Transformation Down Under: Dallas Willard’s views on Spiritual Growth

Posted by on Jun 21, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

I’m delighted to post a piece written by Jules Birt, on Dallas Willard’s golden triangle of spiritual growth. It is well worth reading. Jules teaches Beliefs and Values at Carey Baptist College, Perth, where he also oversees a number of voluntary pod groups helping to disciple well over a hundred students from the school.

Just as it’s a common pastime to hold a cold drink and watch another person work hard, I recently found myself watching a few documentaries about the selection process for some of Australia’s elite soldiers. Commando Regiment candidates kick off their two week initial screening process with a fitness test – a seven hour fitness test! Some don’t survive day one. Instructors go on to give candidates a constant barrage of physical challenges and they wrap up their fortnight of pain and difficulty with three days of no sleep or food. If they make it this far, a candidate’s physical abilities are beyond doubt; they are clearly the cream of the crop. This final chapter of the process is geared towards testing a different dimension. A combination of stress, physical exhaustion and mental fatigue is deliberately imposed on candidates to enable instructors to see with crystal clarity, Who is this bloke on the inside? Does he lack resolve in the face of hardship, or is he rock solid and tenacious? Is he a team player, or does he disappear into himself? Is he unhelpfully pessimistic, or can he persevere with a certain cheerfulness and jovial spirit? The testing reveals the inner world of the candidate. A saying I once heard goes, ‘You’ll know what’s in your bucket when it gets kicked.’ The Commando Regiment selection course is a surgically precise exercise in bucket-kicking.

This gets me thinking about our inner world, what we might call ‘the down under of the soul.’ Jesus taught a lot about this. At the start of his famous Sermon on the Mount, he spoke of the need for goodness to be in the heart, not just in outward acts. He spoke of a “righteousness [that] surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Their righteousness was about conformity to rules and regulations, with a particularly strong emphasis on getting the action right. True goodness, Jesus said, is about more than just the action. The action is important, but it’s ‘down under’ origin is even more important. Jesus’ stinging critique of the Pharisees was that they were like whitewashed tombs: prettied up on the outside, but full of all things rancid. In our day still, vast energies of the human population are directed towards getting good actions done without a corresponding emphasis on transforming the inner world of the heart. In our day, things like the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse[1] are helping us to see the urgent relevance of what Jesus was talking about. Our world is justifiably skeptical towards the appearance of goodness and at the same time desperate for transformed people who live and love just like Jesus. But what was he like?

It is an interesting exercise to look at Jesus’ life, constantly asking, “What is going on ‘down under’ for Jesus in this particular action?” We see him welcoming the ‘dodgy’ people of his day and partying with them. What does this teach us about his heart? Or we see him up a hill before sunrise, praying. What kind of person does this? Or we hear the splash of him washing the disciples’ feet, his fatigued voice speaking to the women on the way to Golgotha, or praying for the forgiveness of those who have just crucified him. From what kind of heart do these actions originate? Obviously it would be a heart full of confidence in the nearness, goodness and power of his Abba Father. It is a heart that is genuinely concerned for the well-being of others, and is willing to go to any lengths to secure it. In so pondering the gospels, we might begin to fall in love with Jesus anew, and to wonder if such a heart is a possibility for ourselves. Could I actually become like that?

It’s abundantly clear that we have all these scriptures talking about the spiritual transformation of ordinary human life (for example: Matthew 5-7, Colossians 3:1-17, Galatians 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 Peter 1 etc.). The picture is dazzling, but is it for real? Can people actually be formed on the inside to be like Jesus? Can we be transformed? Can my ‘down under’ be transformed in such a way that I will automatically begin to live out the life of love, joy, peace and power that Jesus himself lived? Can the “sins that entangle” actually be thrown off so that I run with endurance the race set before me? Is eternal life about quality, not just quantity? Can churches be communities in which people are reliably led into deeper Christlikeness?

Dallas Willard’s Golden Triangle of Spiritual Growth[2]

Throughout his teachings for the Christian community, Dallas Willard said an emphatic “Yes!” to all these questions. In his 2004 book Renovation of the Heart, he argued that, just as we have been formed by a world set against God, so we can be reformed, or transformed into Christlikeness. This is a radical idea: Deep, genuine, lasting change can happen. You and I can be like Christ. Dallas, distilling a range of New Testament teachings, taught that spiritual transformation into Christlikeness happens through three main factors: The Holy Spirit’s action, the ordinary trials and temptations of life, and the spiritual disciplines. If we want to grow in our life with God, and if we want to help those around us grow, we need to learn how these three factors shape us, and then say a strong “Yes” to Jesus through them all.

