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Ordo Salutis: Spiritual Formation & Feelings

The renewing of the mind means a renewing of both thoughts and feelings. Dallas Willard says that our mind is composed not only of our thoughts, but also of our feelings. Feelings have been neglected by many segments of Christianity as irrelevant. I think of Bill Bright’s pamphlet on the Spirit-filled life that reminds us that feelings are always at the “caboose” while our faith is built on facts. And there is a partial truth there: Our faith in Jesus Christi is built on a “fact,” but the way we react to and engage the fact of Jesus happens at the level of emotions. Our feelings are what motivate us to action or inaction.

Proverbs has several verses that speak about the good and evil of feelings.

  • Proverbs 10:12 Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
  • Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
  • Proverbs 12:25 Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.
  • Proverbs 15:15 All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.
  • Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
  • Proverbs 21:17 Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.
  • Proverbs 22:4 Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life.
  • Proverbs 23:21 …for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
  • Proverbs 29:25 To fear anyone will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.

Feelings can only be transformed as we recognize that a feeling is derived from an inward heart condition. Willard says,

“When we confuse the condition with the accompanying feeling–peace, for example, with the feeling of peacefulness–we very likely try to manage the feelings and disregard or deny the reality of the conditions…. The person who wants the feeling of peacefulness will be unable to do the things that make for peace–especially doing what is right and confronting evil. So, as far as our planning for spiritual formation is concerned, we must choose and act with regard to the condition, good or bad, and allow the feelings to take care of themselves, as they certainly will” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 123).

Therefore, emotions are not simply a matter of the renewal of the mind, but of the renewal of the heart! Willard identifies major feelings that will characterize the person who has been transformed by the renewing of the mind. They are love, joy, and peace, the first three fruit of the Spirit. The first three fruit are inseparable from the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and love.

“Practically speaking, the renovation of the heart in the dimension of feeling is a matter of opening ourselves to and carefully cultivating love, joy, and peace: first by receiving them from God and from those already living in him, and then as we grow, extending love, joy and peace to others and everything around us in attitude, prayer, and action” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pp. 136-137).

Feelings are what leads to action, and therefore the road to spiritual formation here is critical. They must not, however, be taken as the basis for action or character change. Christians today who make decisions prompted by feelings of need over insight and understanding of how things are with God and their soul get into trouble. It is why churches make bad decisions and why Christians even with good intentions get things wrong. Satan can use our emotions to captivate us, to guilt us over what we do and do not feel, and to lead us into action or inaction in wrong directions because of them.

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Ordo Salutis: False Narratives into True

What we’re really doing when we are concentrating on our ideas, images, gaining new information and using our ability to think is rejecting false narratives we used to believe and exchanging them for true narratives. This doesn’t sound super-Scriptural or super-spiritual, but it is a quite practical application of one of the meanings of repentance.

Getting rid of false narratives was one of Jesus’ hopes when he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He was calling the crowds to reconsider an old narrative–my sinful life prohibits me from participation in the rule and reign of God. Jesus said, A) turn from your sin, and B) know that it is for you that God’s kingdom has come, and you must enter it.

Perhaps the very thing that stops us today from choosing to enter the kingdom is the false narrative we have believed about God or ourselves.

James Bryan Smith, in his Apprentice Series, outlines several false narratives prevalent in Christian circles. Here are three of them.

False Narrative True Narrative Scripture
God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished. God is good. Matthew 5:45; 19:17; John 9:2-3
God hates sin so much he will send you to hell for just one unconfessed sin. God is trustworthy as our Abba Father. Matthew 6:9-11; Mark 14:36; Romans 8:28
God needs us to earn His favor and will only give His forgiveness and love to those who deserve it. God is generous with His grace to us. Matthew 20:1-15; Romans 5:8

The hardest part of narratives is that they are so deeply engrained in us that they are subconscious. We don’t think about them, we just think them. And yet, with God’s grace, He can transform and renew our minds so that these ideas are not the ones we choose to trust, but rather, we choose to trust the One who gave us the capacity to think in the first place.

Ordo Salutis: Renewing the Mind

For those who are Christians, we think of spiritual formation as grounded in the work of God at salvation. God has already saved us but he has not finished saving us. Ordo Salutis Repentance

The mind is where we begin. Before our conversion, our thoughts were directed by sinful hearts. Now they are directed by a regenerated heart, capable of loving God…and yet our minds need “renewed.”

