Have you noticed that it’s just plain hard to make changes in your life? Losing weight, quitting smoking, beginning an exercise program . . . most of us go in starts and fits when trying to gain traction with such things. And that’s just with making external changes. But have you ever tried to become something more—something deeper—on the inside?
You don’t see that kind of effort touted in TV ads or popping up on your Facebook page. We see the opposite. We’re offered pills and shortcuts to external changes that we are promised will make us happy. But no one sells a deodorant or cereal that claims to make the consumer a better person.
The reality is, few people make efforts to change from the inside out—and those who do find that, in comparison, losing fifty pounds is simple, even easy. External change is difficult, but true internal transformation is a monumental feat.
The Inner Self
We can think of such inner changes as “spiritual” changes. By “spiritual” I mean simply the nonphysical part of human life—our internal life. Though that inner life is integrally connected with our bodies, most of us would consider it to be separate.
For example, I might refer to “my head” or “my hand,” but who is the “I” to whom that head or hand belongs? In the same way, I refer to my “self,” my inner person, as a reality with which I deal constantly. And who is the “I” to whom this self belongs?
Finding the right language is challenging and confusing, but most of us are acquainted with the inner, spiritual, nonphysical dimension of our lives from which our outer lives seem to be governed.
A Change of Heart
In fact, the better acquainted we are with that inner dimension, the more likely we are to long for it to be different.
What if I were more loving? Less selfish? Less judgmental? Less demanding? More humble? More compassionate? More patient? Kinder? Gentler? More disciplined? More honest? More generous? What if I had more integrity between what I say I believe and how I actually behave?
The list could go on and on. Yet this very self that longs for change is powerless to make it happen. As the late Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, observed, “Spiritual transformation, the renovation of the heart, is an inescapable human problem with no human solution.”1
So can a person “grow spiritually”? Is a renovation of the heart really possible? According to Christian belief, absolutely.
Christianity states that such change can become reality in the life of those who follow Jesus. In fact, it’s not only a possibility; it’s an inevitability. One early Christian writer, the apostle Paul, wrote these words: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2
Christian Spiritual Formation
All of us have been spiritually (inwardly) formed. Our attitudes, values, and beliefs have been shaped by the forces in our lives. This is a kind of “spiritual formation” by which our inner self has arrived at its current state.
“Christian spiritual formation” is distinct from that. Willard describes it like this: “Spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”3 As author, theologian, and atheist-turned-Christian C. S. Lewis said, “Every Christian is to become a little Christ.”4
The goal of Christian spiritual formation is clear: we desire to grow to be more like Jesus in our character. Biblical writers compare this process to familiar experiences like the development of an infant,5 maturing as an adult,6 a plant bearing fruit,7 and exchanging old clothes for new ones.8 In any case, the idea is that change deep within is possible, and such growth results in our being more like Jesus himself.
Make It Happen
One aspect of such spiritual growth is paradoxical: we cannot make it happen, yet it will not happen without us.
Willard calls the process “Spirit-driven.” That is, spiritual growth is something that God does within us. We do not have to rely on our own efforts to make this happen. In fact, we cannot make it happen on our own. Spiritual progress comes as God’s gift to us. So we ask God to work such changes in us and depend on him to do so.
On the other hand, these changes will not come apart from our efforts. Christians are urged to follow Jesus, to obey his words, to read and study the Bible, to pray, to worship, to serve others. But it is vital to recognize that Jesus’ followers do not engage in these practices in order to earn God’s favor and thus earn spiritual growth. Spiritual development remains a gift from God. Instead, Christians practice such things in order to focus more fully on their relationship with God so that he can make the necessary changes within them.
For example, a gardener might prepare and enrich the soil, plant the seeds, cultivate the weeds, irrigate the plants, and remove harmful insects—all these practices are the gardener’s responsibility. But the gardener cannot force the chemical and biological miracles that result in a seed sprouting. The gardener cannot make a plant extend its roots into the soil, draw up nutrition, transform sunlight into food, and produce fruit. The gardener does what she must do and depends on the work of nature to do what she cannot.
Similarly, I know that if I faithfully go to the gym and exercise, in time my body will respond in some predictable ways. First it will be tired and sore, but then muscle will replace fat. My aerobic capacities will increase. My digestive processes and blood chemistry will be affected. I cannot make those things happen, but I can get on the exercise bike.
In the same way, practices such as prayer, study, worship, community, fasting, silence, and intentional solitude can shape my spiritual life. The way that I think, live, relate, and respond will begin to reflect more and more of the life of Jesus.9 Engaging in these spiritual practices is like gardening the soul or exercising the spirit.
External change is difficult. Internal change is nearly impossible—if we are left on our own. But followers of Jesus are not alone. Spiritual growth is not easy, but it is possible. And just think: What kind of world we would be living in if more and more people were concerned with the kind of people we are becoming?
- Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 20.
- The Holy Bible,New International Version © 2011, 2 Corinthians 5:17.
- Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 22.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1952), 177.
- The Holy Bible, 1 Peter 2:2.
- Ibid., 1 Corinthians 13:1–13.
- Ibid., Galatians 5:22–26.
- Ibid., Colossians 3:1–17.
- See Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978) and Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).
- Photo Credit: Sundari / Shutterstock.com.