Editor's note:

Yogi Berra once said that base­ball is 90% men­tal … and that the oth­er half is phys­i­cal. I think we some­times have sim­i­lar strug­gles doing the math when it comes to the role the phys­i­cal plays in our spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. Dal­las Willard helps us see that “… learn­ing to do what [Jesus] taught is not just a men­tal shift’ with­out assis­tance from a mod­i­fied use of the body, for behav­ior and life are not men­tal.” In this immense­ly prac­ti­cal piece, Dal­las explains why train­ing is so much bet­ter than try­ing when it comes to coop­er­at­ing with God in the trans­for­ma­tion of both our inward being and out­ward behavior.

—Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

What is Spir­i­tu­al Formation?

Spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion” is the process through which those who love and trust Jesus Christ effec­tive­ly take on His char­ac­ter. When this process is what it should be, they increas­ing­ly live their lives as He would if He were in their place. Their out­ward con­for­mi­ty to His exam­ple and His instruc­tions ris­es toward full­ness as their inward sources of action take on the same char­ac­ter as His. They come more and more to share His vision, love, hope, feel­ings and habits. In the lan­guage of His Great Com­mis­sion” to His dis­ci­ples, they are taught to obey every­thing I have com­mand­ed you.” (Matt. 28:20)

This process of con­for­ma­tion to Christ,” as we might more appro­pri­ate­ly call it, is con­stant­ly sup­port­ed by grace, and oth­er­wise would be impos­si­ble. But it is not there­fore pas­sive. Grace is opposed to earn­ing, not to effort. In fact, noth­ing inspires and enhances effort like the expe­ri­ence of Grace.

Yet it is today nec­es­sary to assert bold­ly and often that becom­ing Christ­like nev­er occurs with­out intense and well-informed action on our part. This in turn can­not be reli­ably sus­tained out­side of a like-mind­ed fel­low­ship. Our church­es will be cen­ters of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion only as they under­stand what real­ly does make for Christ­like­ness and com­mu­ni­cate it to indi­vid­u­als, through teach­ing and exam­ple, in a con­vinc­ing and sup­port­ive fashion.

Prob­a­bly the least under­stood aspect of progress in Christ­like­ness is the role of the body in the spir­i­tu­al life.

The Body and the Spir­i­tu­al Life

Almost every­one is acute­ly aware of how the inces­sant clam­or­ings of their body defeat their inten­tions to be spir­i­tu­al.” The Apos­tle Paul explains that The flesh desires what is con­trary to the Spir­it, and the Spir­it what is con­trary to the flesh. They are in con­flict with each oth­er, so that you do not do what you want.” (Gal 5:17) And Jesus’s words, The spir­it is will­ing but the body is weak,” are gen­er­al­ly accept­ed as a final ver­dict on what human life must be like until we escape the body through death.

On the oth­er hand, if the body is sim­ply beyond redemp­tion, then ordi­nary life is too. Many Chris­tians seem pre­pared to accept this — at least in prac­tice. But then spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion” real­ly becomes impos­si­ble. That would be a defeat of major pro­por­tions for Christ’s cause, and could nev­er be rec­on­ciled with the call to god­ly liv­ing that both per­me­ates the Bible from end to end and res­onates with the deep-seat­ed human need to live as one ought.

We are glad, then, to find the scrip­ture teach­ings about the body and its flesh to run direct­ly con­trary to the hope­less” view. Jesus Him­self is the pri­ma­ry wit­ness to the uni­ty of flesh and spir­it before God. Long before His entry into his­to­ry, how­ev­er, the Psalmist spoke of his body or flesh long­ing for God (63:1), of his heart and flesh cry­ing out for the liv­ing God” (84:2), and calls upon all flesh is to praise his holy name for ever and ever.” (145:21)

The prophet Joel for­saw the time when God’s spir­it would be poured out upon all flesh (2:28 – 29). That prophe­cy began to be ful­filled on the day of Pen­te­cost (Acts 2:16 – 18). Thus the pic­ture of the body and flesh found in the writ­ings of Paul stands in the sharpest of con­trasts with the hope­less” view of the body. The body is pre­sent­ed as a tem­ple inhab­it­ed by the Holy Spir­it. It is not meant to be used in sin­ning, but is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

Through the pow­er of God which raised Christ from the dead, Paul tells us, our bod­ies are mem­bers of Christ him­self.” Our body does not even belong to us, but has been bought by Christ, who gives it a life from above’ and opens the way for us to hon­or God with our body.” (I Cor. 6:13 – 20) Thus we can offer our bod­ies as liv­ing sac­ri­fices, holy and pleas­ing to God,” this being our spir­i­tu­al act of wor­ship.” (Romans 12:1)

In order to under­stand the role of the body — both neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive — in the spir­i­tu­al life, and in life gen­er­al­ly, we must take a deep­er view of the nature of human per­son­al­i­ty, char­ac­ter and action.