Our thoughts involve four things, according to Dallas Willard:

1. Ideas: Patterns of interpreting reality. They may involve beliefs. They are shared by those who know. Examples are freedom, education, happiness, the American dream, progress, death, home, government, church, fairness, God, etc. We all have ideas of what these things are and should be. We cannot precisely define ideas: they are hard to pinpoint and yet we try to define them as a way to control them. For example, whoever can define “marriage” in our country can control who is allowed to be married. We are largely blind to our ideas; but exploring what we think of as “natural” or “obvious” shows us just where our ideas lie. Our idea systems need to be transformed. For example, if we once thought of “blacks” as people inferior to “whites,” this is something God must work on in us.

2. Images: Images are tied to ideas but are not abstract. They are concrete. Images evoke emotions. When we think of an idea, we have an image that runs through our head. Jesus chose one image–the cross–and made it the most powerful image in the world. Again, our images must be transformed.

Dallas Willard says, “When [Satan] undertook to draw Eve away from God, he did not hit her with a stick, but with an idea. It was the idea that God could not be trusted and that she must act on her own to secure her own well-being” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 100).

Part of spiritual formation is rewiring our minds to have new ideas and images of God too. The other two areas of thought help us to break the power of our toxic ideas and images.

3. Information: The first task of Jesus in the gospels, in his public ministry, was to proclaim to people the availability of entrance into God’s kingdom, to give them new information about eternal life in God. Jesus had to combat false information about God in his teaching and proclaiming. Just as Jesus gave us information about God, so we need to know who God is.

4. Ability to think: Dallas Willard defines thinking as “the activity of searching out what must be true, or cannot be true, in the light of given facts or assumptions” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 104). He says, “The prospering of God’s cause on earth depends upon his people thinking well” (p. 105). Today, we easily dismiss those who think about God as people disconnected from real life. But perhaps this is because we have not taken the time to think about how we think. We all think. And our minds are no less important than any other parts of us. Those who think this way are like the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia who produced the “killing fields,” where anyone with any sign of education, even those who simply wore glasses, were killed in the late 1970s.

Scripture uses the phrase “renewing of the mind” when it speaks of our mind’s transformation.

Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 

Ephesians 4:20-24: That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. 

Note that in both passages, the renewing of the mind is contrasted with the sinful thought patterns of this world. It is combined with other acts of putting off the old self and putting on the new self. The renewing of the mind, then, can be thought of practically as changing our ideas and images with new information and the ability to think (with the assistance of the Holy Spirit).

Ordo Salutis Interlude: Overview of the Human Self

Before we continue looking at the rest of a Wesleyan way of salvation–our next stop being conversion–I think it’s helpful if we think about how God made human beings. In other words, when God created humanity, how did He create us? What are the parts that make up a person?

Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart, draws a diagram that looks like this. The following descriptions are summaries of what Willard writes.

Human Make-up Diagram

Mind (Thought/Feeling): The mind both thinks and feels. “Thought is that which enables our will (or spirit) to range far beyond the immediate boundaries of our environment and the perceptions of our senses” (Willard, p. 32). Feeling inclines us toward or away from things that we think of. Feelings and thoughts always go together; they are never apart.

Will (Spirit/Heart): This is how we make choices. It is our capacity to freely and creatively bring things into being that did not exist. We have the power to do what is good or to do what is evil. The inner choosing in the heart and the capacity to choose is what makes up the spirit or heart of a person. It is this spirit that must be reached and changed, or the rest of things will not. Choices are impacted by the mind, by both thoughts and feelings.

Body: The body is our strength. Our bodies are essentially social; we cannot separate ourselves from those around us. We will always be the son or daughter of our parents, for instance. It is through the body that we live, that we exercise the will, etc. The body is not essentially evil as some believe. It has been impacted by evil, but so has our mind and our heart. Spiritual formation cannot succeed unless the body is transformed along with the mind and the spirit.

Social Context: Our social context includes those outside of ourselves–God and other people. Jesus says we are to love God and our neighbors. Rightly understood, we know that “there is no salvation outside the church,” because our spiritual formation depends on not just a personal relationship with God, but a personal relationship with other Christians.

Soul: “The soul is that dimension of the person that interrelates all of the other dimensions so that they form one life” (Willard, p. 37). The soul is generally taken to be the whole person. In fact, the Greek term psyche is what the NT translates as soul and it also means “life.”

The body serves the soul which serves the mind which serves the spirit or heart which serves God (confusing, I know). Christian spiritual formation happens when the spirit or heart of a person is regenerated, redeemed, saved from sin, and then when the other attributes of a person also submit to God. Then we are able to love God with all our heart (spirit), mind, soul and strength (body). Willard says that we when the parts that make up ourselves are misaligned–when we fail to engage each one in spiritual formation (i.e., we seek to reshape our thinking without reshaping the way we use our bodies), then our lives are out of whack.

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