Journal of Christian Ministry | 2021: Assessing Matters of the Heart

2021: Assessing Matters of the Heart

2021: Assessing Matters of the Heart


Assessing Matters of the Heart: What I Saw in Dallas Willard


Recently at an ADME board meeting, the conversation turned to “How, in our context of accreditation and student learning outcomes, can we measure and assess spiritual transformation?” So we asked Jan Johnson to address the question. Jan earned her DMin in Ignatian Spirituality & Spiritual Direction. She is president of Dallas Willard Ministries, a prolific author, and teaches spiritual formation at several schools, including Denver Seminary, Azusa Pacific, and Hope International.

While Dallas Willard pinpointed “matters of the heart” (see accompanying article)[1] as the subjects for assessment, professors and accreditors lean toward assessing formation based on the student’s ability to do a variety of spiritual practices, and to do them according to standards prescribed in that venue.

My experience of this has been grim. As a professor who routinely assigns spiritual practices, I find that students’ papers are full of words like success and failure. So I explain that spiritual practices are not achievements and as a result I am disallowing those words from their papers. Instead I asked them to write about their inward connection with God in the midst of doing the practice. Even if they didn’t make it through their time allotted to fast, how did they connect with God in the moments of fasting and in the moments of choosing not to fast? For it is in those relational moments with God that transformation occurs.[2]

Turning our eyeballs inward on our spiritual practices can be ruinous. A colleague once explained to me that he had memorized the Sermon on the Mount and then asked me how many passages I had memorized. I laughed and responded that it wasn’t safe for me to count the passages I had learned by heart. If I were to start counting them, I would be tempted to think rather highly of myself for these efforts. Besides that, knowing them by heart is not an achievement, but merely the context for my conversations with God. As a contrast to the interchange with my colleague, Dallas Willard rarely if ever mentioned any of his spiritual practices in the thirteen years I assisted Keith Matthews and him as he taught his Fuller Seminary class, Spirituality and Ministry. The one exception was that he did speak of rising in the morning and prayerfully moving through the Lord’s prayer or Psalm 23 in light of the activities for that day. So without a doubt, that included: “In this philosophy department meeting, the Lord is my shepherd.”

A valuable tool in assessing spiritual formation that highlights “matters of the heart” is the information found in The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich.[3] Stages 1-3 primarily involve outward behavior in being part of a group who does certain religious activities. As people move through The Wall (often a crisis of faith or major life crisis), they pass into stage 4, still questioning but seeking an inward journey, no longer satisfied with any “one size fits all” experience of God. As they find the companionship of God, they move on to stages 5 and 6 where a powerful inward journey results in very different outward behavior.[4]

1: Discovering God through nature or sense of need.

Transition: Usually through others, group support

2: Learning about God from belonging to a group or cause, from a leader or engaging in a belief system

Transition: Seeing self as contributor

3: Working for God and experiencing responsibility and sense of accomplishment

Transition:  entering The Wall through crisis, boredom or deep longing;

4: Rediscovering God and letting God out of the box, usually because old faith doesn’t seem to work; deciding anew if we’re willing to surrender and let God direct our lives.

Transition: The Wall. May feel as if losing one’s faith, may explore substitutes for God

Stages of The Wall:  self-awareness, forgiving, acceptance, love and longing for God.

5: Surrendering to God because of renewed sense of God’s acceptance and more confidence in God.

Transition: Gradual

6. Reflecting and abiding in God as we become God’s person; increasing oneness with God.

Gratefully used by permission of Janet Hagberg


I have found The Critical Journey scheme to be most relatable to students. (Many other texts address stages of faith in a helpful manner.[5]) After reading The Critical Journey, discussing it, writing a reflection paper on their “home stage” (we may move around the stages, even in one day), and receiving my feedback, they are able to see where they are and what forward movement may look like.

