he’s our victory!
We can seek God with boldness because of who he is. But also, he already knows our hearts anyway.
As with your primary desire, this exercise is part of the Your Spiritual Formation Plan, which provides space to answer these questions (and form a holistic formation plan). But you can use paper or a journal to answer these questions, too.
Using the questions below, name your barriers in life right now. As you start naming your barriers, I recommend beginning with your greatest surface-level barrier. Then, ask yourself before God what might be the underlying barrier at the heart-level. Oftentimes, the two types of barriers are connected, like the root and the fruit of a tree. Think of the surface-level barrier as a clue toward what’s going on at the heart-level.
On paper, list out the different barriers that come to mind as you think and pray. Then, pick one surface-level barrier and one heart-level barrier. These create your greatest challenges right now as you seek God.
What different barriers between you and God are you facing right now?
From your list of barriers, what is your single greatest surface-level barrier right now?
This is something simple and practical, perhaps your initial thought.
Now, brainstorm about what might be at the root of your surface-level barrier. You’re trying to identify your single greatest heart-level barrier by making a list. List any heart-level barrier that comes to mind, then under the next question, land on just one.
What is your greatest heart-level barrier keeping you from connecting with God right now?
In summary, list out your greatest surface-level barrier and your single greatest deep, heart-level barrier, so you can overcome it in Christ.
Living Your Story in God’s Story
Understanding yourself as a “character” in a story is helpful but limited. It’s not the whole story, as it were. We need God to do something in us. God is the one who forms us into his image because we’re part of his story.
We play a supporting role in God’s story only when we submit our plot to his Narrative.
This doesn’t mean our desire is squashed, squelched, or suppressed. To the contrary, God takes our very desires and turns them into his. Anything impure in our hearts he refines so that our desires become his desires. Sometimes, I’ve found, I wasn’t that far off, while other times, my desires burn away. And I’m happy about that because they weren’t godly or good.
With God, in the end, we get what we truly want, because he’s given us a new heart—his heart.
This miraculous story unfolds only by the power of Christ in us, as we willingly yield to him.
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