By Jason Hiles
Dean, College of Theology
Contrary to what we might expect, the challenges that we face are often of great value in terms of shaping our character (James 1:2-4). Consequently, it is often important to recognize that the things that interrupt our lives and challenge us can actually be the very things that God is using to conform us to the likeness of Christ. In a prior post, I outlined the ancient principle of cura personalis, which focuses on the need to care for others in spite of the temptation to focus on our own needs. Another ancient principle, formatio personalis, relates more to the ways that we are formed through the difficulties we face.
The principle of formatio personalis or “the formation of the whole person,” is not a phrase found in Scripture but the principle emerges throughout God’s Word in ways that are worth considering. For example, Paul’s personal story involves a period of antagonism to the Christian faith followed by an encounter with Jesus that left him changed forever. After that encounter he grew in ways that enabled him to offer encouragement from prison rather than wallowing in self pity.
The story of Paul’s conversion can be traced through the pages of the New Testament so I will only summarize here. Paul grew in wisdom and in understanding in large part because of the hardships he faced while following Jesus. This may seem counterintuitive but his faith in Jesus increased when he faced hardship as did his hope as he saw the Kingdom of God expanding from a humble beginning in Jerusalem to the ends of the known world. And, as he worked to plant churches and minister to others, he learned to love the most unlovely of people. His daily work involved beatings and persecution by those who wanted nothing to do with Jesus. His daily work involved sorting our arguments and calming strife within the churches. He lived each day outside of his comfort zone and found strength in Christ to love those who hated him and to encourage those who regularly disappointed him.
As you think about his story I suspect that you can relate in some ways. If you’ve ever worked with difficult colleagues – perhaps a stubborn supervisor or an unreasonable colleague – you have probably encountered some disappointment. If you have ever encountered an anxious or angry student who was committed to talking but completely uninterested in listening, then you have probably experienced some disappointment and discouragement. When we deal with challenging people we are often motivated to ensure that they experience the principle of formatio personalis because we’d like to see their character reshaped. That’s all well and good, but we are primarily responsible for our own character. And we will have a hard time teaching others things that we have not learned personally.
So, at this point, I will simply encourage you to consider the fact that Paul grew in faith, hope, and love as a direct result of the challenges and difficulties he faced in life. By the time he reached the end of his life he had impacted more lives than I can ever hope to impact. He had been profoundly shaped by his experiences and by the Spirit of God in ways that enabled him to love those who were not worthy of love, to offer hope to those who had none, and to trust God regardless of his circumstances. He recounts the lessons of his life in a well-known passage in Philippians chapter 4:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13, ESV).
For those of us including myself who have not yet learned these lessons as well as Paul, these words may seem intimidating. But those who follow Christ are following the one who shaped Paul’s character in a way that enabled him to face all circumstances with contentment. In short, the formation of the whole person, or formatio personalis, requires us to pay special attention to some of the lessons that God is teaching us through the mundane circumstances of our lives. For a season, you may need to place a little more emphasis on the sorts of lessons that one learns through trials and tribulations. But be encouraged. Those who are formed in godly ways will find that they are in a good position to shape others in ways that are good and godly.
In sum, be encouraged by the truth that God is making all things new through Christ regardless of the challenges you’re facing in this moment, and learn to be sensitive to the things that God is forming in you during each difficult moment. We don’t face global pandemics every day. But, since we are facing one now, it may be helpful to consider that God may have placed us in a position that requires us to trust him in new ways. He has placed us in a position where we are forced to hope in him because our usual comforts are gone. And he is challenging us to enlarge our hearts so that we can love others in the midst of the challenges and difficulties they are facing.
Grace and peace,
Dean, GCU College of Theology & Seminary