Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement. Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.
Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind and actions). As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.
Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change. This is a fairly dense book. I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.
On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here. On the negative side, there is a lot of rabbit trails and it could have been organized better. I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself. He is not the best reader and I think even if he had been a good reader, this is content that should be read in print, not listened to on audio.
I am planning on re-reading it in a little while. I was given this in hardcover a while ago, and then picked it up on Kindle when it was free, but it wasn’t really until recently when I have become more interested in spiritual direction and spiritual formation that I really had much interest in reading it (and picked it up on audible when it was on sale).
Over the past couple months I have been meeting with a spiritual director and this book was helpful to the discussion of our last meeting. It seems I keep having the same revelation but it wasn’t really until reading this book that it sunk in. Knowing something is important, but knowledge by itself does not create change.
One of the more helpful sections (which again, really wasn’t new, I just heard it differently) was about becoming a different person. Not through willpower, or correct knowledge, but by becoming the type of person that is the type of person that does what you want to do. We do this in part by actually just doing what you want to do, knowing you are forcing yourself and not always doing it willingly. And creating the discipline it takes to actually change.
Personally I am extraordinarily undisciplined. But I intellectually know that my spiritual growth is lessened because I am not consumer of scripture as I should be (I like reading theology and history, and even commentaries more than scripture itself.) But the way I become a consumer of scripture is in part by being a person that intentionally sets aside time to read scripture. In some ways it is pretty easy. But Williard is clear that while we have a role, spiritual growth is not about willpower. It is about being open to God working in us as we respond to him.
Williard is setting aside space after conversion where we need to respond to God. This is not about justifying ourselves to God or saving ourselves by our own works. Salvation is something else. Sanctification (or progressively becoming more like Christ as some others put it) is voluntary. We can choose to participate with the Holy Spirit in our transformation.
And I think this is where so many get uncomfortable. They emphasis salvation by Grace to the extent that they can allow no role for us. Willard and Foster and others are careful to emphasize that we are not saved by our own works (although some others still believe we have some role in accepting our salvation), the emphasis here is after salvation. That is not to say there are not dangers of legalism or spiritual pride. Legalism and spiritual pride are always the dangers of spiritual growth. But we cannot refuse to progress spiritually because there is a danger of sin.
This is not a book I would recommend to someone that is starting on the spiritual formation investigation. It is too dense and meandering and always careening on the edge of spiritual danger because Willard is assuming a fairly mature believer as the reader.
One example of this is that Willard repeatedly emphasizes the need for a church grounding as we focus on spiritual formation. But so much of the book is written to the singular you. In an interview in Discipleship in the Present Tense, James KA Smith talks about the difference in approach between him and Willard. Smith very clearly respects Willard, but Smith believes that Willard can be easily read to place the role of the individual above the role of the church.
And I agree with Smith, throughout the book, even with his frequent comments about the church, there is an underlying individualistic focus. I think a mature believer can read that and give proper weight to Willard’s warnings. But many would read Renovation of the Heart as justification for why they should leave their dysfunctional church and go it alone because they are ‘much more serious about spiritual growth than any church they know of.’
Frankly I am not sure I am spiritually mature enough to get what I need to be getting out of this. So I will ruminate and come back again later.
- A Spiritual Formation Primer by Richella Parham
- Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard
- Discipleship in the Present Tense by James KA Smith
- Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James KA Smith
- Prayer by Richard Foster
- Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Faith by Richard Foster
- Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father At 14,000 Feet by Nathan Foster
- The Good and Beautiful Community by James Bryan Smith
- The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith