Spiritual formation parallels between the active waiting and anticipation of pregnancy and the season of Advent.
By Afrika Afeni Mills, Faith Avenue Champion, GCI Charlotte
My first pregnancy was not like Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. There’s the obvious difference—while my husband and I experienced the pregnancy as a miracle, our child was not immaculately conceived. There are other differences as well. I was in my late 20s while Mary was a teenager. I was married, and though Mary was betrothed, she was not yet married. I deeply desired to be pregnant while Mary’s pregnancy was a surprise. I was surrounded by a village of loved ones who prayed alongside us for a child while Mary lived in a time when becoming pregnant in that context was met with societal doubt, judgment, and shaming. My experience was more like Hannah’s as recounted in 1 Samuel 1. We navigated the ache of infertility, longing and praying for a child who my husband and I were unsure would ever come to be.
What our stories have in common, however—what we all have in common—is the shared experience of Advent, a period of active waiting and anticipation. Though we wait, there is much happening in the waiting. It is a time filled with promise and possibility. We are being spiritually formed.
Spiritual formation is the journey through which we can develop deeper intimacy with and connection to God. I committed my life to Jesus more than 30 years ago, and for much of that time my focus was on either doing things or avoiding doing things in hopes of keeping God from being upset with me. I didn’t really know what it meant to be with, loved, and formed by God.
Last year, however, after being introduced to spiritual formation by a close friend, I had the privilege of participating in the School of Formation alongside other Christ followers as we learned about and practiced contemplative rhythms, interior examination, racial justice and reconciliation, wholeness, and missional rhythms. Through that experience, I began to truly understand what it means to be in Christ.
As in pregnancy, our spiritual formation journey can be filled with growth that is hard to see with our eyes. In the first trimester, a woman’s body can appear unchanged. Without the verification that comes with changes in a woman’s cycle, pregnancy test indicators, and ultrasound confirmation, one can wonder if anything is actually happening.
As a woman progresses into her second and third trimesters, we begin to witness the change in the size of her belly, and the movement of arms and legs of the life inside her. We still can’t see details such as the development of the circulatory and digestive systems, eye color, fingerprints, and marrow.
The same can be true with us as we practice prayer, meditation, silence, solitude, fellowship, lament, and celebration within a faith community. Although we begin to transition from attempting to perform for God to desiring to participate with Christ in becoming salt and light, it can be really demoralizing when we encounter our distractedness, selfishness, and weariness as we practice new ways of being. We can begin to wonder if anything is changing at all. Yet we are developing and growing!
What develops in us as we wait and form is spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, against which there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23). With practice, these ways of being can become spontaneous, like breathing, blinking, and the beating of our hearts.
In Galatians 4, Paul refers to the Galatians as his dear children for whom he is in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in them (verse 19). I am intrigued by his reference to childbirth, especially considering that it wasn’t possible for him to experience it personally. What childbirth represents can be universal. This verse demonstrates it.
When our daughter was born, the years of wanting and waiting, disappointment and worry, dreaming and wondering, didn’t feel like years at all. It felt like a light and momentary trouble (2 Corinthians 4:17). Her physical formation began a transformation in us into something we hadn’t been before—parents. As believers, we are also in transformation as we are becoming the image of our beloved Messiah in a world desperately in need of the aroma of the kingdom of God.
As we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s incarnation, may Jesus be formed in us. And may who we are becoming, bear fruit that proves to be a blessing to everyone God brings into community with us.
Following are some suggested practices as you go deeper into spiritual formation in this season of Advent:
Week 1 – Hope
Spend ten minutes each day meditating on the hope we find in God, our faithful vine, in whom we bear much fruit as we remain in him. You may want to journal your thoughts and reflections.
Week 2 – Peace
Spend ten minutes each day in silence with God, confessing where you may be experiencing a lack of peace in your life, and inviting him to fill you with his shalom.
Week 3 – Joy
Spend ten minutes each day exploring verses that focus on the joy that God offers us. For example, read John 15:11 where Jesus talks about his joy being in us, and our joy being complete. Read it again and reflect on what you see God saying in this verse. Read it a third time and share with God what you notice. Read it a final time and sit quietly, listening to what God will say in response.
Week 4 – Love
Set aside a portion of each day where you will pause other activities and responsibilities to lean into the rest that God offers as an expression of his love for you. During that time, intentionally enjoy his green pastures, quiet waters, protection, provision, comfort, and goodness in the context of your life.