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

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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.]

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.