Editor's note:

It can be dis­ap­point­ing to meet one’s favorite author. The author’s work is dimin­ished because his char­ac­ter does­n’t line up with his writ­ing. Meet­ing Dal­las Willard, as I and many can attest, had the oppo­site effect. The com­bi­na­tion of wis­dom and gen­tle­ness left one want­i­ng to know Jesus in the same way he did.

This inter­view with him about Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart, a book as time­ly now as it was a decade ago, drips with that wis­dom and offers insight on why and how church­es should focus on for­ma­tion into Christlikeness.

—Brian Morykon

A Con­ver­sa­tion with Dal­las Willard about Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart

Per­spec­tive: What makes Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart dif­fer­ent from The Divine Con­spir­a­cy and your oth­er books on spir­i­tu­al formation?

Dal­las: There is a great deal of dif­fer­ence. In none of the oth­er books do I go into the details of how the essen­tial parts of the human per­son­al­i­ty must change in the process of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in Christ. That’s what is dis­tinc­tive about Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart. There are a num­ber of oth­er con­cerns, but the heart of the mat­ter is say­ing we know we can’t be spir­i­tu­al­ly trans­formed by just focus­ing on the will.

In one way or anoth­er, it is a com­mon mis­take to think trans­for­ma­tion is all in the will. And it isn’t! It’s in the mind– how we think, what occu­pies our minds, and so forth. It’s in our feel­ings. It’s in our body. What is dis­tinc­tive about Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart is the idea that we ren­o­vate the heart by, of course, chang­ing it, but we can’t do that, real­ly, with­out chang­ing the oth­er essen­tial parts of the human personality.

Now, there are two oth­er real­ly big con­cerns that go along with this. One con­cern is the many alter­na­tive forms of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion that are now com­ing for­ward. In the first chap­ter I set the project in the field of gen­er­al human con­cerns that have been here for­ev­er and, there­fore, con­cern any cul­ture and any per­son. I rec­og­nize that there are alter­na­tive answers to the same ques­tion, and that these are very big now and grow­ing, every­thing from Oprah to Deep­ak Chopra to the real­ly inad­e­quate ideas of edu­ca­tion that dom­i­nate the sec­u­lar world.

In the last two chap­ters the oth­er con­cern says to the Church, You real­ly can’t jus­ti­fy any­thing else but giv­ing your whole atten­tion to spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in Christ.” If that is done, most of the rest of the stuff that church­es are gen­er­al­ly about will not mat­ter or will come along. But if we do not make for­ma­tion in Christ the pri­or­i­ty, then we’re just going to keep on pro­duc­ing Chris­tians that are indis­tin­guish­able in their char­ac­ter from many non-Christians.

Like Ren­o­varé, all of my books focus on spe­cif­ic kinds of ques­tions. The Divine Con­spir­a­cy is real­ly about the gospel: What is the Good News? What does it mean for human life? The Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines is the bib­li­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work of the dis­ci­plines start­ing out with the idea, What are we try­ing to do? What is sal­va­tion?” with the answer: It is a life, and this life is not some­thing that is imposed upon us; we receive it and work with it.” One chap­ter focus­es on the means, the spe­cif­ic dis­ci­plines. Hear­ing God is about the very spe­cif­ic issue of what it means to live with guid­ance in our life.

P: It seems in one way or anoth­er all of your books have tried to inter­act with con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, but Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart may be the most inten­tion­al in its very struc­ture in doing so. Is that a fair statement?

D: Oh, yes, I think that’s true. It’s so impor­tant to urge this point, you know. If we reject the Chris­t­ian answer, we still have the prob­lem. We’re going to adopt some alter­na­tive, because the ques­tions will not go away, the ques­tions of, What kind of per­son am I becom­ing?” and What is my role in that?” and so on. We have a whole range of extreme­ly inad­e­quate answers to these ques­tions, and what we need to push as Chris­tians is to say, Look, we’re not here to prove we’re right; we’re here to help peo­ple.” If they can do as well going any­where else, then God bless them. That’s the issue.

P: What do you feel a per­son miss­es if they do not read Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart?

D: What they’re going to miss is a pic­ture of the dimen­sions of their own life and how they fit togeth­er and how they can be made to work toward the end of glo­ry to God and human fulfillment.

