Excerpt from Renovation of the Heart

The Heart Directs the Life

Those with a well-kept heart are persons who are prepared for and capable of responding to the situations of life in ways that are good and right. Their will functions as it should, to choose what is good and avoid what is evil, and the other components of their nature cooperate to that end. They need not be perfect”; but what all people manage in at least a few times and areas of life, they manage in life as a whole.

Now, in order to see what this means and why it is so, we must be clear about what the heart” or spirit” is within the human system and how it can effectively govern our lives for good. 

The human heart, will, or spirit is the executive center of a human life. The heart is where decisions and choices are made for the whole person. That is its function.

This does not mean that the whole person actually does only what the heart directs, any more than a whole organization actually does precisely what the chief executive officer (CEO) directs. That would be ideal, perhaps (and again, perhaps not); but as any CEO or person in a management position — or even the head of a family — knows, the system rarely goes as it is directed, and never perfectly so. Many factors are always at work in the decisions and actions that actually occur. The individual, like the group, is often divided into incoherent fragments. Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit” (Proverbs 25:28).

Still, the ideal is there because of the necessities imposed by real life — a house divided cannot stand,” and so on — and only to the degree that we come close to that ideal are our lives well-directed or even coherent. In a world deeply infected with evil and stuff” that just happens, the usual case is that the individual does not consistently do what his or her own heart says is good and right, and all too often it is the same with groups of all kinds. 

When successful, spiritual formation (or, really, reformation) unites the divided heart and life of the individual, and that person can then bring remarkable harmony into the groups where he or she participates.

The Six Basic Aspects of a Human Life 

Now, when we take a closer look at the whole person, we find that there are six basic aspects in our lives as individual human beings — six things inseparable from every human life. These together and in interplay make up human nature.”

1. Thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences) 

2. Feeling (sensations, emotions) 

3. Choice (will, decisions, character) 

4. Body (actions, interactions with the physical world)

5. Social context (personal and structural relations to others) 

6. Soul (the factor that integrates all of the other aspects to form one life)

Simply put, every human being thinks (has a thought life), feels, chooses, interacts with his or her body and its social context, and (more or less) integrates all of the foregoing as parts of one life. These are the essential factors in a human being, and nothing essential to human life falls outside of them. The ideal of the spiritual life in the Christian understanding is one where all of the essential parts of the human self are effectively organized around God, as they are restored and sustained by him.

Spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God. 

The Human Self Is Not Mysterious!

And here I must implore the reader to bear with me again, and not to take what I say as merely academic. The human self, as I have already said, is not mysterious” in any sense not equally applicable to every other thing that exists. To understand anything, of course, some intelligent attention and methodical inquiry is required. What is not mysterious also may not be obvious. And some subject matters are more difficult to penetrate than others. But God has created all things in such a way that they are inherently intelligible.

They have parts; these parts have properties, which in turn make possible relationships between the parts to form larger wholes, which in turn have properties that make possible relationships between larger wholes, which form still larger wholes, and so on. This basic structure of created reality applies to everything from an atom or grain of salt to the solar system or the galaxy, from a thought or a feeling to a whole person or a social unit.

Ultimately, of course, the very existence of anything is mysterious in the sense that it rests on the mystery of God. What explains everything else — God himself — must be, in an important sense, unexplainable, though not necessarily completely unknowable. But as to what the human being is, it is simply a whole of a certain kind, consisting of parts with properties and functions that give rise to the properties and functions of whole persons. These, in turn, make possible the relationships persons have to the natural and social worlds and — beyond all these, if they are fully alive as spiritual beings — to the kingdom of God. That is what makes up human nature. 

And the subject of our study in approaching human life — the unit of analysis” for our study — is the whole person in its social and spiritual context. The six aspects,” as we have called them, are distinct ranges of abilities, or things all human beings — but not squirrels or brussels sprouts — can and must do: We can and must feel, think, choose, act, and be acted upon through our bodies. We must enter or lack personal relations and integrate each of these aspects of our being with all the others. This latter task is the work of the soul, as already noted, which is the deepest level of unity (or disunity) in a person’s life and the most inclusive object of redemption.

Each aspect or dimension of the person will be a source of weakness or strength to the whole person, depending upon the condition it is in, and the condition it is in will depend, finally, upon the heart. A person who is prepared and capable of responding to the situations of life in ways that are good and right” is a person whose soul is in order, under the direction of a well-kept heart, in turn under the direction of God. 

Formation of the human life

In any case, we may be sure of this: The formation and, later, transformation of the inner lives of humans, from which our outer existence flows, is an inescapable human problem. Spiritual formation, without regard to any specifically religious context or tradition, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form” or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.

We each become a certain kind of person in the depths of our being, gaining a specific type of character. And that is the outcome of a process of spiritual formation that applies to everyone, whether they want it or not. The shaping and reshaping of the inner life is, accordingly, a problem that has been around as long as humanity itself; and the earliest records of human thought bear eloquent witness to the human struggle to solve it— but with very limited success, one would have to say.

The quest for spiritual formation (really, as indicated, spiritual transformation) is in fact an age-old and worldwide one. It is rooted in the deep personal and even biological need for goodness that haunts humanity. 

Distinctively Christian Spiritual Formation 

Spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself. In what follows we must carefully examine what this means for today. But we can say at the outset that, in the degree to which spiritual formation in Christ is successful, the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. 

Christian spiritual formation is focused entirely on Jesus. Its goal is an obedience or conformity to Christ that arises out of an inner transformation accomplished through purposive interaction with the grace of God in Christ. Obedience is an essential outcome of Christian spiritual formation (John 13:34 – 35; 14:21).

External manifestation of Christlikeness” is not, however, the focus of the process; and when it is made the main emphasis, the process will certainly be defeated, falling into deadening legalisms and pointless parochialism. That is what has happened so often in the past, and this fact is a major barrier to wholeheartedly embracing Christian spiritual formation in the present. We know now that peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization just are not the point.

A Way of Grace and Rest 

The instrumentalities of Christian spiritual formation therefore involve much more than human effort and actions under our control. Well-informed human effort certainly is indispensable, for spiritual formation is no passive process. But Christlikeness of the inner being is not human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace.

Though we must act, the resources for spiritual formation extend far beyond the human. They come from the interactive presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who place their confidence in Christ. They also come from the spiritual treasures — people, events, traditions, teachings — stored in the body of Christ’s people on earth, past and present.

Therefore we must understand that spiritual formation is not only formation of the spirit or inner being of the individual, though that is both the process and the outcome. It is also formation by the Spirit of God and by the spiritual riches of Christ’s continuing incarnation in his people — including, most prominently, the treasures of his written and spoken word and the amazing personalities of those in whom he has most fully lived.

Spiritual formation is, in practice, the way of rest for the weary and overloaded, of the easy yoke and the light burden (Matthew 11:28 – 30), of cleaning the inside of the cup and the dish” (23:26), of the good tree that cannot bear bad fruit (Luke 6:43). And it is the path along which God’s commandments are found to be not heavy,” not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

It is the way of those learning as disciples or apprentices of Jesus to do all things that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18, 20PAR).

But — we reemphasize, because it is so important — the primary learning” here is not about how to act, just as the primary wrongness or problem in human life is not what we do. Often what human beings do is so horrible that we can be excused, perhaps, for thinking that all that matters is stopping it. But this is an evasion of the real horror: the heart from which the terrible actions come. In both cases, it is who we are in our thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and choices — in the inner life that counts. Profound transformation there is the only thing that can definitively conquer outward evil.

It is very hard to keep this straight. Failure to do so is a primary cause of failure to grow spiritually. Love, we hear, is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). Then we mistakenly try to be loving by acting patiently and kindly and quickly fail. We should always do the best we can in action, of course; but little progress is to be made in that arena until we advance in love itself — the genuine inner readiness and longing to secure the good of others. Until we make significant progress there, our patience and kindness will be shallow and short-lived at best.

It is love itself — not loving behavior, or even the wish or intent to love — that has the power to always protect, always trust, always hope, put up with anything, and never quit” (verses 7 – 8, PAR). Merely trying to act lovingly will lead to despair and to the defeat of love. It will make us angry and hopeless.

But taking love itself — God’s kind of love — into the depths of our being through spiritual formation will, by contrast, enable us to act lovingly to an extent that will be surprising even to ourselves, at first. And this love will then become a constant source of joy and refreshment to ourselves and others. Indeed it will be, according to the promise, a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)-not an additional burden to carry through life, as acting lovingly” surely would be.

Some content taken from Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. Copyright © 2002, 2021. Used by permission of NavPress, represented by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Text First Published December 2021 · Last Featured on Renovare.org April 2022