Geordie Ziegler is a pastor at the Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington, and author of Trinitarian Grace and Participation. He received a PhD in theology from the University of Aberdeen. In this interview, he discusses an approach to spiritual formation that does not start with ourselves, but places at the center God the Father’s relationship with the eternal Son. Length: 25:41.

Edited transcript

Gary Deddo: You’ve been involved in pastoral ministry quite a few years, and for a good number of years, there’s been a rising interest in what’s often being called spiritual formation. I know you’ve run into this, because you wrote an article on it, that I found very helpful. The title was: “Is It Time for a Reformation of Spiritual Formation?” You’ve done a lot of thinking on that and I know it’s tied in with the rest of your study and theological reflection. What led you to that topic and why did you want to address it?

Geordie Ziegler: It’s kind of the pinnacle of what my research has been about. I was a pastor in a church for nine years and was passionate about spiritual formation. I went to conference after conference and read all the kind of books you would expect somebody to be reading and found them helpful, but there were some theological gaps that I think were significant. I found in my experience with the congregation that many forms of spiritual formation throw people back on themselves and get them to pay more attention to themselves rather than to the God that we are seeking to become like, and that becomes problematic. Spiritual formation can begin to feel like a workout program and then it’s just “train yourself and try harder and you’ll be able to become the kind of person that can do these things. I couldn’t run a marathon tomorrow, but if I trained for it I could.” That’s all true, but is that how we want to base and understand the framework that we live in in spiritual formation?

In my research, I came to believe that the goal of the Christian life is that the Father-Son relation would become embedded in us, that we would share in that and live in that. That forced a re-thinking of spiritual formation as a whole. In the article, I describe what I call a normal version of spiritual formation as subjective moral formation. “Subjective” because it begins with us. It’s “moral” because the focus is on becoming a certain kind of person having certain virtues that are socially recognized within our culture to be the right things, and it’s “formation” because if you do certain things you will become like that. I think that fairly accurately describes a lot of the books that are out there.

But I think a better way, a more Christian orthodox Trinitarian way, would be called objective Trinitarian participation. “Objective” meaning that it’s rooted in who God is and it begins with God and then what God has done. It’s “Trinitarian” because it’s about participating in the Son’s relationship with the Father through the Spirit. That’s the center of it. And it’s “participation” because it’s sharing in that, and as we share in his life and share in that relationship and we begin to take on the mind of Christ in that way, then we do become a new kind of person. But it’s not through our own training and trying on our own but it’s in relationship and in koinonia with Christ.

GD: It sounds like this would be (back from the ’60s) a kind of self-realization, self-actualization and things like that, and the techniques and methods for doing that. What you’re talking about sounds like it’s going down a different route than that. Say more about that difference.

GZ: Foundationally, it’s where we start. Are we starting with a center in ourselves, or are we starting with a center in God and who he is and what he’s doing? I think much of formation begins with ourselves and trying to make ourselves into certain kinds of people – we work really hard, we do our Bible studies and we do our works and our activities and it becomes just work.

GD: And often people say, I’m trying to be like Christ.

GZ: Yeah, that sounds difficult. Christ-likeness is a great goal, but the real goal of spiritual formation (if we want to use the phrase spiritual formation) is not Christ-likeness – it’s Christ. It’s not to become a person who lives for Christ, but to be a person who lives in Christ and with Christ.

I don’t think Christ-likeness is a bad goal, but what do we mean by Christ-likeness? Do we describe that or define that by moral-likeness like Christ? Or are we talking about relational-likeness? Of course, Jesus was moral – although socially he wasn’t always moral – he often did things that the morality of that culture thought was immoral, but what made Jesus who he was, was his relationship with his Father. It’s this orientation that he has toward the Father and everything through the Spirit and that made him a person who lived the kind of life he lived.

So if we are to be Christ-like, then it is to share the mindset that he had, of orientation to the Father. What does it look like for us to be doing that constantly? So we might do the same things – we might open our Bible, we should open our Bibles and read it and spend time in it. But when we do that, where do we begin? Are we beginning with ourselves, and thinking, “I got to figure this out and I got to read three chapters and keep up with my project that I decided that I should do – or somebody told me I should do – we make that a self-making project?

Or do we open the Scriptures and say, “Lord, how do you want to spend time with me today? How do you want to speak to me through this word? I’m here, I’m open and listening.” That is not our project, but we begin with him and we keep orienting it back to him. Because that’s Christ-like, because that’s what Jesus did. Everything he did, he says, he did because the Father told him to. He only did the works that the Father was doing [John 5:19]. His whole life was oriented around the Father. I think we miss that so much in our teaching, in the church, we lose sight (as Torrance says so well) that the center of the New Testament is the Father-Son relationship. And if that’s true, we should pay attention to that more.

