Reflecting back on my life as a husband and father of three grown children I can recall times when the mere mention of spiritual formation and families was all it took to make me sweat and begin feeling like a failure. That’s because I was living in the illusion that my family’s spiritual formation was ultimately my responsibility. However, the reality that I’ve been waking up to in recent years, albeit later than I wish, is that I can’t manage or control the work of God’s transforming presence, neither in my own life nor in the life of my family.
God’s formative work in our family, individually and corporately, must be done on God’s terms and timetable. And it’s certainly not accomplished in our own strength, “…for it is God Who is all the while effectually at work in you [energizing and creating in you the power and desire], both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight” (Philippians 2:13 amplified bible). The reality of our life with God is that we’re not only saved by grace, we live by grace, and all that we do for our spiritual formation we do by grace.
What this means is that spiritual formation is not a precise science we’re expected to master. To the contrary, it’s oftentimes unpredictable, messy and chaotic. This isn’t surprising, when we keep in mind the Holy Spirit’s legacy of wild and erratic work in people’s lives throughout human history. For this reason, Jesus tells us to waste no time attempting to calculate or control neither our own nor anyone else’s spiritual formation. Instead we’re to trust God for it and learn from God how to distinguish it when it happens.
All that we can do is to have a plan for formation and then hope and pray for transformation to occur. I believe that most of the spiritual formation in our families actually occurs when we’re not focused on it; while we’re simply doing life together: engaging in conversations, doing daily chores, enjoying playtimes and faithfully encountering our successes and failures, joys and sorrows, living and dying.
Just a few weeks ago, our family made a decision we never wanted to make. Deacon, a dog we rescued from the pound 14 years ago had declined in health, until it appeared his suffering was exceeding his ability to take pleasure in life. Thus, wielding our love, compassion, and common sense as best we could, we decided to have him euthanized.
There were moments while we were discerning “the right thing to do” when the decision seemed easy, since he was, after all, “only a dog.” Yet there were moments when the decision was agonizingly difficult because the emotional support, affection and unconditional love he had faithfully provided was hauntingly God-like. Reflecting back it’s undeniably clear to me that even Deacon played a sometimes major role in our family’s spiritual formation. His courage, his composure, his dignity, his humor, his needs, his endurance, his “always being there,” made us better, made our love for one another better, made our openness to God’s presence better.
Have you sometimes felt like a failure because you imagined that your family’s spiritual formation was ultimately your responsibility?
Does it ease your mind and free your spirit to consider the possibility of God using a family pet to assist in your family’s spiritual formation?
Fil Anderson is Executive Director of Journey Resources, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s a frequent speaker at conferences, offers individual spiritual direction, and directs retreats and workshops around the country. He's the author of two books, Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers and Breaking the Rules: Trading Performance for Intimacy with God.