Dallas Willard on spirituality and character

I continue to be edified by Dallas Willard. Here are some comments on the relation of spiritual discipline to spiritual experiences. Remember, Willard is a full and firm believer in the importance of the charismatic gifts for today, and believes that mystical experience (“a conversational relationship with Jesus”) is at the heart of everything in the Christian faith.

The fourth and final issue under my eighth point is the inescapability of serious process over time. We cannot continue to hope that lightning is going to strike us and out of this we will come glowing with spirituality. I want to read just a few words that are so typical; this is actually from a charismatic writer. I don’t like that language, for I don’t really think there is such a thing as a noncharismatic Christian–but that’s a different story. Here is what the man says in the course of bemoaning the state of the charismatic movement. He says, “The charismatic movement today is far from bad, but it is equally as far from well.” And if I may say so, that is true of the evangelical movement generally. He continues on to ask, “What must be done? I believe the answer begins with fresh spiritual fire. The fire that consumes the juvenile need for human recognition. The fire that burns without the invitation of American culture. A fire that engulfs carnality. That the flame rise until we recall that Jesus Christ is the most dynamic force we will ever release on a decadent society. Fire-born prayer, arm us with weapons.”

Now, pardon me, but I believe it is the essence of futility to talk this way. And you can translate these words out of the charismatic movement and into the evangelical [where it would probably not be spiritual fire, but doctrinal truth–AF]. Generally expressed, baptism in the Spirit, spiritual experiences, high acts of worship, and other experiences of worship do not transform character. They just don’t do it. I am one who has had glorious experiences, and who owes much to them. They have a special role in the spiritual life. I don’t talk about the experiences I have had because I think they are between me and the Lord, and, in any case, they are to be known by their effects. They have meant a lot to me, but they have not transformed my character.

You or others must be the judges of how far my transformed character goes–if that is of any interest at all–but from my point of view, I can tell you that the transformation of character comes through learning how to act in concert with Jesus Christ. Character is formed through action, and it is transformed through action, including carefully planned and grace-sustained disciplines. To enter the path of obedience to Jesus Christ–intending to obey him and intending to learn whatever I have to learn in order to obey him–is the true path of spiritual formation or transformation.

We should expect to have lots of profound, key moments. I don’t want to miss a one of them. I love them, and sometimes when I get to the end of the Lord’s Prayer, having a wonderful session in it–you can spend hours in it and submerge yourself in it–when I get to the end, I don’t want to say, “Amen”–I want to say, “Whoopee! Thanks be to God! Thine is the Kingdom! Thine is the power! Thine is the glroy! Forever!” “Amen” is just a little too mild.

I hope your life is full of “Whoopee!” moments. We should all have them, but they will not transform us. What transforms us is the will to obey Jesus Christ from a life that is one with his resurrected reality day by day, learning obedience through inward transformation. [The Great Omission, 64-66]