GD: Yeah, my own study is looking into that, for the New Testament has a lot more about that than I had realized. When I started looking for it, I found it was right there in front of my nose. It was there, there’s a lot more to discover. I particularly like John 17, which talks a lot about it. As the Son is praying to the Father, you realize the nature of their relationship. There have been conversations down through the ages about the imitation of Christ, and in that framework a lot of people come away with the idea – I’m trying to follow Jesus’ example, do what Jesus would do – that what-would-Jesus-do type of thing. But it sounds to me like you’re talking about something maybe related but still different from that.

GZ: Yeah, one of the tests I ask myself (and we talk about this in our church staff quite often every Sunday): “Did we throw people back on themselves? Whether it’s in the sermon or any part of worship, in a prayer and the offering and our confession and assurance, did we throw people back on themselves?” Because there are many ways that people can be involved in Christian things and it’s just a weight on themselves.

It reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Just before he says that, he’s praying to the Father, talking about this special relation between him and the Father that they only share, but also that he can pass on and share with his followers. That invitation to relationship that he has for us is different than just watching him from a distance and thinking, “I’m going to try and I’ll become like that and I’ll try harder.”

That’s probably one of the biggest problems in Christianity: that people see what they should be – here’s what I ought to be, but here’s where I’m at. Here’s reality, and I’ve got to get from here to over there and I’ve got to somehow cross that chasm. So we try to follow his example, we work hard at applying Scripture to our lives, but all the time we are doing it in a way that is focused on self or is self-reliant. The invitation of Matthew 11 is that we would come to him and do it with him. That’s what participation is really about, that’s the invitation. It’s to share in Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

You mentioned John 17 earlier. At the end of John, there’s a scene where Mary is in the garden looking for the body and suddenly Jesus appears to her. She’s so excited, she wants to hug him and he’s like, wait. Then he says: “Go and tell the disciples this message: I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So she goes and tells them. But I think it’s significant that this is the first message that the risen Christ gives to the first person who finds him – to tell the brothers and sisters this truth. I think that’s what they were so excited about – that Jesus now is with the Father and we’re included in that. What’s happening to him somehow includes us, and we can be excited about that, and we can live in that reality of his presence with the Father, but also his presence with us, because he is with us through his Spirit.

One of the challenges related to this is a question of ontology, of how we talk about the Christian life and what grounds spiritual formation, what grounds the church…. I worry about a lot of forms of spiritual formation that are not grounded ontologically. I get that phrase “ontology of the church” from Eugene Peterson – he uses it in his book Practice Resurrection, and it talks about the ontology of the church, which Torrance also does. That ontology is Jesus Christ and the risen Christ at the right hand of the Father – the one who lived among us – on our turf, lived that human life, that incarnate life, and also he’s the one who’s with us through the Spirit. That ontology includes the past, the present now, and the one who’s taking us into the future. That needs to root us and ground us our entire life.

Torrance had this phrase “we live within an all-embracing framework of grace.” If that’s true, then everything in our existence is meant to be a life of participation in that relationship. There’s no realm of our existence where we are meant to just go off and… “you can take care of this on your own. You’ve worked, you’ve trained hard enough, you’re good enough now…” We never get better at the Christian life. We never get holier, or godlier, in the sense that godliness doesn’t mean that we need God less. “You’re so godly, you can take a week off.” The more godly we become, we actually realize our deeper need for God. Godliness and holiness should be defined by an awareness of our greater need. Because all of us are saints and sinners. All of us are one step away from falling into an abyss if we are not careful. We all are dependent people – creatures.

GD: So that relationship is very important. How does obedience fit in here? Because there’s a lot of trouble with that. There’s either, we just do it by an act will, or “well, we live by grace, so we don’t need to obey.” So how does obedience fit into spiritual formation?

GZ: If spiritual formation has an ontology, as our life in Christ does, and the ontology is Jesus, we look to Jesus for that answer. And when I look at Jesus and his obedience, probably we can see that his entire life was a life of obedience, but it begins at his baptism. In his baptism we hear that the Father speaks to him and says, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The way that Scripture tells that story, it doesn’t seem like it’s just for everybody else’s benefit to hear, “this is Jesus, the Son of God.” It’s spoken to Jesus from the Father. I think that’s a very personal experience for him and an important one.

