Can We Love Chocolate Cake?
Dallas Willard and a Disciplined Life
By Paul Hughes
Renovation of the Heart:
Putting on the Character of Christ
Renovation of the Heart has influenced me more than any other non-fiction book. And it did so when I understood it and when I didn’t. This remains odd to me how a book can serve and work, whether I notice it at the time or not.
I know it is central to book magic, of course. But as Dr. Willard himself would say, there is “knowing” and there is knowing.
There is “intellectual apprehension” and there is interactive relationship.
It’s not the only lesson he’s taught me.
Going My Way
I first heard Dallas Willard’s name more than 20 years ago, and I think I finally made it through his first major book, Spirit of the Disciplines, 10 years after. Ten years more and I began to understand it.
Which means it’s time to start all over again.
I mean none of this to scare you away from the author, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, or his books, including the Disciplines, Hearing God, The Divine Conspiracy, and, Renovation of the Heart — the book that, in one sense, completes my travels, and in much another, well … starts them all over again.
In fact, I hope you’re excited.
Because to be honest …
It’s also difficult.
The two are related.
It has been this way for me, coming as a woeful pilgrim daily — or at least on those days when not fleeing fearfully — to these ideas and actions … and the often repeated reminders that neither my ideas nor my actions are what’s doing the work.
Or as Anne Lamott says elsewhere,
the things you do that you think keeps the world
spinning, are not what keep the world spinning.
spinning, are not what keep the world spinning.
This has been a difficult lesson. Though becoming like Christ is, as Willard says, far easier than the alternative.Not becoming like Christ.
One of Willard’s refrains throughout is Christ’s own comment on walking with Him–My yoke is easy and my burden is light–but if we’re being honest, at first it does feel like what it is: a yoke and a burden.
His four books fit together, and Renovation is the lead singer in this merry band.
Its subtitle is Putting on the Character of Christ, and Chesterton’s counsel to pay attention to subtitles is vital here. Willard means what he says: his goal is that we put on — as garment or cloak or even, depending on how far gone we are, a mask as in Beerbohm’s The Happy Hypocrite — the very life of our Lord.
That is Dallas Willard’s ultimate aim in this ultimate book, and it has been his life’s work:
That we actually become like Christ, in all we think, feel, say, do, and live.
This is not metaphor or hyperbole. He means it, and the four books build to that end, connecting in the order they were published: Hearing God (originally, In Search of Guidance), The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, The Renovation of the Heart
The first is about talking and listening to God, friend-to-friend.
The second lays the foundation for spiritual disciplines, describing many.
The third moves through the Sermon on the Mount, a sketching of the Kingdom of God.
The fourth unpacks human personality, buffing each part to glossy shine for life in that Kingdom.
Together the four — relationship, disciplines, life in the Kingdom, and total reformation of every dimension of our being — form the basis for Christ’s call, which Willard describes as : A divine conspiracy for worldwide, perpetual revolution.
Exodus to En Gedi
Willard’s background is American Protestant. He was born in Missouri, grew up in the heartland, and was an ordained minister before turning to university teaching. He believed he would have greater access to more venues as a professor rather than a pastor.
Well, American Protestants often identify Israel’s religious history with their own —national and personal. They see slavery, redemption, traveling in the wilderness, God’s leadings by cloud and fire, crossing into the promised land, and so on, as mirroring their own journeys, even presaging them.
For good and ill, the kiln of Christianity in the U.S. often forges these connections. For instance, Christians may see our sin, its solution, this life and entering heaven as matching up with Egypt, Sinai, finding giants in the land, and crossing the Jordan.
Willard takes a different route, and it makes a great difference. For him the Christian Journey — culminating in the renovation of the heart — would still set Egypt as the problem and the Exodus as the solution: we are sinners, and saved.
But the giants in the land are the hindrances to complete spiritual transformation, and our crossing the Jordan happens now, in this life,
Leonard Cohen says it this way—
It goes like this, the fourth, a fifth,
The minor fall, and the major lift
The baffled king composing
— but for Willard, we are not quite baffled kings.
Rather, spiritual formation in Christ makes sense. Renovation of the Heart says several, specific, systematic ways into spiritual formation exist— and I … you … we … can. literally. do. them.
We can live into Christlikeness. We can know not only What would Jesus Do?but What He actually did and What He is now doing in six areas of the human person, six smooth stones —Thoughts, Feelings, Body, Will, Social, Soul
— and (to mix metaphors) each of these can be seeded, cultivated, and matured into the likeness of Christ. This is, well … the Renovation of the Heart.
However we parse a person — mind/body … body/soul/spirit … physical/emotional/spiritual —it will include all of the above. He couples thoughts and feelings as “the mind” and sees the will as an action of the heart, for instance, but essentially, that’s it.
It’s something Jesus knew, something He did, and something He told us to go and do as well : Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
It can be done.
And for years I tried and tried and tried and tried.
And for all my efforts became a rotten Pharisee.
And I can’t say all of how I changed.
And perhaps you already know.
And then it was all Him.
And the book helped.
In many of his talks, and not a few of his books, Dallas Willard speaks of love. He says it is to will the good of another, which I would amend as to will and work for the good of another.
He says because it’s about willing the good of another, we can’t — just for instance, let’s say — love chocolate cake. We can’t will its good, he says, because what we want to do is eat it.
It’s all right if we can’t love chocolate cake.
As long as we can love each other, it will be Jake.
And we can.
And this book can help.
For more information
Dallas Willard by Dieter Zander
Dallas Willard’s two most recent books are an essay collection, The Great Omission, and Knowing Christ Today, which reflects his current efforts in showing how spiritual knowledge is a realm of knowing, of legitimate enquiry, and of talking about life, the universe and everything. Willard’s website has many dozens of articles, essays, and presentations, from nearly 50 years of teaching, preaching, speaking, and listening. Some of these are beginning to show up as short Kindle and electronic efforts, such as “Getting Love Right.”
Paul Hughes is a writer in Southern California. He is married to the beautiful Michele, and between them they have four children, ages 11 to 19. He writes on faith and culture, expressed in the people and phrasing of The Poet and The Priest — reflected on his website, his Facebook page, and Twitter. His books include Your Mom’s a Hypocrite, Tebow: Throwing Stones, and love every day.