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

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