Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to have been a fly on the wall during a conversation among members of the Inklings group—C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, etc.? While we can’t help you with that, we can let you in on part of a four-hour, unscripted conversation among Dallas Willard (who is sometimes called “America’s C. S. Lewis”), Larry Crabb (who wishes he had written the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and John Ortberg (who is already more famous than Charles Williams). This Inklings group was recently together for the production of a video curriculum based on Dallas’ most recent book, Renovation of the Heart. As part of the taping, a soul talk conversation was arranged. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
JO: Dallas, you’ve said that spiritual formation is a universal process—everybody is getting spiritually formed whether he wants to or not. How important is it for people to recognize what is forming them spiritually?
DW: Well, I think if you can get them to start by realizing they are being formed spiritually, that would be very important because they might be able to do something about it. The question is always what kind of a person I am becoming. What are my experiences doing for me, and do I want to go in that direction? I think that’s the primary question, and once you ask it, you had better know what’s forming you; and it might be the things you think least of.
JO: I think that at a church, people think of spiritual formation as something that happens when they sit in a service or go to a Sunday school class. But one of the challenges is, most people don’t think about their spirits being formed while they are reading a newspaper or talking to somebody at work or going to see a movie.
LC: And people don’t want to think that way. I find the whole topic frightening.
LC: Well, when you talk about being honest, to begin with, it’s frightening to be honest about where I am. Just speaking about me personally, I’ve been saved now for about 50 years. I got saved when I was eight years old. I had a counselor tell a bunch of boys, eight-year-old kids,“Now look in this campfire. Ten-foot blazes.” He said, “Guys, you’ve got a choice to make. Trust in Jesus or burn forever.”
That was a no-brainer to me. It’s been 50 years since that happened. And when I get really honest about where I am, there are times I wonder if I have really changed in 50 years. Why can I still feel resentment? Why do I still treat my wife in ways I’m ashamed of?
I wonder as I think about the whole topic of spiritual formation, how many people are like me and don’t want to ask,“Where am I spiritually formed?”They don’t want to get into this issue because it feels despairing. Can I really, really change? Is that really a possibility?
Who do I know that makes my tongue hang out with a holy envy? Can I really be like that person? Wow! It’s a very frightening topic, really.
JO: I grew up in the church like you did, and I think often people who were held up as models of spiritual maturity were people I didn’t want to be like. They were severe, judgmental; and there is a part of me that thinks, if all of life is spiritual formation, then all I should do is read the Bible. I shouldn’t go to any more fun movies. I’m afraid I’m going to be cut off from what is human and earthy and full of joy and have to do stuff that is really dull and is going to kill my spirit.
LC: Isn’t part of that because we make the distinction between sacred and secular and just assume that if we are not doing explicitly sacred things by our culture’s definition, then we are involved in non-kingdom stuff, going to a movie or playing tennis or something?
DW: I think one of the things that make this a scary topic is the sense that what forms you is something you think you can never change. For example, maybe you are stuck in a job and suddenly realize your work setting is doing a lot to form your spirit. Suppose you are working as a lawyer, and there is all that pressure to get in those billable hours. All this pressure you have really does shape your spirit. And if you are stuck with this secular/sacred thing, then you are stuck with thinking there is nothing you can do about the very things that will shape your mind.
LC: So the only spiritual time you have is when you are sitting in church on Sunday morning and feeling spiritual for an hour.
JO: And the scary part about that is, I think a lot of people who work in an office think only people who work in churches or monasteries or convents are really spiritual. I’m very aware of the fact that I work there, and working in a church does not produce rivers of living water. Not by a long shot. . . .
The Role of Disappointment
JO: Dallas, you’ve talked about the importance of dissatisfaction in spiritual life. And one of the things that give motivation to seek the kingdom is dissatisfaction with life outside of it.
I had been a Christian for a long time, but finally reached the point where I was able to honestly say, I don’t think I’m changing. I think I’m struggling to have a quiet time on a regular basis, and I’m avoiding the same types of sins that Baptists avoid. But am I becoming a different type of person, a more joyful person? More humorous and sensible and strong? No.
LC: Would you be willing to share the specifics about what created the disappointment that led to a healthy approach to spiritual formation?
JO: Well, for a long time [dissatisfaction] led primarily to a sense of disappointment and stagnation and guilt. Disappointment because I felt that I had invested my whole life in this thing.
LC: And this was after being a Christian for a number of years?
JO: After being a pastor. I could have been sued for malpractice. Stagnation because I think that’s just part of life. Anytime you feel like you are not making progress, growing, there’s a dissatisfaction built into that.
LC: But what made you aware of that?
