Conversatio Divina

Idaho Springs Inquiries Concerning Spiritual Formation

Dallas Willard

Found in

The Dallas Willard Collection

In the fall of 1999 a small group of Christian teachers gathered in retreat near Idaho Springs, Colorado, to reflect prayerfully on the meaning and prospects of Christian spiritual formation today. With no human authority, but a deep concern for the life of Jesus Christ in his people now and for the worldwide understanding of his gospel, we sought clear and helpful responses to several questions about spiritual formation that now confront us. The following responses to those questions are formulated by me and may not be exactly what others from the group would say. But my hope is that they might serve to direct us in meeting the challenges of our day to profoundly Christ-like being and living and in gaining maximum benefit for the church from the upsurge of interest in spiritual formation that characterizes the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

  1. What is spiritual formation? How is it to be described in the language of contemporary life?

There is a hidden dimension to every human life, one not visible to others or fully graspable even by ourselves. This is God’s gift to us in creation, that we might have the space to become the persons we choose to be. From here we manage our lives as best we can, utilizing whatever resources of understanding, emotion, and circumstance are available. It is here we stand before God and our conscience. This hidden dimension of the self is commonly thought of in spatial terms—as the “within” or “insides” or “depth” of the person or self. Such language expresses the fact that it is hidden and that it is foundational. The heart, soul, mind, feelings, and intentions lie in this area, and these make up the true character of the person: who that person is and what they can be counted on to do.

Within the invisible dimension of the person, and right at its conscious center, lies the human spirit. “God is Spirit,” the creative will that creates and governs the universe, and “spirit” is the creative element in human nature, “the image of God in man.” The human spirit is primarily what we today call “will,” the capacity of choice and resolution, and what biblically and traditionally is called “heart.” It is the source of our life: of the stream of actions and influences and contributions we make to our shared, visible world and its history.

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. Make no mistake, it is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. We all become a certain kind of person, gain a specific character, and that is the outcome of a process of spiritual formation understood in general human terms. Fortunate or blessed are those who are able to find or are given a path of life that will form their spirit and inner world in a way that is truly strong and good.

Christian spiritual formation, in contrast, is the redemptive process of forming the inner human world so that it takes on the character of the inner being of Christ himself. In the degree to which it is successful, the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. But the external manifestation of Christ-likeness is not the focus of the process, and when it is made the main emphasis the process will be defeated, falling into crushing legalisms and parochialisms. “Until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19) is the eternal watchword of Christian spiritual formation, fortified by the assurance that, “the letter [of the law] kills, the spirit of the law gives life” 2 Corinthians 3:6).

Thus, for example, Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) make reference to various behaviors: acting out anger, looking to lust, heartless divorce, verbal manipulation, returning evil for evil, and so forth. But, as abundant experience now teaches, to strive merely to act in conformity with these illustrations of what living from the Kingdom of God is like is to attempt the impossible, and also will lead to doing things that are obviously wrong and even ridiculous. It is merely to increase “the ‘righteousness’ of the scribe and pharisee,” not to “go beyond” it to find genuine transformation of who I am as Christ’s man or woman in his Kingdom (Matthew 5:20).

The instrumentalities of Christian spiritual formation (which we will usually mean from here on when we speak simply of “spiritual formation”) involve much more than human effort. Well-informed human effort is necessary, for spiritual formation is not a passive process. But Christ-likeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace. The resources for it are not human, but come from the interactive presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who place their confidence in Christ, as well as from the spiritual treasures stored in the body of Christ’s people upon the earth. Therefore it is not only formation of the spirit or inner being of the individual that we have in mind, but also is formation by the Spirit of God and by the spiritual riches of Christ’s continuing incarnation in his people, past and present—including, most prominently, the treasures of his written and spoken word.

  1. What are the primary elements or activities involved in an effective process of Christian spiritual formation?

There is first of all the action of the Holy Spirit and the Word of the gospel that awakens those “dead in trespasses and sins” to the love of God and to the availability of life in His Kingdom through confidence in Jesus Christ. This makes possible their acceptance of Christ as Savior, which then opens their souls to the influx of divine life, making them “participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and in that sense children of God. The initiative of the Spirit, of the Word, and of those who in various ways minister the Spirit and the Word never ceases during the process of spiritual formation.

