The premise of this book is that the spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul of an individual needs to be spiritually transformed into Christlikeness, by relying on the grace of God, and having and implementing the appropriate vision, intention, and means to Christlikeness.
Willard’s book is essentially divided into two major sections. The first section begins by defining authentic spiritual formation. Willard emphasizes how true spiritual formation is not just about the external, but it is more about inward obedience and conformity to Christ (Chapter 1, Location 215). In setting up the second half of the book, Willard states that the major obstacle to spiritual formation is self-worship, whereas self-denial is the foundation of its renovation (Chapter 5, Location 983). For spiritual formation to be effective, this self-denial needs to happen in one’s whole self – namely, these six areas: spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul (Chapter 2, Location 330). As a result, a strategy to transform each of these essential dimensions to Christlikeness composes the second section of his book.
I love how Willard focuses on the change that needs to happen in the inner world of the individual, instead of merely trying to focus on changing one’s behavior. It is powerful when he mentions what has already happened in Western Christianity because of our overt focus on the external – all of the “notorious failures of Christian leaders.” (Chapter 5, Location 1013). This point is especially relevant to me as I tend to have very legalistic tendencies, coupled with a love to please others and look good in front of others. In order to not be one of those “notorious Christian leaders,” I need to keep the vision of the Kingdom of God in front of me constantly. In addition to the right vision, I need to have the intention to obey Jesus, and also develop the means to change my inner being “until it is substantially like his, characterized by his thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationship to the Father.” (Chapter 5, Location 1186). I love how all the means for spiritual formation are not under my control; I need to constantly depend on God’s grace, believing that he is the one enacting this formative process in me (Chapter 5, Location 1062).
Rather than haphazardly referring to individuals as needing spiritual transformation and then giving suggestions on how to do so, I appreciate how Willard divides the six areas of one’s life and presents a plan for spiritual formation within each of these areas. By differentiating these six areas in an individual, Willard faced the potential to present a compartmentalized path to spiritual formation, though I am not convinced he did so. He differentiated these six areas, while noting that each of these areas need to work in an integrative and holistic manner for spiritual formation to truly occur. Consequently, I find this book to be so beneficial for ministry as it provides a simple and comprehensive guide to discipleship that one can lead another individual through to grow in Christlikeness.
Here is an expanded summary to add to the review above.
Chapter One: Introducing Spiritual Formation
“One now hears ‘spirituality’ described as ‘our relationship to whatever is most important in our life.’ Or perhaps as ‘the process of becoming a positive and creative person.’ these are words taken from contemporary writings, and they represent deep currents of human thought and culture.” (19) What is at work here is the relentless drive of human beings to be “spiritual” without God. Even explicit atheism will not protect you from the gnawing need to come to terms with your spiritual side. At a popular level, the presence of this drive constantly manifests itself in the amazing magazines at the checkout in the supermarket, and in people like Oprah and Shirley MacLaine. But it runs much deeper than this would make one think.” (257)
“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…their spirits have been formed. Period.” (19)
GOD MOVES FORWARD: “a pervasive and powerful shift has occurred…and God is still moving. 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. It has taken many forms and has now resurfaced at the beginning of the twenty-first century to meet our present situation. This is, I am sure, part of an incoming tide of God’s life that would lift our lives today for our voyage into eternity. Our hearts cry out, ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.’” (21-22)
“Viewed sociologically and historically, as well as spiritually, the new impulse is an aspect of the dissolution of Protestant denominationalism as we have known it and of the emergence of a new–but also an old–identity for Christians: crossing all denominational lines and national and natural boundaries.” (22)
“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…the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus.” (22)
“External manifestation of ‘Christlikeness’ is not, however, the focus of the process…The ‘outward’ interpretation of spiritual formation, emphasizing specific acts as it does, will merely increase ‘the righteousness of the scribe and Pharisee.’ It will not, as we must, go beyond it (Matthew 5;20, PAR) to achieve genuine transformation of who I am through and through–Christ’s man or woman, living richly in his kingdom.” (23)
“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.” (23)
“the primary ‘learning’ here is not about how to act…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.” (24)
“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.” (24)
“This, I freely admit, is contrary to a view of grace as passivity that is widely held now. But the God-ordained order of the soul under grace must be discovered, respected, and cooperated with, if its God-intended results for spiritual growth are to be attained.
