Inner Formation of the Heart

Part 20: Practical Summary of the Inner Heart Formation Series

    Posted by Klaus Issler on February 23, 2010

            Jesus taught we always live out what is in our heart, our character. Our life is run by the deeply submerged governing idea systems that are often very different from what we say we value or believe. Just relying on our will power to live a grace-filled and abundant Christ-like life is a recipe for frustration. To be spiritually formed deeply within our inner life involves our intentional participation—supervised and empowered by God the Holy Spirit who indwells each believer forever—in a central belief formation process: reinforcing and facilitating deeper internalization of true central beliefs, correcting false central beliefs, and acquiring new true central beliefs. Throughout our life we need to place ourselves in nurturing circumstances so that our false settled central beliefs can be changed to embrace more and more of actual reality, how God views reality. Furthermore, it is not just a project of individual human effort, but supported and sustained within grace-filled loving relationships in community.

We can praise God for his wise design of human nature that the central beliefs of our character are fairly stable. It is good that we do not have to be re-trained every 15 minutes! Perhaps the stability of our true central beliefs is one key factor for what sustains our life without sin in heaven.  But we need not remain at the mercy of our false, settled central beliefs, or our plausibility structures. It will take time for central beliefs to be adjusted and as we persist, we patiently wait for growth. And, with patience, extending grace to ourselves and to others, granting the permission to fail. Yet as we persist in intentional practices regarding truth encounters, partnering with God to diminish the willing-doing gap as we notice the effects of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives.

            Consider these four steps as a practical summary:

            (1) We attend. We invite God, and trusted others, to help us become aware of the gaps in our lives, to become awakened by and sensitive to the movement of the Spirit to bring these gaps to our attention.

            (2) We acknowledge the gap, and confess our sin to God (I Jn 1:9).

            (3) We abide in Christ (Jn 15: 1-5), asking for supernatural empowerment beyond our human abilities to follow his example.

            (4) We act. We develop a strategy of spiritual practices to address our gaps and share our plans with trusted others to cheer us on.

As we practice and open ourselves to God’s transforming work along with the gracious support of our Christian community, over time, our central beliefs will be changed, and eventually others will begin to notice a change of lifestyle.

             This kind of radical change takes place in the depths of our soul: modifying our central beliefs into alignment with reality as it really is, and modifying our central desires or dispositions toward those that are good and worthy of praise. The Spirit’s agenda is facilitating a growing intimacy with and dependence on our Trinitarian God, rooted in a deep objective and experiential union with Christ. The outflow of such changes within our heart is a life that will resemble how Jesus might live your life or my life, if he were you or me, living with our abilities and gifts, with our privileges and responsibilities, within the givens of our life circumstances.

            The term used in the Gospels for the major radical change in our life is metanoia—a change of mind—usually translated in English as “repentance.”  Beyond our initial conversion, we will undergo additional calls to metanoia. May I paraphrase Jesus’ initial invitation in Matthew 4:17 and apply it to our formation journey: “Make further interpretative framework shifts and practice shifts, for the kingdom of heaven is near”?    I close with these words from Willard.

“[T]o enable people to become disciples we must change whatever it is in their actual belief system that bars confidence in Jesus as Master of the Universe. . . . When we bring people to believe differently, they really do become different . . . . And the reason why clergy and others have to invest so much effort into getting people to do things is that they are working against actual beliefs of the people they are trying to lead. . . . What has to be done, instead of trying to drive people to do what we think they are supposed to, is to be honest about what we and others really believe. Then, by inquiry, teaching, example, prayer, and reliance upon the Spirit of God, we can work to change the [central] beliefs that are contrary to the way of Jesus.”      Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy,  p. 307-308

(An initial version of this article was published in the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, 2(2), Fall 2009, 179-218: “Inner Core Belief Formation, Spiritual Practices, and the Willing Doing Gap.”)

Next Musing—Confident Faith in God Series

Dr. Klaus Issler