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.

Seeking God’s Will: The ‘Three Lights’ of God’s Guidance and Hearing God’s Voice

crossroadsMany of us search for God’s will in our lives. In fact, one of the most pervasive questions I receive as a pastor is: how do I know God’s will in my life?

In his book, The Secret of Guidance, F. B. Meyer writes these words:

God’s impressions within and his words without are always corroborated by his providence around, and we should quietly wait until those three focus into one point. . . . The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will, when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit with the Word of God.

According to Meyer, there are ‘three lights’ that serve as guiding points of reference when we discuss hearing God’s voice or gaining guidance in life. They are: impressions of the Spirit, words from Scripture, and our circumstances. Along with these three, some will often include the wise counsel of godly friends and mentors.

When we are seeking to know God’s will and make decisions in accordance with His will, it is very helpful to consider how God might be speaking to us through these three lights. It is worth paying attention to what we are reading in Scripture, what our circumstances may be highlighting for us, and also how the internal voice of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us.

Dallas Willard writes about this in his book Hearing God:

It is possible to understand this precious advice in such a way that it completely resolves any problem about divine guidance. . . . But for those who do not yet have a confident, working familiarity with the Voice, the three lights may speedily result in a swirl of confusion (183).

So, when we think of ‘getting guidance’ from God, we not only need to consider the three lights that F. B. Meyer holds before us. We also need to grow in familiarity with the voice of God. The more familiar we are with a friend, the more easily we can understand what he or she is saying and what the nuances of their voice means. The same is true with God. The more we listen to Him and familiarize with Him by daily walking in closeness to God, the more easy it will be to discern His will. The more we know who God is, the more easily we will be able to rightly grasp the guidance He is giving through our circumstances, the Spirit’s impressions, and the Scripture.

Recovering Holiness

HolinessAs I continue to reflect on the nature of pastoral ministry, ministry in the North American evangelical church, and questions of ministry integrity, I find myself returning often to the topic of holiness. Even writing the word holiness makes me feel a little bit “old school.” However, if I hold the tension of that uncomfortable feeling for a bit, I cannot help but think we may need to be a little “old school” right now on this issue.

So, I turned to a voice from an earlier time, J. C. Ryle, whose classic book Holiness has been highly regarded for years, with pastors like J. I. Packer and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones urging Christians to read it. Let me share a brief excerpt from his introduction to this book, which, I believe, puts some perspective on where we stand today in North American Christianity.

I’ve had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consciousness to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us. The subject of personal godliness has fallen sadly into the background. The standard of living has become painfully low in many quarters. Immense importance of “adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus 2:10), and making it lovely and beautiful by our daily habits and tempers, has been far too much overlooked. Worldly people sometimes complain with reason that “religious” persons, so-called, are not so amiable, and unselfish, and good-natured, as others who make no profession of religion. Yet sanctification, in its place in proportion, is quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt. It is my firm impression that we want a thorough revival about scriptural holiness, and I am deeply thankful that attention is being directed to the point.

As Ryle continues his introduction, he outlines a series of issues related to holiness, some of which apply to our own day and some of which seem more bound to his own time. It is, however, his first point that I find particularly relevant to our own context. In the midst of our heavy emphasis on grace in North American Christianity, we have at times veered off into various versions of antinomianism, where there is no place – or at least disregard – for God’s law and obedience. As with the work of Dallas Willard, sometimes simplified in the writings of John Ortberg, we find Ryle grappling with the tension between faith and work, between earning God’s favor and application of effort to honor God. On the subject of holiness, he writes:

That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step towards a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a jot of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by the faith of the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcomes the world; that by faith the elders obtain a good report – all these are truths which no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith….Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ (Rom. 4:5). Sanctifying faith is a grace of which the very life is action: it “worketh by love,” and, like a mainspring, moves the whole inward man (Gal. 5:6).

What Ryle emphasizes, and we rightly need to recover, is the emphatic coupling of justifying grace with sanctifying grace. We need to recover the truth that our unearned salvation by grace through faith in Christ overflows into a holy life strenuously lived as worship unto the Lord through obedience. I cannot help but think that one of the things we most need to recover today in North American Christianity is holiness.

Real Discipleship in a Consumer Church: Dallas Willard on the Renovation of the Church

fullsizeoutput_abdI am entering a period of deep reflection on what it means to be a pastor and what it means to be the church. I am asking questions that I have considered for years but now approach with a deeper sense of urgency and attention. I find myself wondering over and over again: what are we doing here in the North American church and does any of it matter?

