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Fly on the Wall: A Discussion about Authentic Transformation

  • Compiled by Gary Moon for Conversations Journal
  • 2004 2 Sep
Fly on the Wall: A Discussion about Authentic Transformation

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to have been a fly on the wall during a conversation among members of the Inklings group– C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, etc.? While we can’t help you with that, we can let you in on part of a four-hour, unscripted conversation among Dallas Willard (who is sometimes called “America’s C. S. Lewis”), Larry Crabb (who wishes he had written the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and John Ortberg (who is already more famous than Charles Williams).


This Inklings group was recently together for the production of a video curriculum based on Dallas’ most recent book, Renovation of the Heart . As part of the taping, a soul talk conversation was arranged. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.


Ortberg: Dallas, you’ve said that spiritual formation is a universal process – everybody is getting spiritually formed whether he wants to or not. How important is it for people to recognize what is forming them spiritually?


Willard: Well, I think if you can get them to start by realizing they are being formed spiritually, that would be very important because they might be able to do something about it. The question is always what kind of a person I am becoming. What are my experiences doing for me, and do I want to go in that direction? I think that’s the primary question, and once you ask it, you had better know what’s forming you; and it might be the things you think least of.


Ortberg: I think that at a church, people think of spiritual formation as something that happens when they sit in a service or go to a Sunday school class. But one of the challenges is, most people don’t think about their spirits being formed while they are reading a newspaper or talking to somebody at work or going to see a movie.


Crabb: And people don’t want to think that way. I find the whole topic frightening.


Ortberg: Because?


Crabb: Well, when you talk about being honest, to begin with, it’s frightening to be honest about where I am. Just speaking about me personally, I’ve been saved now for about 50 years. I got saved when I was eight years old. I had a counselor tell a bunch of boys, eight-year-old kids, “Now look in this campfire. Ten-foot blazes.” He said, “Guys, you’ve got a choice to make. Trust in Jesus or burn forever.” That was a no-brainer to me. It’s been 50 years since that happened. And when I get really honest about where I am, there are times I wonder if I have really changed in 50 years. Why can I still feel resentment? Why do I still treat my wife in ways I’m ashamed of? I wonder as I think about the whole topic of spiritual formation, how many people are like me and don’t want to ask, “Where am I spiritually formed?” They don’t want to get into this issue because it feels despairing. Can I really, really change? Is that really a possibility? Who do I know that makes my tongue hang out with a holy envy? Can I really be like that person? Wow! It’s a very frightening topic, really.


Ortberg: I grew up in the church like you did, and I think often people who were held up as models of spiritual maturity were people I didn’t want to be like. They were severe, judgmental; and there is a part of me that thinks, if all of life is spiritual formation, then all I should do is read the Bible. I shouldn’t go to any more fun movies. I’m afraid I’m going to be cut off from what is human and earthy and full of joy and have to do stuff that is really dull and is going to kill my spirit.


Crabb: Isn’t part of that because we make the distinction between sacred and secular and just assume that if we are not doing explicitly sacred things by our culture’s definition, then we are involved in non-kingdom stuff, going to a movie or playing tennis or something?


Willard: I think one of the things that make this a scary topic is the sense that what forms you is something you think you can never change. For example, maybe you are stuck in a job and suddenly realize your work setting is doing a lot to form your spirit. Suppose you are working as a lawyer, and there is all that pressure to get in those billable hours. All this pressure you have really does shape your spirit. And if you are stuck with this secular/sacred thing, then you are stuck with thinking there is nothing you can do about the very things that will shape your mind.


Crabb: So the only spiritual time you have is when you are sitting in church on Sunday morning and feeling spiritual for an hour.


Ortberg: And the scary part about that is, I think a lot of people who work in an office think only people who work in churches or monasteries or convents are really spiritual. I’m very aware of the fact that I work there, and working in a church does not produce rivers of living water. Not by a long shot....