The teacher’s feedback is crucial because students are often puzzled by the stages, and the less self-aware student is utterly baffled. As a working spiritual director for twenty-six years, I also use The Critical Journey grid with directees. It especially encourages those who think they are losing their faith because their interests and activities no longer look like everyone else’s in their faith group and they’re asking very disturbing questions there. So I explain that they are in fact moving through The Wall, loosening their grip on their conformist methods of spirituality and leaning into an inward conversational life with God.

I also caution students to consider stages of faith in terms of their past and present time, but not to plan for the future. As C. S. Lewis warns, “Be wary of trying to create a ‘syllabus’ for stages of spiritual growth. Every spiritual journey has its own rhythms, as seen in the very different careers of Peter and Paul. Any attempt to map out one’s spiritual journey in advance may lead to despair in those who feel they have fallen behind and presumption in those who feel they are right on schedule.”[6] We can’t push others or ourselves to the next stage. This is the Spirit’s work.

In listening to students and directees be attentive to their stage, I see that my attention is seems to be drawn to their progress in certain issues, always relating to having a right heart.[7] Here is a brief description of what I tend to notice.

  • Desiring God most of all. It’s true that the goal of spiritual formation is transformation. “We will take Christian ‘spiritual formation’ to be the process through which the individual increasingly comes to resemble Christ in all of the essential dimensions of the self.”[8]

However, transformation is not the focus of attention in spiritual formation. It doesn’t work to live in constant self-evaluation of practices or character. The focus of attention in spiritual formation is always union with God, that is, knowing Christ, mutual indwelling of the Holy Spirit, moving toward being filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.[9] That union is fueled by our desire for God, or as how Dallas put it: “to arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs.”[10]

Desiring God leads to spiritual practices that are not seen as trophies, creating self-righteousness, but as “experiments” in connecting with God. In this process, the Holy Spirit shapes our character as all the dimensions of our self[11] begin to resemble the One we love. As this happens, we are further drawn into that union with God.

When desiring God is a motivating force within people, spiritual practices are approached differently. For example, fasting is no longer for the purpose of trying to get God to do certain things. For if we desire God, we do not seek to manipulate the Trinitarian community in their work. Yes, we bring passionate requests but our goal is to get the “mind of Christ” about an issue,[12] not to get the “mind of me” into Christ. Transformation occurs as we “learn to be sweet when we don’t get what we want.”[13]

As a result, life with God is not mechanical, doing things that we check off everyday. Rather it’s relational. God invites us into ways of connecting with the Trinitarian community (practices) never mentioned in books and which might actually sound odd to someone else. But they are designed specifically for our forward progress in connecting with God and becoming the kind of persons who easily and routinely obey God.[14]

  • Dying to Self. Dallas described this well in a full chapter of Life without Lack[15] as a freedom to love God and be ourselves. In the years of knowing him and observing him in the Fuller Seminary D.Min. class, I saw dying to self to be: no longer wanting to have my way; no longer concerned about what others think of me; no longer trying to get people to look up to me; no longer thinking I know best; no longer defending self; no longer looking to see if I get the response I’d hoped for.[16] In short, we give up on preoccupation of self and become preoccupied with God, particularly, “thinking magnificently of God”![17]

Those in Stages Five and Six as described in The Critical Journey stand out as no longer obsessed with self. Actually they don’t stand out nor do they try to. One who observes them carefully notices all that is not said or done. There is a lack of self-preoccupation, a habit of pride, a vice that “every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else”[18] yet rarely spots in one’s self. This pride is replaced with humility, which practically speaking, Dallas said, means that we never push, we never pretend, and we never presume.[19] To never push is to respect others’ personhood. To never pretend is to be just who we are, no more or no less; we don’t pretend to know more, saying, “I read that book.”  To never presume is to stop thinking I deserve more than I do; it’s to pray for the people around me instead of presuming to be the Holy Spirit in their lives by giving them unsought advice. We no longer force issues or try to “make things happen.”

