A Philosophy of Spiritual Formation

Incarnation and Carnalization in Spiritual Transformation: Life of the Spirit vs. Life of the Flesh

By Chris Yeager

During a class discussion one day in graduate school, the question was asked, “Where does Spiritual transformation begin?”  The answer: the incarnation.  Spiritual transformation begins and ends with Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega of all things.  He is the height, breadth, width and depth of God’s love in the flesh.  Our life with God begins with an acceptance of who Christ is – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) – and moves toward our absolute surrender to His rule in our life – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

The tragedy at every level of Christian experience – individual, corporate and cultural – is that we tend to immediately turn the power of the incarnation into works of the flesh.  In other words, our misunderstanding of the incarnation leads us into carnalization.  For the purpose of this paper it means a process whereby the flesh (sinful nature) defines our understanding of God, His Word and His work.  To illustrate the tension between incarnation (life in the Spirit) and carnalization (life in the flesh), I have put together the following table:

Incarnation versus Carnalization: Romans 8:1-17 Applied (Table 1)



(Life in the Spirit)

Carnalization(Life in the flesh)


Conversing with our heavenly Father in an attitude of surrender/submission; communion, celebration, contemplation and cooperation; the place of transformation Based on personal needs/wants; God becomes our servant granting our wishes
Study of the Scriptures Transformed by truth; God’s Word is internalized and flows from the believer in thought and action Scripture becomes a means to justification and self-righteousness; already accepted thoughts and actions are the means of interpreting Scripture to already desired ends
Worship Unhindered adoration of God; a denial of self; an expression of love Ritual obligation or an experience for our emotional or psychological benefit; an expression of selfish love
Fellowship Defined by our relationship to God; others are more important than ourselves Defined by our need for belonging, acceptance and approval; others are there for us; social rather than spiritual connection
Evangelism Desire to lead others to truth; motivated by love Desire to impose church culture on others; motivated by pride
Healing Spiritual wholeness; physical healing is secondary; to bring glory to God Physical healing is a sign of faith and defines status; to ease our suffering
Communion A recognition of Christ’s sacrifice and our need for it; Ritual practice to make things “right” between us and God
Baptism An external witness of an internal event An external event which produces a positional state regardless of internal change
Service A consequence of our relationship with God A means of gaining favor and pull with God, “How could this happen to me after all I’ve done for God?”
Discipleship A process of learning which transforms both what we do and why we do it by changing who we are.  This occurs in a connected flow from Christ to the most infantile of believers.  As we are discipled, so we disciple. A process of socialization or indoctrination depending on the political structure of the denomination or group.
Tithing Free gift of gratitude and thanksgiving to God. A “sacrifice” given to God as an obligation or as a means to be blessed.  Becomes a bartering system.
Faith Rooted in who God is; His character and personhood. Rooted in what God can do for me.
Maturity Our goal is to be better for others Our goal is to be better than others

While the table is not comprehensive of Christian experience, it does flesh out (pun intended) a picture of how easily spiritual transformation can be warped and twisted.  The subtle deception of carnalization is that while sometimes behaviors remain the same, inner change and motivation are inherently dissimilar.

Thomas Merton gives good insight into this danger:

If we are to be “perfect” as Christ is perfect, we must strive to be as perfectly human as he, in order that he may unite us with his divine being and share with us his sonship of the heavenly Father.  Hence sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human than other men.  This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.  It follows that a pretended “way of perfection” that simply destroys or frustrates human values precisely because they are human, and in order to set oneself apart from the rest of men as an object of wonder, is doomed to be nothing but a caricature.  And such caricaturing of sanctity is indeed a sin against faith in the Incarnation.  It shows contempt for the humanity for which Christ did not hesitate to die on the cross.[i]

It is clear that incarnation results in humanity perfected while carnalization results in a mockery of Christ, a caricature.  The impression that I am left with is the difference between a painting by a realist and a drawing by a theme park cartoonist.  While both are artful and depict the subject being rendered, the first depicts reality without interpretation; the second accentuates in the extreme only specific characteristics.

Players in the Processes (Table 2)





God the Father The World
Canvas Believer The believer
Subject God the Son Jesus
Medium God the Holy Spirit Human wisdom
Audience The World God

If we continue with the metaphor above, we are left with drastically different concepts of art.  Incarnation has us as the canvas, God as the artist, the Holy Spirit as the medium, Jesus Christ as the subject and the world as the audience.  God is painting a picture of His Son on our lives for the entire world to see.  In carnalization, we are still the canvas, God is the audience, Jesus Christ is the subject, human wisdom is the medium and the world is the artist.  We allow the world to paint it’s image of Christ onto our lives and expect God to be pleased with our fleshy works.  “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself … as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!  There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity they never gave a thought to Christ.” [ii]

Let’s look at the metaphor in steps.  The first two things that are absolutely necessary for a painting are an artist and a canvas.  Incarnation has God the Father as the artist and us as the canvas, a relationship of master to servant.  The canvas is truly submissive to the will of the artist, an “empty vessel” being filled with the brush strokes of the Holy Spirit.  As each line is drawn, as the shading develops and the details fill in, the fruit of the Master’s work are easily recognized.  Carnalization, on the other hand, has the world as artist and us as the canvas.  We are still servants with a master, but to the world and the fallen nature.  This produces images of Christ that are the work of the world and are designed to fulfill the inklings of the artist.  These are the caricatures of Christ that have produced heresies regarding His deity, His humanity, His authority and His teachings.