JO: You know [it was triggered] when someone I was pastoring mentioned that prayer was always a struggle for him.
LC: And your job was to instruct him into the kind of prayer life that you had.
JO: And I can remember writing to him about a quote from C. S. Lewis, from Letters to Malcolm, about how maybe the prayers that mean the most to God are the ones we offer when we are feeling dry. So I wrote about that, but even as I wrote it, I thought there has to be something more than dryness. And there was a long period for me of—I think it was just being willing to acknowledge the true state of my soul. And this was very difficult because of the way I was brought up and the current job I had. Being a prodigal son wasn’t really an option. And I was a pastor.
LC: Plus your [making a] living was dependent [on your role].
JO: My paycheck was connected to it, all kinds of stuff. So for a long time, it was very much a private thing. Internal sadness.
DW: You know, I can remember as a young pastor how dissatisfied I was because I knew that much more was supposed to be happening under my ministry. That was outward directed [unlike what you are describing]. I wasn’t very much aware of myself.
Being Baptist, [I thought] the main thing was winning souls. Getting converts. That was the top. And I just knew I was grinding it out. There was no flow, no life-giving freshness to it. So I get another convert.
The verse that hounded me was the verse in Matthew where Jesus says you make one convert and make him twice the child of hell as you are.
LC: That’s a blast-you approach, isn’t it?
JO: That’s a life-verse for a lot of people.
DC: What I realized was that just the effort, and being clever, and not growing, but finding devices for getting results [was a trap I had fallen into].
LC: Maneuvering, manipulating, strategizing . . . all for a good cause.
JO: Another one of those things, at least for me, was trying to achieve something. Achievement was always important and partly a way of evading this gnawing internal sense of dissatisfaction. If something went well, if a talk went well, there would be bursts attached to that. . . .
LC: That’s called addiction.
JO: Yeah, it is. And it could be on the achievement level; it could be in a number of different areas of life; it could be sexual, relational, or a number of areas. And, I think, to get to the point where I want to put that on the shelf and ask, “Am I really satisfied with my life, with the state of my heart and with the state of my relationship with God? How is that really?” That requires getting alone, putting a lot of things aside, and being willing to face a lot of unpleasantness.
My world was a noisy world. So, it wasn’t just things inside that inclined me not to do that. It was the pace of life, television, busyness, and lots of other things that I had to put aside and allow the pain to speak loud enough and say, “I’m not satisfied.”
LC: So we can make the assumption that every human being, when [he or she is] honest, will sense this disappointment, this dissatisfaction. Isn’t that the Romans 8 “groaning” idea that until we are complete in heaven there is going to be something that impels us further on?
And I wonder if sometimes, as you say, you moved toward an interest in pursuing God more richly by recognition of your own emptiness and the pain that you were covering by busyness and success. I think God sometimes, in his mercy, allows difficult things to put us in touch with our emptiness.
JO: Oh, yeah.
LC: He allows failure. Your success when you write a good book or a good sermon can fill that hole for a time, but never permanently.
I know in my own experience probably, [the first of] the two major things was our older son’s rebellion. For five years I was terrified that he would kill himself. He was expelled from a Christian university. He went to Taylor because we were told it was 50 miles from the nearest sin.
I really tried to do it right. For family devotions I purchased an overhead projector. But when this happened [rebellion], I was humbled by the recognition that I was not sufficient.
The other one was my brother’s death. Two weeks after he died, I said to my wife, “I can’t sleep tonight. There are tears I’ve not yet shed, and I don’t know what they are.” I got up and went to my study and got my Bible. I didn’t know where to turn. Finally, with tears that were convulsive, I found Hosea 7, where he said, “I long to redeem you, but I can’t so long as you wail on your bed, but do not cry from your heart.” And I was crying from my heart, and I said, “I know you are all I have, but I don’t know you well enough for you to be all that I need.” And then,“Lord let me find you.” And that was the next level of commitment or resolve or intention. . . .
JO: When you say “wailing on your bed but not crying from your heart,” what was the difference?
LC: I think that a lot of us cry over our pain [in a manner] that represents little more than a
JO: We want the pain to stop.
LC: Stop the pain, that’s your job. And if you don’t do your job, I have every right to go to some other source that will, be it alcohol or pornography. That’s wailing in your bed, just a complaint against God. [We may feel that] now that I’m a Christian, your job is to make my life go better.
Crying from your heart, I think, is just recognition, Dallas, of what you talk about so effectively—personal lostness. [Even as Christians] we still struggle with, “Am I in line with the kingdom? Am I living out the life of Jesus?” And when the answer is “No!” you realize that there is just an emptiness within you, and you can go no place but to God.
