A Pattern for Spiritual Change

Dallas Willard

From: Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Copyright 2002. Used by permission of NavPress (www.navpress.com). All rights reserved.

Transformation into Christlikeness is Possible

First of all, we must be clear that such a transition as is envisioned in Christian spiritual formation can actually happen, and it can actually happen to us. This, today, is not obvious.

What we see around us today of the “usual” Christian life could easily make us think that spiritual transformation is simply impossible. It is now common for Christian leaders themselves to complain about how little real-life difference there is between professing, or even actual Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other. Although there is much talk about “changing lives” in Christian circles, the reality is very rare, and certainly much less common than the talk.

The failures of prominent Christian leaders themselves, already referred to, might cause us to think genuine spiritual formation in Christlikeness to be impossible for “real human beings.” How is it, exactly, that a man or woman can respectably serve Christ for many years and then morally disintegrate? And the failures that become known are few compared to the ones that remain relatively unknown and are even accepted among Christians.

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 pattern in both Christian and non-Christian “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?

The same questions arise with reference to lay figures in areas of life such as politics, business, entertainment, or education, who show the same failures of character while openly identifying themselves as Christians. It is unpleasant to dwell on such cases, but they must be squarely faced.

Of course the effects of such failures depend on the circumstances, on how widely the failure becomes known, and on various other factors. In another case a pastor became enraged at something a subordinate did during a Sunday morning service. Immediately after the service he found that subordinate and gave him a merciless tongue-lashing. With his lapel mic still on! His diatribe was broadcast over the entire church plant and campus””in all the Sunday school rooms and in the parking lot. Soon thereafter he “received the Lord’s call” to another church. But what about the spiritual formation of this leader? Is that the best we can do? And is he not still really like that in his new position?

Malfeasance with money is less acceptable than anger, and sexual misconduct is less tolerated still. But is the inner condition (the heart) all that different in these cases””before God?

The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) “fails” is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life of the 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 those 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 the 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 and in the notorious failures of Christian leaders”¦


The General Pattern of Personal Growth

Before turning to the details of transformation in the various dimensions of the human being, we also need to understand the general pattern that all effective efforts toward personal transformation””not just Christian spiritual formation””must follow. Because we are active participants in the process and what we do or do not do makes a huge difference, our efforts must be based on understanding. The degree of success in such efforts will essentially depend on the degree to which this general pattern is understood and intentionally conformed to.

So let us begin with a couple of easy illustrations and then spell out the pattern generally.

Learning to Speak Arabic

Consider a case of those who wish to speak a language they do not presently know, say French or Arabic or Japanese. In order to carry through with this simple case of (partial) personal transformation, they must have some idea of what it would be like to speak the language in question””of what their lives would then be like””and why this would be a desirable or valuable thing for them. They also need to have some idea of what must be done to learn to speak the language and why the price in time, energy, and money that must be expended constitutes a bargain, considering what they get in return. In the ideal case, all of this would be clearly before them and they would be gripped by the desirability of it.

Now this is the vision that goes into the particular project of learning the language. Unless one has it””or, better, it has them””the language will pretty surely not be learned. The general absence of such a vision explains why language learning is generally so unsuccessful in educational programs in the United States. The presence of such a vision explains why, on the other hand, the English language is learned at a phenomenal rate all around the world. Multitudes see clearly the ways in which their life might be improved by knowledge of English. If the vision is clear and strong, it will very likely pull everything else required along with it; and the language (whichever it is) will be learned, even in difficult and distracting circumstances.

Still, more than vision is required, and especially there is required intention. Projects of personal transformation rarely if ever succeed by accident, drift, or imposition. Indeed, where accident, drift, and imposition dominate””as they usually do, quite frankly, in the lives of professing Christians””very little of any human value transpires. Effective action has to involve order, subordination, and progression, developing from the inside of the personality. It is, in other words, a spiritual matter, a matter of meaning and will, for we are spiritual beings. Conscious involvement with “order, subordination, and progression developing from the “˜inside’ of the personality” is how our life becomes our life””how we “get a life,” as is now said.

The will (spirit) is mysterious from the point of view of the physical and social world, for there it is causes, not choices, that dominate. But one can never get a grip on his or her own life””or that of others””from the causal point of view. It is choice that matters. Imagine a person wondering day after day if he or she is going to learn Arabic or if he or she is going to get married to a certain person””just waiting to see whether it would “happen.”

That would be laughable. But many people actually seem to live in this way with respect to major issues involving them, and with a deplorable outcome. That explains a lot of why lives go as they do. But to learn a language, and for the many even more important concerns of life, we must intend the vision if it is to be realized. That is, we must initiate, bring into being those factors that would bring the vision to reality.

