Have you ever listened to a sermon on denying yourself—putting others first—and found yourself quietly mumbling, “Deny myself?! … That is not the problem … It’s myself I never get around to!”
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Every single one of us is being formed daily. Formed by who we spend time with … formed by how we use our time … by what we listen to … what we read … what we dwell on … you get the idea. These forming influences either move us toward health or toward harm.
Being formed is not a neutral condition. It goes one way or
the other—toward wholeness or toward destruction.
Because God desires our best,
we are invited into a process of
I’m sure you are familiar with the picture of Jesus knocking on the door? In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
This knocking on the door is not a salvation image … it’s not talking about becoming a Christian. The people this was addressed to were already Christians … this is about something deeper. It’s talking about our formation—whether or not we open ourselves to the re-forming work of God.
Our spiritual formation, however, is not our work—it is the work of the Holy Spirit—it’s a work of grace … a gift. And, since our God is not a pushy god, Jesus does not ramrod the door down to get inside. He’s outside … knocking … waiting to see if we will invite Him in to eat together … to do life together.
Spiritual disciplines, then, are intentional actions we take in order to open our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit.
For example, if I find the Spirit drawing my attention to greed in my life, I might partner with the Spirit by intentionally giving things away. Giving things away would be a spiritual practice—a spiritual discipline.
Author Robert Mulholland explained those areas which need re-forming this way, “the points of our unlikeness to Christ are areas of our life where we are lord and Christ isn’t—areas where our agenda, our will, our desire, our purpose rules.”
Men and women are different. Surprise! Yet a practical understanding of those differences has not yet made its way into the study of spiritual formation—this process of becoming like Jesus.
Spiritual formation is, obviously, very individual. Your path toward Christ-likeness will look different from mine. We have different areas of woundedness that need healing. Different areas of stubbornness that need softening. A notable difference, however, can be seen in the spiritual formation process between men and women.
From as far back as the early church theologians of the 2nd century up to modern times, the uniquely female path of spiritual formation has not been considered or even acknowledged. Ignoring this distinctive path of women, however, is not unexpected considering how most of the Church’s formative theologians felt about women.
[Although we won’t take time here, I’d love for you to scan through a few quotes from men whose teachings helped form Western culture and worldview, men like Augustine and Martin Luther. You’ll find them at the bottom of this post. It is worth your time, I believe, because by reading them, you’ll get a better understanding of current views and opinions toward women both in our culture at-large and the Church.]
Sadly, some of the same negative predispositions—these same attitudes about women continue to this day. Even in the 21st century studies confirm we raise our children differently—our boys and our girls. Boys are raised to be independent; girls to be dependent. Boys are praised for stepping out in front; girls for being followers. Boys take to the field in action; girls stand on the sidelines and cheer. And on it goes. The acculturation—the forming—continues.
Which, of course means, that as adults the boys have developed into self-referenced, self-confident, and competitive men. The girls, unless great work has been done to battle the prevailing system, have been formed into other-referenced, reticent, compliant women.
Of course, not all men. Not all women. But the majority. Enough to set a pattern in our culture and our churches.
Boys and girls grow to be men and women with different traits, different ways of being, different approaches to God and to others.
Yet, no major studies have been conducted which focus on these gender-specific aspect of spiritual development.
If you have ever spent time with a man (think: father, husband, friend, co-worker), you intuitively know their path of spiritual formation is going to look radically different from your own.
Most spiritual formation teaching through the ages, however, has come from men—from the male point of view—from the spiritual disciplines a man might use to become more like Christ. These have included disciplines such as practicing humility, service to others, and not having the last word.
I can see you smile.
These are not spiritual disciplines a woman needs. Practicing these disciplines may only reinforce the already damaging acculturation women have received for centuries. Women tend to be unpretentious, even self-effacing; humility is rarely needed.
And service to other? There was a reason only four women attended the famous Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving. The other fourteen had died of starvation, from giving their meager food rations to the children. The men survived in greater numbers. Service to others is not a spiritual discipline most women need. Service to themselves would, more likely, bring them closer to Christ-likeness as each honored the gifts of their body, time, and energy.
And the idea of practicing the discipline of “not having the last word” could be hurtful to women, not restorative. Contrary to stereotypical myths, study after study after study have confirmed that women are spoken-over, drowned out, interrupted, and ignored at home, on the job, and now even on Zoom. To think a woman needs to practice not having the last word—well—it’s comical.
Yet … still … women are hungry to grow in their faith—wanting to be transformed—healed—to become more like their Lord.
And, not surprisingly, we can turn to Jesus to show us our path.
If you look closely at the encounters Jesus had with people, you will notice how He dealt with each person differently. Review the Gospel stories and a pattern emerges … a humbling of some … a lifting up of others. A defending of some … reprimanding others. Look more closely and you’ll see Jesus dealing with His female disciples differently than He deals with His male disciples.
Let’s take a look at a couple examples. The Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus called the twelve disciples near, His male disciples, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (9:35 NLB). Yet to Martha, when Jesus and His disciples showed up for dinner, and was actually in the midst of being the servant of everyone, Jesus gently reprimands her and invites her to a different place—a place of receiving.
We see this pattern again when an unnamed woman, overcome with love and gratefulness, sheds tears which fall on the feet of Jesus. She stoops to wipe His feet … kisses them … anoints them with oil. Jesus? He forgives her. Defends her. Blesses her (Luke 7:36-50).
To the twelve, washing feet seems to have been a novel idea. We see that Jesus must instruct them, even demonstrate to them, and after he demonstrates He sits down and further explains to the men what He has just done. This, Jesus seems to be saying, is how you wash feet. Do it. (John 13:1-17)
One disciple already understands … her heart and her culture have taught her humility. The twelve men must be methodically trained.
Jesus is teaching those who are high-up in authority, how to bend down. And those who are bent down, how to stand up.
To the twelve—humility—washing feet—becomes a spiritual discipline. To the woman, her spiritual discipline? Perhaps it is to receive grace and dignity—to internalize them—to let them change her into the image of the One she loves.
There are, of course, many spiritual disciplines that are the same for men as they are for women—disciplines needed by both male and female. As well, there are many men and many women who do not fall into the patterns of our culture.
Which is why God is in charge of our spiritual formation, not us.
Our choice toward wholeness and freedom is simply whether or not we open the door. And once we open the door, God begins our re-formation …
It is only God who is capable of tenderly, lovingly, unceasingly planning and orchestrating opportunities for our journey to Christ-likeness. Our job is to pay attention. To ourselves. To God. To ask, What is it God is inviting in my life? or What do you want me to know about this, Lord?
When we place ourselves into the hands of God—open, receptive, willing to be formed, willing to see our dark places, willing to be healed—God moves into action. It is when we open the door to Jesus, who waits outside knocking, that God creates a path—unique and individual. A path to wholeness, to peace, to freedom exclusively for you—as a woman.
I am very excited about exploring with you over the next several months, some of these uniquely female spiritual disciplines. I am even more eager to discover together what these disciplines will look like practically—in your everyday life and mine.
Join me … and spread the word to women you know who would enjoy this journey as well … It’s going to be good … I think it could be life-changing.
I would very much like to hear your thoughts about the ideas presented in this post. Be sure to share your comments below. And if you have enjoyed this post, share it with a friend!
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Footnote: M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. Invitation to a Journey. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016. Quotes taken from pages 50 and 29 respectively.
Pilgrim Women Statistics. Retrieved 8/25/20 from: https://womensenews.org/2012/11/mayflower-women-anchor-thanksgiving-plymouth/