How Does Spiritual Formation Happen?: themes of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart

DallasWillard-sm

This summer, I have been returning to some classic guidance on spiritual formation, am reflecting on how spiritual formation happens in our individual lives and in the church as a whole. I shared a reflection from Eugene Peterson yesterday, and have peppered in other thoughts on my blog over recent weeks. Having just re-read Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart this summer, I wanted to offer a high level summary of Willard’s thinking in that book here.

Willard says that spiritual formation must take account of the various aspects of our being: spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social, and soul. It is only when we thoughtfully account for all these aspects of our person that whole spiritual transformation will truly happen. He writes:

It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.” (41-42)

Such transformation happens according to “the general pattern of personal transformation, which also applies to spiritual formation” (85), which Willard describes with the acronym VIM, which stands for vision, intention, and means.

  • Vision: “The vision that underlies spiritual (trans)formation into Christlikeness is, then, the vision of life now and forever in the range of God’s effectives will—that is, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1-2) through a birth ‘from above’ and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in our lifetime on earth….What we are aiming for in this vision is to live fully in the kingdom of God and as fully as possible now and here, not just hereafter” (87).
  • Intention: “We can actually decide to do it…first of all to trust him, rely on him, to count on him being the Anointed One, the Christ…Concretely, we intend to live in the kingdom by intending to obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus….Now, on intention is brought to completion only by a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention (87-88).
  • Means: “Here the means in question are the means for spiritual transformation, for the replacing of the inner character the lost with the inner character of Jesus: his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character” (89).

This must be vigorously and holistically applied to our lives with God’s grace for growth. When we do that, what does it look like? Willard cites these passage as a “New Testament descriptions of what the apprentices of Jesus are to be like”:

  • Matthew 5-7
  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12-7:1
  • Galatians 5:22-6:10
  • Ephesians 4:20-6:20
  • Philippians 2:3-16; 4:4-9
  • Colossians 3:1-4:6
  • 1 Peter 2:1-3:16
  • 2 Peter 1:2-10
  • 1 John 4:7-21

In the local church, while the individual work is intimately involved, the plan for spiritual formation is built around the definition of Matthew 28:18-20:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Specifically, Willard describes three essential emphases for churches to really move toward this reality of spiritual formation in their life together (240):

  1. Making disciples – the church must aim for actually apprenticing people to Jesus in their lives
  2. Immersing the apprentices at all levels of growth in the Trinitarian presence – the church must call disciples into the lived presence of the Triune God that is accessible and available at all times and in all spheres of our lives
  3. Transforming disciples inwardly – through spiritual practices/disciplines, the church must help disciples grow in such a way that doing the words and deeds of Christ is not the focus but the natural outcome or side effect of living

This is Willard’s basic thrust in Renovation of the Heart, which helps us see how true spiritual formation in Christlikeness happens in the lives of the individual believer and local church.

What Is the Essential Virtue?: further insights about the easy yoke from Dallas Willard

Renovation of the HeartYesterday I shared an excerpt from Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart about what Willard sees as the essence of discipleship in the easy yoke of Jesus referenced in Matthew 11:28-30. I wanted to share one additional thought from Willard on this, which flows directly from living as a disciple of Jesus within His easy yoke.

When we abandon outcomes to God, living in true soul rest in God through Jesus Christ, we live with honest assessment of our inability to live the “with-God” life on our own. As you would guess, to truly live the life with God calls us to life, not relying upon ourselves and our own strength, but upon God and His strength. This leads us to a fundamental posture of humility, which Willard describes further in what follows.

Humility is the framework within which all virtue lives. Angela of Foligno observe, ‘Our Lord did not say: Learn of Me to despise the world and live in poverty . . . but only this: Learn of Me for I am gentle and lowly of heart.’ And ‘One of the signs by which a man may know that he is in a state of grace is this—that he is never puffed up.’ Accordingly, we are to ‘clothe [ourselves] with humility,’ Peter said (1 Peter 5:5), which certainly means loss of self-sufficiency. ‘God gives grace to the humble,’ he continues. ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you’ (verses 5-70. Humility is a great secret of rest of soul because it dose not presume to secure outcomes.

