A small band of Talbot students met throughout the summer for the purpose of studying Dallas Willardís new book Renovation of the Heart together. An unexpected privilege we experienced was having Dr. Willard join us one afternoon for Q&A and general insights on life and, particularly, spiritual formation. What follows are some of the insights he shared with us. Transcribed by Scott Sevier, Steadfast editor, July 18, 2002.
What led you into your investigation of spiritual
The conviction that Jesus is the center of all things and that what He is doing is good.
I became convicted that I did not know enough about the human soul to be a preacher. At the time, the people who talked more about [the human
soul] were philosophers. I was ministering to people who were in a tremendous amount of trouble, and did not know what to do about it. These were people who
were already saved and, from their theological perspective, there wasnít really anything else for them to do about their condition. It became clear to me that I just wasnít saying much that was really helpful to people. I was
becoming uneasy about a lot of the theology of salvation and, especially, it was
becoming clearer to me that what was being presented as the essence of the
matter in salvation just wasnít congruent with what the New Testament (or, for
that matter, the Old Testament) teaches.
What I would like to do for people is to present the life in
Christ as something that is accessible and as something that works. So that all
of the wonderful phraseology (like you find in Ephesians 4, Galatians 5,
Colossians 3, 1 Corinthians 13, or Matthew 5) doesnít just sit over there like
a Platonic Form, out of reach, where youíre just able to see enough of it to
feel guilty. It doesnít just have to do with forgiveness, but more than
anything it has to do with a relationship to real life.
When I began to study Philosophy, I saw from the very beginning
that Platoís Republic is essentially a book on spiritual formation. Its
real question was, "How can you get leaders who can be trusted?" which
is a lively topic today. We have the same problem with both ministers and
elected officials. That problem Ö has come all the way down through history
and remains unsolved from the secular point of view. What really grips me is the
realization that there is really no solution to that problem apart from the life
in the kingdom of God lived as discipleship, where questions like: How am I
going to get ahead? How am I going to secure myself? How am I going to get what
I want? Ė Where these questions are adequately dealt with in a framework of
real life. Iíve just been responding to what Iíve seen to be the needs of
the person who has good sense and is devoted to Christ, and Iíve been trying
to minister what is found in the Bible and in the history of Godís people. How
do you make that available? How do you claim it for yourself, first of all, and
how do you give it to others? My intention in studying philosophy was to become
less harmful in the pulpit. I really just wanted to not make [the present
To live and minister in light of these truths [of the gospel]
you really do have to have a lot of peace in your heart. That comes from the
realization that you donít have to make it happen. You just be truthful,
follow your studies, stay with your fellowship with the few who are close to
you, and just keep going. Because, truthfully, what we need is a revolution, but
revolution is always very dangerous. And human revolutions always devour their
children. And so what we need is a revolution that is actually conducted by
Christ. And that means that we have to be content not to make things happen.
On spiritual formation and the gospel:
We need to have vision, intention and means
in order to achieve spiritual formation. Thatís the basic issue regarding the
teaching of Jesus. There isnít a single thing that Jesus taught that a person
cannot by engaging His grace come to do. Not a single thing. But you have to
want to. And you have to decide to. And thatís what is lacking. Why? It goes
back to the gospel that is preached.
The gospel that is preached doesnít touch on [formation in
Christ]. The gospel that is preached is only about forgiveness. Why should I
bother to do what Jesus taught? Thatís what you teach! That the gospel is all
about forgiveness! It turns out that what you really think about Jesus is
revealed by what you do after you find out that you donít have to do anything.
Thatís what really tells what you think about Jesus. If you think that Jesus
is working in the world then youíre going to want to be part of it. But if you
think that all Jesus did was to die for us, paid for our sins, and thatís it
then thereís no reason to try to do what He said. Thereís no justification
for it based on the gospel that is being preached.
How can we keep spiritual formation from becoming
merely a fad?
The important thing is to tie Spiritual Formation to
obedience to Christ. Spiritual formation is pointless in itself. It is obedience
to Christ that is everything. This is especially possible for a biblically
oriented group. Our problem is that weíre so biblical that we defend it
against the Bible. Weíre so used to reading it without putting it into
practice, and yet we have such high views of it. This is a real problem because
it creates a culture in which we are close to God with our lips, but our hearts
are far from Him. We think that weíre right just because weíve heard the
words. Thatís the hardest part to break through.