All of the spir­i­tu­al­i­ties that are now clam­or­ing for atten­tion, from explic­it Satanism to what we hear on Oprah, are con­cerned with the two issues of iden­ti­ty and empow­er­ment. Who am I? How can I have the pow­er to live? Those are the ques­tions every­one has to deal with. If we don’t come to terms with these, we lapse into some form of human deca­dence and fail­ure. Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart is sim­ply an attempt to say, Here’s the Chris­t­ian pic­ture. It’s all true. It works. It’s acces­si­ble to every­body. And there’s noth­ing that com­pares with it on earth.”

Also I empha­size at the begin­ning and end of the book that it doesn’t take a bud­get, we don’t have to be bril­liant, it’s very sim­ple. Any­one – any church or any indi­vid­ual – can do this because God is in favor of it and he will meet us and help us.

From a prac­ti­cal point of view, Ren­o­va­tion cen­ters around chap­ter five which is the VIM for­mu­la. We have to have the Vision. And we have to form the Inten­tion. And we have to adopt the Means. Vision. Inten­tion. Means. And if we do that, then it works! Every indi­vid­ual, every church, every orga­ni­za­tion … that’s all we need to do. We don’t need to do fan­cy stuff and cre­ate mega pro­grams. This, that, and the oth­er. Just sim­ple, straight-for­ward practice.

P: Why did you write Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart? Was there an expe­ri­ence in your life or some sim­i­lar moti­va­tion that cre­at­ed the need in you to write it?

D: The moti­va­tion was see­ing all of these oth­er forms of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and for­ma­tion blun­der­ing down the road, and the Church sit­ting there with real­ly noth­ing to say on the sub­ject, and the mem­bers of the Church get­ting more out of Oprah than they get out of their church. For exam­ple, there are large evan­gel­i­cal church­es that have large con­tin­gents of the peo­ple who come on Sun­day that are real­ly big into A Course in Mir­a­cles and Con­ver­sa­tions with God.

P: Oh, yes. Kind of stream of con­scious­ness stuff?

D: Well, guides in these kinds of books pro­fess to be writ­ing under the guid­ance of the spir­it world. That’s auto­mat­ic writ­ing.” It is stream of con­scious­ness stuff, and you just attribute it to God, and who knows who else is in there pulling the strings and push­ing the but­tons. But you’re just writ­ing it out. And it seems to me super­fi­cial, and it’s been done over and over and over again before.

There are mul­ti­tudes of peo­ple in the evan­gel­i­cal and main­stream church­es who are liv­ing off of this stuff, and they don’t even know what the Bible says con­cern­ing these issues. Their church­es don’t tell them or give them prac­ti­cal guid­ance. They don’t teach them about spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion and how to do it. Many peo­ple get what they need from church atten­dance because the Word is preached, and the rit­u­als are car­ried on, and God works, but it’s drift more than any­thing else. And that’s why the church­es keep reach­ing for some pro­gram­mat­ic for­mu­la that will make peo­ple come and give mon­ey. It’s just real­ly very sad.

I don’t want to get off the point here. The thing that drove me to write Ren­o­va­tion was address­ing the issue of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion and the need to do this in the con­tem­po­rary context.

P: Can you talk a lit­tle bit about the bib­li­cal teach­ing on the soul?

D: Well, yes, I can talk a lit­tle bit about that. The Bible, of course, is not a the­ol­o­gy book. It is cer­tain­ly not a phi­los­o­phy book. So we have to derive the mean­ing of terms from the con­text in use.

And that is what we see in the Scrip­ture. It’s a won­der­ful thing to do an induc­tive study with our con­cor­dance. We see that the soul is the deep­est and the most vital part of the per­son as a whole. It is often treat­ed as the per­son, and we actu­al­ly do this when we talk about sav­ing our soul.” Well, you know, we don’t save our soul and leave our emo­tions and our feel­ings and our body and all the rest of it out. That’s just a way of talk­ing that empha­sizes the soul is so fun­da­men­tal that we can, in some cas­es, treat it as the whole per­son because it actu­al­ly is the thing that inte­grates all of these aspects of the self and makes them work togeth­er. Now, I don’t think we can find a pas­sage in the Bible that says that. We have to read and study how it address­es the soul, and we then see that it is the deep­est, most vital part of the human self.

It’s impor­tant to dis­tin­guish the soul from the spir­it, or will, because the will or the heart or the spir­it is the exec­u­tive cen­ter of the self. In oth­er words, the spir­it is the part that is sup­posed to con­scious­ly direct every­thing in the per­son, includ­ing the soul.

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing we don’t want to hear from the soul. We want it to just do its job. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in a bro­ken world, it also is bro­ken, and we’re going to hear from it because many of the ordi­nary mis­eries and extra­or­di­nary glo­ries of human life are expres­sions of the state of the soul.