And then you realize that you are not going to God in a manipulative manner, saying, “I’m empty; fill me.” But there is rightness about it [the way you approach him] now. [You are saying] “God, you’re it. You’re perfect. You’re glorious, and I want to know you better. And I believe a benefit of [knowing you] will be there will be joy, there will be love, there will be peace, but I’m not going to require [them] on a timetable. This is just the right thing to do.” That’s what the heart cries for; that’s crying from your heart. . . .
Spiritual Formation and the Thought Life
LC: We talk about spiritual formation and I feel like a guy that weighs 400 pounds trying to tell how to lose weight. If I’m going to talk about this, engage with this, I’ve got to make it practical for me. For years I’ve hated the word “practical.” I seemed to reduce it to a recipe theology or a formula: do this, and this will happen in a very linear kind of way. But recently, I’ve come to realize that “practical” is a good word. Certainly the Lord was not impractical. There is a mysticism that is appropriate to Christianity. There is an experiential element that is crucial, experiencing God, but there are things we can do; and, Dallas, you talk about the various components of the self. You talk about the way we think, and Paul makes it clear in Romans 12, we are transformed by something to do with our minds being renewed. And a question I want to ask both of you, in your own journeys of Spiritual Formation: if the thought life is as crucial as what we believe, how do we put on the mind of Christ? That’s crucial to spiritual formation. What do you do for this to happen?
DW: Well, just briefly, what I do, and I do this constantly, is I try to put the stuff in Scripture and in theology into plain language. To me, this is one of the most helpful things I can do, to give a sense of reality to the things in Scripture.
LC: Can you illustrate that?
DW: Yeah, take the idea of the kingdom of God itself, which is quite abstract.
LC: Most Christians have heard the phrase and have an image of a celestial city.
DW: That’s what we are thinking about. Translate into energy and try to think about energy in some connection to what you learned in physics. Capacity to do work.
LC: You’re assuming I learned something in physics.
DW: We didn’t learn much.
JO: What you were supposed to learn in physics.
DW: The difference between potential and kinetic energy. The energy that is in action and what could be in action, and what energy does. That sort of thing. I think that is essential for me to think about it enabling me to realistically think that it [energy of the kingdom] could do something.
JO: Let me give you another example of that. The Lord’s Prayer, in The Divine Conspiracy—Dallas, as you write about it, you are putting theology in other words. The idea of Father (you think about what Brennan Manning writes about “father”), who art in heaven—most of us think that means way out there, at least as far away as Poughkeepsie, or something.
But to think about the use of “heavens” in Scripture as the sphere in which God is present, which means right here. So to look at the prayer as saying, “My father [who loves me intently and has my best interests at heart] is all around me. My Father, who is closer than the air I breathe. And then that becomes a thought.
There is something about thoughts to me where they get stale.
DW: They get very stale.
LC: New language helps, personal vernacular.
JO: Yep, just the right word to take something familiar like, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and say, “Our Father, who is closer than the air I breathe.” My mind can run with that a little bit. And eventually that gets stale, and I have to keep thinking things out over and over. But it helps. The process of putting it in new words never gets done.
DW: Yeah, it just helps me wonderfully to do that, if I can. And [the phrase],“If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” To not let that just be a doctrine, but to be about history. This actually happened in history. It’s happening right now. So, I work on that, and pray over it and struggle with it.
LC: Michael Card helped me with that. You know, if you are in conversation with someone who talks slowly, what do you want to do? You want to finish the sentence for him. Sometimes God seems to talk slowly, and I want to finish the sentences for him. And what Michael said helped me with this. As recently as a week ago, I was discouraged, and feeling empty. I had a busy speaking schedule, and I just wanted to play golf or something. I was dry. I said, “Wait a minute. I’m dry, and there is supposed to be water in me, and I can’t taste it. What can I do to start thinking truth in a way that would lead to my heart?” I got up one morning [to spend time with God], and pardon my mysticism, but I felt led to the Book of Judges and began reading about Gideon and Jephtha. And I thought, I don’t get the point of this, so let me just make up my point and get on with this. That’s the mistake. That’s not saying, “Let me sit quietly enough to say, this is God’s word and he wants to speak to me.” So I sat for more than an hour just pondering the chapter [waiting for God to speak]. What was in my mind was, let God finish the sentence. That helps me put on the mind of Christ. But at the risk of sounding legalistic, we need to stay in the Word [as a way of putting on the mind of Christ], but maybe do it differently. I don’t want to toss out the baby with the bath.
DW: A lot of people do.
LC: They really do.
DW: When they need to be told to do it differently.
LC: But stay in the Word. That may sound like a good old-fashioned fundamentalist talking, but it is good old-fashioned truth.
