A Philosophy of Spiritual Growth

The Vision of the Kingdom of God  

Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Jesus, John 4:14 Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Cor. 3:17-18 

We are created in God’s image, male and female, for fellowship with God; we are created for divine life! We understand that those who give their lives to Jesus will receive “living water,” the Spirit of God Himself. This water will keep them from ever thirsting again— from being driven and ruled by unsatisfied desires. This spring of water will even become “rivers of living water” that flow from the disciple’s life to a thirsty world (John 7:38). The apostle Peter declared that those who love Jesus “are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” and “sincere love for each other” pouring from their hearts, which rids them of “all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind” (1 Pet. 1:8, 22, 2:1). What a compelling vision of life!22 The fundamental call of Jesus, “Follow me,” is an invitation to intimacy with Himself, to community among His followers and to participation in His work and ministry (Matt. 9:9).

At MPPC, we are committed to this individual and communal vision of loving God, loving people and serving the world. We understand that discipleship involves an intentional and integrated Jesus way of life, not a gaggle of church programs that one dips into along the way. Nonetheless, we struggle with making our theology practical enough to actually change our hearts, transform our characters, and show the world the “with-God” life—something of the reality of God’s goodness, God’s Kingdom on earth.23 Dallas Willard, one of the foremost thinkers on Christian spiritual transformation in our day, became a major influence as we developed our philosophy of spiritual transformation.  

Sin and the Ruined Soul
Willard highlights the "failure to understand and acknowledge the reality of the human situation" as "one of the greatest obstacles to effective spiritual formation."24 We must own the reality that we are sinners and that our sin separates us from God.25 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen…so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…(Rom. 1:20- 21). Our corrupted wills choose to defy the authority of God, worshiping ourselves rather than God. “Choice is where sin dwells,” and we must face the devastating effects of our sin on our inner lives and in our relationships with others and God.26  

Our Hope in the “Transforming Friendship”
Willard has insightfully addressed the dilemma that, despite all our good intentions and strenuous efforts, we don’t approach and receive the life Jesus offers us in the right way. When it comes to transformation, we need to understand how Christ works to redeem each element of our human nature (e.g., our beliefs, feelings, habits of choice, bodily tendencies and social elations). Jesus invites us to leave our burdensome ways of heavy labor— especially our “religious” efforts—and step into the yoke of training with Him as His way is easy and light.27

Willard points out that what we thought was so difficult about entering into the Jesus way of life is entirely due to our failure to understand and take the small steps that quietly and surely lead to our transformation. The hopeful insight is that transformation of the heart—understood as our inner being, the place from which we see the world and make our choices—is possible. Through the gracious action of God’s Spirit, along with our intentional cooperation (by means of spiritual practices or methods), we can increasingly live into the wholeness, holiness and power of the divine life for which we were created. Grace thrives on method and method on grace.28

What is the process of shaping our inner being “after God’s own heart”? Christian spiritual formation is focused entirely on Jesus. Jesus is the spiritual master. The Jesus way of life is relational; it involves that “transforming friendship” with Jesus, that vivid companionship with Jesus, in which we learn to be like Him and live as He lived, placing the spiritual disciplines/practices at the center of our new life in Christ.29 Bringing the disciple of Jesus to love God and to trust His ways wholeheartedly forms the inner world of the human self so that it becomes like the inner being of Jesus. The outer life of the individual then becomes a natural expression of the character and teachings of Jesus, a life obedient to God’s guidance and direction, a life lived in service to others.

Spiritual Change: the Reliable Pattern
We must first acknowledge that our inner (and therefore our outer) being can be transformed to increasingly take on the character of Jesus, that is, it can actually happen and should happen. While we accept that only God can transform a life, we are active participants in this process, and what we do (or do not do) matters greatly. Willard uses an acronym from the Latin word “vim” (to be full of life) to help us understand the practical aspects of the pursuit of transformation:30

The V stands for Vision. The I stands for Intention. The M stands for Method or Means.
 Using the example of learning to speak a new language, say, Spanish, Willard explains that the project starts with the vision—what one’s life would be like speaking Spanish, why this would be desirable or valuable considering the time and effort required. If the vision is clear and strong, he contends, it will very likely pull everything else required along. There then needs to be an intention for the vision to be realized, a point of decision, as personal change rarely happens by accident or drift. There must be an effective choice of the will (spirit). It would be laughable, he points out, for a person to simply wonder if one day they would be able to speak Spanish. Yet this is what we often do when our hope for Christlikeness is little more than a wish. Finally, there needs to be effective methods, such as language courses, books, connection with Spanish speakers and practice, practice, practice. Willard concludes that with a clear and strong vision, as well as intention enacted through thoughtful and persistent methods, the outcome is ensured.

Even in spiritual formation—which is dependent on the grace of God—the process of change involves the same pattern of VIM. Indeed, Willard is emphatic that “Not just any path we take will do. If this VIM pattern is not put into place properly and held there, Christ simply will not be formed in us.”31 How does one measure spiritual formation or growth? John Ortberg points out that “Jesus consistently focused on people’s center: are they oriented and moving toward the center of spiritual life (love of God and people), or are they moving away from it?”32 Among Jesus’ final words to His disciples were, “A new command I give you: Love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). This growth in love goes hand in hand with deepening relational intimacy with Jesus—the same conclusion reached by the REVEAL study.

