Book Review: Necessary Heartbreak (Renovation of the Heart – Dallas Willard)
Jeff: Do you know how many times I haven’t eaten a donut? How much I got teased in grade school for dabbing my pizza with napkins? I suffered, I’ve denied myself. Because the rule says, if I did that, I would live longer…it’s not fair!
Duncan: Look, the way I see it, while claiming to have no religion, you are actually devoutly worshipping yourself. And since your god has high cholesterol…you’re trying to kick Pierce’s in the balls.
Excerpt from: Community S02E03, The Psychology of Letting Go
I am not God. A shocking revelation I’m sure. Yet for so many people in this world, there exists an underlying belief of self-divination. It may not be made explicitly vocal, and yet is so commonly seen in the outflow of selfish actions, empty anger, and deep suspicion of others, this insidious underlying belief that we can somehow make it on our own. This is a matter of the heart, a heart that God deeply wishes to renovate into one of holistic Christlikeness: a necessary heartbreak.
Outline of the Book
In Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart, he addresses the ways in which the moral responsibilities of followers of Jesus have been hijacked by a crooked society that has moulded the human heart, the spiritual source of outlook, choices and actions, away from the Creator God. He articulates the desperate need for Christians to be distinctive in the world through an intentional and practical process of holistic transformation: the mind, the will and character, the body, our social dimension, and the soul.
Intention. Decision. Revision.
Young people are bombarded with decision-making situations in their unique season of rapid life change, and as leaders we must equip them in these circumstances to make life-giving decisions that will orientate their heart toward Christlikeness. When working with youth we need to be reminded that “choice is where sin surfaces and dwells” (p.6), this means that we must be active in empowering young people to boldly subscribe their life to the selfless way of Jesus, rather than being dragged down into disruptive cultural norms due to either fearful indecision, or simply being nominal yet truly uninformed. In this action we must create more than just an intention in the lives of the youth we are ministering; the youth can have the greatest intention to do the right thing, but unless we provide them with opportunities to share Christ’s love through active decision we will not see transformation, and the cultivation of good fruit: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt 7:16). Equally, revision must be a common occurrence, not just in the individual who can look back and reflect on his or her loving actions, but also as a ministry, to re-orientate ourselves with Kingdom principles in order that we might sustain these decision making possibilities with a vision and hope of reconciliation through the redemptive work of Christ (p.60).
Living toward life or death?
Willard is very bold in challenging the primary orientation of the Christian community. Is our ministry one that promotes living toward life, or is it simply a preparation for death? There is a stream of belief that understands the Christian faith as path to escape this world, yet this self-defeating, rooted in the ‘basics’ of a particular church tradition, rather than the pursuit of Christlikeness: “it creates groups of people who may be ready to die, but clearly are not ready to live” (p.24). With a wealth of faith options readily available, young people are looking for a faith that is relevant to today, one that speaks into their actions and relationships, their identity and inner-self. When Jesus said that he came to give us life in the full (Jn 10:10), why should a ministry still be orientated around death? Spiritual disciplines when rooted in the embrace of this life, do not act as some form of other-worldly behaviour, but rather a pursuit of wholeness and peace, abandoned to God (p.102). Scare tactics do not work for this generation, they want to subscribe to something, not be fleeing from it. In ministry, that means that our language matters, especially when it comes to powerful words like heaven, hell, life and love. What must we unlearn in our ministry before we learn something new?
Approaching Ministry Holistically
Remaining holistic, both theologically and practically is essential in ministry. So often we can find ourselves in ministry targeting a single aspect of the young person, whether mind (changing thoughts or worldview), body (attempting to change actions or behaviours), or social (trying to promote healthy relational engagement). Yet Willard promotes a holistic form of ministry, a mode that encompasses all the aspects as essential and integrated in the necessary heartbreak of Christlike discipleship (pp.188-190). In study we must target all these aspects in their uniqueness and valuable addition to the whole, incorporating physicality and communal engagement. Likewise, in acts of practical service we must incorporate the mind and social dimensions as well. This holistic and ongoing inner-transformation is essential to communicate to avoid a legalistic presentation of the gospel, whereby young people are expected to behave in such a way that is against their own desires rooted in self-idolisation, a “completely impossible” (p.194) task. Apprenticeship under Jesus is a multi-faceted journey, dying to the holistic self in order that we might enter the life that truly is life (1 Tim 6:19), liberated by love from the death that deceives (1 Jn 3:14).
In light of the way this report is structured toward a changed understanding as to how we orientate ministry, it is apt that I conclude in the same way that Willard does, by bringing it back to the humble individual taking his or her place as human under the powerful transformative God. Our special programs, talents and skills cannot bring about renovation on their own, but rather we are “just ordinary people who are his apprentices, gathering in the name of Jesus and immersed in his presence, taking steps of inward transformation as we put on the character of Christ” (p.210). We are not God. It is a necessary heartbreak that truly heals us.
Willard, D (2002) Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press