Each of us grows up in sur­round­ings that train us to speak, think, feel and act like oth­ers around us. Mon­key see, mon­key do,” goes the proverb. This is the mech­a­nism by which human per­son­al­i­ty is formed, and it is large­ly for the good. But it also embeds in us habits of evil that per­me­ate all human life. Human­ly stan­dard pat­terns of respond­ing to The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” which the Apos­tle John said make up the world” (I John 2:16), seize upon lit­tle chil­dren through their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the lives of those around them. Sin­ful prac­tices become their habits, then their choice, and final­ly their character.

The very lan­guage they learn to speak incor­po­rates des­e­cra­tion of God and neigh­bor. They come to iden­ti­fy them­selves and be iden­ti­fied by oth­ers through these prac­tices. What is wrong and destruc­tive is done with­out think­ing about it. The wrong thing to do seems quite nat­ur­al’, while the right thing to do becomes forced and unnat­ur­al at best — espe­cial­ly if done because it is right. You can observe this in almost any eight or ten year old child act­ing freely with their peers or liv­ing in the fam­i­ly setting.

The New Tes­ta­ment texts nor­mal­ly uses the word flesh” to refer to the human body formed in the ways of evil and against God. Not that the human body as such, or even desires as such, are evil. They are God’s good cre­ations, and capa­ble of serv­ing and glo­ri­fy­ing Him, as we have seen already. But when shaped in a life con­text of fam­i­ly, neigh­bor­hood, school and work that is god­less or anti-God, they con­sti­tute a per­va­sive struc­ture of evil. Desire then becomes the sin­ful pas­sions at work in our bod­ies.” (Rom 7:5) Our very body is poised to sin, only await­ing the occa­sion. As God said to Cain in the ancient sto­ry, Sin is crouch­ing at your door; it desires to have you, but you must mas­ter it.” (Gen 4:7) The sit­u­a­tion becomes so bad that Paul says noth­ing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.” (Rom 7:18)

When we come to new life in Christ, our body and its deformed desire sys­tem do not auto­mat­i­cal­ly shift to the side of Christ, but con­tin­ue to oppose Him. Occa­sion­al­ly a remark­able change may occur, such as total relief from an addic­tion. But this is very infre­quent, and it is nev­er true that the habits of sin gen­er­al­ly are dis­placed from our bod­i­ly parts and per­son­al­i­ty by the new birth.

James reminds us that each one is tempt­ed when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has con­ceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:14 – 15) Peter urges us, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sin­ful desires, which war against your soul.” (I Peter 2:11) Paul tells us that if we live in terms of the flesh we will die, But if by the spir­it you put to death the mis­deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom 8:13) Else­where he cites his own exam­ple as one who beats my body to make it my slave, so that after I have preached to oth­ers, I myself will not be dis­qual­i­fied.” (I Cor 9:27) And all of these are state­ments to Chris­tians of long standing.

Christ­like­ness Must Be Planned For

Admit­ted­ly, this sounds strange in today’s reli­gious con­text. It is a sim­ple fact that nowa­days the task of becom­ing Christ­like is rarely tak­en as a seri­ous objec­tive to be thought­ful­ly planned for, and the real­i­ty of our embod­ied per­son­al­i­ty dealt with accord­ing­ly. Before many church and para-church groups I have inquired what is their plan for putting to death or mor­ti­fy­ing what­ev­er belongs to your earth­ly nature” or flesh. (Col 3:5 etc. etc.) I have nev­er had a pos­i­tive response to this ques­tion. Indeed, mor­ti­fy­ing or putting things to death does­n’t seem to be the kind of thing today’s Chris­tians would be caught doing. Yet there it stands, at the cen­ter of the New Tes­ta­ment teachings.

When Jesus taught about dis­ci­ple­ship, on the oth­er hand, He made it very clear that one could not be the ser­vant of the body and its demands and also suc­ceed in His course of train­ing. This is the mean­ing of what He said about deny­ing our­selves, tak­ing up our cross, and los­ing our life” for His sake and the Gospel’s (Matt 8:35, 10:29, 16:24 – 26), and about for­sak­ing all” to fol­low Him. (Luke 14:25 – 35) It is the same theme that is struck by Paul: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have cru­ci­fied the sin­ful nature with its pas­sions and desires.” (Gla 5:24) He puts in con­trast those who make a god of their bel­ly (Rom 16:18, Phil 3:19), the bel­ly’ being the bod­i­ly cen­ter of desire.