The Role of Disappointment


Ortberg: Dallas, you’ve talked about the importance of dissatisfaction in spiritual life. And one of the things that give motivation to seek the kingdom is dissatisfaction with life outside of it. I had been a Christian for a long time, but finally reached the point where I was able to honestly say, I don’t think I’m changing. I think I’m struggling to have a quiet time on a regular basis, and I’m avoiding the same types of sins that Baptists avoid. But am I becoming a different type of person, a more joyful person? More humorous and sensible and strong? No.


Crabb: Would you be willing to share the specifics about what created the disappointment that led to a healthy approach to spiritual formation?


Ortberg: Well, for a long time [dissatisfaction] led primarily to a sense of disappointment and stagnation and guilt. Disappointment because I felt that I had invested my whole life in this thing.


Crabb: And this was after being a Christian for a number of years?


Ortberg: After being a pastor. I could have been sued for malpractice. Stagnation because I think that’s just part of life. Anytime you feel like you are not making progress, growing, there’s a dissatisfaction built into that.


Crabb: But what made you aware of that?


Ortberg: You know [it was triggered] when someone I was pastoring mentioned that prayer was always a struggle for him.


Crabb: And your job was to instruct him into the kind of prayer life that you had.


Ortberg: And I can remember writing to him about a quote from C. S. Lewis, from Letters to Malcolm, about how maybe the prayers that mean the most to God are the ones we offer when we are feeling dry. So I wrote about that, but even as I wrote it, I thought there has to be something more than dryness. And there was a long period for me of–I think it was just being willing to acknowledge the true state of my soul. And this was very difficult because of the way I was brought up and the current job I had. Being a prodigal son wasn’t really an option. And I was a pastor.


Crabb: Plus your [making a ] living was dependent [on your role ].


Ortberg: My paycheck was connected to it, all kinds of stuff. So for a long time, it was very much a private thing. Internal sadness.


Willard: You know, I can remember as a young pastor how dissatisfied I was because I knew that much more was supposed to be happening under my ministry. That was outward directed [unlike what you are describing]. I wasn’t very much aware of myself. Being Baptist, [I thought ] the main thing was winning souls. Getting converts. That was the top. And I just knew I was grinding it out. There was no flow, no lifegiving freshness to it. So I get another convert. The verse that hounded me was the verse in Matthew where Jesus says you make one convert and make him twice the child of hell as you are.

Crabb: That’s a blast-you approach, isn’t it?


Ortberg: That’s a life-verse for a lot of people.

What I realized was that just the effort, and being clever, and not growing, but finding devices for getting results [was a trap I had fallen into ].

Crabb: Maneuvering, manipulating, strategizing...all for a good cause.

Ortberg: Another one of those things, at least for me, was trying to achieve something. Achievement was always important and partly a way of evading this gnawing internal sense of dissatisfaction. If something went well, if a talk went well, there would be bursts attached to that...


Crabb: That’s called addiction.


Ortberg: Yeah, it is. And it could be on the achievement level; it could be in a number of different areas of life; it could be sexual, relational, or a number of areas. And, I think, to get to the point where I want to put that on the shelf and ask, “Am I really satisfied with my life, with the state of my heart and with the state of my relationship with God? How is that really?” That requires getting alone, putting a lot of things aside, and being willing to face a lot of unpleasantness. My world was a noisy world. So, it wasn’t just things inside that inclined me not to do that. It was the pace of life, television, busyness, and lots of other things that I had to put aside and allow the pain to speak loud enough and say, “I’m not satisfied.”


Crabb: So we can make the assumption that every human being, when [he or she is] honest, will sense this disappointment, this dissatisfaction. Isn’t that the Romans 8 “groaning” idea that until we are complete in heaven there is going to be something that impels us further on? And I wonder if sometimes, as you say, you moved toward an interest in pursuing God more richly by recognition of your own emptiness and the pain that you were covering by busyness and success. I think God sometimes, in his mercy, allows difficult things to put us in touch with our emptiness.


Ortberg: Oh, yeah.