Dallas Willard Golden Triangle of Spiritual Growth

Holy Spirit

The New Testament resounds with one voice against our Bunnings culture, insisting that spiritual transformation is not a Do-It-Yourself project. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.5). In a remarkable bit of metaphor, he announced that the person who believes in him will have rivers of living water flowing out from his or her heart. (John 7.38) He later explained that the living water is the life of the Holy Spirit interacting within and through the individual disciple. Surrender to this Other Life opens us up to energies and powers that simply are not inherently within us. In much the same way, a sail surrenders to the wind and finds itself moving. This is sheer grace. Unearned gift. God acting in our lives to accomplish his purposes.

Paul taught that the Holy Spirit also brings delicious fruit into our lives: love, joy, patience, goodness and faithfulness, to mention only part of the menu. (Galatians 5.22-25) He also said that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts among the community of disciples with which we are empowered to serve, encourage and build up others. (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12.3-10, Ephesians 4.11-16) As the hymn version of the Apostle’s Creed puts it, “I believe the Holy Spirit has been sent through Christ the Son to apply salvation’s merits.” For these reasons, Dallas taught that the Holy Spirit’s role in the transformation of human life in God’s kingdom is central and cannot be overlooked or minimised.

Ordinary Life

Yet the Holy Spirit very rarely clicks his fingers and transforms people’s character. Instead, it seems he likes to journey and work with people, right where they’re at. One of the factors of change we simply have to come to grips with is the difficulties and trials of ordinary life. Workplaces and family configurations seem to provide endless examples of not just joy and fulfilment, but also struggle, frustration and heartache. Likewise, living with the consequences of unwise decisions once made, or coming to grips with the process of ageing in a youth-obsessed culture may prove to be occasions of sore trial. James taught that trials can become a reason for rejoicing, knowing that they are forming in us the character of Christ. (James 1.2-4) Likewise, Paul spoke of joy in suffering (Romans 5.3-5). That’s right – joy! What could we possibly be joyful about in the midst of suffering?! Looking at that passage, it seems clear that it is the formation of godly character traits stemming from the justifying love of God and – you guessed it! – the Holy Spirit. That is what makes suffering the soil of supernatural joy. The trials and temptations we all face can become, if we will surrender to the Holy Spirit’s purpose with us, places in which we meet with our Father and are transformed into his Son’s likeness. Even then, however, we may find that these situations overwhelm us and we need to make some space in our lives for the Spirit to deepen his sanctifying work within us.

Spiritual Disciplines

There are many ways of making space for the Holy Spirit to meet with and change us. Traditionally these acts and habits have been called spiritual disciplines. Some of them involve doing things; others involve not doing things. They are not about earning God’s favour or soothing a sore religious conscience. They are a faith-filled response to Jesus’ gospel that life in an incredibly good God’s kingdom is available to all. Right here. Right now. They are concrete ways we say ‘Yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and be like him.

Reading the gospels it’s evident that Jesus frequently involved himself in such practices as prayer, solitude, service, celebration, reading scripture, sacrifice and fasting. Dallas said that it was an important day in his own life when he realised that if Jesus needed 40 days of solitude in preparation for public service, he might need at least one or two. To the disciple of Jesus, one who has decided to follow him and be like him, the voice of the Master echoes through the spiritual disciplines: “Come, follow me.”

Dallas Willard’s Golden Triangle of Spiritual Growth reminds us that the New Testament is very clear in it’s vision of transformed life under God’s direct rule, and it also clearly calls us to pursue this life. We simply say “Yes” to Jesus by surrendering to the Holy Spirit, letting the struggles and trials of life form us, and following Jesus into the kinds of transforming disciplines he practiced.

Communities of Transformation

We live in an age in which the way of Jesus is continually misrepresented and maligned in the media, and in which a plethora of alternative ‘ways’ are offered to people hungry for depth and “down under” change. Those of us who say we are Christians have a remarkable opportunity to not only talk about the Way of Jesus, but to step onto his transforming path with at least as much intention and passion as we would expect any September AFL fan to possess. And then, as we give ourselves to God’s eternal plan for us to be like Christ (Romans 8.29), we can gently and wisely offer our own lives as “on-ramps” by which others may enter onto Jesus’ way.

In the decades to come, will our world be able to look at the church and clearly see that the way of Jesus is the best option available for human flourishing? Will it be manifestly obvious that joy, sacrifice, love, perseverance through hardship and devotion to the common good all thrive in local communities of Jesus’ disciples? Or will Australians continue to think that a leash-free dog park is more important for community life than a local church?[3] Will transformed disciples become transformed families which in turn become transformed communities? The Way lies before us. The Gate is open and the Master is calling. Have you and I got anything better to do?

Further Reading

The Divine Conspiracy

The Renovation of the Heart

The Great Omission

Willard’s Christianity Articles


[2] See


One Comment

  1. Typically concise, practical and hopeful. Nice work Jules

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