Transformation into Christlikeness is Possible: Dallas Willard

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While preparing for a retreat with Eastbrook Church’s student ministry, I came across this excerpt from Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard that hit home to me. Given some of my recent reflections on the nature of pastoral leadership in North America (see “Five Themes of Resilient Ministry” and “Five Steps for Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership“), this section on the gaps and possibilities of Christian formation in our lives, particularly the Christian formation of pastors and leaders, was resoundingly important to me. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

First of all we must be clear that such a transition as is envisioned in Christian spiritual formation can actually happen, and can actually happen to us. This, today, is not obvious.

What we see around us today of the “usual” Christian life could easily make us think that spiritual transformation is simply impossible. It is now common for Christian leaders themselves to complain about how little real-life difference there is between professing, or even actual Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other. Although there is much talk about “changing lives” in Christian circles, the reality is very rare, and certainly much less common than the talk.

The “failures” of prominent Christian leaders themselves, already referred to, might cause us to think genuine spiritual formation in Christlikeness to be impossible for “real human beings.” How is it, exactly, that a man or woman can respectably serve Christ for many years and then morally disintegrate? And the failures that become known are few compared to the ones that remain relatively unknown and are even accepted among Christians.

Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life “blew up,” became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar pattern in both Christian and non-Christian “power structures.” But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?

The same questions arise with reference to lay figures in areas of life such politics, business, entertainment, or education, who show the same failures of character while openly identifying themselves as Christians. It is unpleasant to dwell on such cases, but they must be squarely faced.

Of course the effects of such failures depend on the circumstances, on how widely the failure becomes known, and on various other factors. In another case a pastor became enraged at something a subordinate did during a Sunday morning service. Immediately after the service he found that subordinate and gave him a merciless tongue-lashing. With his lapel mike still on! His diatribe was broadcast over the entire church plant and campus-in all the Sunday school rooms and the parking lot. Soon thereafter he “received the Lord’s call” to another church. But what about the spiritual formation of this leader? Is that the best we can do? And is he not still really like that in his new position?

Malfeasance with money is less acceptable than anger, and sexual misconduct is less tolerated still. But is the inner condition (the heart) all that different in these cases-before God?

The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) “fails” is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they “did it” or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?

Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Life the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.

Without gently though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented and in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.

2 thoughts on “Transformation into Christlikeness is Possible: Dallas Willard

  1. This is a real down to earth good article! I would love to hear about the inner transformation you have experienced in your life. In my case, I became a believer at 29, and the transformation is like night and day, and really not in my own effort, although I know I still have a long journey to becoming 100 percent Christ-like… Don’t all believers live through the process of sanctification throughout our lives, including pastors and other leaders?
    Anyway, this article makes me think a lot… 🙏🏼

    • Yes, Emilia, I agree that we are all on the lifelong journey of sanctification. I appreciated Willard’s insights here because he points out that the failure of Christian leaders may make us think that Christian growth or spiritual formation is not really possible. “If not for leaders, then how could it be for us?” Of course, the calling is to surrender to Christ daily so that His life might live in us increasingly.

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