There is talk in the Scrip­ture like, The law of the Lord is per­fect, restor­ing the soul.” See, the law of the Lord” draws the soul into the ways of God at a deep lev­el that heals it. The soul’s order is re-estab­lished in God through the law. Or the 23rd Psalm, He restoreth my soul.” These are extreme­ly cru­cial passages.

I do empha­size that we can­not just get out of the Bible a def­i­n­i­tion of the soul. The Bible defines almost noth­ing because it isn’t a book for schol­ars and philoso­phers or free thinkers. It’s a book for peo­ple who want help. It’s pri­mar­i­ly a book for pas­tors. They’re the ones that can use it in a way so that it actu­al­ly achieves its purpose.

P: Going back to the exam­ple you gave of the spir­it being the exec­u­tive cen­ter, if you use the anal­o­gy of an auto­mo­bile, might the spir­it be the steer­ing wheel and the soul be the engine?

D: Well, I would say the soul would be more than the engine. The soul would be like the com­put­er sys­tem that coor­di­nates every­thing, from the smog device to the fuel injec­tion sys­tem to the brakes. Now, of course, you have guid­ance devices and all sorts of things. The soul would be more like the way this is all hooked togeth­er, a sys­tem of coordination.

The engine might be more like the body. In our­selves that is the source of our strength. As we reach out to God, we get anoth­er source of strength. But no mat­ter how lost a per­son is, they still draw on their body. So the body would be more like the motor. Sup­pose we have a motor and our trans­mis­sion doesn’t work or our clutch or what­ev­er. Then our body, our motor, just takes us down the road. Or our brakes don’t work! We must have a coor­di­na­tion system.

The dif­fer­ent parts of the auto­mo­bile like the igni­tion switch, the var­i­ous but­tons, the steer­ing wheel – the inter­faces between the dri­ver and the machine – is our spir­it or heart. The dif­fer­ent con­trols are the spirit.

Then we have the issue of what’s in con­trol of the dri­ver. And the dri­ver had bet­ter be under some con­trol! Hope­ful­ly, that will be God. And so the rela­tion of redemp­tion and sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion would be the ongo­ing rela­tion­ship between the dri­ver and God who is direct­ing her. Now, if God isn’t direct­ing him, he may go wild and do all sorts of things crim­i­nal and crazy.

Think of the soul as the com­put­er sys­tem that runs the whole thing. And then the spir­it is the exec­u­tive cen­ter. It’s the fac­ul­ty of choice. And then you want that fac­ul­ty gov­erned by the truth of God and the Spir­it of God. We real­ly do need analo­gies for all of this, because the only alter­na­tive is to write a long book of phi­los­o­phy that no one would understand.

P: What does a church com­mit­ted to the spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion of its mem­bers look like? What is its pri­or­i­ties? What does it empha­size? How does it spend its time?

D: The cru­cial thing would be that it would have as its aim the for­ma­tion of all the peo­ple in the con­gre­ga­tion inter­nal­ly in such a way that the deeds and words of Christ would just nat­u­ral­ly flow from them wher­ev­er they are. That is real­ly the pic­ture of the peo­ple of Christ in the Bible and through the ages. That’s the intent.

Now, what would it look like? Well, every­thing they do would be, as best as pos­si­ble, sen­si­bly direct­ed toward the end of for­ma­tion. That would mean, among oth­er things, that we would have teach­ing and pro­grams of instruc­tion and prac­tice in doing the things that Jesus said.

I always like to illus­trate this with bless­ing those who curse you” because that is obvi­ous­ly dif­fi­cult. So, for exam­ple, we would actu­al­ly be teach­ing peo­ple how to bless those who curse them. This would be true of all the oth­er things that Jesus taught. This is pre­cise­ly what the Great Com­mis­sion tells us to do: the Great Com­mis­sion is still the mis­sion state­ment of the Church.

It’s just stun­ning to watch church­es strug­gle to get mis­sion state­ments when there it is, the Great Com­mis­sion, and they should sim­ply do what it says. Make dis­ci­ples. Sur­round them in the real­i­ty of the Trin­i­ty in a fel­low­ship of dis­ci­ples. Teach them to do every­thing Jesus says. We’re not going to improve on that. That was the church-growth pro­gram that con­quered the world.