After the artist and canvas are present a medium and a subject are required.  Color, shading, shape, depth and texture must be added to the canvas to represent the subject.  It is important to note here that any other artist than God will misrepresent Christ, which is why incarnation can only work one way.  C. S. Lewis writes, “Evil can be undone, but it cannot develop into good.  Time does not heal it.  The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’ – or else not.  It is still ‘either-or’.  If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”[iii]  Unless we let go of the world, God cannot take hold of us.  Incarnation is the work of God, not of man; anything else is the work of man and prone to failure.

Therefore, the Holy Spirit is absent from the process of carnalization.  The process of incarnation produces the image of Christ in the believer; the carnal believer produces an image of Christ that fits who they already are and what they already believe.  Both processes are transformative: incarnation transforms the believer into the image of Christ; carnalization transforms Christ into the image most comfortable for the believer.  M. Robert Mullholland elucidates the contrast:

“’Being conformed’ goes totally, radically against the ingrained objectification perspective of our culture.  Graspers powerfully resist being grasped by God.  Manipulators strongly reject being shaped by God.  Controllers are inherently incapable of yielding control to God.  Spiritual formation is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things.”[iv] 

This “great reversal” is missing in carnalization, which is why the subject can be the same for incarnation and carnalization, but result in conflicting works of art.  Incarnation presents Christ without concern for audience approval; carnalization presents Christ with the assumption that the audience approves and to please the artist.

The final player in both processes is the audience.  God is omniscient and omnipresent and therefore does not miss anything.  There is nothing for us to perform which He has not already seen.  In other words, we can do nothing to impress Him.  However, we can do much to please Him, the foremost of which is becoming the means to His kingdom being presented to the lost.  Incarnation has the world as the audience because God commands it: 1 Peter 3:13-16; 1 Peter 4:7-11; Colossians 4:2-6; Matthew 28:16-20; Matthew 10:32-33; John 21:15-19; Acts 1:7-8; Ps 2:7; Ps 9:11; Ps 22:31; Ps 40:9; Ps 64:9; Ps 68:34; Ps 71:16; Ps 96:2; Ps 118:17; Ps 145:6, and the list could go on.  Just as Israel was to be a light to the nations, so we who follow Christ are to be a light to those in darkness.

What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us.  Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with utmost care.  It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings.”[v] 

We must be careful not to mistake performance for growth and success for maturity. While this is easier to see on the individual level, it also happens corporately.

The Roles of The Players (Table 3)





Intent on presenting truth Intent on creating truth as they wish it to be
Canvas Intent on becoming conformed to the image of Christ Intent on conforming Christ in their own image
Subject Defined by God in His own image Defined by the world in it’s own image
Medium Intent on giving form and substance to the will of God in the life of the believer (canvas) Minimizes or eliminates the truth of the incarnation
Audience The World: confronted with the reality of Christ in the believer God: not impressed by our fleshy works

An example of how the process can work on a corporate level can be seen in a worship service.  It has been said that in worship, the congregation is not the audience.  Instead, God is the audience and the congregation is performing for his pleasure.  In the context of the metaphor, this idea of worship fits more into carnalization than incarnation.

For worship to fit into the process of incarnation, the world, or the worldliness still at work in the congregation, is the audience, and God is painting a picture of Christ on us through the Holy Spirit.  It is this kind of worship that Paul Billheimer describes in his poem Christ Our Sculptor:

‘Tis the Master who holds the mallet,

And day by day

He is chipping whatever environs

The form away;

Which, under His skillful cutting,

He means shall be

Wrought silently out to beauty

Of such degree

Of faultless and full perfection,

That angel eyes

Shall look on the finished labour

With new surprise,

That even His boundless patience

Could grave His own

Features upon such fractured

And stubborn stones.[vi]

But the discipline that puts us in a position to be sculpted, to be a canvas, is solitude.

Solitude is more than being alone:

Solitude is the furnace of transformation.  Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.  Jesus himself entered into this furnace.  There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”).  There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone”).  Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.[vii] 

It is this “furnace of transformation” that is desperately needed in the life of every believer for incarnation to progress.  Without it, even some of the spiritual disciplines can simply become things we do to adjust our mood or behavior, rather than a means to allow God to do in, to and through us what He wills.  The painting is done in solitude; it is when the work is done that the painting is shown to the audience.  It is critical for each of us to find that place of solitude, God’s studio of new creation, so that He can form in us the image of His Son.  For we know “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 1:6 –NIV)

[i]Merton, pgs. 24-25.

[ii] Lewis, pg. 74.

[iii] Ibid, pg. viii.

[iv] Mulholland, pg. 27.

[v] Nouwen, page 47.

[vi] Miller, pg. 135.

[vii] Nouwen, pages 15-16.


Mulholland, M. Robert, Jr.  Invitation to a Journey: A Roadmap for Spiritual

Formation.  Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Merton, Thomas.  Life and Holiness.  New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1963.

Lewis, C. S.  The Great Divorce.  San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1946.

Miller, Calvin, Editor.  The Book of Jesus: A Treasury of the Greatest Stories

and Writings About Christ.  London: Fount Paperbacks, 1998.

Nouwen, Henri J. M.  The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through

Prayer, Wisdom and Silence.  New York: Ballantine, 1981.

3 responses to “A Philosophy of Spiritual Formation”

  1. Once again you make one think…..”am I truly where I need to be, or am I leaning away, not drawing closer to our Lord”.. This is a great article, full of truth and inspired thinking… I pray you will continue to offer these powerful insights as to our walk with the Lord.

    • Thank you Keith. This was the product of a class I took at Simpson University a while ago. I am working on expanding it and developing the idea further. I appreciate the encouragement greatly!

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