My questions are leading me again into self-reflection and searching on topics such as holiness, discipleship, our amazing capacity for self-deception, North American evangelicalism, and superficial, consumer Christianity. I am re-reading many resources, and one I returned to this morning was Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken’s Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation. Here is an excerpt from the foreword to that book by Dallas Willard. I believe it is worth pondering his words for some time.

How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed? In other words, if we have gathered people into congregations by appeasing their appetites and desires, how can we help them deal with the fact that their problems in life and character – even “in church” – are primarily caused by living to get what they want? How can the cross and self-denial become the central fact in a prosperous, consumer culture? How can discipleship to Jesus – in a sense recognizable in the Bible, with the spiritual transformation it brings – be the mode of operation in a thriving North American congregation?

The dynamics of outward success in a church are rooted in the motivational forces of the pastors and the leaders. They have to change before anything else does. The pastors must themselves become disciples (in the New Testament sense), genuinely becoming in their concrete existence, their life and relationships, what we see repeatedly in well-known biblical passages. It is personal ambition that drives the machinery of “success” in the church context, which is what comes out in the many dimensions of character failure that are now all too familiar. Often church members are caught up in their desire to be associated with a “successful” church. Among the treasures expressed in this book is, “Christian leaders are more ready to be candid about sexual lust than ambition.” But lust fulfilled is only one dimension of the deeper drive to have my way. The deeper root of consumerism in the church context is sensuality.

When that root has been cut in the individual life, then genuine ambition for God, and pride in the cross, can flourish (Galatians 6:14). The power of God can flow through transformed character into a world desperate for it. Success is redefined by the spread of kingdom presence throughout the community. Church growth is not just more Christians but bigger Christians, flush with Christ’s character.

The authors came to grips with major issues for practice – for what we actually must do if we intend to make the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 into the mission statement of our group. First, we must intend to do that, and must lead our people into that intention. And our central message – our “gospel” – must be one that has a natural tendency to produce disciples of Jesus, not just avid consumers of religious goods and services. Disciples are self-starters in kingdom living, on the road with Jesus day in and day out. The gospel of life now in the present kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 4:17) will produce disciples. And then we organize our “meetings,” of whatever kind, around that intention and that message. We set the meetings up in a way that intelligently develops disciples and fosters their progressive transformation into Christ-likeness from the inside. Careful attention to the Spirit. the Bible and how experience actually moves individuals and groups will enable us to do this. It has been done repeatedly in Christian history, and can be done now. Outwardly, in fact, our operation may not look much different than it does now. But its content, its goal and its outcome will most assuredly bring the people involved into a path of contemporary holiness that looks at Matthew 5-7, 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:1-17, and says: “Of course. That’s us.” Grace with training in fellowship will bring us there.

Stepping into the deep life with God

In my message this past weekend, “Deep: Changed with God,” I mentioned the importance of taking tangible action for growing deeper in the life with God. We should not merely relax into the recliner of salvation until Jesus returns. No, as I mentioned in my message, we must actively engage for growth as the Apostle Paul counsels the believers in Philippi: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Philippians 2:12-13).

One of the classic ways to do that is to engage with spiritual practices – or spiritual disciplines – in our lives. Just like someone learning a language, trade, or skill must step forward with tangible means to progressively develop that ability, the same is true in our life with God. In his masterful work The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard introduces us to such spiritual practices by categorizing them into two groups: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. While clearly not exhaustive, he lists them in this way.

Disciplines of Abstinence

  • solitude
  • silence
  • fasting
  • frugality
  • chastity
  • secrecy
  • sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement

  • study
  • worship
  • celebration
  • service
  • prayer
  • fellowship
  • confession
  • submission

Disciplines of Abstinence are those in which, as you might expect, we abstain from certain things, namely, “the satisfaction of what we generally regard as normal and legitimate desires” (159). St. Peter is thinking of these sorts of activities when he writes: “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Disciplines of abstinence are helpful in that they help us bring our normal human desires into right order, when often they grow inordinately important in our lives.

Disciplines of Engagement are the healthy counterbalance to and partner of the disciplines of abstinence. When we take something out of our lives, we must put something new and healthy in its place. We must not only stop doing some things, but choose to do the right sorts of things in their place. We abstain from our wrong engagements, and then move forward with new disciplines so that our souls are properly engaged with God.