Crabb: He allows failure. Your success when you write a good book or a good sermon can fill that hole for a time, but never permanently. I know in my own experience probably, [the first of] the two major things was our older son’s rebellion. For five years I was terrified that he would kill himself. He was expelled from a Christian university. He went to Taylor because we were told it was 50 miles from the nearest sin. I really tried to do it right. For family devotions I purchased an overhead projector. But when this happened [rebellion], I was humbled by the recognition that I was not sufficient. The other one was my brother’s death. Two weeks after he died, I said to my wife, “I can’t sleep tonight. There are tears I’ve not yet shed, and I don’t know what they are.” I got up and went to my study and got my Bible. I didn’t know where to turn. Finally, with tears that were convulsive, I found Hosea 7, where he said, I long to redeem you, but I can’t so long as you wail on your bed, but do not cry from your heart. And I was crying from my heart, and I said, “I know you are all I have, but I don’t know you well enough for you to be all that I need.” And then, “Lord let me find you.” And that was the next level of commitment or resolve or intention...


Ortberg: When you say “wailing on your bed but not crying from your heart,”what was the difference?


Crabb: I think that a lot of us cry over our pain [in a manner] that represents little more than a complaint.

Ortberg: We want the pain to stop.


Crabb: Stop the pain, that’s your job. And if you don’t do your job, I have every right to go to some other source that will, be it alcohol or pornography. That’s wailing in your bed, just a complaint against God. [We may feel that] now that I’m a Christian, your job is to make my life go better. Crying from your heart, I think, is just recognition, Dallas, of what you talk about so effectively–personal lostness. [Even as Christians] we still struggle with, “Am I in line with the kingdom? Am I living out the life of Jesus?” And when the answer is “No!” you realize that there is just an emptiness within you, and you can go no place but to God. And then you realize that you are not going to God in a manipulative manner, saying, “I’m empty; fill me.” But there is rightness about it [the way you approach him] now. [You are saying] “God, you’re it. You’re perfect. You’re glorious, and I want to know you better. And I believe a benefit of [knowing you] will be there will be joy, there will be love, there will be peace, but I’m not going to require [them] on a timetable. This is just the right thing to do.” That’s what the heart cries for; that’s crying from your heart....


Spiritual Formation and the Thought Life


Crabb: We talk about spiritual formation and I feel like a guy that weighs 400 pounds trying to tell how to lose weight. If I’m going to talk about this, engage with this, I’ve got to make it practical for me. For years I’ve hated the word “practical.” I seemed to reduce it to a recipe theology or a formula: do this, and this will happen in a very linear kind of way. But recently, I’ve come to realize that “practical” is a good word. Certainly the Lord was not impractical. There is a mysticism that is appropriate to Christianity. There is an experiential element that is crucial, experiencing God, but there are things we can do; and, Dallas, you talk about the various components of the self. You talk about the way we think, and Paul makes it clear in Romans 12, we are transformed by something to do with our minds being renewed. And a question I want to ask both of you, in your own journeys of Spiritual Formation: if the thought life is as crucial as what we believe, how do we put on the mind of Christ? That’s crucial to spiritual formation. What do you do for this to happen?


Willard: Well, just briefly, what I do, and I do this constantly, is I try to put the stuff in Scripture and in theology into plain language. To me, this is one of the most helpful things I can do, to give a sense of reality to the things in Scripture.


Crabb: Can you illustrate that?


Willard: Yeah, take the idea of the kingdom of God itself, which is quite abstract.


Crabb: Most Christians have heard the phrase and have an image of a celestial city.


Willard: That’s what we are thinking about. Translate into energy and try to think about energy in some connection to what you learned in physics. Capacity to do work.


Crabb: You’re assuming I learned something in physics.


Willard: We didn’t learn much.


Ortberg: What you were supposed to learn in physics.


Willard: The difference between potential and kinetic energy. The energy that is in action and what could be in action, and what energy does. That sort of thing. I think that is essential for me to think about it enabling me to realistically think that it [energy of the kingdom] could do something.