But there is also a constant seeking on the part of the individual disciple and of groups of disciples. “When you search for me, you will find me,” the prophetic word is, “if you seek me with all you heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). And again: “He rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). This seeking is driven by the desire to be inwardly pure before God, to be wholly for Him, to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Inseparable from that desire is the desire to be good as Christ himself is good: to love our relatives, friends, and neighbors as he loves them, and to serve them with the powers of God’s Kingdom.

This seeking is implemented through the discovery of the state of our own heart and inner world by study, reflection, prayer, and counsel, and then through the taking of appropriate measures to change what is not right within, as well as in the visible, social world of which we are a part. We find what God is doing in us and in the visible world and merge our actions into His. This is what Jesus described as constantly seeking “first for the kingdom of God and his kind of righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Most of the activities commonly identified as “religious” activities can be a part of the process of spiritual formation, and should be. Public and private worship, study of scripture, nature, and God’s acts in human history, prayer, giving to godly causes, and service to others can all be highly effective elements in spiritual formation. But they must be thoughtfully and resolutely approached for that purpose, or they will have little or no effect in promoting it.

Other less commonly practiced activities, such as fasting, solitude, silence, listening prayer, scripture memorization, frugal living, confession, journaling, submission to the will of others as appropriate, and well-used spiritual direction are in fact more foundational for spiritual formation in Christ-likeness than the better-known religious practices and are essential for their profitable use.

All such activities must be seen in the context of an intimate, personal walk with Jesus himself, as our constant Savior and Teacher. No formula can be written for spiritual formation, for it is a dynamic relationship and one that is highly individualized. One can be sure, however, that any God-blessed undertaking of spiritual formation will include much of what has just been mentioned here.

  1. How is spiritual formation expressed in the language of the Bible? Is it a biblical concept? And is there anything really new in the current usage, or is it just new language for something we have been doing all along?

It is a biblical concept, expressed in many ways in the Bible—in admonition, in prayer, in teaching, in example. “Keep my words within your heart,” Proverbs says, “for they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:20-23). The Psalmist cries, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me…. Sustain me with a willing spirit…. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:10-17; see also Isaiah 66:2-6). Later, a strategy of spiritual formation is indicated: “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11; see also Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1).

God considers what is in the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), seeks those who would worship him in spirit and in truth, and can only be worshiped by such people (John 4:23-24). He speaks a word so penetrating that it can differentiate between what is soul and what is spirit in the human being (Hebrews 4:12) He identifies and rejects those who honor him with their lips but have hearts that are far from him (Isaiah 29:13; see also Matthew 15:8-9, 18).

Biblical religion is above all a religion of the heart and of the keeping of the heart. Thus, Jesus himself stresses that there is no good tree that produces bad fruit, nor a bad tree that produces good fruit (Luke 6:43), and that the good and the evil that come out of a person come from their hearts (Luke 6:45; Mark 7:21-23). We are to clean, not the outside, but the inside of the cup, and the outside will take care of itself. (Matthew 23:25-26).

The Apostle Paul’s constant instruction is for us to renovate our inner being by “putting off the old person” and “putting on the new person” characterized by “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. . . ; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14). He prays that the Ephesians would be “strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, …so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19); and he testifies that his own “inner nature is being renewed day by day, … because we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Thus, it is clear that spiritual formation is not something new in the history of Christ’s people. The ancient Christian communions of East and West show that practices of spiritual formation are as ancient as they themselves are; the very language of spiritual formation is of long-standing usage throughout many subdivisions of the Catholic church continuing today. In more ancient times Christians spoke of the institutions of the spiritual life. Moreover, the reality, if not the language, is substantially present in the Protestant wing of the church in its Reformed and Puritan forms, as well as among Anabaptists, Methodists, and many later sub-divisions.

And yet, with reference to the late-twentieth-century Protestant churches in America and the West, spiritual formation clearly is something new. We are at a crucial point in the progress of Christian faith in our times, and a door of opportunity is currently open that must not be missed.