Take a moment and consider whether you have ever experienced these sort of spiritual practices in your life. How have they helped you? How have you struggled with them?

 

Two Basic Disciplines of Abstinence

Let’s take a more in-depth look at two basic disciplines of abstinence that I believe are of vital importance in our life with God.

Solitude
Solitude is our intentional choice to step away from interaction with others, whether in person or in other forms of communication. Solitude is abstaining from companionship. Jesus did this throughout his life, as the gospels attest. We read about his practice most pointedly in Luke 4-5, where, after a jam-packed days of ministry to others, he draws away.

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place (4:42).
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayer (5:16).

In The Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard says: “Of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops” (161).

Solitude is a place to explore our isolation from others, to cling to Christ, and to be strengthened for His service.

Silence
As you might expect, silence is the discipline whereby we step away from sound. In a culture that is sound-saturated, from iPods to noisy traffic, it is important for us to set aside time apart from the external clutter of sounds.

It is amazing how infrequently we experience quiet. Even the places and times that we describe as quiet, we are often saturated with ambient noise.

This discipline clearly connects with the discipline of solitude. We choose to not only be alone, but to be alone without speaking and in a place of quiet.

Silence is a place where we return to God for our reassurance and approval.

What is your experience of solitude and silence as means for connecting more deeply with God?

 

Two Basic Disciplines of Engagement

Along with the disciplines of engagement, I believer there are two disciplines of engagement, study and worship, which are foundational to developing our deeper life with God.

Study
In study, we are chiefly engaging with the Word of God. This goes hand in hand with solitude. As we draw away from others in solitude, we draw near to God through the study of the Scriptures. We feast on the riches of God revealed there and are strengthened.

David Watson captures this well:

If we feed our souls regularly on God’s word, several times each day, we should become robust spiritually just as we feed on ordinary food several times each day, and become robust physically. Nothing is more important than hearing and obeying the word of God.

Although study has the whiff of academic scholarly pursuit, it really isn’t like that. That said, it does involve much time and effort. It entails giving time and effort to meditation on key Scripture passages and reading the Bible as a whole. But the time spent there should keep us firmly rooted in the everyday realities of life with God.

As Calvin Miller says:

Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.

Worship
“In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols” (D. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 177).

It is worth worshiping God because He only is worthy of worship. And we do so by fixing ourselves within His goodness and greatness.

Take a Scripture passage like Isaiah 6:3:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory”

As we speak the words, we consider their meaning and speak them back through our own mouths in worship to God.

Worship is the place where we kneel down in humility before a great and good God, recognizing Him for who He is and gaining proper perspective on our lives.

What is your experience of study and worship, whether alone or in community, as means for connecting more deeply with God?

Our Mind and Our Choices

This past weekend in my message from Psalm 1:1-2, “Roots,” I specifically mentioned the power within our thoughts and interior life in relationship to discipleship. Here are some further comments on this point from Dallas Willard, one of the most influential writers on discipleship in our current time, in his book The Divine Conspiracy. I am interested to hear your comments on Willard’s words:

Now we need to understand that what simply occupies our mind very largely governs what we do. It sets the emotional tone out of which our action flows, and it projects the possible courses of action available to us. Also, the mind, though of little power on its own, is the place of our widest and most basic freedom. This is true in both a direct and an indirect sense. Of all the things we do, we have more freedom with respect to what we think of, where we will place our mind, than anything else. And the freedom of thinking is a direct freedom wherever it is present. We need not do something else in order to exercise it. We simply turn our mind to whatever it is we choose to think of. The deepest revelation of our character is what we choose to dwell on in thought, what constantly occupies our mind – as well as what we can or cannot even think of….

When we come to the task of developing disciples into the fullness of Christ, we must be very clear that one main part, and by far the most fundamental, is to form the insights and habits of the student’s mind so that it stay directed toward God.

Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines

As I continue to reflect on the influence of Dallas Willard, I am turning back to some previous posts on his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Here is one post from two years ago:

I re-read Dallas Willard‘s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. It’s a great book on entering into the deep life with God. Willard is never an easy read, but this book is well worth sustained attention.

Willard challenges the typical approach to the spiritual life for most evangelical Christians. Before I jump into some reflections about individual disciplines in the days to come, I thought I’d offer a few key ideas from the book.Read More »