DW: Well, unfortunately, it means to many people, not this life-giving thing that you describe. It’s become some form of legalism.
JO: It’s not going to do anything for you, but do it out of obligation and then get on with the rest of your day.
LC: Tick it off.
JO: Oh, when I was growing up, my sense of it would be, if I had a good, long, hard quiet time, then I could get on with the rest of my day and God would be happy with me. And if I didn’t, the rest of the day was going to be kind of shot. And I remember having a conversation with the mom of young kids, and she said, “It was easier for me to do that when I was in college.” I asked why, and she said that she had more time for that kind of practice. And it never occurred to her, and the church never taught her that it would be possible for her, while she was with her kids, to take a thought from Scripture and immerse her mind in it, to be in the Word while she is with her kids, and that counts. But we grew up with this idea that certain things count and others don’t.
LC: This goes back to the vision issue, Dallas. Can we get a vision that the Word of God can be literally food? There’s the Scripture about eating the Word. I would say in my own experience, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a different level of experience of eating the Word by letting God finish the sentence, by going to Him when I’m in my need. You hear so often, “Let’s put aside our problems and come before God.” I think that is ridiculous. Let’s come as we are, struggling, empty, whatever, and assume that God actually has a feast spread. He wants to feed my soul, and the Bible is one vehicle through which he feeds my soul.
JO: I think that is the other side of it. I want to feed my mind. I’ll talk to folks at my church sometimes—because the temptation in the circles I run in is to think if I just get enough information, if we want to have godlier people in the church, let’s just cram them full of more exegetical information—so, I tell them sometimes,“God’s primary purpose is not to get you all the way through Scripture, but to get Scripture all the way through you.”
And that’s one side of it. That’s one side of it. The other side is to slow down enough to be aware of what are the thoughts that are generally running through my mind. I’ll find that when I’m praying, I start having this anger fantasy about someone who used to be a deacon years ago, and he’d done something that I don’t like, and I’m doing something that is making him feel really bad.
Or I’m having some success fantasy where I’m doing something that’s just wonderful.
I used to think that those are failures in prayer, but from some wise coaching I now think, if my mind keeps going back to those things, then maybe I have some issues around anger, or forgiveness, or significance, that it would be good to talk to God about. But one of the problems is the train that my mind usually runs on is something I’m not even aware of, let alone talking to God about. So I have these times of thinking godly thoughts, but the rest of the time the life of my mind is quite apart from thinking about God.
DW: That’s the time to bring these together and welcome those thoughts. I know that when I’ve done that, very often, the combination of the word of God, prayer meditation, with those thoughts, rather than pushing them away [changes them]. They become different. For example, I am able to become compassionate toward the person that I was justifiably angry at….
Spiritual Formation and Our Feelings
DW: This helps a lot and brings together that other aspect of the mind, which is emotion. Because when we bring the word of God as a living substance into us, it really does change us. My experience has been at the level of feeling.
I still remember teaching a woman once; as we drove along,
I was going over Romans 8 and suddenly it dawned on me what this all meant. It was like the car was filled by glory. It was so profound. I really was never the same after that in thinking about the love of God and being loved by God.
I trace that back to the content of the thoughts. That’s what made the connection. When we are dealing with cases like you described [when previously discussing the role of thoughts], that emotions, loaded with a bunch of images, and how foolish he made me look, and so on, I have to bring that over into the context of the content of the Word of God. And see myself to see myself differently.
LC: That word “content” you used, let me just put in a little first grade sentence. We’re not going to be able to chew on Scripture unless we have some familiarity with it. I think it’s important in our small groups and so forth to just learn the word of God. I knew about Jephtha because as a kid, I was dragged to more churches than I ever wanted to go to, and there’s just a value in knowing the Scripture. Even if it feels dry for the time, it’s like a first-year medical student learning the bones and the chemicals. I want to just make a plug for Bible knowledge.
This emotional thing—how thoughts and emotions are interrelated—again, it was very recently I was realizing that my attitude toward my wife had to do with my feeling somewhat justified in distancing myself from her. And feeling that if she didn’t respond a little differently I was really handling myself quite honorably. But then I noticed the pain in her face and knew this wasn’t right. I pondered the obvious Ephesians 5 passage about loving her the way He loves me. And I realized if He loves me the way [in the same way] I’m treating my wife, I’m in bad shape. And there was a level of brokenness that changed my feelings toward my wife. I was broken. I was repentant. I went and told her that. I felt warm toward her. I went and told her that, and that one of the biggest privileges I had in life was to have her as a wife. I felt warm; it was wonderful. I’d like to think it will sustain itself for the rest of my life.
DW: Well, one of the good things about these emotions is that they spread over the life, don’t they?