Spiritual formation is something we human beings can and must undertake–as individuals and in fellowship with other apprentices of Jesus. While it is simultaneously a profound manifestation of God’s gracious action through his Word and Spirit, it is also something we are responsible for before God and can set about achieving in a sensible, systematic manner.”(25)
Chapter Two: The Heart in the System of Human Life
Six Basic Aspects of a Human Life
1. Thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences)
2. Feeling (sensation, emotion)
3. Choice (will, decision, character)
4. Body (action, interaction with the physical world)
5. Social context (personal and structural relations to others)
6. Soul (the factor that integrates all of the above to form one life)
“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.” (31)
“The God-intended function of the will is to reach out to God in trust. By standing in the correct relation to God through our will we can receive grace that will properly reorder the soul along with the other five components of the self.” (40)
Life away from God order of dominance:
- Mind (Thought/Feeling)
life under God order of dominance:
- Mind (Thought/Feeling)
“It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.” (41-42)
Chapter Three: Radical Evil in the Ruined Soul
“Without this realization of our utter ruin and without the genuine revisioning and redirection of our lives, which that bitter realization naturally gives rise to, no clear path to inner transformation can be found. It is psychologically and spiritually impossible. We will steadfastly remain on the throne of our universe, so far as we are concerned, perhaps trying to ‘use a little God’ here and there.” (60)
Chapter Four: Radical Goodness Restored to the Soul
“We will, as St. Francis of Assisi said, ‘wear the world like a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly.’
Does this mean that the person who is dead to self is without feeling? Does Christ commend the famous ‘apathy’ of the Stoic or the Buddhist elimination of desire? Far from it. The issue is not just feeling or desire, but right feeling or desire, or being controlled by feeling and desire. Apprentices of Jesus will be deeply disturbed about many things and will passionately desire many things, but they will be largely indifferent to the fulfillment of their own desires as such. Merely getting their way has no significance for them, does not disturb them.” (72)
Chapter Five: Spiritual Change
“Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program…It works in terms of essential structures of the human self revealed by God through his people.” (85)
VIM: Vision, Intention, Means
“if we are to be spiritually formed in Christ, we must have and must implement the appropriate vision, intention, and means.” (85)
“So the problem of spiritual transformation (the normal lack thereof) among those who identify themselves as Christians today is not that it is impossible or that effectual means to it are not available. The problem is that it is not intended. People do not see it and its value and decide to carry through with it. They do not decide to do the things Jesus did and said.
And this in turn is, today, largely due to the fact that they have not been given a vision of life in God’s kingdom within which such a decision and intention would make sense. The entire VIM of Christ’s life and life in Christ is not the intentional substance and framework of their life. Those who minister to them do not bend every effort to make it so. No wonder the example and teachings of Christ look to many , more like fairy tales than sober reality.” (91)
Interlude – Moving to “How to” section
Chapter Six: Transforming the Mind, 1 (thoughts)
“The transformation of our thought life by taking on the mind of Christ–his ideas, images, information, and patterns of thinking–opens the way to deliverance of every dimension of the human self from the oppressive powers of darkness.” (116)
Chapter Seven: Transforming the Mind, 2 (feelings)
“Feelings have a crucial role in life, but they must not be taken as a basis for action or character change. That role falls to insight, understanding, and conviction of truth, which will always be appropriately accompanied by feeling. Feelings are not fundamental in the nature of things but become so if we assign them that role in life, and then life will not go as it should Many sincere professing Christians suffer in their walk with God because they made a commitment prompted by a feeling of ‘need’ and not by insight into how things are with God and their soul.” (138)
Chapter Eight: Transforming the Will (Heart of Spirit) and Character
“We are carried along by the power of the divine drama within which we live actively engaged. So far from struggling to resist sin, we are devoted to realization of righteousness all around us.” (152)
“A major service of spiritual disciplines…is to cause the duplicity and malice that is buried in our will and character to surface and be dealt with.” (155)
“For the first time we not only have a fully functioning will, but we also have a clear identity in the eternal kingdom of God and can day by day translate our time into an eternity embedded in our own life and in the lives of those near us. The will of God is not foreign to our will. It is sweetness, life and strength to us.” (156)
Chapter Nine: Transforming the Body
“Now, the human body is betrayed in its own nature when it is thus made central to human life. It is created for spiritual life in the kingdom of God and to be honored–indeed, glorified–in that context. But when taken out of that context and made the central focus of human experience and endeavor, it is betrayed–robbed of the spiritual resources meant to sustain its life and proper functioning–and in turn it then betrays those who center their life on it.” (169)
Chapter Ten: Transforming our Social Dimensions
“But [God] is Love and sustains his love for us from his basic reality as Love, which dictates his Trinitarian nature…God is in himself a sweet society of love.” (184)