The overshadowing event of the last two centuries of Christian life has been the struggle between orthodoxy and modernism. In this struggle the primary issue has, as a matter of fact, not been discipleship to Christ and a transformation of soul that expresses itself in pervasive, routine obedience to his “all that I have commanded you.” Instead, both sides of the controversy have focused almost entirely upon what is to be explicitly asserted or rejected as essential Christian doctrine. In the process of battles over views of Christ the Savior, Christ the Teacher was lost on all sides.

Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches, and with it there also disappeared realistic plans and programs for the transformation of the inmost self into Christ-likeness. One could now be a Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced generations of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their nonprofessing neighbors; and, in addition, a massive population has now arisen in America who believe in God, even self-identify as spiritual, but will have nothing to do with churches–often as a matter of pride. What has in other days been called “nominal” Christianity now becomes “normal” Christianity, even among those whose tradition had prided itself in not being just nominal Christians.

What is new in the current revival of interest in spiritual formation is the widespread recognition that bypassing authentic, pervasive, and thorough transformation of the inner life of the human being is not desirable, not necessary, and may be not permissible. We are seeing that the human soul hungers for transformation, for wholeness and holiness, is sick and dying without it, and that it will seek it where it may—even if it destroys itself in the process. We are seeing that the Church betrays itself and its world if it fails to make clear and accessible the path of thoroughgoing inner transformation through Christ.

  1. What is the relationship between spiritual formation and salvation? How is grace involved with spiritual formation?

When “salvation” is spoken of today, where it is spoken of at all, what is almost always meant is entry into heaven when one dies. One is “saved” if they are now counted by God among those who will be admitted into His presence at death or some point thereafter. This usage of “salvation” and “saved” deprives the terminology of the general sense of deliverance that it bears in the Bible as a whole. That loss is the result not only of the age-old obsession with forgiveness of sins and control over forgiveness as the only thing that really matter, but also of the success of evangelicals in stressing, in recent centuries, the fundamental importance of forgiveness.

If, now, one adds that forgiveness is strictly a matter of what one (professes to) believe, we have the recipe for the consumerist Christianity-without-discipleship that we have inherited at the present moment.

If, however—and by no means denying the essential importance of correct belief and the forgiveness of sins—we understand “saving faith” to be confidence in Jesus Christ, the whole person, and not just in some part of what he did or said, we have the understanding of a salvation that delivers the disciple, the whole person, into a full life in the Kingdom of God. That includes progressive inner transformation of the believer, not as a condition of entry into heaven—salvation, in the common sense—but as a natural part of a whole that also includes new life, constant spiritual growth, and entry into heaven as a natural outcome rather than as the central focus. This deliverance will indeed “Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.”

Such deliverance is grace in every aspect. It is the gift of life in constant, interactive relationship with a living Lord, Savior, and Teacher. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus himself said, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) “Knowledge” in the biblical understanding is interactive relationship. It is the redeeming relationship of disciple to master, in which unmerited favor is received from the earliest stages of repentance and forgiveness to the most advanced gifts of vision, character, service, and power (Acts 6:8). Spiritual formation is simply the process through which we “grow in the grace [certainly not in forgiveness!] and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

  1. What relationship does spiritual formation have to spirituality and the many “spiritualities” that now abound? How, if at all, is Christian spiritual formation exclusive rather than inclusive?

In the Christian context, we are spiritual to the extent that our lives draw their direction and strength from Jesus Christ, living Lord, through the Holy Spirit and other agencies established by God in his Kingdom, which is itself a spiritual reality. Outside that context there are, of course, other spirits (1 Corinthians 10:20, 12:2)

Spirit is unbodily personal power. It is not a mere force or energy—not even one that lies outside the framework of the physical, as that is generally understood. It is a power that functions independently of bodily and natural forces, though it can be intimately involved with them. It takes the form of ideas, attitudes, emotions, judgments, decisions, and actions. Therefore it is personal. The human being has a spirit, as we have noted, and is basically a spiritual being, though one that is eternally specified by its bodily history. Angels are spiritual beings—the bad as well as the good. And, above all, “God is Spirit.”