Ortberg: Let me give you another example of that. The Lord’s Prayer, in The Divine Conspiracy– Dallas, as you write about it, you are putting theology in other words. The idea of Father (you think about what Brennan Manning writes about “father”), who art in heaven–most of us think that means way out there, at least as far away as Poughkeepsie, or something. But to think about the use of heavens” in Scripture as the sphere in which God is present, which means right here. So to look at the prayer as saying, “My father [who loves me intently and has my best interests at heart] is all around me. My Father, who is closer than the air I breathe. And then that becomes a thought. There is something about thoughts to me where they get stale.


Willard: They get very stale.


Crabb: New language helps, personal vernacular.


Ortberg: Yep, just the right word to take something familiar like, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and say, “Our Father, who is closer than the air I breathe.” My mind can run with that a little bit. And eventually that gets stale, and I have to keep thinking things out over and over. But it helps. The process of putting it in new words never gets done.

Yeah, it just helps me wonderfully to do that, if I can. And [the phrase],“If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” To not let that just be a doctrine, but to be about history. This actually happened in history. It’s happening right now. So, I work on that, and pray over it and struggle with it.


Crabb: Michael Card helped me with that. You know, if you are in conversation with someone who talks slowly, what do you want to do? You want to finish the sentence for him. Sometimes God seems to talk slowly, and I want to finish the sentences for him. And what Michael said helped me with this. As recently as a week ago, I was discouraged, and feeling empty. I had a busy speaking schedule, and I just wanted to play golf or something. I was dry. I said, “Wait a minute. I’m dry, and there is supposed to be water in me, and I can’t taste it. What can I do to start thinking truth in a way that would lead to my heart?” I got up one morning [to spend time with God], and pardon my mysticism, but I felt led to the book of Judges and began reading about Gideon and Jephtha. And I thought, I don’t get the point of this, so let me just make up my point and get on with this. That’s the mistake. That’s not saying, “Let me sit quietly enough to say, this is God’s word and he wants to speak to me.” So I sat for more than an hour just pondering the chapter [waiting for God to speak]. What was in my mind was, let God finish the sentence. That helps me put on the mind of Christ. But at the risk of sounding legalistic, we need to stay in the Word [as a way of putting on the mind of Christ], but maybe do it differently. I don’t want to toss out the baby with the bath.


Willard: A lot of people do.


Crabb: They really do.


Willard: When they need to be told to do it differently.


Crabb: But stay in the Word. That may sound like a good old-fashioned fundamentalist talking, but it is good old-fashioned truth.


Willard: Well, unfortunately, it means to many people, not this life-giving thing that you describe. It’s become some form of legalism.


Ortberg: It’s not going to do anything for you, but do it out of obligation and then get on with the rest of your day.


Crabb: Tick it off.


Ortberg: Oh, when I was growing up, my sense of it would be, if I had a good, long, hard quiet time, then I could get on with the rest of my day and God would be happy with me. And if I didn’t, the rest of the day was going to be kind of shot. And I remember having a conversation with the mom of young kids, and she said, “It was easier for me to do that when I was in college.” I asked why, and she said that she had more time for that kind of practice. And it never occurred to her, and the church never taught her that it would be possible for her, while she was with her kids, to take a thought from Scripture and immerse her mind in it, to be in the Word while she is with her kids, and that counts. But we grew up with this idea that certain things count and others don’t.


Crabb: This goes back to the vision issue, Dallas. Can we get a vision that the word of God can be literally food? There’s the Scripture about eating the Word. I would say in my own experience, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a different level of experience of eating the Word by letting God finish the sentence, by going to Him when I’m in my need. You hear so often, “Let’s put aside our problems and come before God.” I think that is ridiculous. Let’s come as we are, struggling, empty, whatever, and assume that God actually has a feast spread. He wants to feed my soul, and the Bible is one vehicle through which he feeds my soul.