And that, of course, brings us to the final element in the general pattern, that of means or instrumentalities. Carrying through with the pattern for the illustration at hand, you will sign up for language courses, listen to recordings, buy books, associate with people who speak Arabic, immerse yourself in the culture, possibly spend some intensive times in Jordan or Morocco, and practice, practice, practice.

There are means known to be effective toward transforming people into speakers of Arabic and so on. This is not mysterious. The vision is clear and strong, and the employment of the means thoughtful and persistent, then the outcome will be ensured and, basically, adequate to the vision and intention.

Alcoholics Anonymous Illustrates

Another illustration of the general pattern of personal transformation is provided by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar “twelve step” programs. Here, of course, the significance of the transformation or change is far greater for the person involved than in the case of learning a language; and the outcome is negative””that is, refraining from doing something very harmful, something that could possibly lead to untimely death. But the pattern is basically the same.

A desirable state of being is envisioned, and an intention to realize it is actuated in decision. Means are applied to fulfill the intention (and the corresponding decision) by producing the desirable state of being: in this case abstinence from alcohol and a life of sobriety with all that entails. The familiar means of traditional AA””the famous twelve steps and the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual’s life””are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation.

Historically, the AA program was closely aligned with the church and Christian traditions, and now it has much to give back to the church that has largely lost its grip on spiritual formation as a standard path of Christian life. Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program. There can be no doubt that the AA program originated and gained its power from Christian sources, to meet needs that Christian institutions at the same time should have been meeting but were not. It works in terms of essential structures of the human self revealed by God through his people.


VIM: The General Pattern

With these two illustrations before us (language learning and AA), the general pattern of personal transformation, which also applies to spiritual formation in the Christian tradition, should now be clear. Indeed, this is a pattern of all human accomplishment, even that which””like spiritual formation””can only occur at the initiative and through the constant direction and upholding of God, or through grace. To keep the general pattern in mind, we will use the little acronym “VIM,” as in “vim and vigor”: Vision, Intention, and Means.

“Vim” is a derivative of the Latin term “vis,” meaning direction, strength, force, vigor, power, energy, or virtue; and sometimes meaning sense, import, nature, or essence. Spiritual formation in Christlikeness is all of this to human existence. It is the path by which we can truly, as Paul told the Ephesians, “be empowered by the Lord and in the energy through his might” (Ephesians 6:10) and “become mighty with his energy though his Spirit entering into the inward person” (3:16)

If we are to be spiritually formed in Christ, we must have and must implement the appropriate vision, intention, and means. Not just any path we take will do. If this VIM pattern is not put in place properly and held there, Christ simply will not be formed in us”¦


The Vision of the Life in the Kingdom

If we are concerned about our own spiritual formation or that of others, this vision of the kingdom is the place we must start. Remember, it is the place where Jesus started. It was the gospel he preached. He came announcing, manifesting and teaching the availability and nature of the kingdom of the heavens. “For I was sent for this purpose,” he said (Luke 4:43). That is simply a fact, and if we are faithful to it, do justice to it in full devotion, we will find our feet firmly planted on the path of Christian spiritual formation.

The kingdom of God is the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done is done (note 1). It is, like God himself, from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103:17; see also Psalm 93:1-2; Daniel 4:3; 7:14; and so on). The planet Earth and its immediate surroundings seem to be the only place in creation where God permits his will not to be done. Therefore we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and hope for the time when that kingdom will be completely fulfilled even here on earth (Luke 21:31; 22:18)””where in fact it is already present (Luke 17:21; John 18:36-37) and available to those who seek it with all their hearts (Matthew 6:13; 11:12; Luke 16:16). For those who do so seek it, it is true even now that “all things work together for their good” (Romans 8:28), and that nothing can cut them off from God’s inseparable love and effective care (Romans 8:35-39). That is the nature of a life in the kingdom of the heavens now.

The vision that underlies spiritual (trans)formation into Christlikeness is, then, the vision of a life now and forever in the range of God’s effective will””that is, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4, 1 John 3:1-2) through a birth “from above” and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in our lifetime on earth. Thus “whatever we do, speaking or acting, doing all on behalf of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to him through God the Father” (Colossians 3:17). In everything we do we are permitted to do his work. What we are aiming for in this vision is to live fully in the kingdom of God and as fully as possible now and here, not just hereafter.

This is a vision of life that cannot come to us naturally, though the human soul-depths automatically cry out for something like it; and from time to time our deepest thinkers, visionaries and artists capture aspects of it. It is a vision that has been given to humanity by God himself, in a revelation suited to our condition. We cannot clearly see it on our own. And that revelation has been given through his covenant people on earth, the Jews, with the fullest flowering of the covenant people being Jesus himself.

Jesus was prepared for through centuries of rich and productive””though often painful””experience and thought among the Jews; through him the Jews have fulfilled their God-given responsibility and blessing of being a light to all peoples of the earth (Genesis 18:18; 22:18; Isaiah 42:1-6; 60:3). Through them, indeed, all the nations of the earth are and continue to be blessed and will be even more blessed in the future.


