Spiritual Formation Lessons from Dr House & Dallas Willard

"People don't change".

This was the oft-stated declaration of the unconventional, misanthropic medical genius character, Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, in the fantastic TV series 'House'. I think the writers of the show were really clever in how they played with this idea of whether or not people can change. Through the various episodes and seasons, as viewers we went on the meandering journey with Dr House and the characters in his life as he repeatedly proved both his brilliance as a diagnostician, and his brokenness as a human being. All the time, in the background of the show's drama, we were wondering whether this person - so clearly marked by his unsociable, disdainful and addictive tendencies, and so void of contentment and inner peace - was going to be able to change. We wondered: Will he be able to prove his own slogan wrong? Will this eccentric complex of human brokenness be able to transcend from his own caged reality into the freedom that seems just out of arms reach? Or is he caught up in an unbreakable cycle, with the grooves of this rut deepening as he sinks ever deeper into his hostile character flaws that perpetually drive away hope, joy, and love.


I think the TV show is clever enough to never fully resolve this question, and in so doing, as the viewers we were left with the question floating... haunting...


And perhaps we sense a resonance with this character, and his inability to break free from destructive habits and disordered desires.


Do people change? Can people change? How can we change?



I think it's fair to say that you would struggle to read the the New Testament for long without seeing that these people - these characters and apostles and fisherman and letter-writers and fellow followers of Jesus in the Bible - they believed that we can change. They believed that, because of Jesus, we are no longer just stuck in our sins - in our ruts of brokenness. They believed that this transformation should be the normal experience for followers of Jesus. They believed that through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus had conquered the ultimate foes sin and death, and that we who choose to be united with him through faith, are also united with that same Jesus-victory over these 'dark powers' that have plagued our hearts and world.


Paul's language centres around 'new creation': that God will one day renew and renovate the entire cosmos; but also, that future renewal, in a mysterious but real way, has already begun (or been inaugurated) through Jesus's triumph over death. Paul believes that through faith in Jesus, we already are a new creation and also that we are becoming a new creation. (this double way of viewing things is known as the 'now and the not yet' of the Kingdom of God).


So, Paul along with other New Testament writers are expecting us to change - to become more and more like Christ, and to increasingly become his presence in the world. (and remember, Jesus presence and rule is not one of dominance and 'power over', but sacrificial love and service).



Many professing Christians get 'fired up' about 'changing the world'. That we're all invited to be a part of this world-impacting movement is compelling, exciting and heady stuff. But the problem is that in order for us to be people who sustainably transform this world by God's love, light and life, we need to be people shaped and transformed by God's love, light and life. If we try and impact culture and creation, we will shape it into our likeness. What's inside, comes out. Jesus put it like this:


"A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit." Matt 7:17

So, it seems that the Bible writers think we can change, and that we need to change.


This sort of deep inner character change, unfortunately, doesn't happen overnight. This type of soul-work doesn't happen automatically. In a letter to his protégé, Paul identifies that we become godly, not by trying harder and harder, again and again... But by 'training':


"Train yourself to be godly." (1 Tim 4:7)

Peter has a similar thing to say:


"For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 1:5-8)

This feels like a chilling reminder that knowing Jesus Christ does not prevent one from being 'ineffective' and 'unfruitful'.



Dallas Willard has written extensively about Spiritual Formation - about this process of training in a way that transforms our character so that we become more and more like Christ, and so that we're more able to be his loving, restorative presence into the culture and creation around us, rather than purely perpetuating brokenness and injustice. In his book 'Renovation of the Heart', Willard describes three necessary components which we all need to consider. He likens this Spiritual Formation to the learning of a new difficult language.


1) Vision


Imagine you wanted to learn Arabic. Willard argues that in order to go through the long and difficult journey of learning Arabic, you would need some idea of what it would be like to be able to speak this language, of what your life would be like, and "why this would be a desirable or valuable thing" (p83).


According to Willard, we need to have a vision of what it would look like for our character to be more Christlike, for our lives to be more full of Jesus' love, light and life, and have an idea of why that would be desirable and valuable - for us and those around us. I think we get this vision from looking at Jesus, looking at the story of scripture, and then also looking at the world around us with Spirit-fuelled imagination. What would my family-space/work-space/church-space/neighbourhood etc look like if Jesus was more present in our midst - If our lives were more notably marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?



2) Intention


Now, imagine, after choosing to learn Arabic and then developing a vision of the value learning Arabic, you then sit back, put your feet up and waited - wondering day after day if you would all-of-a-sudden be able to speak Arabic.


It's a little absurd, isn't it? It's a silly thing to imagine, because we know that learning to speak Arabic doesn't just happen on its own. It requires, in Willard's terminology, intention.


But isn't this exactly how many (perhaps most) Christians live their lives? Isn't it quite common for many of us to continue in our lives, with our habits and practices and routines unchanged, just hoping that automatically we'll stumble into Christlikeness?


Clearly, the Bible writers don't expect this transformation to happen automatically. In the verses quoted above, Paul says we need to 'train' ourselves towards godliness, and Peter talks about 'making every effort'.


Willard suggests that, motivated by our clear vision, we need 'intention' to drive us to the 'means' of inner transformation.



3) Means


Willard teaches that, while it is necessary to have a vision of the Christlikeness and the intention to change, we must also adopt the means.


If you were learning a new language you would practice saying new words, you might buy textbooks to help you, you'd spend time with a teacher or trainer to help you, and you would do all sorts of repetitive exercises. Of course, those practices and exercises are not the main point, but rather they would be the necessary scaffolding to allow your ability to speak Arabic to flourish.


In terms of our personal transformation and growing towards Christlikeness, this step of 'means' is where spiritual disciplines come in: actively developing rhythms, patterns and practices in our lives that cultivate intimacy with God, that forge character and form Christlikeness, and that make the Christian faith real and relevant in daily life. These Spiritual disciplines include a wide range and are not necessarily outworked in the same way for everyone.They include prayer, silence and solitude, bible study, fasting, practicing Sabbath.


If you're interested, here are a couple websites that are great resources in navigating spiritual disciplines:

Probably the most influential book in the last century on the topic of Spiritual Disciplines is: 'Celebration of Discipline' by Richard Foster. It's both deeply challenging but refreshingly practical.





All of this, of course, is in the context of a gracious God who loves us and wants the best for us, our communities, and our world. And so, as we draw near to God and adopt habits and practices in our lives as the means of spiritual formation, we get the wonderful joy of growing closer with God, of seeing God's Spirit radically transform us individually, our communities of faith, and, as a result, the world around us. But this won't just happen automatically. It will take VIM - vision, intention and means.