Spiritual Formation Part 1: The Inner World

What comes to mind when you think about the day-to-day aspects of your Spiritual Life? When we pause to reflect on what a relationship with God or a commitment to church looks like in practice, we realize that our spiritual lives involve an inner world of being and an outer world of doing.
On one side of the coin is what we do (concrete actions)—we go to church, read our Bibles, serve the needy, and so forth. But on the other side of the coin is who we are (heart and character). We strive to be kind, patient, and compassionate. While the outer world of our actions is visible to those around us, the inner world of our character is largely hidden beneath the surface. For example, people can see if we are (or aren’t) attending church services, but they can’t always see the inner workings of our heart. Almost by default, there is more emphasis on the outer world of what we do than the inner world of who we are.
Because of that, the unseen world of a Christian’s heart, character, or inner spirit is all too often neglected in favor of the visible world of our actions and behaviors. Christianity becomes what Dallas Willard calls a “Gospel of Sin Management” — something that deals primarily with behavior modification while ignoring the weightier goal inner transformation.
This approach to Christianity is often labeled “moralism” because of its overemphasis on moral behaviors instead of Christ-like character. The problem with moralism is that Jesus cares just as much about our heart as he does about our actions. While we might be able to put on a good show and keep the true condition of our heart hidden from other people, there’s no fooling God, because God sees past the surface level into the hidden world of our heart and mind.

Lessons from an Iceberg

In his book The Deeply Formed Life, Rich Villodas uses the analogy of an iceberg to illustrate this principle: “The iceberg brings to mind the goal of spiritual formation in Christ—namely, that Jesus wants to form his life in us. Significantly, about 90 percent of an iceberg remains unseen beneath the surface. And Jesus wants to transform our entire beings, not just the 10 percent that shows.”
To reinforce that point, consider what God tells us in Jeremiah 17:10: “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind.” And in Hebrews 4:13 we encounter the same truth again: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” To use Jesus’ language, while it’s great to clean the outside of the cup, it really doesn’t matter how clean the outside is when the inside is full of dirt and filth.
Jeremiah 17 and Hebrews 4 teach us an important point: What happens in the inner world of our heart is of paramount importance. We see this principle in the life of Jesus, who frequently called out religious leaders when their hearts didn’t seem to match up with their actions: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”Matthew 15:7-9.
If all that mattered was what people did for Jesus, then worshiping him with our mouths would be more than enough. But the fact is, Jesus calls that kind of action-without-heart worship “vain.” On this point, Peter Scazzero writes, “What I do matters. Who I am matters much more,” (The Emotionally Healthy Leader)

Why Does God Care So Much About Our Hearts?

“For nearly two decades, I had ignored the emotional component in my spiritual growth and relationship with God. It didn’t matter how many books I might read or how much I devoted myself to prayer, I would remain stuck in repeated cycles of pain and immaturity unless and until I allowed Jesus Christ to transform aspects of my life that were deep beneath the surface.” -Peter Scazzero,The Emotionally Healthy Leader.
When we buy into the myth that Christianity is primarily about doing the right things, we end up ignoring the one thing that God tells us to make our top priority: the condition of our hearts. “Above all else…” God says In Proverbs 4:23, “…guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”  Virtually every word in that sentence deserves careful thought and meditation.
  • “Above all else” tells us how important this concept is. It should always be be a top priority.
  • “Guarding” your heart indicates how precious and valuable the heart truly is, while at the same time reminding us that it can be vulnerable to attack unless it is intentionally defended.
  • “Everything you do flows from it” speaks to a fundamental truth about our human nature: We have an inner world of the heart that directly flows into the outer world of our actions.
And along those same lines, Proverbs 4:23 reveals the way that our inner world of being connects with our outer world of doing. Contrary to popular opinion, what we do does not determine who we are; rather it is who we are on the inside that determines what we do. Jesus illustrates this principle with the analogy of good and bad trees during the Sermon on the mount:
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” -Luke 6:43-45
Echoing Proverbs 4:23, Jesus tells us that our words (and by extension, all our actions) are a reflection of whatever is stored up in our hearts—whether good or bad. And then in Proverbs 27:19, King Solomon phrases this principle this way: “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.”

What We Do Flows From Who We Are

The first principle of Spiritual Formation is this: What we do in a visible way flows from who we are on the inside. Change that starts in the exterior world of our actions rarely penetrates to the interior world of our hearts, but change that originates in our heart will always be reflected in our life. And if that’s truly the case, it means we need to pay much closer attention to the spiritual condition of our hearts.