The Intention to be a Kingdom Person

The vision of a life in the kingdom through reliance upon Jesus makes it possible for us to intend to live in the kingdom as he did. We can actually decide to do it. Of course that means first of all to trust him, rely on him, and count on him being the Anointed One, the Christ. It is through him that the revelation and the gift of the kingdom come to us individually. If we do not count on him as “the One,” we will have no adequate vision of the kingdom or of life therein and no way to enter it. He is “the door”; he is “the way.” Find another whoever can.

Concretely, we intend to live in the kingdom of God by intending to obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus. This is the form that trust in him takes. It does not take the form of merely believing things about him, however true they may be. Indeed, no one can actually believe the truth about him without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility. To think otherwise is to indulge a widespread illusion that now smothers spiritual formation in Christlikeness among professing Christians and prevents it from naturally spreading worldwide.

Gandhi, who looked closely at Christianity as practiced around him in Great Britain, remarked that if only Christians would live according to their belief in the teachings of Jesus, “we would all become Christians.” We know what he meant, and he was right in that. But the dismaying truth is that the Christians were living according to their “belief” in the teachings of Jesus. They didn’t believe them!

Moreover, knowing the “right answers”””knowing which ones they are, being able to identify them””does not mean we believe them. To believe them, like believing anything else, means that we are set to act as if they (the right answers) are true and that we will do so in appropriate circumstances. And acting as if the right answers are true means, in turn, that we intend to obey the example and teaching of Jesus the Anointed. What else would we intend if we believed he is who his people through the ages have declared him to be?

Perhaps the hardest thing for sincere Christians to come to grips with is the level of real unbelief in their own life: the unformulated skepticism about Jesus that permeates all dimensions of their spiritual being and undermines what efforts they do make toward Christlikeness.

The idea that you can trust Christ and not intend to obey him is an illusion generated by the prevalence of an unbelieving “Christian culture.” In fact you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor and your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice. If you don’t intend to follow their advice, you simply don’t trust them. Period. (Of course in this case you might have good reason.)

Intention Involves Decision

Now, an intention is brought to completion only by a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention. We commonly find people who say they intend (or intended) to do certain things that they do (or did) not do. To be fair, external circumstances may sometimes have prevented them from carrying out the action. And habits deeply rooted in our bodies and life contexts can, for a while, thwart even a sincere intention. But if something like that is not the case, we know that they never actually decided to do what they say they intended to do, and that they therefore really did not intend to do it. They therefore lack the power and order that intention brings into life processes.

Such may have wished that what they supposedly intend would happen, and perhaps they even wanted to do it (or for it to be done); but they did not decide to do it, and their intention””which well may have begin to develop””aborted and never really formed.

Procrastination is a common and well-known way in which intention is aborted, but there are many other ways. And, on the other hand, the profession or statement of intentions is a primary way of negotiating one’s way through life regardless of whether or not the intention professed is really there. Promises and agreements involve the profession of intentions, and such a profession is often enough to get us what we want in our social context. But how very often in human affairs is a profession empty, even in vows to God. That is why Scripture deals with swearing and vain (empty) use of God’s name at such lengths. If the genuine intention is there, the deed reliably follows. But if it is not there, the deed will most likely not be there either.

Now, the robust intention, with its inseparable decision, can only be formed and sustained upon the basis of a forceful vision. The elements of VIM are mutually reinforcing. Those whose word “is their bond,” or “is as good as gold,” are people with a vision of integrity. They see themselves standing in life before God as one who does not say one thing and think another. They “mean what they say.” This is greatly valued before God, who abominates “false swearing” and honors those “who stand by their oath even when it harms them” (Psalm 15:4). Similarly, it is the vision of a life in God’s kingdom and its goodness that provides an adequate basis for the steadfast intention to obey Christ.



Then the vision and the solid intention to obey Christ will naturally lead to seeking out and applying the means to that end. Here the means in question are the means for spiritual transformation, for the replacing of the inner character of the “lost” with the inner character of Jesus: his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character. In finding such means we are not left to ourselves but have rich resources available to us in the example and teachings of Jesus, in the Scriptures generally, and in his people.

Suppose, for example, we would like to be generous to those who have already taken away some of our money or property through legal processes. Pure will, with gritted teeth, cannot be enough to enable us to do this. By what means, then, can we become the kind of person who would do this as Jesus himself would do it? If we have the vision and we intend (have decided) to do it, we can certainly find and implement the means, for God will help us do so.

Here we shall only be briefly illustrative and shall leave fuller treatment to later chapters. We must start by discovering, by identifying, the thoughts, feelings, habits of will, social relations, and bodily inclinations that prevent us from being generous to these people. Our education and teachers should help us here, and perhaps they do to some extent””but nearly always insufficiently (note 2).