LC: They do.
DW: When I’m in union with my wife at this deep level, I’m in union with the world. And, conversely, I remember how not being in union with my wife would affect my children.
LC: When I was in private practice and going in to work to see my seven or eight clients, a number of times I had to call her and straighten out something with her, because I was of no use to anyone when I was at odds with my wife.
DW: The Germans did studies with this and found that health benefits were associated with kissing your wife in the morning—much lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks.
LC: Something as simple as that. That’s the power of emotions.
JO: So are the Germans doing that more now?
LC: My wife would like to live in Germany if that’s the case.
DW: It’s a powerful kind of thing; it really is. . . .
Transforming the Will
DW: Let me sort of change the direction and ask this question. We’ve all three been talking about how we’ve gone through this. Can you become intentional about change? Is there anything you can do to really change the way you think, believe, behave, relate to other people, and so on? Is that something we can really do? I think that’s one of the really big topics that come up when you talk about transformation. So much of it is backward looking, like when we got pulled through the knothole. I’m not looking for a formula, but what are the things you can
do to change the self—forward looking, now?
This whole business about how we think about God as a servant, someone to do what we want. . . .
JO: That’s turning in to a long question, Dallas.
DW: The question is, can you do anything about that? Or do you just have to look back and say, “Ebenezer, hitherto has the Lord led us.” Can you say anything that actually helps . . . change?
JO: Well, the, oh man. I could take you back to the seat on the plane. I was going through this long period of confusion and dissatisfaction about spiritual life. And then, for me, it was a book. I think it’s important to get in touch with dissatisfaction and then cry, “Lord, I do not know what to do! And I want you, and I need you to show me.”
One of the difficulties is we go too quick for the “how.” Part of it is, God has to show up and do something. For a long time I just felt dissatisfied and sad. But the first step for me was to get to a place where I knew it. I was on a plane, and I had been to a church conference. And they said you need to get this book, and I opened it up to the introduction and the author said,
“Authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing, and that is to rearrange our life around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive light and power from the Father.” That’s from The Spirit of the Disciplines.
And, uh, I read. . . .
DW: Did it strike you as plausible at the time? The reason I felt like I just had to put that in is that people don’t believe it.
JO: It’s like, there have not been very many times to me when I felt like I could say, honestly, without hype, this feels like the voice of God. That’s an experience that I know a lot of people have. But for me, that was a moment when God said to me, “What you want is possible. What you want, more than you know you want it is possible. And you can’t engineer it, or make it happen. But you can open yourself up to it. There are things you can do.”
LC: You can celebrate the availability of God.
JO: I have read those words so many times. One of the reasons I ask you about people, and I don’t want to embarrass you, but after I read that, it was so hope-giving to me, I called Dallas up. He ended up living only about five miles from where I lived in Simi Valley at the time. And you said, “Why don’t you come over to my house?” And there was no strategic reason for me to do that. And, uh, I had never been with someone who lived in the kingdom in a way [that] was humorous and strong and sensible, and slow, unhurried. And I thought, if life can be lived like this, then I can move toward that.
DW: You know, I think, what can we do in our churches that would help people, is the thing that concerns me. You know our churches are here, supposedly, to foster life in the kingdom of God. Why can’t this happen in our church services? This same kind of thing, where people are given hope. Really are given hope. I think every one of us, we are just up against the aspirations of our own heart, which says this is the way it ought to be [to live in willing surrender, instead of willful and in control].
JO: Well, I think for a whole church, for the leaders of a church there is one set of issues, but I also think that for folks watching this and listening to this, it starts one life at a time. It starts with being honest about, “Do I really want God and his kingdom more than anything else?” And to be honest about that and say, “You know, right now I don’t. I’m really hoping I’ll get this promotion, or have great sex with my wife. But when I stop and think about it, that’s not deep enough.” And then to say to God, one person at a time, “I want something more, and I’ll look inside the church and outside and in Scripture, and I will go on this quest and I will not stop.”
Transforming and the Body
JO: Say more about what it means, Dallas, for the body to be involved in the process of spiritual transformation.
DW: In many situations like this, there is a bodily revulsion to loving: being present and helping and all of that. Physically, for example, the body of a person may be revolted by a dependent person, for example. Love has to seep all the way down, and that’s a large assignment. If you watch the various expressions of disgust and [revulsion], including contempt, toward people who may be different—even people of different doctrines.
JO: I was having a discussion with my wife just two weeks ago, and I heard her say, “I wish you could see the look on your face right now.” And my immediate response was, “I wish I could manage my face better.”
DW: That sounds like something we could run seminars on: how to manage your face.
JO: We live in a world where you have to manage your face . . . to get people to think about you what you want them to.