Of course one can­not over­come the hard­ened pat­terns of desires by force of will alone. Rather, it is as we by faith place our bod­i­ly being in sub­or­di­na­tion to Christ that we expe­ri­ence a new pres­ence in our mem­bers, mov­ing them toward the good things of God and allow­ing the old bod­i­ly forces to recede into the back­ground of life where they belong. Thus it tru­ly is by the spir­it” that we put to death the mis­deeds of the body.” The nat­ur­al desires, and my body itself, remain with me, of course, but now as ser­vants of God and of my will to serve Him, not as my masters.

Our part in this trans­for­ma­tion, in addi­tion to con­stant faith and hope in Christ, is pur­pose­ful, strate­gic use of our bod­ies in ways which will retrain them, replac­ing the motions of sin in our mem­bers” with the motions of Christ. This is how we take up our cross dai­ly. It is how we sub­mit our bod­ies a liv­ing sac­ri­fice, how we offer the parts of our body to him as instru­ments of right­eous­ness.” (Rom 6:13)

When Direct Effort Fails

Some­times, of course, sub­mis­sion to God means just to do what pleas­es Him. Ulti­mate­ly that is always our aim. But fre­quent­ly we are unable to do this by direct effort. Often when we come to do the right thing we have already done the wrong thing, because that is what was sit­ting in our body at the ready.” Inten­tion alone can­not suf­fice in most sit­u­a­tions where we find our­selves. We must be in shape.” If not, try­ing” will nor­mal­ly be too late, or total­ly absent. Instead, our inten­tion and effort must be car­ried into effect by train­ing which leaves our body poised to do what Christ would do well before the occa­sion aris­es. Such train­ing is sup­plied by the dis­ci­plines for life in the Spirit.

Now a dis­ci­pline is an activ­i­ty in our pow­er which we pur­sue in order to become able to do what we can­not do by direct effort. Dis­ci­plines are required in every area of life, includ­ing the spir­i­tu­al. There­fore Jesus direct­ed and led His dis­ci­ples into dis­ci­plines for the spir­i­tu­al life: fast­ing, prayer, soli­tude, silence, ser­vice, study, fel­low­ship and so forth.

For exam­ple, Jesus told His clos­est friends that they would run like scared rab­bits when His ene­mies came to cap­ture Him. They emphat­i­cal­ly and sin­cere­ly denied it. But the body has a life of its own which far out­reach­es what we know of our selves. The readi­ness­es actu­al­ly in their bod­ies would not sup­port their inten­tion. Jesus of course knew this.

When He took Peter, James and John into the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane with Him to aid Him in His strug­gle, they fell asleep. He awoke them and told them how they could suc­ceed with their good inten­tions, which He nev­er ques­tioned. How were they going to die for Him if they could­n’t even stay awake with Him for an hour? So he said: Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temp­ta­tion. the spir­it is will­ing, but the body is weak.” (Matt 26:41) He tried to help them under­stand how their body was influ­enc­ing them and what they could do to keep it in line with their spir­it. Watch­ing,” or stay­ing alert to what was hap­pen­ing, and pray­ing with Him, was some­thing they could have done. Sure­ly par­tic­i­pa­tion with Jesus in the awe­some events of the Gar­den would have for­ti­fied them against fail­ure to stand with Him lat­er. As it turned out, what was in their bod­ies and souls — fear of death and shame — remained unchal­lenged and their temp­ta­tion” did over­whelm them.

Quite gen­er­al­ly, now, the teach­ings of Jesus are viewed as so hard” only because our embod­ied per­son­al­i­ties are formed against them. Take, for exam­ple, His teach­ing in Matthew 5:22 that we should not speak insult­ing­ly of or to oth­ers, call­ing them twerps, fools and so forth. I have known many faith­ful Chris­tians” who use vile and con­temp­tu­ous lan­guage on oth­ers that do not per­form just right in a traf­fic or work or even a home set­ting. They say That’s just me,” or I can’t help it.”

Sim­i­lar­ly for the lust­ful stare that Jesus speaks of in verse 28, or the strik­ing back by word or fist which He deals with lat­er on in this chap­ter, or the prac­tic­ing of reli­gion for human applause which he deals with in the next chap­ter. No law of nature forces the easy” and dis­obe­di­ent response in these sit­u­a­tions. It is just a habit embed­ded in our body, and of course habits always pro­duce pow­er­ful ratio­nal­iza­tions for themselves.

Now sup­pose that we decid­ed to learn how to do what Jesus says we should do in these cas­es. Sup­pose, for exam­ple, we want­ed to train our­selves to bless and pray for any­one who does some­thing in traf­fic that endan­gers or dis­pleas­es us. Instead of call­ing him a fool or a stu­pid jerk or worse, we are going to use words of bless­ing and let our hearts go out in gen­er­ous good will toward him. Could we do it? Of course we could, if we took appro­pri­ate steps. It is not the law of grav­i­ty that makes us call him a jerk.