Ortberg: I think that is the other side of it. I want to feed my mind. I’ll talk to folks at my church sometimes–because the temptation in the circles I run in is to think if I just get enough information, if we want to have godlier people in the church, let’s just cram them full of more exegetical information–so, I tell them sometimes, “God’s primary purpose is not to get you all the way through Scripture, but to get Scripture all the way through you.” And that’s one side of it. That’s one side of it. The other side is to slow down enough to be aware of what are the thoughts that are generally running through my mind. I’ll find that when I’m praying, I start having this anger fantasy about someone who used to be a deacon years ago, and he’d done something that I don’t like, and I’m doing something that is making him feel really bad. Or I’m having some success fantasy where I’m doing something that’s just wonderful. I used to think that those are failures in prayer, but from some wise coaching I now think, if my mind keeps going back to those things, then maybe I have some issues around anger, or forgiveness, or significance, that it would be good to talk to God about. But one of the problems is the train that my mind usually runs on is something I’m not even aware of, let alone talking to God about. So I have these times of thinking godly thoughts, but the rest of the time the life of my mind is quite apart from thinking about God.


Willard: That’s the time to bring these together and welcome those thoughts. I know that when I’ve done that, very often, the combination of the word of God, prayer meditation, with those thoughts, rather than pushing them away [changes them]. They become different. For example, I am able to become compassionate toward the person that I was justifiably angry at....


Spiritual Formation and Our Feelings


Willard: This helps a lot and brings together that other aspect of the mind, which is emotion. Because when we bring the word of God as a living substance into us, it really does change us. My experience has been at the level of feeling. I still remember teaching a woman once; as we drove along, I was going over Romans 8 and suddenly it dawned on me what this all meant. It was like the car was filled by glory. It was so profound. I really was never the same after that in thinking about the love of God and being loved by God. I trace that back to the content of the thoughts. That’s what made the connection. When we are dealing with cases like you described [when previously discussing the role of thoughts], that emotions, loaded with a bunch of images, and how foolish he made me look, and so on, I have to bring that over into the context of the content of the Word of God. And see myself to see myself differently.


Crabb: That word “content” you used, let me just put in a little first grade sentence. We’re not going to be able to chew on Scripture unless we have some familiarity with it. I think it’s important in our small groups and so forth to just learn the word of God. I knew about Jephtha because as a kid, I was dragged to more churches than I ever wanted to go to, and there’s just a value in knowing the Scripture. Even if it feels dry for the time, it’s like a first-year medical student learning the bones and the chemicals. I want to just make a plug for Bible knowledge. This emotional thing–how thoughts and emotions are interrelated–again, it was very recently I was realizing that my attitude toward my wife had to do with my feeling somewhat justified in distancing myself from her. And feeling that if she didn’t respond a little differently I was really handling myself quite honorably. But then I noticed the pain in her face and knew this wasn’t right. I pondered the obvious Ephesians 5 passage about loving her the way He loves me. And I realized if He loves me the way [in the same way] I’m treating my wife, I’m in bad shape. And there was a level of brokenness that changed my feelings toward my wife. I was broken. I was repentant. I went and told her that. I felt warm toward her. I went and told her that, and that one of the biggest privileges I had in life was to have her as a wife. I felt warm; it was wonderful. I’d like to think it will sustain itself for the rest of my life.


Willard: Well, one of the good things about these emotions is that they spread over the life, don’t they?


Crabb: They do.


Willard: When I’m in union with my wife at this deep level, I’m in union with the world. And, conversely, I remember how not being in union with my wife would affect my children.


Crabb: When I was in private practice and going in to work to see my seven or eight clients, a number of times I had to call her and straighten out something with her, because I was of no use to anyone when I was at odds with my wife.


Willard: The Germans did studies with this and found that health benefits were associated with kissing your wife in the morning–much lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks.

Something as simple as that. That’s the power of emotions.


Ortberg: So are the Germans doing that more now?


Crabb: My wife would like to live in Germany if that’s the case.


Willard: It’s a powerful kind of thing; it really is.


Join us for Part Two of the conversation tomorrow.