We might with a little reflection identify resentment and anger toward the person who needs our help as a cause of not helping him. And then there is justice. Ah, justice! Perhaps in the form of “I do not owe it to him. He has no claims on me.” Or perhaps we feel the legal case that went against us and in his favor was rigged or unfair.

Or again, perhaps we think we must secure ourselves by holding onto whatever surplus items we have. After all, we may say, who knows what the future holds? Or perhaps we think giving to people what is unearned by them will harm them by corrupting their character, leading them to believe one can get something for nothing. Or perhaps it is just not our habit to give to people with no prior claim on us””even if they have not injured or deprived us. Or perhaps our friends, including our religious friends, would think we are fools. And so forth.

What a thicket of lostness stands in the way of doing a simple good thing: helping someone in need, someone who just happens to have previously won a legal case against us, possibly quite justifiably. At this point it is the all-too-customary human thinking, feeling, and social practice that stand in the way. And, truthfully, it is very likely that little can be done in the moment of need to help one do the good thing that Jesus commands.

This is characteristic of all his example and teaching. When my neighbor who has triumphed over me in the past now stands before me in a need I can remedy, I will not be able “on the spot” to do the good thing if my inner being is filled with all the thoughts, feelings and habits that characterize the ruined soul and its world. Rather, if I intend to obey Jesus Christ, I must intend and decide to become the kind of person who would obey. That is, I must find the means of changing my inner being until it is substantially like his, pervasively characterized by his thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationship to the Father.

Training “Off the Spot”

The means to that end are not all directly under my control, for some are the actions of God toward me and in me. But some are directly under my control.

I can, while not “on the spot,” retrain my thinking by study and meditation on Christ himself and on the teachings of Scripture about God, his world, and my life””especially the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, further elaborated by understanding of the remainder of the Bible. I can also help my thinking and my feelings by deep reflection on the nature and bitter outcome of the standard human way in such situations, in contrast to the way of Jesus. I can also consciously practice explicit “self-sacrificial” actions in other, less “demanding,” situations. I can become a person for whom “looking out for number one” is not the framework of my life.

I can learn about and meditate upon the lives of well-known “saints,” who have practiced continuously, in real life, Jesus’ way with adversaries and those in need. I can take a close and thorough look and the bitter world of legal adversaries””how people learn to hate one another in court””to see if I want to be part of that. I can earnestly and repeatedly pray that God will directly work in my inner being to change the things there that will enable me to obey his Son. And many other things can be done as means to fulfilling the vision of life in God that we intend and have chosen.

What we need to emphasize here is simply that the means of spiritual formation are available. In the spiritual life it is actually true that “where there is a will there is a way.” This is true here because God is involved and makes his help available to those who seek it.

On the other hand, where there is no will (firm intentions based on clear vision) there is no way. People who do not intend to be inwardly transformed, so that obedience to Christ “comes naturally,” will not be””no matter what means they think of themselves as employing. God is not going to pick us up by the seat of our pants, as it were, and throw us into transformed kingdom living, into “holiness.”

So the problem of spiritual transformation (the normal lack thereof) among those who identify themselves as Christians today is not that it is impossible or that effectual means to it are not available. The problem is that it is not intended. People do not see it and its value and decide to carry through with it. They do not decide to do the things that Jesus did and said.

And this in turn is, today, largely due to the fact that they have not been given a vision of the life in God’s kingdom within which such a decision and intention would make sense. The entire VIM of Christ’s life and life in Christ is not the intentional substance of framework of their life. Those who minister to them do not bend every effort to make it so. No wonder the example and teaching of Christ look, to many, more like fairy tales than sober reality.


Matters for Thought and Reflection

  1. Do the common failures of Christian leaders and lay people prove that transformation into Christlikeness is impossible?
  2. If we are active in the process of spiritual formation, does that mean we are acting “on our own”? How do grace and effort interrelate in spiritual growth?
  3. What is the general pattern of all personal growth? Discuss the “Learning to Speak Arabic” and “Alcoholics Anonymous” cases as illustrations.
  4. What are the main means that you personally use for implementing your decision to live in the kingdom of God now? Are they adequate to the intention?
  5. What measures of “on the spot” training for obedience to Christ do you employ?



1. For development of this understanding, please see chapters 1-2 of my The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).

2. Adequate treatment of the hindrances and positive steps against them used to be fairly standard among Christian teachers. As a case in point, see the many writings of Richard Baxter (died 1691).

Excerpted from Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, by Dallas Willard, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress (www.navpress.com). All rights reserved.

Dallas Willard is a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He has taught at USC since 1965. He lectures and publishes extensively in the area of spiritual formation and living christianly.