Personal Formation Summary 2016

2016 has been the most radical year of personal growth and spiritual formation that I have experienced. To summarize the major areas that I have seen development in, the three words that I would use are: awareness, identity and freedom. Broadly, these have worked together in the sense that awareness has shone light on areas where my identity is insecure, and the solid formation of my identity on Christ has brought incredible freedom. Each of these different aspects have been influenced, in their own unique ways, through Spiritual Formation’s focus on community formation, spiritual mentoring and the online sessions and readings. This reflection will aim to look back at the specific ways these elements have affected my growth throughout this year.

My journey of awareness started off with sharing my story with the “formation group”. It was a surprisingly revolutionary experience to slow down and reflect on my 23 years of life. The process of carefully writing down and then communicating my jumble of life experiences started to make clear several significant themes and issues that I had been suppressing or been simply unaware of. Before sharing, we watched a TED talk video called “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brene Brown[1]. She said something that resonated deeply with me, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Thinking back through my life I started to see how, for a variety of reasons, things such as anger or crying became negative or weak, so I avoided them.  As I reflected, I realized that I had consciously or subconsciously avoided feeling emotions from my past and how I had inadvertently numbed all my emotions. This reflection sparked much deeper introspection and was a fundamental step in my journey of awareness and emotional restoration this year.

This increased awareness has taken me on a process of understanding the links between my earthly relationships and my relationship with God, which ultimately has highlighted a defect in my identity. I have been challenged by researchers such as Dickie, Eshleman, Merasco, Shepard, Wilt and Johnson[2] and Justice and Lambert[3], finding the deep links between the images of our parents and the images that we use for God.  While I look back and see my parents as enormous blessings in my life, there has still been unavoidable wounding despite their best intentions. I look back at a variety of moments where discipline made me feel like I had to perform correctly to earn love, or misbehaving meant I deserved to be alone. I have found that subconscious beliefs such as these, have translated into how I see God. These discoveries have shown me a great disconnect between my head knowledge and heart experience[4]. For example, despite knowing the truth that God loves me unconditionally, I fall back into patterns where I try to earn my worth, acceptance and approval. I forget that I am first secure in Christ and therefore I have the freedom to be obedient, rather than my obedience being needed to find security. It has become apparent to me that it is completely inescapable that our future expectations are instinctively based on our past experiences. As we have progressed throughout the year I’ve gained clarity towards the effect that this has had on my identity. When I have misplaced truth for a lie, subconsciously or not, I’ve allowed myself to have insecure foundations. However, when God shows certain aspects of my tangled web of mistruth and replaces the lie with truth I have experienced incredible freedom.

Being completely vulnerable and honest has been one of the biggest challenges that I have found in sharing my story this year. It was so difficult to not just share the comfortable 90% of my life, but to show and confess my own weaknesses and shortcomings. Even becoming self-aware of the fact that I had need for serious growth was extremely difficult for me. Looking back at this with the benefit of hindsight, I believe I can attribute much of this to idolatry. There have been countless times in my life where I have put things in place of God. I have hidden my faith from friends at work to gain their approval. I have lied to parents to avoid punishment. I have put up a mask in order to gain what I’ve wanted and in doing so I’ve compromised God’s place in my life. People’s praise easily becomes a dominant idol in my life. I find it very difficult to have someone dislike me, and far too often I have dishonored God because of it. I’ve gotten used to hiding a certain amount of myself so that I can be liked, and to be completely open and vulnerable with people can be terrifying. Beautifully, this discomfort that I’ve felt in being raw and honest has pointed to a stronghold in my life which God has been at work in transforming. The process of being vulnerable with both my formation group and with trusted spiritual mentors helped lead to the discovery of where I go to find my value and significance. I am learning that pressing into difficult circumstances and being ready for God to work can lead to beautiful seasons of growth. From my experience of being vulnerable with people, God has opened my eyes to the discovery that I often default to living entangled by people’s opinions and expectations.