And how would we do it? We would begin by acknowl­edg­ing the good of what we were going to do, and ask­ing God’s assis­tance. But then we begin to prac­tice con­trol­ling our tongue. Not by try­ing not to insult peo­ple when they shake us up. No, we begin fur­ther back from the tar­get sit­u­a­tion. Pos­si­bly we step out of the realm of words by not speak­ing for a 24-hour peri­od — even by dwelling in silence with TV and radio off. Prob­a­bly this will require that we go into soli­tude for the period.

Note that all of this is some­thing we do with our body. We relo­cate and re-ori­ent our body in our world. We learn a new rela­tion to our body — specif­i­cal­ly, ears and tongue. This per­va­sive­ly impacts our mind, heart and soul, as it gives oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore our world in silence and find our prop­er place in it. This in turn allows us to gain insight into why we use the accus­tomed foul and insult­ing lan­guage. Of course it is because it gives us a sense of pow­er over the jerk’. It lies on a con­tin­u­um with shoot­ing him. That insight then opens up bet­ter ways of view­ing what is actu­al­ly going on in traf­fic or else­where — indeed in life. Sud­den­ly we see what pathet­ic behav­ior explod­ing” is, and find attrac­tive alter­na­tives to it. We can even begin to devel­op the habit of bless­ing now, for we see the good­ness of it and know that we are capa­ble of silence, where we find God present. The words of James become very mean­ing­ful: Every­one should be quick to lis­ten, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (1:19)

We enter into each of the teach­ings of Jesus by choos­ing dif­fer­ent behav­iors that are rel­e­vant, find­ing the space — mak­ing the arrange­ment — in our lives to put them into action, and re-vision­ing the sit­u­a­tion in the new behav­ioral space includ­ing God. The inter­ac­tion between new uses of the body and inward re-posi­tion­ing toward the con­text is essen­tial. Learn­ing to do what He taught is not just a men­tal shift” with­out assis­tance from a mod­i­fied use of the body, for behav­ior and life are not mental.

The lust­ful look also is bod­i­ly behav­ior and based on bod­i­ly behav­ior. We choose to be in posi­tion and pos­ture to engage in it. Mil­lions of peo­ple say they can­not stop it, just like those who ratio­nal­ize their ver­bal assaults on oth­ers. But it is in fact only a habit of self-indul­gence. It can eas­i­ly be bro­ken when that is earnest­ly want­ed. You do not have to look at the bod­i­ly parts of oth­ers, and you can train your thoughts away from lust­ing if you cul­ti­vate chaste habits of thought and atti­tudes gen­er­al­ly. Appro­pri­ate dis­ci­plines of study, med­i­ta­tion, and ser­vice, for exam­ple, can break the action of look­ing to lust, as many have estab­lished by expe­ri­ence. Here too the use and train­ing of the body is the place where faith meets grace to achieve con­for­mi­ty to Christ.

Learn­ing Christ­like­ness Is Not Passive

So what we find, then, is that the body is the place of our direct pow­er. It is the lit­tle pow­er pack” that God has assigned to us as the field of our free­dom and devel­op­ment. Our lives depend upon our direc­tion and man­age­ment of it. But it has and acquires a life of its own” — ten­den­cies to behave with­out regard to our con­scious inten­tions. In our fall­en world this life is pre­pos­sessed by evil, so that we do not have to think to do what is wrong, but must think and plan and prac­tice — and receive grace — if we are to suc­ceed in doing what is right.

But Christ shows us how to bring the body from oppo­si­tion to sup­port of the new life He gives us, the spir­it” now in us. He calls us to share His prac­tices in sus­tain­ing His own rela­tion­ship to the Father. Indeed, these prac­tices — of soli­tude, silence, study, ser­vice, prayer, wor­ship, etc. — are now the places where we arrange to meet reg­u­lar­ly with Him and His Father to be His stu­dents or dis­ci­ples in King­dom living.

Some may think it strange that such prac­tices, the dis­ci­plines for life in the spir­it, are all bod­i­ly behav­iors. But it can­not be oth­er­wise. Learn­ing Christ­like­ness is not pas­sive. It is active engage­ment with and in God. And we act with our bod­ies. More­over, this bod­i­ly engage­ment is what lays the foun­da­tion in our bod­i­ly mem­bers for readi­ness­es for holi­ness, and increas­ing­ly removes the readi­ness­es to sin — So that now as always Christ will be exalt­ed in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:20 – 21).

We grate­ful­ly acknowl­edge Dal­las Willard’s web­site as the source of this arti­cle, The Human Body and Spir­i­tu­al Growth.” Used with permission.

Join the 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion. Cur­rent­ly under­way and runs through May 2021.

Learn More >