My story really begins when I got my first full-time staff position in a church...
I was a youth pastor with all the prestige that comes from pulling off overnighters, scavenger hunts, winter camps, gross eating games, and parent meetings. This was pastoral bliss for a 20-something spiritual leader. Then reality set in and the board at the church kicked out the senior pastor (a very long story that isn’t relevant to the point I’m trying to make). Because the other staff resigned too, the board asked me to run the church. That’s one way to grow a youth ministry . . . just add the adults to it! Long story short – I did what they told me to do, and while it went okay on the outside, it nearly killed me emotionally. I ended up going through eight months of clinical depression. I needed help but didn’t know how to get it.
What I learned at the end of this eight months of hell (now I know it is more politically correct to call it my “dark night of the soul” or my “desert experience” depending on what group I’m telling the story to) was that I didn’t have any support systems. I thought I did, but I was in denial. I needed friends. I had friends, or thought I had friends, but not the kind of friends one needs in this state. I needed heavy duty friends, all-wheel-drive friends, tough friends. I just had a few wimpy friends who might hang out with me but never asked me what was going on inside. So I learned my emotional life was messed up because my relational life was empty. But it gets worse (or better, depending on your perspective).
I started working on these things, but at some point in the process realized God and I were not doing too well. It was kind of like that feeling you have with your spouse when you know you’ve done something wrong, but neither one of you have brought it up yet. If I were to be totally honest, I had to admit that I was angry at God for sending me into this dark desert hell thing with no friends. My old friends would have told me I needed to start having a “quiet time” again. For those who are unschooled in evangelical-ese, a “quiet time” is what you do every day to make God like you. It involves, as an absolute minimum, Bible reading and prayer and you usually have some place to check a box that you’ve done your minimum-daily-allowance of spiritual stuff. Needless to say, my spiritual formation sucked! Thanks to a powerful 2-year retreat process that I was invited into, I re-learned what it means to have a relationship with God.
In fact, I was learning so much great stuff, I had to make a decision about how to share it with others. My depression had pushed me in new directions of emotional formation. My need to heal and apply grace to my life expanded my understanding of and the amount of energy I put into my relational formation. Reconnecting with God and learning about a bunch of ancient practices called spiritual disciplines began to feed into my spiritual formation. And as I took the time to share my story with others, I realized what an encouragement it could be to their lives. The gospel I had been living in my “born again” days didn’t seem like very good news any more. I had now learned about a gospel based on something called “grace” that truly is what Phillip Yancey calls “the last best word.” I was learning that I didn’t have to wait to get to heaven to live the good life. Heaven, at least when Jesus spoke of it, was something that begins right now. Living in God’s kingdom, or the kingdom of the heavens, is present as well as future. What a concept! Thus, began my life-long journey into missional formation. And what an exciting mission it is.
I think if you look at your own life, you will realize that it is often very fragmented. We learn some things as we grow and change but the things we learn are pretty dis-integrated. Then Jesus comes along and says we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The primary definitions in the dictionary for “perfect” are “expert, proficient, being entirely without fault or defect, flawless, satisfying all requirements.” I think this is usually what someone thinks about when the concept of perfection comes to mind. The biblical meaning of “perfect” though is somewhat different. The word used by Jesus is the Greek word telios, which signifies an undivided wholeness of people in their behavior. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says it is not the qualitative end-point of human effort, but the anticipation in time of a wholeness in present-day living. This is a very different concept than the perfection some believe they need to strive for in order to please God or achieve the accomplishments that God expects of them.
In a biblical sense, the “perfection” that Jesus taught is a maturity, a completeness, or a wholeness that indicates a person is integrated in all of his or her parts. In other words, there are not parts of oneself split off, in denial, under judgment, or unacceptable. Wuest’s translation renders Matthew 5:48: “Therefore, as for you, you shall be those who are complete in your character, even as your Father in heaven is complete in His being.”
So rather than talking about perfection, it makes much more sense to talk about becoming whole or complete. This is what I mean when I talk about holistic formation. It is moving from that place where my life is fragmented and dis-integrated to a place where all the parts of my life connect in a way that displays God’s beauty of creation in the soul of my being. And in case you haven’t noticed, God is a great artist.
I encourage you to think deeply about your own formation. Because we all have a formation – it’s just a matter of which one? I’d love to hear from you what aspects of your own formation have been the greatest struggle (spiritual, emotional, relational, mental, physical, missional)? In what area(s) do you have little or no support? I hope you join me in this journey through holistic formation.
Dr. Michael Bischof
Founder and President, SOULeader Resources