LC: Which makes us a bunch of phonies.
LC: So how do we let the truth seep into our thoughts, emotions, and touch the will that God has given us; and how do we let that seep into our bodies so it’s not face management but it’s face expression?
DW: I do think that’s where these disciplines come in, like solitude and silence, and another great discipline is service—just doing something for someone with nothing coming back. That makes your body behave differently.
LC: One of the best experiences I had [took place] when I was closing up a little class of ten people. I didn’t want to go; I was dry and tired. And what I did was to get out ten pieces of paper and wrote each a note about what I appreciated about them, [and] my vision for their life. It took me three hours, and when I was done, I couldn’t wait to get to class. My body was full of it. It was like “Hey!” as opposed to “hey.”
DW: But you put your body into it.
LC: Yes, I sat at a desk, I wrote, [I] did a lot of bodily things. . . .
Transforming Our Social Dimension
LC: When you talk about the notion of transforming relationships and what does it mean, Hebrews 10:24 has been almost a theme in my thinking for a while—to consider how to stir each other to love and good deeds. And the word “consider,” I’m told, has the notion of an ongoing, vigilant consideration.
So as I’m sitting with you two, what is my impact on you? Are you feeling that I’m wanting to hog the limelight and make sure that I’m talking the most, etc., or can it be that as a result of our time together you are going to want to love the Lord even more because you spent time with me?
JO: A study not long ago talked about how contagious emotions are, and I think beyond that it would be spirit. In one of the studies they had a group of three sit together for two minutes. No one said a word. And whoever the most emotionally expressive person was, whatever [that person’s] mood was, all three people when they walked away had moved in the direction of that emotion without a word being spoken.
And when you think about it as it relates to race relations, or anything, at work or a small group or at church, there will be some people who when they say, “Come to my office,” I think that would be wonderful. But for others, I think (and feel in my body), I don’t want to. Every interaction between two bodies involves a spiritual transfer. And we are given life or drained of a little life. It is a scary thing to talk about. I think there is enormous power for good or bad.
LC: If we could think a vision of how we are stirring up things in the other, and how we can bring to bear in a tangible way the reality of the gospel. . . . In our small group a gentleman shared, after about an hour of discussion of frustration in his ministry; he said, “I’ve never felt enjoyed, only tolerated.” And he’s a man worthy of great honor, a man who has survived great struggles. And I said to him, “I feel a strong desire to kneel before you in a foot-washing posture. I’m honoring God, but there is something I’d like to say through my body posture about the heroic way you’ve lived.” And the other members said, “Can we do that?”
And he burst into tears and said, “I don’t deserve that; don’t you dare.” And I said,“We will not do it unless you are willing and would want it.” And he looked around and said, “Please.”
We knelt before him and just thanked God for that man’s soul. And I think it was one of the most healing times in that man’s life.
JO: As you were telling that story, I was just thinking of kind of the flip side of it. I remember being in church where this couple who were just unhappy about everything, about me, about how my kids ran in the sanctuary, just ran down the whole list; and at the end of it, they said, “But we want you to know, we love you in the Lord.”
LC: Isn’t that just wonderful.
JO: And it struck me that I was thinking about that; it’s almost as if there is this idea that I don’t like you, I’m not for you, frankly I’d be delighted to hear bad news about you; but I’m a Christian, and Christians are supposed to love, so this must be loving you in the Lord.
It gets back to the pretense thing, and the denial. The reality is [that] right now, I don’t love you, least of all in the Lord and the way he loves, but I want to want to love you that way.
LC: What should that person do? . . . How do we make our relationships move us toward the type of unity we desire?
JO: I don’t have great wisdom on this, but it does seem [to be] where community should come in. I need a wise, safe person that I can go to and say, “Here’s what I’m feeling toward this person. Help me with it. To what extent is it an indication that there is something wrong with [him or her]? What should I do with this? Where do I go with this? Do I say anything to [him or her]?
LC: Maybe they will guide you through some of the disciplines activities, and maybe six months later they will come to you and embrace you.
JO: This is one of my favorite Dallas-isms. You may not remember this. Years ago someone was talking to you about the need for care with speech, and [he was] saying,“I just get tired of having to be careful of everything I say. I’m tired of feeling like I have to always walk on eggshells.” And Dallas said, “Better that than always going around breaking eggs.”
DW: I don’t remember that.
JO: Well, maybe it was me, then.
DW: But, you know, here is where we mustn’t waste time in the pulpit. The pulpit needs to deal with these issues. There needs to be steady, regular teaching about these, so that the person in that position might say, “He might be talking about me. Maybe there is something here.”
We waste so much time in the pulpit when we could be really dealing with these things.
