I have been reading Dallas Willard’s book Renovation of the Heart again. This time I am reading it with a small group of men who have decided to read it and talk together about it once a week. This week’s chapter has to do with our social dimension. The chapter is full of great concepts about the nature of our social relationships. In a world that is more and more connected and at the same time individualistic and isolated, these words make a great deal of sense to those of us who are reading them together. Early in the chapter he sets the tone when he says, “Spiritual formation, good or bad, is always profoundly social. . . . For all that is between me and God affects who I am; and that, in turn, modifies my relationship to everyone around me.”1
Willard suggests that “Love is deeply rooted in human nature.”2 But, as one of the men with whom I am reading this book suggested, this is not immediately apparent. Human beings are very prone to bad behaviour when the constrictions of law or social constructs are removed. We all too easily return to the laws of the jungle, selfishness, and looting in desperate situations. To clarify, Willard adds,
But to make a start where we are, we must recognize that this our world is not normal, but it is only usual at present. We must try to see it for what it is and then begin to think of specific ways grace and truth can begin to change it. And above all, we who follow Jesus must understand that a couple of hours per week of carefully calibrated distance in a church setting will be of little help, and may only enforce the patterns of withdrawal that permeate out fallen world. What could we do in our fellowships that would really help make a difference?3
The book points out that Aristotle once said, “The individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing, and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But whoever is unable to live in society, or who has no need of it because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”4 Lest we think we might fall into the “god” category, Willard is quick to point out how much of our individualism is not working. He takes marriage as a case in point.
Individual desire has come to be the standard and rule of everything. How are we to serve one another in intimate relations if individual desire is the standard for everything and if what we desire can be acquired from many competing providers?
The ways in which man and wife, or parents and children, would “naturally” serve one another – and traditionally have done so – are increasingly viewed as available (usually less expensively and perhaps with “better quality”) from various sources. This is true all the way from food, clothing, entertainment, and attractiveness, to romance, sexual gratification, and surrogate “motherhood” and “fatherhood.” The perilous condition of laborers competing with others to sell their labor is now the condition of everyone in current society. Individual desire is accepted as a principle governing everything.
What, then, does devotion to another mean when one or both parties are constantly shopping for a “better deal” or constantly appraising one another in light of convenient alternatives?5
Dallas Willard goes on to conclude the chapter with hope for a better future. He suggests that God does indeed have a plan for each of us.
Our life in him is whole and it is blessed, no matter what has or has not been done to us, no matter how shamefully our human circles of sufficiency have been violated. It is God’s sufficiency to us that secures everything else. . . . (2 Corinthians 3:5 and 2 Corinthians 9:8).
He suggests that we abandon all defensiveness and embrace a
willingness to be known in our most intimate relationships for who we really are. It would include abandonment of all practices of self-justification, evasiveness, and deceit, as well as manipulation. That is not to say we should impose all the facts about ourselves upon those close to us, much less on others at large. Of course we shouldn’t. But it does mean that we do not hide and we do not follow strategies for ‘looking good.’
Jesus teachings about not performing for public approval, about letting our ‘yes’ be a ‘yes’ and nothing more, and about not being a hypocrite – having a face that differs from our reality – all find application here (Matthew 5-6).6
All of this sounds like a high goal to which we might set our eyes. In fact, it is infinitely challenging and will take a lifetime to perfect. But we can make forward progress on a daily basis. We do not need to be stuck in the “usual” way that others around us function. We can take this higher path if we embrace a life of following Jesus. It is an infinite task yet we have eternity, starting now, to complete the task in the power of God. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
1 (Willard 2002, 182)
2 (Willard 2002, 183)
3 (Willard 2002, 189)
4 (Willard 2002, 184)
5 (Willard 2002, 191)
6 (Willard 2002, 194-197)