From that moment, in the next scene he goes out into the wilderness. He’s driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, faces temptations and in each temptation, in each trial, he’s obedient. In two of the temptations, two of the three trials, the specific wording of the devil, of the accuser, to him is: “If you are the Son of God…” He is attacking him at the place that the Father had just affirmed. Satan attacks that identity – that sonship – because he knows if he can challenge that and create some doubt there, then it’s game over.

Jesus is faithful in each of those places and that demonstrates what happens throughout his entire ministry: He is the one who knows that he is the Son of the Father. He knows who he is and is always looking to the Father. His obedience flows out of that identity, and it’s the same with us. We are those who are in Christ; we are sharing his relationship with the Father, so by adoption, we get to have the voice of the Father say that to us, too: “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved Son, in whom I’m well pleased.” And then our invitation is to live in obedience and faithfulness out of that identity.

Where we go wrong is when we begin with obedience without having come from identity. When we start there, we start with a sense of performance – “I’ve got to perform, I’ve got to do good, I’ve got to impress people, I’ve got to make God happy, make me happy.” When we begin with a center in ourselves, that can either be a way of trying to get God’s approval or a way of making a name for ourselves and creating our own identity.

Obedience might look the same on the surface but be coming from very different places. Is it an obedience that begins in needing to prove itself to be enough? Or is it an obedience that comes out of a secure identity – a platform, a base, a spacious salvation place that God has given us to live in? Obedience, if we begin with the kind of the direction that we see in Jesus, if we begin from that place, then obedience is really being who we are. It is being who the Father has said we are in Christ. That is our truest identity, to be brothers and sisters of Christ; that’s who he’s made us to be. It’s living with the grain of that calling. Disobedience is when we try to make a name for ourselves and do it on our own.

GD: And when we forget who we are and act as if we’re someone else.

GZ: The challenge is, as Martin Luther says, that our default is religion. If we think of religion in the sense of working your way up, our default is to start with ourselves as performers. It helps me to think about that: If that’s my natural starting point, then everyday, I have to say something like (this is a prayer that a friend shared with me) “You are God and I am NOT. What shall we do today?” Everyday we have to remember that my starting point can’t be with me. It has to be with my God and who he calls me and makes me to be. So, am I going to be overwhelmed by all the tasks, or am I going to say “Lord, where do we start? It’s your day. It’s not all up to me.”

GD: The doing will be doing together, instead of on our own. When we say “You’re God and I’m not,” that’s a kind of repentance, isn’t it? Dying to self, and remembering who we really are.

GZ: I think we have problems with the language of repentance because we make it about such big things. If somebody has to repent, we think, they must have done something terribly wrong. Well, we have to repent many times a day. Because it’s really about changing your thinking, your mindset – from beginning with yourself to beginning with the reality of who you are in Christ and who the Father says you are and starting with him. It’s really about that with-ness: am I going to do my day with him? Or am I going to do maybe 15 minutes with God and then we’ll check back in at the end of the day? Rather than just living that as I’m driving, as I’m interacting with different people, as I’m reading Scripture, as I’m dealing with challenges – letting that be something that’s with God. And you can’t always have your mind in two places, but knowing that we are accompanied and making that a practice to bring that together.

GD: That reminds me when Jesus says, No longer I call you servants or slaves but friends [John 15:15]. I think he’s trying to help them see a new kind of relationship so that they live out that relationship. Not as a servant, as a slave, but as a son and a daughter.

GZ: People can do, on the surface, many of the same things. But we can either do it as a son, as a daughter, or we can do it as a slave. As a son or daughter, there’s a sense that, I am loved (even though it doesn’t mean I’m perfect). It’s just “I’m loved,” and that’s the beginning point. I am, because God is. As a slave, the message is: I’m not. I’m not enough and I’ll never be enough unless I figure it out, work hard, and that’s just an endless cycle.

Everyday we have that choice. But it’s not a choice that we make in our own power and struggle. We say, “Lord, I’m weak, and I want to do this day with you. Help me. And Spirit, remind me throughout the day.” It’s not even my job to remind myself all the time. I can do things to try to help to make that easier or better, more consistent, but it’s the Spirit who ultimately is responsible for it. Just letting that be part of the prayer – that the prayer should not be that I would be strong so I can do this on my own.

If I could start a revolution or a reformation of spiritual formation, it would be that we would really believe that the heart of the Christian life is sharing with the Son’s relationship with the Father through the Spirit. As Torrance says: Christian discipleship is thinking and acting in Christ – the disciplined habit of thinking and acting in Christ – and living in that place.

GD: Thanks. I appreciate you sharing with us.


Thanks to Johnny Logroño for the transcription.

Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 8:40 PM