Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life ‘blew up,’ became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar patter in both Christian and nonChristian ‘power structures.’ But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?
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The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) ‘fails’ is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they ‘did it’ or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?
Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Like the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.
Without the gentle though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 79
Simultaneously terrifying and freeing, the only way to come nearer to wholeness, healing, and conformity to Christ is by asking the Spirit of God to assist us in plumbing the depths of our own souls, reveal to us the truth about what is there, and to guide us as we seek to put off the old self and to put on the new self, a person made radiant in Christ.
I’ve thought about Willard’s analysis, quoted above, often, as I’ve long wanted the person I am on the outside to correspond to the person I am on the inside, and the person I am on the inside to become more fully cast in the image and likeness of Christ. In other words, I have wanted to be a person of integrity.
I have also wanted to be a person of depth.
Willard writes, “Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help.” The transformation we most need is brought from the outside, in, then put on display from the inside, out. It is shared work, and it is firstly God’s work. And it only seems possible when by grace and through grace we yield ourselves to grace, expressing to God our deep longing for union and communion, humbly asking that God would make us whole, heal us, make us well.