LC: Where people are really living, and where God really is invading. . . .
Transforming the Soul
DW: And that’s soul work. When you get down to this level, and these parts of the self, you realize suddenly, there is something way down here deep that is running this operation.
JO: Say more about that. When you are laying this out, of all the notions, the most abstract and vague is this notion of the soul. Be more concrete with it. Bring the hay down where the goats
can get it.
LC: Eliminate our confusion totally.
DW: Well, okay. This is more than one can ask.
JO: No it isn’t. We just asked. It’s what you’re getting paid for, man.
DW: Well, take the person you described and ask yourself, “Why didn’t he know what he was doing?” He has got a divided soul.
JO: Wouldn’t that be a mind issue?
DW: But what’s running the mind is the question. What keeps that mind functioning in just that way? You know, Burns’ poem: “Would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us. It would from many a blunder free us.”
That’s a soul thing. Finally, it is the soul that explains why everything goes together or fails to go together in the way that it does.
So, for example, as a minister I might preach wonderful doctrinal sermons and deep scriptural expositions, all the while knowing here’s a person struggling with homosexuality, here’s a person with alcoholism, here’s a person beating his wife, and they believe everything I’m saying. Now, as a minister, how do I keep this knowledge separate?
R.D. Laing’s theory of schizophrenia is very fascinating because he believes it starts in the family [with] you not seeing what is happening. Then you do not see that you do not see. And so on. That’s soul functioning.
Or there may be a sickness in the body that is related to behavior or attitudes: [this notion of one part affecting others] is where the notion of the soul comes in. The interconnectedness.
We can’t deal with that (the soul) directly. That’s my view. Now, God can deal with it directly, and we can pray for a miracle.
And God certainly does work at the level of the soul. But what we need to do is to do the things we can (like the Christian disciplines) that might help.
JO: So if the soul is working correctly, the indicator is that the mind and the body and the will will each be working properly (fruitfully) and in relation to each other well.
DW: That’s right. And you won’t be seeing these blind spots and divisions and disconnects. . . .
JO: Okay, this soul thing is still not clear. We need to get it down to “Dallas for Dummies.” The question is, if the soul is organizing the whole show, but the will is the CEO, and I would usually think about the person organizing everything as the CEO, then specifically, how does the soul differ from the will?
DW: The very simplest way is, you cannot do anything directly with your soul, nothing. With your will you can do things directly: raise your hand, decide to say something, decide not to say something, to go in solitude, to plan for a retreat six months hence. That is stuff you can do directly. There is absolutely nothing you can do directly with your soul. It isn’t that kind of thing.
In my way of thinking the soul organizes everything only in the sense that it’s running the whole show. That might be disorganizing it, depending on the condition of the soul. So what we can do here is, we can learn how to modify the soul by doing other things, and how to patch it up in some desperate situations, like in AA. What you have there is a disordered soul, and this is like Peter with his finger in the dike. You know, he’s stopping it.
JO: Is the soul the same thing as someone’s character?
DW: I don’t think so. The character is more holistic. So, but on the other hand, the soul will be what organizes the whole life with a certain character.
LC: But the word “organize” feels like there is a will involved.
DW: Yeah, I shouldn’t use it. That’s where it’s better to just say it “runs” it. And that might be a disorganized course.
LC: So there’s no instrumentality to the soul that’s under conscious control.
DW: That’s right, exactly. And that’s why, for example, many techniques that are used in therapy are really ways of working on the soul. You know, there are so many ways that are practiced in doing this, all the way from the controlling of verbal processes, to drug therapy or shock therapy. Things you can do indirectly. You can’t do them directly, but have hope that some good difference will be made.
Your soul runs your life, or mismanages it, and you can modify it by choice through instrumentalities. Also, we can by the grace of God access the soul.
One reason I put the soul on the outer circle is that I wanted to make clear that this is where God comes in. He’s been in direct contact with the soul. All the time. That is a very deep teaching to understand. A soul that is in rebellion to him is closed off to him—although he’s still contacting it.
For the purpose of the individual one has to understand that things can be done by grace and by effort, about the soul, but nothing can be done directly.
LC: Let me see if I have that. [With] the spirit—the ability to take initiative, to create, to move and to choose—I can choose to do certain things which will impact the health of my soul, in the same way that I cannot chose to make my body capable of running a marathon, but I can choose to exercise, which then results in a healthier body.
DW: That’s the same kind of structure we are talking about here. . . .
Spiritual Formation and the Local Congregation
LC: . . . The work of the church is soul care.