Another area that has greatly helped me to discover my identity is the Enneagram. It’s been enlightening looking at the different sources from which people look to find their worth. It’s been challenging to see and accept many of the negative aspects that the Enneagram highlights within my own life. While I am still unsure if I can say that I fit well with either a 3 or a 6[5], it’s been a powerful lens of self-awareness. Studying the Enneagram was the primary way I started to see my need to perform to earn people’s admiration or praise. It helped me to see my desire to earn my worth and therefore feel entitled to its benefits. The insecure side of me that is hard to show, is so starkly on display when seen through the Enneagram. Yet, it also displays the secure, others centered, side of my personality that I long to be. This tool has shown me more barriers to receiving the free gift of grace, and helped me understand what it looks like to live out of the security that can only be found in Christ.

Travelling with the concept of the “True Self and False Self”[6] has been an enormous challenge for me this year. My journey of sanctification has been complicated. I have strong desires to be transformed but I often see my motives in this process to be full of pride or coming from a feeling of needing to be perfect[7]. Only recently, I have started to realise that even if I can act and perform like a mature Christian, the foundational character development is vital. I have started to see the shallowness of my humility, or the false forgiveness that I can show for people. Even though I can stifle or hide my anger, frustration, impatience or greed, it doesn’t mean that my heart is in the right place. While I can appear to be genuinely loving and servant hearted, just below the surface are ugly, selfish desires. I am discovering that before I can truly love others, I need to first understand how scandalously loved I am. Out of the security and self-forgetfulness that Christ brings into my life, I am learning what it means to sincerely, deeply, love others. When I focus on dealing with my motives or sinful nature without first being firmly planted, I tend to spiral into self-obsession. Foundational identity is central to showing genuine love.

There has been a learning curve for me in grappling with these ideas. Everything in my world seems to communicate to me that we get what we deserve, or that we’re only as important as the things that we can do. At times, I know I can still view God as an angry judge, ready to scold and communicate his disappointment with my failures. Sometimes I see him as a distant scorekeeper, always far off watching and tallying my good against by bad. I often see him as this big passive far away God. Yet, my wrestle is to be continually reminding myself of the truth of the gospel. To remember that I am totally secure in the fact that Christ came and died for me. He is not far off, but an intimate God who desires relationship. I have found that daily spiritual disciplines have been an amazing blessing in this regard. I love how David Mathis calls them “Habits of Grace”[8], because that is exactly how I have been experiencing them. These simple habits have led to an awakening of grace in my life.  The daily act of re-centering on God in my life, to find myself caught up in a self-forgetfulness that comes from my identity being so firmly placed in him. It has been the most incredible feeling of freedom, yet from my experience, it must be fought for daily. I joyfully know that each time that I’ve turned back to my Christ-bought identity, I am more able to become more fully reliant on God.

Community, mentoring and coursework have all had vital parts to play in my journey of spiritual formation this year. While it is impossible for me to strictly differentiate the causes for each of these steps of growth, I have seen that community and mentoring have both deeply impacted my sense of awareness. It has probably been the readings and online sessions that have been the most helpful to me traveling deeper into my understanding of identity. Regardless of this, it has been God at work through any of these means, and all glory goes to him.

Bibliography

[1] TED, The Power Of Vulnerability, image, 2010, accessed October 31, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en.

[2] Jane R. Dickie et al., “Parent-Child Relationships and Children’s Images of God”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, no. 1 (1997): 25.

[3] W. G. Justice and W. Lambert, “A Comparative Study of the Language People Use to Describe the Personalities of God and Their Earthly Parents”, Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Advancing theory and professional practice through scholarly and reflective publications 40, no. 2 (1986): 166-172.

[4] Maybe expectation is a better term for this

[5] or something else entirely!

[6] I have found a wide variety of readings on this helpful, including: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_self_and_false_self and http://sfhelp.org/gwc/compare.htm

David G Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004)

Robert Mulholland, The Deeper Journey (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006).

[7] Albert Haase, Coming Home to Your True Self (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2008).

[8] Mathis, David. Habits of Grace. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016

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