Here is a simple fact: We live in a world where, by God’s appointment, ‘the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The Lord ‘does not delight in the strength of the horse; He does not take pleasure in the legs of a man’ (Psalm 147:10). He has a plan for our life that goes far beyond anything we can work out and secure by means of strong horses and good legs.

We simply have to rest in his life as he gives it to us. Knowledge, from Christ, that he is good and great enables us to cast outcomes on him. We find this knowledge in the yoke of Christ. Resting in God, we can be free from all anxiety, which means deep soul rest. Whatever our circumstance, taught by Christ we are enabled to ‘rest [be still] in the Lord and wait patiently [or longingly] for Him’ (Psalm 37:7). We don’t fret or get angry because others seem to be doing better than we are, even though they are less deserving than we.

[From Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 209-210.]

For more on the topic of humility, you may enjoy reading my ten reflections on Andrew Murray’s short but powerful book Humility, which begins here.

What Does It Look Like to Rest in God?: insights about the easy yoke from Dallas Willard

Renovation of the HeartOne of the most striking aspects of the writing and teaching of Dallas Willard is his ability to open up with fresh perspective what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One of Willard’s most powerful contributions to disciple is found in his explanation of Jesus’ well-known invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Willard refers to our discipleship response to this invitation as living in “the secret of the easy yoke” in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines. As I am currently re-reading Renovation of the Heart, I came across this basic description of what Willard sees as the essence of discipleship in the easy yoke of Jesus. I hope it speaks to you as much as it did to me.

Jesus heard the soul’s cries from the wearied humanity he saw around him. He saw the soul’s desperate need in those who struggled with the overwhelming tasks of their life. Such weariness and endless labor was, to him, a sure sign of a sou not properly rooted in God—a soul, in effect, on its own. He saw the multitudes around him, and it tore his heart, for they were ‘distressed and downcast’ like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36). And he invited such people to come and become his students (‘learn of me’) by yoking themselves to him—that is, letting him show them how he would pull their load. He is not ‘above’ this, as earthly ‘great ones’ are, for he is meek and lowly of heart (Matthew 11:28-30).

His own greatness of soul made meekness and lowliness the natural way for him to be (Philippians 2:3-11). Being in his yoke is not a matter of taking on additional labor to crush us all the more, but a matter of learning how to use his strength and ours together to bear our load  and his. We will find his yoke an easy one and his burden a light one because, in learning from him, we have found rest to our soul. What we have learned is, primarily, to rest our soul in God. Rest to our soul is rest in God. My soul is at peace only when it is with God, as a child with its mother.

What we most learn in his yoke, beyond acting with him, is to abandon outcomes to God, accepting that we do not have in ourselves—in our own ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’—the wherewithal to make this come out right, whatever ‘this’ is. Even if we ‘suffer according to the will of God,’ we simple ‘entrust our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right’ (1 Peter 4:19). Now, this is a major part of that meekness and lowliness of heart that we also learn in his yoke. And what rest comes with it!

[From Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 209.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 30 May 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


George Floyd gospel legacy“George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston” – Kate Shellnut at Christanity Today: “The rest of the country knows George Floyd from several minutes of cell phone footage captured during his final hours. But in Houston’s Third Ward, they know Floyd for how he lived for decades—a mentor to a generation of young men and a ‘person of peace’ ushering ministries into the area. Before moving to Minneapolis for a job opportunity through a Christian work program, the 46-year-old spent almost his entire life in the historically black Third Ward, where he was called ‘Big Floyd’ and regarded as an ‘OG,’ a de-facto community leader and elder statesmen, his ministry partners say.”


AND legacy“Statement from The AND Campaign on Racialized Violence in America” – “We mourn the loss of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and all others who have lost their lives due to racialized violence. The grief of their loved ones is our grief and we share in their agony. The riots in Minneapolis are not to be glorified or romanticized, but we must realize that they are a product of a riotous and unjust system. The disorder began when a man’s rights were violated and his life was taken. American racism was rioting against the people long before they took to the streets. We must condemn and address the cause before we can appropriately address the broken reaction.”