JO: There is something to learn from the therapist’s office. I think it was Richard Lovelace that said this. One of the things that opened our society up for therapeutic language was that spiritual language grew increasingly simplistic, rigid, and moralistic. Whereas, historically, people who were wise in the way of the spirit knew there [were] complexity and nuance to the formation of character, it reached a point where it was much easier to say divorced people are bad, and people who aren’t divorced are good. And not to recognize that there could be all kinds of complexities.
So when there came another system of language to talk about human behavior that had more complexity and nuance to it, people latched on to it and said, finally there is something that is giving adequate expression to the complexity that very simple black and white categories do not capture.
LC: When the fundamentalists fought the modernists back in the ’20s and ’30s, one of their fights was to say people are not good, they are bad, so let’s define sin in a way that people can see; and sin became trivialized into nothing but alcoholism and wife beating. And then Freud came along and said there is something more, something beneath the surface. And the therapeutic culture replaced the church to some degree.
But when we understand that Scripture addresses the deep issues of the soul, then the church can recover some of the nuances and go beyond the black and white.
DW: And “How can we return that to the ministry?” is the next question. So that the ministry can understand that they actually have a field of expertise that deals with the soul and recapture the traditional idea of the cure of souls as the responsibility of the teaching faculty of the ministry.
JO: Say a little about that phrase, “the cure of souls.”
DW: Well, the cure of souls is a very old phrase that was used to refer to what people did in ministry. In fact, one of the French words for clergy for centuries was cure. It refers to the function that they have—healing—that comes out of the NT, but we lost touch with that. It was a part of the secularization of the intellect that says, “You guys don’t know nothing; you just do ritual” (and I would add “ritual” to Richard Lovelace’s series of terms). Ritual can be come a substitute for reality, holiness, and righteousness.
JO: If the church becomes a community that reclaims the task of the cure of souls, what will it look like?
DW: It will look like a hospital.
LC: With doctors who are sick too?
LC: But we [instead] have become a community of pretenders who then are required to be distant to maintain the pretense, as opposed to a community of the broken who can therefore become intimate in a joint pursuit of God. (Reference to Jeremiah 6)
I think it’s a failure to recognize that the brokenness within each of us is real. I’m uncomfortable with people until I get to know them, and what I have to know about them is that they are profoundly dependent on God, as I am, and that without God there is nothing to them. We’re just not a safe group of people . . . Success is an evidence of being blessed by God.
I think that the greatest need—you asked what can be done in the church, in addition to talking to the leaders about some greater level of personal vulnerability, some greater level of silence in the church service now and then, some greater level of reciting the creed with the freedom to say, “I’m not sure if I believe that, but I want to.”
But beyond that kind of thing, which is huge, is what kind of thing do we do when we get together in a small group. I don’t know a more important question than this. Do we know our impact on each other? Is there some way that the way I come across keeps you from sharing, keeps you from feeling safe?
My wife for 15 years would not pray in front of me. And after 15 years, she finally had the courage to say, “You criticize how other people pray, and I didn’t want you to criticize me.” It took 18 years for her to acknowledge that she had been sexually abused. And that’s to my shame. Those two things made me start looking at my impact on others. . . . People were not smelling the grace come out of me.
JO: I think the pretending theme is such a part of life everywhere. You ask [people] what they saw on TV last night and they’ll start, “I don’t watch much TV, but . . .
LC: I’m usually in the Scriptures.
JO: That desire to want to control what others are thinking of me and to equate myself with “I am who you think I am.”
LC: I feel that almost all the time.
JO: I do; that is going on inside me and part of why solitude is so life-giving to me. It’s almost a luxury, a meal or something. Because right now no one is thinking about me, nothing to live up to, and I’m still alive. It feels so good and so freeing.
LC: I’d like to see us have “red dot” groups…. You go into a mall in a big city, and what is the first thing you do? You go to the directory and find out “you are here.” The red dot. Most of us have no idea where we are.
DW: This would be wonderful in small groups, to do up a sheet that has various places and ask them to place the red dot.
JO: Where are you today?
LC: Where are you at this moment? Existentially, in our
DW: That’s a great idea. I think, you know, if we had the idea of the kingdom and our accessibility to it through Jesus…. Frankly it’s been a decade-long process with me to learn how to turn loose and not try to control things. Got the message a long time ago. But we are “take charge” people. To let a student struggle with something instead of telling them what to do. . . . I think the kingdom is a liberating thing, but if we can just insert that in our religious meetings, that may just. . . .
Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life and have it in full.” He said, “The person who drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst again. And the water I give will be a spring of water springing up into everlasting life.” It will be a flood that comes forth from the person and floods the world. You see, that is the stone that is cut out without hands that Daniel spoke of; it is the power of God and his kingdom through his people, and it will achieve what he has proposed to achieve.”