To the extent that the actual life of a human being is dependent upon their interactions with God, that human being is a spiritual person. Spirituality is the quality of life that marks out such a person. In contrast, one is carnal or fleshly to the extent that this quality of life is lacking and one is operating on merely human or natural resources. The more advanced one is in the process of spiritual formation, the greater and more pervasive will be one’s spirituality.

“Spiritualities” are in good supply today. Often they involve nothing more than an external form of “doing religion” or even a mere lifestyle. But in the larger cultural context the various spiritualities all represent attempts to achieve identity and power in a world where lack of a sense of self and feelings of insignificance and powerlessness crush the human soul and spirit. They all involve explicit practices—perhaps rituals, manners of dress and appearance, or special routines of diet, exercise, or social interaction—that promise to mark one out as someone special and tap into an energy that is outside the “natural.” Often they intersect with the spiritual disciplines that are used within various manifestly Christian or other traditions.

Whatever is good is good, and Jesus would be the first to say so. But, generally speaking, all “spiritualities” are more or less exclusive of all the rest. None admit that just anything goes. All insist that there is a right and a wrong way to go about their own version of spiritual living. And you will not find any spirituality (even those that profess the utmost inclusiveness) that does not by its beliefs and practices exclude beliefs and practices of some others—indeed, most others. It is a contemporary illusion that the Christian way is uniquely exclusive or is, on the whole, more exclusive than others.

The exclusiveness of Christian spirituality and spiritual formation lies simply in the life it is and brings. Let it simply be what it is, and let all see and compare. The Christian need not be close-minded and antagonistic, but need only follow and learn from Jesus Christ fully. The aim of spiritual formation is obedience to Christ from inner conformity to Christ. Such conformity will be sharply exclusive, not because of arrogance toward other spiritualities, but because of its degree of genuine love and effectual caring for all without discrimination. Inclusiveness is a grace of life that must be rooted in spiritual formation in Christ. It is not an ethical or political stance that anyone can accept or reject at will. One must have the resources for it, and, to say the least, they are not widely available.

  1. What is the role of spiritual disciplines in spiritual formation?

By “disciplines” we understand consciously undertaken or chosen activities that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Spiritual disciplines are such activities, but ones specifically relevant to growth and attainment in the spiritual life. Hence, they are major factors in spiritual formation. They are a major part of what we can do to contribute to our own spiritual formation.

For example, if I find, as most do, that I cannot by direct effort succeed in “blessing those who curse me” or “praying without ceasing,” in putting anger aside or not indulging the covetous or lustful eye, then it is my responsibility to find out how I can train myself (always under grace and divine guidance, we must never forget) so that I will be able to do what I cannot do just by trying in the moment of need.

“Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial,” was the good advice given by Jesus to his weary friends to assist their willing spirits against the weakness of their natural abilities (“flesh’) (Matthew 26:41) And the ancient charge was, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that it written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Joshua 1:8). Such verses incorporate the wisdom of scripture, that we are to take measures to receive the spiritual assistance that we need, and that such assistance will not, in general, be passively imposed upon us or infused into us.

Solitude and silence, fasting and frugality, study and worship, service and submission—and other practices that serve in the same way (there is no complete list)—are therefore integral parts of any reliable program of spiritual formation. They should be a substantial part of our private lives and of our associations with others in the body of Christ. They do not earn merit, but they do allow us to receive from God what will not be passively bestowed. They are not righteousness but wisdom.

  1. How are the gifts and fruit of the Spirit involved with spiritual formation?

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the same or closely associated with what Paul elsewhere calls “the fruit of light,” which consists “in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9). Obviously it is the same as love, in the comprehensive sense spelled out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:14, and which Jesus made the constant theme of his teaching.

The fruit of the Spirit simply is the inner character of Jesus himself that is brought about in us through the process of Christian spiritual formation. It is the outcome of spiritual formation. It is “Christ formed in us.” It is called “fruit” because, like the fruit of trees or vines, it is an outgrowth of what we have become, not the result of a special effort to bear fruit. And we have become “fruitful” in this way because we have received the presence of Christ’s Spirit through the process of spiritual formation, and now that Spirit, interacting with us, fills us with love, joy, peace….