DallasWillard-sm

“Becoming The Kinds of Leaders Who Can Do The Job” – Here is some wisdom from Dallas Willard published in 1999, later compiled into a chapter in Renewing the Christian Mind, that connects with the call to spiritual and moral leadership in this moment. “We had read all of Dallas’ books and been deeply impacted by them—not least by his latest, The Divine Conspiracy. But Brian had just finished presenting some thoughts on new models of leadership—leaders marked not so much by conquest and technique, but by spiritual goodness and wisdom. And so we sat there, slumped pensively in our chairs, until someone finally said, ‘Dallas…please talk to us about how we become those kind of people.’ So, during a break, Dallas began listing some of his thoughts on a whiteboard. And then in his gracious, careful way, he challenged us to become the kind of leaders this world so desperately needs. The following is some of what he told us.”


Grief Comes to Church“Letting Grief Come to Church” – Whether we know it or not, we are all grieving different losses that the pandemic has brought into our lives. What does it mean to allow space for grief in the church and how might that help us experience release and healing in our lives? Clarissa Moll writes about this for CT Pastors, sharing five ways we can welcome what may feel unwelcome once the doors reopen at our churches.


Supreme Court Church“Supreme Court, in 5-4 Decision, Rejects Church’s Challenge to Shutdown Order”New York Times: “The Supreme Court on Friday turned away a request from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four-member liberal wing to form a majority. ‘Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,’ Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an opinion concurring in the unsigned ruling.”


balcony church“Balcony church gains popularity in Kenya amid pandemic” – I always enjoy creativity in how churches gather people or reach out to people. Here is one that I have never heard of that seems well-suited for this time of the pandemic, flowing from a children’s outreach in Nairobi, Kenya. “Machira has taken his ‘Balcony to Balcony’ service on the road since Kenya’s first case was found in mid-March. It has become quite popular, the preacher at the All Saints Cathedral of the Anglican Church of Kenya said.”


Washington D.C.'s National Cathedral Webcasts Sunday Mass Due To Coronavirus

“Seeking to Understand the Rise, Fall, and Loss of Young Pastors” –  Robert Stewart writes at Chuck DeGroat’s blog about a serious and hard topic. “At least (five) high profile young pastors of whom I’m aware have taken their lives during these past twelve months alone. As painful as this topic is to discuss I believe that we absolutely must force ourselves to do so if we’re ever understand what’s going on here. We shouldn’t be trying to address this crisis until we better understand all the cultural, characterological, spiritual, and biological issues which influence it. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster stunned the world in 1986 all shuttle flights were grounded until the underlying cause (defective “o-rings” in the right side solid rocket booster) could be understood and resolved. Seven astronauts died unnecessarily in that incident. Almost that many young pastors (or maybe more) have died in this past year. And, the many opinions about why don’t add up to any real comprehension which could guide us towards life saving solutions. It just seems unconscionable to continue on as usual amid the carnage. So, how might we begin the quest to understand and solve this crisis with an inquiry as focused and complete as the one which solved the riddle of the Challenger?”


 

Music: Common Hymnal (featuring Dee Wilson),Rose Petals,” from Common Hymnal

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 16 May 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Joyce Lin“Died: Joyce Lin, Missionary Pilot Transporting Coronavirus Supplies” – “A 40-year-old American missionary pilot delivering COVID-19 supplies to remote villages died in a plane crash in Indonesia on Tuesday. oyce Lin, a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), was transporting rapid test kits and school supplies to a village in Papua, the easternmost province in the far-flung island chain. She took off from the city of Sentani at 6:27 a.m. and made a distress call two minutes later, MAF spokesman Brad Hoagland said. A search-and-rescue team found her Kodiak 100 airplane crashed into nearby Lake Sentani and recovered her body from about 40 feet under the water, according to local police.”