Suppose youíre going to actually do itÖyouíre going to
begin putting it into practice in the church. Thatís where the block comes in,
because our churches are set up to say, "no we donít really need to do
thatÖthatís inessential." As long as [spiritual formation] is
inessential, spiritual formation will never be more than a fad. As long as it is
not conceptually connected with the gospel that is preached then we will cycle
one fad after another one, and spiritual formation will just be one among many.
So we cannot approach spiritual formation without the appropriate understanding
of the gospel, the appropriate ontology of the universe and the human self. So
unless we get back to the theology that deals with it, then, at most, some
people will see the point of it, and the rest will not and move on to the next
thing. Now what is preached as the gospel by most evangelicals is one theory of
the atonement ó thatís presented as the gospel. But the gospel is not just
about forgiveness. The gospel is about life!
On the Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God is what God is doing. Both Testaments
use the word "reign" in this respect. The reign of God is the kingdom
of God. So what is the kingdom of God? You need to know that or else you cannot
"seek first the kingdom of God," can you? So how do you seek first the
kingdom of God? Well you would try to find out what God is doing and get
involved with it. You canít find out what God is doing without identifying His
righteousness. You need to have a vision of God. Everything that exists outside
of the human realm automatically expresses the kingdom of God. And some things
within the human realm, if they are surrendered to God, also express the kingdom
of God (e.g., the teachings of Jesus, the ten commandments, etc.). So if you
wanted to seek the kingdom of God, the first thing you need to do is to step
into those teachings. Now if you try to do that by [merely following] the
teachings, youíll become a legalist. We have to become not someone who
[merely] does the law but the kind of person who naturally does what the law
says. That is the process of spiritual growth.
We want to seek to be this kind of person in all areas of our
life. That means we have to be prepared. So you need various kinds of
disciplines to help you. I canít simply resist anger in the moment when Iím
confronted with a frustrating incident. I must be prepared for it. If we want to
exhibit the fundamental aspects of the soul (e.g., peace, love and joy) on
various occasions, we have to be prepared. We are either peaceful, joyful and
loving or not. We have to attend to these deep conditions of the soul. That is
where spiritual formation comes in. And if you donít have that youíll just
become a guilt-ridden legalist, and youíll find yourself trying to act in a
way that youíre not really.
What role does desire play in American
culture; how is it activated, and how can we avoid being mastered by it?
You know, Iíve been thinking much more about that since I
wrote [Renovation of the Heart]. We live in a sensualist culture, and
thatís where the problems come from. And the church has bought into that, has
accepted that. Everything from the degradation of sports, to obesity, to the
horrible things that are done to little children, to the CEO scandals - all of
this fundamentally derives from people pursuing feelings. Desire itself (and
among religions, this is truly distinctive to Christianity) is not bad. But
desire is not meant to master our lives, and that is what weíre seeing. Take
addiction for example. The reason why drugs are [such a problem] in the western
world is because the western world is a sensuous world. Addiction only exists
where people have conceded to feeling. And it isnít really that feelings are
overwhelming, but they are overwhelming if you concede to them. What you see in
an addict, whether its coffee or nicotine or marijuana or whatever, is a person
who has said, "If I donít get what I want, something is wrong. I am
justified in having whatever I want." And itís that mentality that is the tripwire for the addict Ė that inner concession. No matter how tough your addiction is, you can stop the addictive behavior if you have decided that is what you want to do. You can do that. There are ways you can do that. We have
conceded the right of desire. Now that is what the teaching of the cross is
directed at. Jesus takes the image of the cross before anyone believes he is
going to die because he understands the power of it, and what the cross means is
the ultimate frustration of desire. And if you donít have that settled, then
desire will veto you until it gets its way.
Whenever you hear of a minister of whom we say, "he has
fallen," Ė no, no. He had fallen long before that. It wasnít that he
was some fine person sailing along and then one day something just hit him. What
often comes out is that desire had been eating on him for a time. Perhaps heís
been behaving rightly for a long time because he has believed that would get him
what he wanted. However, at a certain point, he came to realize that heís not
going to get what he wanted. Or, maybe, he does get what he wanted. Itís
fascinating to see how many people fall apart when they succeed. What has
actually been holding their life together has been their commitment to succeed.