I was in a fas­ci­nat­ing meet­ing where one man had been in Chi­na recent­ly. A Chi­nese pro­fes­sor has found evi­dence that Chris­tians reached West­ern Chi­na before 90 AD. Before 90 AD! The idea isn’t all that aston­ish­ing when we think about it. That’s what the dis­ci­ples thought they were sup­posed to do! And, I’m sure, the dis­ci­ples just said, That’s it. Let’s go!” And they all wound up dead. But every­one else did too!

P: If you wouldn’t mind, please elab­o­rate a lit­tle bit on the chap­ter in Ren­o­va­tion on the social impact of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. You men­tion that if peo­ple are formed inward­ly, then the out­er issues between us become much more manageable.

D: I think I learned more writ­ing that chap­ter than any oth­er. When we are formed inward­ly, out­er issues do become much more man­age­able. But we also have to say our rela­tions with oth­ers are not exter­nal. They enter into our very iden­ti­ty. And that’s why peo­ple strug­gle with them so. Rela­tions between par­ents and chil­dren and sib­lings and mates. This is not exter­nal. We can’t sep­a­rate them.

I know Richard Fos­ter has undoubt­ed­ly met this same thing, the illu­sion that spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion or spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines is pri­va­ti­za­tion, that it’s some­thing that doesn’t have any­thing to do with the social world or the real world. That’s just a total mis­un­der­stand­ing of what it’s all about. The trans­for­ma­tion of our rela­tion­ships to oth­ers is part of it and, par­tic­u­lar­ly, the two points that I empha­size inher­ent in the fall­en world of with­draw­al” and attack,” get­ting to where that isn’t how we relate to oth­ers no mat­ter who they are, no mat­ter how wor­thy we think they are of being attacked. We just don’t do it.

That’s the secret of Jesus. You watch Jesus and you see he nev­er did with­draw” and then attack.” All of the time peo­ple want­ed him to do it and in many ways, but he would not. Then to the body of believ­ers he said, This will show every­one that you are my dis­ci­ples, if you love one anoth­er,” but he had already said, Love one anoth­er as I have loved you.” So that’s the model.

In that sense the trans­for­ma­tion of the social world is at its heart the trans­for­ma­tion of per­son­al rela­tions. That’s the key to trans­form­ing soci­ety in the larg­er are­na. There is no cure for the social bat­tles that we fight in our cul­ture – and there’s so much grief around race, gen­der, and so forth – until you elim­i­nate with­draw­al” and attack” and replace them with accep­tance” and help.” Once you do that and not just talk about it, these oth­er issues will fall into place quick­ly. They will not fall into place at all unless it is done this way.

We may do some things, march and shout and so on, because it’s not hap­pen­ing, but that isn’t the solu­tion. And if we have to do oth­er things from demon­strat­ing to pass­ing laws and so forth, that will not get us where we want to go. These things may be nec­es­sary and good – I’m not ques­tion­ing that– but they will not get us where we want to go.

P: Those are real­ly tem­po­rary fixes.

D: They are, and they’re very impor­tant. But we now have a nation that is sick and angry, with bat­tles over jus­tice, and in that respect we have to find a dif­fer­ent basis. We can­not han­dle injus­tice by find­ing more ways to impose what is in fact right” on peo­ple. It has to come from the inside. And that’s where the church should be working.

P: When you say with­draw­al” and attack” being replaced by accep­tance” and help,” that’s real­ly talk­ing about an inner pos­ture of the self.

D: Oh, yes. But again, you can’t sep­a­rate that from the action. That’s the illu­sion – the idea that you can be all right on the inside and not act it out – and it has affect­ed us in many ways. That’s a part of the idea that pro­fess­ing is enough.

We have church­es full of peo­ple who pro­fess all kinds of stuff that they don’t believe. They think that by pro­fess­ing it they’re doing some­thing good. Real­ly, they’re just delud­ing them­selves. In the area of social right­eous­ness we can­not be right on the inside and not do it. We can­not! Of course we have peo­ple who pre­tend that they can, but it sim­ply isn’t true. If we are right on the inside, we will address these issues straight-for­ward­ly and take a stand on them, and, if nec­es­sary, die for them. We will be that committed.

Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at The Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Dal­las was an ordained min­is­ter who spoke at church­es and Chris­t­ian orga­ni­za­tions world­wide. He was a found­ing mem­ber of Ren­o­varé. He wrote, among oth­ers, Ren­o­va­tion of the Heart, Hear­ing God, and Know­ing Christ Today. Dal­las is sur­vived by his wife Jane, son John, daugh­ter and son-in-law Becky and Bill Heat­ley, and grand­daugh­ter Laris­sa, who con­tin­ue his lega­cy and work.

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