Esau McCaulley“Ahmaud Arbery and the America That Doesn’t Exist: Black Americans need more than a trial and a verdict” – I have had a lot of conversations in the past couple weeks about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in southern Georgia. There is a lot that could be said, but I found the perspective of Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, very helpful and worth reading. You may also benefit from Rachel Conner’s exhortation, “White Evangelicals, This Is Your Moment: A Response to Ahmaud Arbery,” at Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog.


information overload“Can we escape from information overload?” – That is a question many of us are wondering about right now, particularly as increased physical distancing appears to have led us into the crosshairs of increased online living. “One day in December 2016 a 37-year-old British artist named Sam Winston equipped himself with a step-ladder, a pair of scissors, several rolls of black-out cloth and a huge supply of duct tape, and set about a project he had been considering for some time….He’d been troubled by nervous energy and stress since he was young, was an intermittent insomniac, had difficulty filtering noise and distractions in public spaces, and was someone who – like so many of us – increasingly relied on his phone and computer. So Winston decided to hole up for a few days. No screens. No sun. No visual stimulation of any kind. He was going to spend some time alone in the dark.”


philosophy“Despite Bad News, Evangelical Philosophy Is Flourishing” – Augustine’s Confessions, Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, and Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil helped me navigate critical questions in my faith toward growth with God. I am forever thankful for the good gifts of these true Christians who were also great philosophers. In this article Michael W. Austin, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, speaks to the importance of philosophy and the way evangelical philosophy is thriving today.


Hannah-Arendt-1963“Thoughtlessness, Sloth, and the Call to Think: What happens when we give up on thinking? Hannah Arendt warned us years ago.” – Continuing on a theme, Hannah LaGrand offers this reflection on the work of Hannah Arendt, particularly her book The Life of the Mind, and why being thoughtful is so important for us. Slothfulness of the mind is so common in our day, particularly in these information-soaked times. As T. S. Eliot writes in the opening stanza of Choruses from the Rock: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Perhaps what we need is to re-learn how to think.


Thank you Ravi“Ravi Zacharias tributes flow in response to terminal cancer diagnosis” – Speaking of those who help us think well, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries announced that the famous apologist-evangelist has received a terminal cancer diagnosis. “We have just learned that while the tumor in my dad’s sacrum has been responding to the chemotherapy, the area where the cancer metastasized has actually worsened. His oncologist informed us that this cancer is very rare in its aggression and that no options for further treatment remain. Medically speaking, they have done all they are able.” Tributes are already flowing in. Author of many books with a renowned ability to speak to academic as well as popular audiences, Zacharias has had a profound ministry for Christ of the years and in many venues.


Darrin Patrick“Friends mourn Darrin Patrick, megachurch pastor and author, who died of apparent ‘self-inflicted gunshot wound'” – Some of you may know Darrin Patrick, who founded the St. Louis church, The Journey, and was also deeply involved with the early days of the Acts 29 church planting network founded by Mark Driscoll. Last week, Seacoast Church, where Patrick currently served as Teaching Pastor, announced that he died of apparent an self-inflicted gunshot wound while target shooting with a friend. This is incredibly sad news for his family and for many impacted by his ministry. Patrick was notably removal from his church leadership role and from leadership at Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition in 2016 for “historical patterns of sin.” He took ownership for his wrongs, walked through a very deliberate and extensive restoration process, and talked openly about his failures and restoration so others could learn from his failure and restoration. I first heard Patrick speak at the Exponential church planting conference in 2010 on church planting in the city, and found his words very helpful. Ed Stetzer offers this remembrance at his blog, “Darrin Patrick’s Death, His Love for Pastors, and How We Need One Another.”


Walking changes us“How Walking Changes Us” – I love being out in nature generally, but especially hiking in wide open spaces. One of my favorite activities on my day off, when possible, is to head out to the Ice Age Trail here in Wisconsin and hike for the day. It is refreshing to my body, mind, and spirit. David Ulin’s review of two recent books, In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration by Shane O’Mara and In Praise of Paths: Walking Through Time and Nature by Torbjørn Ekelund, offers insights into why walking and hiking are so meaningful to many of us, through first a neuroscientific and then an experiential lens.


Music: Bruce Cockburn, “All the Diamonds in the World,” Mummy Dust

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]