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.

It Needs to Get Inside of You: Eugene Peterson on the Spiritual Disciplines

peterson-square1One of my favorite authors is Eugene Peterson. Peterson is best known as the author behind the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. As a pastor, his works on pastoral ministry for our contemporary era, such as Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral IntegrityFive Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Under the Unpredictable Plant, are unparalleled. In the midst of my ongoing exploration about spiritual practices for pursuing the deep life with God, I unexpectedly came across these reflections on the idea of spiritual disciplines that I wanted to share. This is taken from an interview with Image. Peterson gets it right here, I believe, because he cautions against over-ownership of our efforts in growth, even though he acknowledges the importance of spiritual practices in our transformation into Christlikeness.

Image: This may be an audacious question, but what spiritual disciplines do you observe?

Eugene Peterson: I read scripture slowly. I pray. I worship….

A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doing something. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.

I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.

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: 11 January 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.

114587“After Soleimani’s Death, Iran’s Christians Brace for ‘Tsunami of Disaster and Opportunity'” – Last week, most of the international attention was on the events and rising tensions between the US and Iran. One of the questions that rose in my mind immediately was, “What does this mean for the astounding movement of God, brining many Persian-background people to Christ both inside and outside Iran?” Well, it seems from this report by Christianity Today, it brings both potential disaster and opportunity. I hope you will join me both in reading this article and praying for our brothers and sisters.

 

journal-fountain-pen“In-Depth Answers to Ten Big Questions About Spiritual Formation” – When I first surrendered my life to Christ, I pored over Scripture and any writer I could find who helped me understand the life with God better. I was so hungry for God that anything someone else recommended would immediately become a part of my discipleship practice or reading.  I encountered Christ through the charismatic movement and so one influential stream of my spiritual life was charismatic Christianity. However, I grew up in a Presbyterian church so another one of the influential streams of my spiritual life was very Word-centered. Sometimes, these streams seemed to run in opposite directions, but when they converged it was a beautiful thing. It was Richard Foster, and those working with him with Renovaré, who first helped me see how valuable it could be to have different streams of Christian tradition come together in our lives as part of an overall spiritual formation trajectory with God. This article hosted at Dallas Willard’s website talks about the nature of spiritual formation in the Christian life around ten big questions we grapple with on that topic. Some of this may seem a bit dated, but it is still helpful in considering what is important in our growth with the Triune God.

 

Notre Dame“Notre Dame Cathedral ‘not saved yet’ and still at risk of collapse” – One of the biggest stories of last year in terms of architecture and church life was the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in April 2019, as well as the billions of euros pledged to rebuilt it. This past week, however, the French general, Jean-Louis Georgelin,  assigned to oversee the task of rebuilding said, “The cathedral is still in a state of peril.”

 

114509“United Methodist Church Announces Proposal to Split Over Gay Marriage” – Another monumental story in religion around the world came in March 2019, when the global gathering of the United Methodist Church, in a highly conflicted vote, affirmed the traditional view of marriage. Since that vote, discussions have arisen to part ways between the more progressive western church and the more traditional church in the rest of the world. This past week, plans emerged for a mutually agreed upon parting of ways that has widespread support from all parties, at least preliminarily, with more details to emerge on January 13. So long to the “United” Methodist Church as fault lines emerge in various denominational bodies over these sorts of issues.

 

Lois Irene Evans“Funeral of Lois Evans, wife of Tony Evans, set for their Dallas church” – Lois Evans, wife of Bible teacher and pastor Tony Evans, passed away on December 30 after being diagnosed with biliary cancer. Lois Evans was married to Tony Evans for 49 years and was the founder of Pastors’ Wives Ministry, author of many books, and leader of Christian ministry in various settings. The celebration of Lois’ home-going is viewable online here, including many moving tributes and worship led by Kirk Franklin.

 

rabbi-chaim-rottenberg“Rabbi who survived machete attack has a unifying message” – From CNN: “The New York rabbi who survived an attack at his home during Hanukkah urged people to put aside differences and ‘work side by side to eradicate hatred.’ Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, leader of Congregation Netzach Yisroel, made his first public comments since the December 28 attack during a celebration on the seventh day of Hanukkah in the hamlet of Monsey. Five people were injured, including his son.”

 

Music: Donny McClurkin with Richard Smallwood, “Total Praise,” from Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

[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.]