When children are young, we recognize how impressionable they are. Children pick up the world around them like sponges, and often regurgitate whatever they have been soaking in. If they see smiles, they give smiles. If they hear foul language, they speak foul language. Their world shapes them in ways that are easy to define and recognize.
As we become adults, we tend to believe that we are set in stone; we are no longer malleable. The reality, however, is that all of us are constantly being formed. Formation did not cease when we became adults. We are still soaking in the world around us and adapting in various ways. The notion that adults can live in a bubble of individual thought, immune to outside influence, is a myth. This is why people with large followings on social media are called “influencers” and why they receive big bucks for endorsements. Companies know how much of an impact these individuals can have on potential customers, both young and old.
The question, then, is not if you are being formed, but rather how you are being formed. You are being formed – so you need to ask yourself what is forming you. Or more specifically: what has the greatest influence in your personal formation? The best way to answer that question is to look at your focus. What gets the most attention in your life? What do you talk about the most? What do you think about the most? What do you spend the most time learning about and meditating on?
For Christians, the answer to that question needs to be Jesus. Jesus must be the One who is forming us. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). God intended his people to be shaped into the image of his Son. That formation happens through spiritual disciplines, both individual and corporate. We are spiritually formed by Jesus when we spend time in prayer, fasting, and scriptural meditation. We are spiritually formed by Jesus through our corporate worship. We are spiritually formed by Jesus when we spend time engaged in spiritual activities with other Christians. These things help shape us in deep, lasting ways, because God’s Spirit is active in all of them.
Other forces compete with that formation, however. Political pundits, sports, movies, and music are all formational in nature. Politics is highly formational, and can easily veer into the religious. Many will try to convince others to vote for their preferred candidate – they are evangelizing! Others see the next election in apocalyptic terms (“if so-and-so wins, our nation is finished!”) – this is eschatology! Politics is filled with religious fervor which influences Christians as easily as anyone else. Social media is likewise forming us. The content I see in my feed may not change my opinion, but it does impact my focus. Even seemingly silly memes can be an important, if subtle, formational force.
That’s not to say these things need to be completely removed from our lives (although some parts certainly do). However, we often see these forces as benign when they are anything but. We need to recognize the formational value of these parts of our lives and adapt accordingly. If the things of the world hold the primary place of influence in our lives, then we will be formed by worldly thinking. Let us remember that the world’s thinking is shaped by demonic wisdom (James 3:13-18). If we are not careful, the wisdom of demons will have more influence in our lives than the wisdom of God, and we will bear the rotten fruit such wisdom produces – greed, selfishness, lust, rage, division, and so on.
The life of the Christian does not have to be stoic and isolated, totally removed from the world. However, we should remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” That is, we are to be transformed into the image of Christ, by renewing our minds with the things of Christ. If we are to experience such a transformation, we must be intentional about what we allow to shape us. We are not alone in these efforts, but we play an important part (Eph. 2:10). If we are shaped by the world, we will be no different from the world. But if we are shaped by Christ, we can truly be a light to the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.