“Human beings are really together only in God, and all other ways of ‘being with’ fall short of the needs of basic human nature.” (185)
“We must try to see [our world] for what it is and then begin to think of specific ways grace and truth can begin to change it. And above all, we who follow Jesus must understand that a couple of hours per week of carefully calibrated distance in a church setting will be of little help, and may only enforce the patterns of withdrawal that permeate our fallen world.” (189)
Chapter Eleven: Transforming the Soul
The alleged failure to ‘find’ an enduring, nonphysical center that organizes life into a whole has become a part of what is regarded as the outcome of modern thought.” (202)
“Fundamental aspects of life such as art, sleep, sex, ritual, family (‘roots’), parenting, community, health, and meaningful work all are in fact soul functions, and they fail and fall apart to the degree that should diminishes…That would explain why meaning is such a problem for human beings today. “meaning’ in action is fundamentally a matter of ‘carry over’ or transcendence. Meaningful experience flows. it does not leave you stuck on something you can’t get past–whether a word you don’t understand of a pointless social situation. Meaning is one of the greatest needs of human life, one of our deepest hungers–perhaps it is, in the final analysis, the most basic need in the realm of the human experience. Almost anything can be born if life as a whole is meaningful. But in the absence of meaning, boredom and mere effort or willpower are all that is left. ‘Dead’ religion or a dead job or relationship is one that has to be carried on in ‘meaningless’ human routine.” (203)
“Our soul is like an inner stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every other element of our life. When that stream is as it should be, we are constantly refreshed and exuberant in all we do, because our soul itself is then profusely rotted in the vastness of God and his kingdom, including nature; and all else within us is enlivened and directed by that stream. Therefore we are in harmony with God, reality, and the rest of human nature and nature at large. As is usual in biblical themes, a little child that has been allowed to develop naturally and has been nurtured in all the aspects of its being gives us the best presentation of what a life flooded with a healthy should looks like.” (204)
“Law is itself a primary manifestation of grace and is raised above legalism to a primary instrument of spiritual transformation in union with ‘the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.’ Law comes with grace into the renewed soul. There is no such thing as grace without law.” (215)
“One whose aim is anything less than obedience to the law of God in the Spirit and power of Jesus will never have a soul at rest in God and will never advance significantly in spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.” (215)
Chapter Twelve: The Children of Light and the Light of the World
“Spiritual formation in Christlikeness during our life here on earth is a constant movement toward this eternal appointment God placed upon each of us in our creation–the ‘kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 25:34); see also Luke 19:17). This movement forward is now carried on through our apprenticeship to Jesus Christ. It is a process of character transformation toward complete trustworthiness before God.” (218)
Peter’s progression in 2 Peter 1:3-11 – “train yourself to simply do what is good and right. obviously, this is something we are to do, which will not be done for us…add to your faith, virtue, then knowledge (understanding), self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and gentleness of care (philadelphia), agape.” (223)
Chapter Twelve: Spiritual Formation in the Local Congregation
- Making disciples — “apprentices” of Jesus. The church consists of apprentices, those who seek to follow Jesus.
- Immersing the apprentices at all levels of growth in the Trinitarian presence. This is the single major component of the prospering of the local congregation: the healing and teaching God in the midst. (the footnote here states: If anyone actually believes that the last part of Matthew 28:19 is only a command to get willing people wet, in some way deemed appropriate, while saying the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” we can only ask them to ponder the matter. The name, in the biblical world, is never just words, but involves the thing named. The ritual should be a special moment of entry into the reality, and that was certainly how it was understood in biblical times. The presence of God in the midst was tangible and dangerous. People died of taking the Lord’s Supper in the wrong attitude (1 Corinthians 11:30) or of misleading others in the fellowship (Acts 5:1-12).
- Transforming disciples inwardly, in such a way that doing the words and deeds of Christ is not the focus but is the natural outcome or side effect. (240)
“becoming a disciple is a matter of giving up your life as you have understood it to that point. Jesus made this starkly clear in Luke 14and elsewhere. And without that ‘giving up,’ you cannot be his disciple, because you will still think you are in charge and just in need of a little help from Jesus for your project of a successful life. But our idea of a ‘successful life’ is precisely our problem.” (243)
“The element of performance would be absent in the Trinitarian gathering…God is the primary agent in the gathering.” (246)
“They cannot be significantly helped by ‘regular church services.’ They may need ministries of deliverance, drawn from the healing God in our midst, and that must be provided. Or they many need to be taken out of their ordinary routine and given lengthy periods of time in retreat, under careful direction. We must be Spirit led, Bible informed, intelligent, experimental, and persistent. The Christian past holds a huge store of information on spiritual formation. It is a treasure–a God deposit–in Christ’s people. We must take the trouble to know it an to own it in ways suitable to today.” (249)