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.

Fasting for Spiritual Growth

I often refer to fasting as an important spiritual growth tool in our lives. Some time ago, I wrote a number of posts on the subject of fasting and I am gathering all of those together here as a resource for understanding fasting in general. These posts also address a number of specific aspects of fasting, biblical background on fasting, and some practical helps for how we approach fasting. I hope this is helpful as you step forward by fasting in order to say ‘no’ to yourself and ‘yes’ to God for growth into the abundant life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Joy That Grows

This last weekend at Eastbrook Church I continued our series “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances” from the letter to the Philippians. This weekend we looked at Paul’s description of spiritual growth, including things that help and thing that hinder growth, from Philippians 3:10-4:3. I touched on having the right examples for growth, learning that crucifixion comes before resurrection, and the need for community in spiritual growth.

Below you can view the video and sermon outline of this message, “The Joy of Faith.” You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Deep: Changed with God (discussion questions)

Jesus Changes Everything Series Gfx_ThumbHere are the discussion questions that accompany my message, “Deep: Changed with God,” which is the second part of our series “Jesus Changes Everything” at Eastbrook Church. This study walks through Philippians 2:12-13.

  1. When have you experienced the need for a total change in your life? What lead you to that place and what happened next?
  1. We continue our series, “Jesus Changes Everything,” by looking at two verses from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi found in Philippians 2:12-13. Begin your study in prayer, asking God to speak into your life, and then read Philippians 2:1-18 aloud.
  1. The Apostle Paul is writing from prison to the believers in Philippi about their life with God. He begins chapter 2 by expressing his desire for them to in unity as a community by relating to one another selflessly (2:1-4). Jesus is an obvious illustration of what this looks like (2:5-11). He then returns to his discussion of their life together as a community beginning in verse 12 with a call to obedience. Why do you think Paul begins this next section with the theme of obedience? To whom are they to be obedient? What does that obedience look like?
  1. Verse 12 continues with the call to “work out your salvation.” From Paul’s other writings we know that this does not mean “work for your salvation” (see Ephesians 2:1-10). What do you think this phrase means?
  1. Paul says that they are to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling.” What does fear and trembling have to do with this sort of work?
  1. With verse 13, Paul clarifies that, of course, we must rely on God to do this and to fulfill God’s purposes in our lives. How does the knowledge of God’s work in our lives encourage you in the process of growing with God?
  1. Last week, Pastor Mark Lynch talked from John 2 about how Jesus changed water into wine, and how that illustrates how Jesus changes everything about our lives. What is one area that you know you need God to change in your life? Take a moment to pray, simply expressing to God your desire to put that area of your life into His hands. Sit quietly and surrender every aspect of the situation, every person involved, every feeling you have, every timeline…Simply ask Him to take it all and transform you.\
  1. What is one specific way that you sense God is calling you to grow more deeply with Him these days? If you are with a small group, discuss that with one another and pray about what you share together. If you are studying on your own, write it down, pray about it, and share this with someone during the next few days.

 

The Son (discussion questions)

Here are the discussion questions that accompany my message at Eastbrook Church this past weekend on Jesus as the Son of God.

Discussion Questions:

1. What comes into your mind when you hear the name ‘Jesus’? What do you think comes into the minds of others you know?
2. We are looking at Jesus as the Son of God this week. Mark 1:1 is sometimes referred to as the title or heading of the gospel. What do you think is the significance of Mark’s use of ‘Son of God’ here?
3. Take some time to study additional references to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ in Mark’s gospel. What do each of these references say about Jesus as the Son of God?:

Celebration of Discipline (book giveaway)

A couple of weeks back, we completed a series at Eastbrook Church on spiritual growth called “Let’s Grow.” With Will Branch, we addressed issues such as being made for growth, growing through difficulties, and barriers to growth.

Alongside of the Bible, the most important book I have read about spiritual growth in my life is the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. When I first encountered Foster’s book, I was a relatively new Christian and his understanding of both the underpinnings and practicality of spiritual growth changed my life. I still readily recommend this book to people who are looking to develop a deeper life with God.

I recently came upon a free copy of this book in hardcover. It has highlighting in the first chapter but is clean after that point. Reply to this blog post stating why you would benefit from this book. By the end of the day Friday, I’ll select someone at random and send this book to you for free.

In the book, Foster looks at twelve key spiritual disciplines, or spiritual practices, that help us draw near to God. These include inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, study), outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, service), and corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, celebration). Foster understands that these practices do not guarantee spiritual growth, but also knows that “the Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us” (7).