Spiritual maturity is measured by love for God and others and intimacy with Christ, not by levels or types of church involvement, biblical knowledge or spiritual practices. Using the VIM pattern, we see that the process of spiritual growth begins with a clear and compelling vision of a life with God, marked by obedience, service to others, hope, joy and love. The power of this vision compels the holder to make a decision, a definite intention that, whatever it costs, “I must have that with-God life!” Finally, with determination, we thoughtfully and persistently engage in the methods or practices that are meant to help us realize the vision. The methods are not mysterious; we have rich resources available to us in the example and teachings of Jesus, in the Scriptures generally, and in His people across time.

VISION: Vision is the essential driver of Christian spiritual transformation and is focused entirely on Jesus. Jesus declared that life as He lived it, a life characterized by extraordinary love—by and for God and others—was possible for all who would follow Him. The vision which captivates disciples of Jesus is one in which the Spirit of God is flowing through our being until we are fully changed people, who whole-heartedly love and trust God, genuinely love and care for others, and serve the world with compassion.

INTENTION: Intention is the individual’s settled response to the invitation of life and love in the presence and under the power of God. It is not a wish, but rather a determined decision to do whatever it takes to pursue this Jesus way of life.33 Intention is the choice to “obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus.”34 The church cannot make this choice for people, though it must call people to it. Again, we recognize and pray for the gracious powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit, who works mysteriously and miraculously within every believer to say “yes” to God’s call to conformity to the image of His Son.35

METHOD: Methods are the vital practices (often called “means of grace”) by which a disciple activates his or her intention to pursue Christian spiritual transformation. Following Jesus, we learn from Him how to arrange our lives around activities that enable us to live in the fruit and freedom of the Spirit. This allows us to train “wisely” following His example, not simply trying harder to copy His outward behaviors.

 There is no “one-size” formula for growth, but we seek to work with the Spirit in bringing every aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, feelings, habits of will, social relations and bodily inclinations—working from the inside out, into harmony with the way of Jesus.36 These methods (or spiritual disciplines) enable us to participate with the Spirit in becoming the person we cannot otherwise become by our own direct effort. There are certain practices that are basic to helping most of us gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modeled, such as solitude, silence, prayer, worship, servanthood, confession and engagement with Scripture, especially Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels.37

In addition, we learn our particular barriers to living a Jesus kind of life; and then discover particular personal spiritual practices, experiences, or relationships that can help us overcome these barriers. For example, sins of omission (not doing the things we ought to do) would likely be addressed by a discipline of engagement (e.g., worship, study, fellowship, giving) whereas the sins of commission (doing the things we ought not to do) would likely be addressed by a discipline of abstinence (e.g., solitude, fasting, silence). Foundational to our understanding of the helpfulness of these methods is the empowering activity of the Holy Spirit given as the beloved Counselor and Comforter of every believer.38 We believe the Church, as God’s community, has a role at each point in this process of spiritual transformation.
  • The Church is responsible for continually holding forth the vision of love which Jesus proclaimed and modeled in the “with-God” life in His Kingdom.
  • The Church must call people to intention and invite decisions to pursue this lifegiving vision.
  • The Church is responsible for offering encouragement, guidance, accountability and essential catalytic opportunities to those seeking to grow spiritually.
Conclusion The best thinkers on the spiritual life describe it as an integrated and relational one, encompassing all of life and involving our relationships with the self, others and God. Ortberg comments on the spiritual life from God’s perspective: “God is not interested in your spiritual life. God is just interested in your life. He intends to redeem it.”39

The Growing Faith Task Force believes that this common understanding of spiritual formation, against the backdrop of the REVEAL findings, can help us as a church community to discern and evolve those best practices which will, by the grace of God, quietly and surely lead to our transformation into Christlikeness—so that we may be used by God to usher in the shalom of His Kingdom.

22 Willard and Simpson, Revolution of Character, 9-11. We are indebted to Dallas Willard for his deep thinking and understanding of the biblical basis and imperatives of discipleship. 
23 Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, ix. 
24 Willard, The Renovation of the Heart, 45. 
25 Romans 3:23 26 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 46. 
27 Matthew 11:28-30. 28 Willard and Simpson, Revolution of Character, 11, 19. 
29 Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, xi. 
30 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 77-94. 
31 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 85. 
32 Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, 34. 
33 Jesus cautions disciples to count the high cost of discipleship saying “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” Luke 14:25-33. 
34 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 87. 
35 Romans 8:27-30 
36 Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 89, 93. 
37 Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, 48.

This entire post is an excerpt from Menlo Park Presbyterian Church's Growing Faith Task Force Report, for which I was an editor and contributor.

Related Spiritual Formation Posts:
How to Live in the Kingdom of God
A Theology of Spiritual Formation 
Why (and How) Spiritual Disciplines Work 
Corporate Culture as Spiritual Formation
A Call to Spiritual Formation
Dallas Willard: Interview with John Ortberg at Catalyst Conference

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