Well, itís a long story to what actually does it. If you donít know Pitirim
Sorokinís book, The Crisis of our Age, I would plead with
you to read it. Sorokin analyzes the ruling forces that entered the modern age.
He very rightly sees that itís what people en masse take to be real and
valuable that determines the quality of an age. Itís good to read that book in
tandem with Ortega Y Gassetís book, The Revolt of the Masses.
What people have, en masse, taken to be reality in our culture is that our
desires should be met.
One of the fundamental problems today is that Christian spokespeople have, by and large, accepted thisóthat they do not question it.
And so, for example, Christian ministers try to get people to do things
by making them feel things. We first approach people on the basis of feeling and try to get them to profess faith, and then we spend the rest of the
time trying to get them to do things. We just need to get out of the business of trying to get people to do things, and get into the business of actually
changing their beliefs. It is a great moment in oneís life when he comes to the realization that people always live up to their beliefs. Now we have the
illusion that they donít, that they have all of these wonderful beliefs that they just donít live up to. The problem is not that people have these beliefs
that they canít live up to; itís that they actually donít believe that, but they believe a bunch of other stuff. This is not a conscious thing. Most of it
is buried in our bodies. Take this as a test case: when Peter denied Christ, he lived up to his beliefs. And thatís our problem. Now if you have a society
that is devoted to desire and the liberation of desire, which is what we have, thenóand this can get you into trouble if you say these kinds of things in many settingsóbut, for example, the church will never deal with the issue of
homosexuality until it deals with the issue of sexuality. So now, of course, you
have to say something and do something, but you also have to recognize what the
issues are in homosexuality and sexuality, how they mix with other desires,
disappointments, anger, etc. So, the way of the cross says: "You didnít
get what you wanted? Thatís fine. Thatís okay." Now, are there issues
of right and wrong involved here? Well, we have to learn to stand for what is
right. But now weíve made it a matter of what we want. Thatís how itís
done today. Thatís why Political Correctness dominates. There isnít any other kind of correctness left. Political Correctness is a matter of desire.
So if you donít want certain things that other people do, then theyíll attack you, because for them the only problem is a conflict of desire.
Churches and ministers should focus on changing peopleís beliefs rather than
focusing on their feelings.
On giving intellectual assent to the
We need to break up the social context of the body. And that is
why solitude and silence are so important. Because we have to put ourselves in a
position where we can come to grips with what weíre really doing, what weíre
acting on. Thatís what these kinds of contexts can allow us to do. We need to
get away from the things that actually control us and govern our lives, and then
we can see what really does [control and govern our lives]. One result of this
process is that youíll find that you donít really believe a lot of the
things you say you believe. And often that is related to the fact that you donít
even really understand it. Itís just that it's been taught in a social context,
you accepted it and learned how to interact linguistically. If we never take
time aside like this and discover what we really believe, we continue to go
through life experiencing this incongruity between what we say we believe and
what weíre actually doing. And the only way to get hold of that is to back out
of the situation. Often a person just needs rest. But they need enough inner
space to begin to track whatís going on there, and to be honest with whatís
really moving them.
What role can the church play?
Itís surprising how little talk there is about God that makes
sense in our religious circles. What people need to believe above all is that
God is the ultimate reality. So talk about it. Explain it. What is God like? How
does He relate to people? And now in a scientific age, there is a lot of good
work to be done. How does the fact that in Christ all things hold together relate to Chemistry? Now thereís a topic thatíll hold you for a while. Or to all of
the areas of human life? How does it relate to business? There really isnít a
lot of talk about God. Thereís a lot of talk about Godís word, and about
what God says, and all these sorts of things, but what we really need to do is
to make sense of God. And in an age in which the predominant theory of knowledge
and reality is empiricist, you have to address that issue. Could things be real
if they arenít sense-perceptible? Thatís one of the standing questions of
practical religious life. Where is God? So also the problem of evil, for
example. This is not just a problem for philosophers, for the real point of the problem is for people who are suffering in this world: and where is God when
that happens? What kind of a world is this in which prayer can be answered? What kind of a God would set up a system of prayer? You know, when you think about it, itís kind of strange. So, we need to answer real questions about God and about
life and about the Bible. And the real questions are the ones that often people
are afraid to ask. So you have to figure out what they are and raise them
yourself. Then you have to address them.