Monday, June 26, 2006

Renovation of the Heart

Earlier this year I read Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. It's one of the top 10 books I've ever read, right up there with Mere Christianity and other great classics of the faith. (Billy says that this book has impacted him more than any other book he's read except the Bible.) This was for several reasons. One, it spoke to issues dear to my heart: namely Christian growth into Christlikeness and our ability to change because of Christ. I've always used the Christianese term "victorious Christian living" and Billy has referred to it as "tearing down strongholds"--but Dr. Willard uses the accurate term "spiritual formation". Our souls are all spiritually formed, the question is, by what? Are we formed into Christlikeness? Can we change? How?

Other things I love about this book are that Dr. Willard speaks with authority yet humility, and that he writes without falling into the tired old "Christian insider" language that so many writers, speakers, and ordinary Christians do (and I include myself here). Dr. Willard is respected across the spectrum of Christianity from Emergent's Brian McLaren to professors in the conservative seminary Billy attends. It's not an easy read. I'm a fast reader, and it took me a couple months to wade through and digest it. But it was well worth all the effort.

Central to Dr. Willard's philosophy of Christian spiritual formation is the acronym VIM: Vision, Intention, and Means. In order to become properly spiritually formed, I first must have a vision for where I want to go, a mental picture of what life will look like when I am conformed to Christ's image. Then I must make up my mind to do it, no matter what kind of hard work I must engage in to get there. I must set myself on a path of growth by the grace of God. I must intend to do it. And finally, I must recognize and exercise the means by which this change and growth will take place. This will be somewhat different for each person, but it might include certain spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, solitude, fasting, and journaling; reading biographies of great Christians who lived in ways that characterize the Christian graces I lack; time spent in the presence of Christ-followers who are farther down the road of formation than I am; spiritual retreat; and a host of other possibilities. Ultimately, spiritual formation happens when we raise the white flag of surrender over our lives. In fact, the white flag is on the cover of Renovation of the Heart. Commitment, Dr. Willard says, leaves us in control. Surrender acknowledges that we are giving control to a power higher than ourselves.

Dr. Willard, who teaches philosophy at USC as a missionary to the academic community, has been called today's C.S. Lewis. Billy had the privilege of interviewing him earlier this year when we went to California. Billy said that far more than just the information Dr. Willard shared with him, he learned from his presence. He was impressed especially by the genuine aura of Christian grace in Dr. Willard's life. It's an aura, a presence, that can't be faked, but must come from true apprenticeship to Jesus. Knowing that Dr. Willard's message is personally evident in his life, rather than just being so much information in black and white, gives even more credence to this great work.

Now there is a video curriculum for Renovation of the Heart, which we are doing on Sunday nights at church. I am so excited that this fell during our summer break when I am not teaching AWANA, because this study is one I didn't want to miss. Billy recommends to our class that they participate in the study first to get on overview of the principles of spiritual formation, and then read the book later if they desire to dig deeper. Unless you're one who loves to read and finds philosophical and theological works fun, it would be easy to get bogged down by the book at first glance. I know, personally, that I will benefit more from reading the book again once I have this overview. There is also a simplified version of Renovation available called Reformation of Character, as well as a Renovation of the Heart for students. (I'm not usually a fan of "for teen" editions but in this case it was probably prudent.)

I said all that to encourage anyone to explore the idea of spiritual formation, and especially to check into the book, study, or other resources that have stemmed from Renovation of the Heart. These works have been and continue to be amazing tools in my spiritual growth, and as Billy put it, they "scratch where I itch". I'm happy to recommend them without reservation.

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