Despising self-help books, I am always skeptical of any non-fiction book advertised to guide me into helping myself make myself feel better, live better, do anything better for my mental and emotional health. Most of them out there are written by jack wagons. Ironically, it is the fixation on the self itself that make such a genre as “self help” complete malarkey.
But when I needed a kind of cleansing of my own self, an old friend happened to come along with a recommendation: Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. I read through the book, making extensive notes. I took it in. I drank it. And one weekend I headed out to a cabin miles away from home with two old friends and a copy of the book.
Writing a message to Christians, Willard extensively and deeply calls us to cut through the fat and get to the meat of what needs to change in our hearts—or more importantly, our soul. If we want real change, in ourselves and in our society, it’s not going to take a revolution of institutions, of programs, of mere choices and lifestyles, but a revolution that turns over our heart from the inside out.
“I have a spirit, and it has been formed.” My friend and I knew this. We knew that we could be transformed. But as we grow older, it’s easier to fall into a rut, into routine. Our deliverance, says Willard, will not come from ourselves. We cannot deliver ourselves. Only Christ can deliver us. This is why so much “self help” is vain and empty, assuming that the well deep inside us can save the outside us, or that change outside us can save the well deep inside us. Neither is true. Spiritual formation, and reformation, is about letting Christ into our hearts and letting him transform us into his image.
“In the ruined soul, the mind becomes a fearful wilderness.” My friend, whose name is Michael, marked this as one of his favorite quotes too. At our worst times, fear rules our hearts, and we can feel the landscape of dread and starvation within ourselves. So what do we do? If this is “self help”—or rather, “Jesus help”—what do we do to get help? Willard is not going to present it as an easy process, or a list of little steps. But it does tell us it is as difficult as any great challenge and yet as simple as humbling ourselves to God.
In fact, Willard told us straight up that “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 the grace of God.”
I could stop there. Because nothing else can be done if we don’t acknowledge that statement.
- It takes all of what we are
- We have to turn into “little Christs”
- We have to be willing to change
- We have to know that the change is God’s work
Willard really shocks us into seeing how our degenerate wills make us capable of so much evil, as well as how recognizing how “poor in spirit” we are makes us blessed:
“The usual human will is a place of chaotic duplicity…shrouded in layer upon layer of destructive habits.”
“What we call ‘civilization’ is a smoldering heap of violence constantly on the verge of bursting in to flame.”
“God has hidden the majesty of the human soul from us to prevent our being ruined by vanity.”
“In the spiritual life never rests on your laurels. Attainments are like the manna…in the desert, good only for one day.”
“Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem of human life.”
As we read his book, my friend and I at first began to feel kind of icky. But it wasn’t because of what was in the book. It was because the book presented the reality of the human condition in such a way that held an honest mirror to how both of us happened to have been feeling about ourselves for some time. We felt like we needed renovation.
At the core of what makes Willard’s book so necessary and so truthful is his understanding of the human soul, and the exact nature of it. He doesn’t turn to some pseudoscience, quasi-religious mumbo jumbo, or worn out psychological theory. He turns to scripture.
“Our soul,” he says, “is like a stream of water, which gives strength, direction and harmony to every other element of our life.” If you examine the scriptures that mention the soul, it is indeed described as something deep, vast, and self-sustaining. Like a stream you can’t see the beginning or end of, our soul is ever flowing with perpetual energy as if from God, and as if able to be directed anywhere, filled with anything, and we drink of it always. My friend and I tasted this sweet message as we sipped at Sundrop by a cozy fire.
The soul is the part of Isaac that wants to bless Esau after a “last meal,” what man can lose if he gains the whole world, what tells the rich farmer to just build more grain silos and party, what the flesh wages war against, what part of the wicked desires evil, what part of Mary magnifies the Lord, the part of the disciples Paul hopes to strengthen, what God is the keeper of, and what longs for—pants for the Lord in the heart of David.
My friend and I hadn’t been brought up with paying this kind of attention to the soul. We remembered learning of the soul as this thing we have, and baptism saves it, and then we just make sure not to sin because if we do we might lose it. We had to study and cultivate an understanding of the soul being something that sin poisons, of something we can get in touch with during our lives, as something in touch with God, something we must actively attend to. Coming across this book really helped us open up our study to such an understanding of the soul.
Getting in touch with our soul meant getting in touch with our dignity. We had to humble ourselves, acknowledge our souls, acknowledge our sin, and really consider what we’ve let seep into it, how little we’ve let it flow, and where we’ve let it be diverted. We wanted to spend more time tending to it. I could spend all day here on metaphor, but the point is that we wanted our hearts to be revitalized by the Spirit, and that meant humbling ourselves and focusing on tending to the soul as a living thing, not just a possession we have stored up somewhere for the afterlife. “Dignity,” says Willard, “is a worth so great that it disallows exchanging a person for anything else.”
Such a transition takes Grace from God. “Grace is essential,” the author tells us, “but not grace as formless spurts of permissiveness that thrust the law aside.”
It’s a hard road to walk. The desire for Grace may tempt us to take advantage of it. Yet our denial of Grace and slide into sin may lead us to believe we cannot have Grace because we do not deserve it, or that we don’t need it. There had been times when I had not come to think of it, and without even thinking about how much I needed God, I had relied upon myself to address the soul.
“The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.” This is what Willard is getting at: Caring for the soul has to be deliberate, from sunrise to sunset, in every step we take, being aware of what we choose to think on. We cannot choose what to feel, he argues, but we can choose what to think, which will in turn change how we feel. Whatever is good, etc., think on such things.
So, letting scripture speak for its, Willard points us to Peter’s path of spiritual growth: To be partakers of a divine nature (to have that pure water flowing) be must,
applying all diligence,
add to our confidence in Christ our virtue,
We have to reconcile our relation to God to bear good fruit. My friend and I want to walk closer to that light again. We wanted to not feel we were missing out by not sinning. We wanted to feel joyous in the light, be pulled toward good.
We prayed about it. And we encouraged one another. Then we drove out to a church in the country and sang praise. Funny enough, when we got there, we found ourselves incredibly thirsty. There happened to be a water cooler. We downed so much water that morning. I think the Spirit was telling us something about the streams inside us.