Clearly, as the fruit of the Spirit increases within us it becomes a dynamic element in the ongoing process of spiritual formation. To be possessed of love, joy, peace … is to have rich resources for sustaining and enhancing a faith-full life and for growth in all dimensions of inward and outward grace. The fruit of the spirit and spiritual formation become mutually supportive as spiritual formation progresses in the individual.

The same is true, in a different way, of spiritual formation and the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are specific supernatural abilities that are distributed among those who make up the earthly body of Christ in order that every member can benefit from all of those gifts as needed. “There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:6-7) Spiritual formation simply cannot go forward as it is intended by God unless the individual is incorporated in a body of believers where he or she can receive the benefit of the gifts that others have. Without the gifts, the fruit will not be produced and sustained.

Conversely, the gifts of the Spirit can only be rightly used if the one who receives and serves by means of them is well formed in inner Christ-likeness. We are not passive in receiving and serving in the gifts of the Spirit. They are to be actively pursued, received, and cultivated. And all of this requires ongoing transformation of the inner being. Spiritual formation lays the foundation and provides a suitable framework for the exercise of gifts of the Spirit by the individual and group, and the appropriate exercise of those gifts by the individual for the group, and by the group for the individual, is necessary if spiritual formation is to go forward as it should. Gifts by themselves do little to form the spirits of those who exercise them. Most important, gifts of the Spirit are not substitutes for spiritual formation, though they must be involved in it.

  1. Isn’t spiritual formation a human project, equally well expressed in many traditions other than the Christian?

Spiritual formation is indeed a human project. It is a natural part and a requirement of the human condition. No society has ever existed without it. The human being is not an instinctual animal that naturally develops what is required for its existence. It must be taught, and primary to what is taught (and caught) are the inner conditions of life (thought, emotions, intentions, etc.) that make social existence possible and enable the individual to hope for a life that is good.

Much that is good is to be found in every great human tradition of spiritual formation, and the Christian gladly respects what is good wherever it is found. We believe that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17; see also Acts 14:15-17). If we cannot afford to be generous, we possess little.

But whether the spiritual formation of the human being is “equally well expressed in many traditions other than the Christian” is a question of fact, and not something to be answered simply by being generous, or by trying not to be judgmental or superior. In many cases—for example, ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which were deeply and intelligently concerned about the right formation of the human spirit as they understood it—the answer to this question is clearly “No.” It was not for nothing that Christian life and teaching supplanted these spiritualities, as they would now be called, in the early centuries of the Christian era. They were not “bullied” out of existence by trickery or by political or physical force.

It does not seem seriously likely that contemporary spiritualities—from new age to revived paganism to secularism—can hope successfully to challenge Christian spiritual formation, at its historical best, as the premier way of fostering a life to be prized among human beings, much less one pleasing before God who examines the heart. But that is not a question that we need to close off beforehand. Every fair and intelligent comparison should be made—especially with other great world religions at their historical best—and the decision left to the facts of the case. This is an essential part of what it would mean to follow the apostolic mandate to “honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17) and to “test everything; hold fast to what is good”  (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Way of Christ does not dodge or deny facts, but just the opposite: it appeals to facts and urges everyone to do the same.

  1. What is the relationship between psychology and spiritual formation?

It is natural that we should turn to psychology to understand the soul and try to meet its needs. However it may turn, psychology cannot avoid its responsibility for the understanding of the human soul—or, if you wish, life. A  major tendency within the field has been “depth psychology.” “What is the other kind?” we might innocently ask. “Shallow Psychology?” Psychology is called to the depths of the human being by the very subject matter of its inquiry.

Conversely, spiritual formation also must deal with the realities of the soul. The spiritual life of the human being, even at its most elevated and ecstatic, is a psychological reality, though it is not only that. Thus, it was both natural and proper that, when it became clear earlier in this century that Bible study, prayer, the public teaching and preaching of the Word, and religious ritual—at least as they were being practiced—were obviously not meeting the often desperate needs of professing Christians, there would emerge a “Christian psychology” movement. At the time there was no literature or research in the area, except some scattered fragments of pastoral psychology, and the majority of well- known theoreticians in the field of psychology were hostile to  or dismissive of Christianity and of religion in general.

The relationship between modern psychology and religion was a troubled one in its beginning, and remains so to the present time. Nevertheless, a large body of psychologists who are Christians has emerged, and they have become a vital and influential presence in clinical psychology. Unfortunately, although there are many excellent psychologists who are Christians, there has emerged no truly Christian psychology—no theoretical understanding of the human soul that does justice to all the facts of our psychical existence including the spiritual life and spiritual formation. The psychologist who is Christian is forced to patch together theoretical and practical insights from many sources, some of which are antithetical to the Christian understanding of human nature and destiny.

Methodologically, of course, psychology is itself a deeply divided field. This might seem to be a hindrance to placing psychology and spiritual formation into a fruitful relationship. But it may be that it in fact provides an opportunity to develop a genuinely adequate understanding of the human self within a framework of the spiritual life for which it is suited by nature. Such an understanding, or psychology would then serve to illuminate and direct the process of spiritual formation.

It must be said that, at present, one of the great dangers to authentically Christian spiritual formation comes from sole reliance upon psychological teachings and practices that simply omit the realities of Christian spiritual formation, or else substitute for them processes that do not do justice to life in the Kingdom of God. The transformation of the inner self into Christ-likeness cannot be achieved by anything other than the life of God in the soul, and anything short of this, however good and proper it may be in its place, will not be enough to meet the deepest needs of the human heart or satisfy the mind and the emotions. It will leave life adrift.

  1. Does Christian spiritual formation really matter? Can’t we get along quite well without it?

The response to this question must be, first of all, that we are not getting along quite well without it. We are, largely, without it, to be sure, but we are not doing well. The “life of quiet desperation” that most people have always lived, according to Henry David Thoreau, is at present becoming noticeably more desperate and less quiet. The sad litany of misdeeds and depraved characters that Paul listed in such places as Romans 1 and 3, Galatians 5:19-21 and 2 Timothy 3:2-7 is as up-to-date as the latest edition of the newspapers and weekly magazines or the evening news.

Education, government, business, the professions, art and entertainment, as well as the private lives of multitudes of people, stagger under the burdens of human wickedness and failure caused by others and brought on by ourselves. All of this is so common and pervasive that the normal person is almost blind to it, accepting it as “just the way things are.” The processes of formation of spirit that dominate the contemporary world are a disaster when viewed in terms of their outcome: a running sore, an unhealing wound (Isaiah 1:2-9).

In addition, those who know something of the goodness and beauty of Jesus yearn to be like him or at least feel a responsibility to be like him. But they are left helpless unless they can find a path of inward transformation. Who can show them the way if the people identified with the cause of Christ in this world are not prepared to teach and exemplify a process of spiritual formation that will result in an outflow of Christ from their deepest heart and character, from their very identity, from who they are?

And from the viewpoint of those responsible to lead in Christ’s program of making students from all ethnic groupings, immersing them in the reality of the triune name and teaching them to do all things he has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20), Christian spiritual formation is simply indispensable. The lack of an understanding and implementation of it is why there is in general so little real difference between professing Christian and non-Christian today. Where can one find today any group of Christians with an actual plan to teach the people of their group to do everything Jesus said? Indeed, who is sure of the possibility of such a plan? It makes a huge difference whether or not spiritual formation in Christ-likeness is available to the church and to the world.

As Christian people we stand today in a moment of great opportunity. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9). Many blind alleys beckon, and there is much misinformation, as well as deep antagonisms to, the way Christ calls us to go. It is important that we not see in the current interest in spiritual formation merely an invitation to keep doing what we have been doing—except now to “really mean it.” The standard advice routinely given to ordinary Christians, and even to the more enthusiastic among us, is hopelessly inadequate to the needs of the heart, soul, and body. Now we must find ways that, in our current context, can succeed in honestly and thoroughly renovating the inner person so that it bears the identical vision, feelings, and character of Jesus Christ. “Go ye therefore….”


Dallas Willard. “Idaho Springs Inquires Concerning Spiritual Formation.” In Dallas Willard Collection at Westmont College