Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Desire, Will & Grace

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with the long-running NBC sitcom.

Continuing my journaling about my experiences at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship last week, another highlight was attending a workshop by the inimitable Dallas Willard, titled "Understanding the Battle Between 'Flesh' and the 'Spirit.'" Surely I will not do Dr. Willard justice, but here goes.

The battle between "Flesh" and "Spirit," as described by Paul in Galatians 5:17-26, is understood by Dr. Willard to be essentially about the battle between desire and will. Desire being that drive that obsesses over its object... Dr. Willard gave the example of a child obsessing after a certain toy to the point that if the child is told "no" you get the whole kicking and screaming routine. "Desire is how the flesh works," obsessing unrestrainedly, even to one's detriment or danger. "Will," on the other hand, "is our God-given power to consider what is better or what is best..." Willard said. Rather than obsessing on the object, like desire, the will is able to consider the thoughts and desires of others... "the will is open to love."

The trick (for me, at least) is training yourself to not give in to obsessive desire, and instead cultivate a Spirit-led will. The reason this is a "trick", or problem, for me is that I know Dr. Willard's answer is going to be something that I've never been able to get the hang of very well... and that's spiritual disciplines.

Spiritual disciplines, according to Willard, are "practice"--like piano lessons--something we can do over and over to develop habits that otherwise don't come naturally to us.

The problem for me is that I've always had a hard time reconciling disciplines (and more importantly my tendency to be too hard on myself when I fail at keeping up with them) with God's grace. That's what impresses me most about Dallas Willard--his ability to hold together an emphasis on spiritual disciplines with a robust understanding of and dependence upon God's grace.

I think often an erroneous, though unintended, effect of an strong theological emphasis on grace (as in the Reformed tradition) is inactivity... the thought that if everything worthwhile is a gift of God's sovereign grace, then there's no reason for me to put in any effort. Willard counters this by saying, "Grace is not opposed to action, it is opposed to earning" (quote of the year, in my opinion).

Disciplines are things that are within our power to do that enable us, by God's grace, to become what we could never become through direct effort (my paraphrase of Willard). The good, the spiritual outcome of the disciplines is not the result of our effort, but the result of the work of God's Spirit in our lives. But the disciplines are still good things for us to be doing.

"Disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness," Willard said. They are wise and good things to be doing, they open our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit. But spiritual disciplines do not by themselves produce righteousness. God alone, in Christ, has provided us with righteousness.

That's what I have to always keep foremost in my mind. I can't earn it. God's grace is sufficient. I can and should take action, making specific choices of will to practice certain disciplines in order to cultivate an openness to changes the Spirit would do in me.

But when it comes down to it, the results are in God's hands. And that gives me enormous amount of peace about this journey of faith. I know I will stumble along the way, and I will fail again and again. But my righteousness is not up to me, thank God, but rests in the grace of God through Jesus Christ... and "Jesus' blood never failed me yet."

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