Read your Bible. Pray. Go to church—twice on Sundays. And don’t sin. Be sure not to sin.
This was the extent of my spiritual formation.
Of course, no one talked about spiritual formation when I was growing up. Reading the Bible, fasting, and prayer were part of my devotions, not part of a package of historic “spiritual disciplines.” These were just the things we did to grow our faith—to become holy, as God is holy.
And the simplicity of these activities served me well. Until—while in college—they didn’t.
That’s when I encountered Richard Foster’s Devotional Classics, soon followed by Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, and his Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ. These books opened my heart and mind to broader streams of God’s life-giving water. They led me down God’s ancient paths of transformation.
As for so many, discovering this wider tradition of spiritual disciplines—which included practices like meditation, fasting, and Sabbath rest—was a revelation and a relief. I no longer had to cut my own path with God, each day, alone. Now an ancient way stretched before me that I could walk with others.
Jim Wilder’s new book, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church That Transforms, integrates these ancient pathways with findings from brain science about our neural pathways. Wilder shows how contemporary neuroscience transforms our understanding of spiritual formation.
(Before Willard’s health began to decline, Wilder’s goal had been to co-write this book with him. As a witness to their original collaboration, Wilder alternates his own chapters with chapters by Willard, based on transcripts of the lectures he gave at the 2012 Heart and Soul Conference. These chapters, which summarize his thoughts on human life and the process of spiritual maturity, are the perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with his work.)
After a couple of years spent zealously practicing spiritual disciplines, two realizations emerged. First, it seemed many of my friends either resisted them or could not engage with them. They were not experiencing transformation like I had.
Second, these practices didn’t fix everything in my own life. I still struggled with sin. I would often go through the motions. And I fell into a new legalism just as my spiritual maturity plateaued. I wondered why my growth had stalled out.
I soon found that other church leaders were wondering the same things. Why do some people benefit from spiritual disciplines while others seem to flounder? Why do some people embrace them wholeheartedly while others just shrug them off? And why, after these disciplines help us grow for a time, does the fruit sometimes begin to fade?
Renovated speaks to these very questions. Wilder’s book is for those feeling stuck in a spiritual-formation rut, for those longing to see others grow spiritually, and for those interested in how brain science transforms our understanding of spiritual growth.
Wilder’s book recommends three main shifts in how we understand the process of spiritual formation. The first is a shift from thinking about God to thinking with God.
A. W. Tozer famously said that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Yet Wilder, leaning on what we know about the brain, argues that thinking about God is too slow of a mental process to actively transform our lives. He calls it a “slow-track” mental process that can only focus on one thing at a time. Thoughts that develop on this slower track appear in our minds too late to inform actions in real time.
This slow-track process is great when there is time to pause and reflect on complex problems. It’s less helpful, however, amid the stress, fear, and disappointment of everyday life. As Wilder observes, our slow-track thinking focuses “our attention just in time to see our sinful reactions,” but not in time to follow Jesus at the speed of life.
A better alternative, Wilder argues, is thinking with God, which utilizes “fast-track” mental processes that can focus on (and react to) multiple things at once.
Have you ever reacted to a dangerous situation without thinking? Have you ever responded to someone in a way you regret? This is your fast-track brain at work. Wilder explains that our fast-track brain “produces a reaction to our circumstances before we have a chance to consider how we would rather react.”
These instantaneous reactions will probably go awry if our fast-track brain has been trained the wrong way. But they can be useful if it has been trained in a good way. A fast-track mind trained according to God’s will is able to think with God in the midst of real-time interactions.
Thinking with God is like how a sports team wordlessly works together to achieve its goal. Or how a jazz band spontaneously flows together. When a team or a band practices together—stopping and starting over again until everything is flowing smoothly—this is like thinking about God (slow-track). The game or the performance is like thinking with God (fast-track).
But the difference between thinking about God and thinking with God is more than just the difference between practice time and game time. We might be tempted to assume that a shift toward thinking with God would focus on our actions more than our thoughts. And in a certain sense, programs of spiritual formation do tend to emphasize our practices more than our underlying beliefs.
But even spiritual practice only gets us part of the way toward spiritual maturity, because true spiritual transformation requires a change in our fast-track brain. And changing our fast-track brain is connected to growing our relational skills and capacities.
As Wilder explains, our spiritual maturity is directly related to our relational maturity. And unfortunately, most spiritual disciplines do not focus directly on growing relational capacity. They aren’t meant to do that. However, since God is a Trinity, and therefore relational, it makes sense that our relational capacity would be connected to our spiritual maturity.
Relational skills (like shared gratitude, calming the body when stressed, understanding nonverbal cues, and practicing emotional attunement) grow through relational exercises. And when our relational skills and capacities grow, so does our ability to connect to our relational God.
When we reach a spiritual wall or plateau, we often either double down on our spiritual practices or cast them aside. But brain science tell us that the better answer is working to grow our relational skills as a means of growing our relational and spiritual capacity.
From Me to We
The third shift Wilder describes is from a form of discipleship rooted in me to one rooted in we.
From our first cries to our final breaths, the necessity of being attached to someone—first to our parents and then to a larger group—means that my sense of “me” is always built upon an established sense of “we.” Our semi-automatic reactions to life are marked indelibly by the people we spend the most time with, the group we identify with. At the most basic level of our brains, we become like the ones we love.
Growing up, we all receive a fast-track pattern (or a “program file,” as Wilder calls it) that tells us how “my people” act in a given situation. And because this program file is buried in our fast-track brain, it is incredibly hard to override when we are tired, stressed, afraid, or angry.
Because of this, Wilder argues that true transformation comes through changing our understanding of who “my people” are and how they act. As he writes, transforming our character “depends on becoming attached by love, joy, and peace to a new people.” And this is why discipleship is fundamentally a we, rather than me, activity.
By ourselves, it is nearly impossible to change the assumptions of our fast-track brain and the actions that flow out of them. Instead, our character changes in and through community as a process of trial and error, which involves learning how the people of God act in various situations. We first see how more mature disciples behave in the crucibles of everyday life. Then we imitate their reactions as best we can. And eventually we spontaneously act in a way that witnesses to our identification with a new people—the people of God.
Spiritual practices done alone will not change our character. They may help a little. But relational skills grown through community will lead to lasting transformation.
The goal of all spiritual formation is being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29), who was fully human as well as fully divine. So it only makes sense that a deep understanding of our humanity—including our brains—should inform that process. Renovated is a gift to the church, to all who long to understand the impact of neuroscience on spiritual maturity, and to all who were blessed by the work of Dallas Willard.
Geoff Holsclaw is a pastor at Vineyard North church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and an affiliate professor of theology at Northern Seminary. He and his wife Cyd are co-authors of Does God Really Like Me?: Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With Us (InterVarsity Press).