  • Easy in themselves. When asked what sort of people he hoped his preaching produced, John Wesley used this phrase to describe those who are not astonished at their failures but have learned to rely confidently on God for all things, to be content with whatever I have.[20] They are, in a word, relaxed. This is, I believe, what Bernard of Clairvaux was describing in his fourth degree of love: love of self for God’s sake.[21] I no longer need to practice “impression management” because I’m not concerned with others’ opinion of me. I can, in fact, be playful through the uncertainties of life.

A conversational life with God in which we have died to self and become “easy” in ourselves allows for living honestly in reality of who we really are. Confession becomes sweet as we talk to Jesus about what we did, explore what was behind the sin, and then soak in the forgiveness of God. Even as we move into asking God for forward movement from our sin—restitution or reconciliation or blessing another—we don’t become martyrs but cooperative partners with Jesus in what we are being invited to do.

  • Experiencing the peace of obedience. We learn the sweetness of goodness. As a child of the 60s and a second born, I have a rebellious streak that I used to like. Dallas’s winsome way of getting along with others and living in gratefulness confused me at first. How could this be? But I gradually saw that this was the life of the “easy yoke.”[22] Instead of chafing at what seemed to be the forced obedience of being a disciple, I saw that Dallas was right: “sin is stupid,” he used to say. It just doesn’t work well. It’s really smart, practically speaking, to do things God’s way. And it feels good: valuing people instead of using or lusting after them; forgiving and letting go of resentment; being generous and not fearing that I won’t have enough; doing the next hard thing with Jesus at my side. God’s commands just make sense. This is what Hagberg calls wisdom (stage Six): “a love for what is good, not devotion to good in general, but to what knowledge and disposition lead us to in light of the circumstances.”[23]

[1] Dallas Willard, “Measuring Matters of The Heart: Spiritual Formation in the Age of Accountability” International Forum of Christian Higher Education, March 30, 2006, reprinted in this issue of The Journal of Christian Ministry.

[2] John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” NRSV

[3] Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich  The Critical Journey:  Stages in the Life of Faith  2nd edition  (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company, 2005).

[4] Stages 1-3 correlate with Dallas Willard’s “faith of propriety”; stage 4 correlates with his “faith of desperation”; stages 5-6 correlate with his “faith of sufficiency.” All are drawn from the life of Job. Dallas Willard Life without Lack (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2018) 99-115.

[5] Elizabeth Liebert’s Changing Life Patterns (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000). James Empereur modified Liebert’s phases for his excellent book, The Enneagram and Spiritual Direction available now here:

[6]Letters, vol. 2, p. 914 The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949. Edited by Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins 2004, 495.   as quoted in Conversations Journal 6.1, 67.

[7] Proverbs 4:23  Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. NRSV

[8] Dallas Willard, “Measuring Matters Of The Heart: Spiritual Formation In The Age Of Accountability”

[9] Philippians 3:10; Romans 8:9-11; Ephesians 3:19; Also Psalm 27:4; John 17:22.

[10] Dallas Willard, Hearing God  Developing a Conversational Life with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 282.

[11] See the diagram in in Dallas Willard, “Measuring Matters Of The Heart: Spiritual Formation In The Age Of Accountability” and more fully explained in Renovation of the Heart  (Colorado Spgs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 38.

[12]1 Corinthians 2:16  “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

[13] Dallas Willard’s wording, used extensively in the Fuller Seminary class Spirituality and Ministry

[14]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God  (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998) 274. “the practice of routine obedience from the heart”; Sanctification is “a consciously chosen and sustained relationship of interaction between the Lord and his apprentice, in which the apprentice is able to do, and routinely does, what they know to be right before God because all aspects of their person have been substantially transformed.” Renovation of the Heart, 226. It is possible to be “Virtuous and Happy”! 228

[15] Dallas Willard, Life without Lack (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2018). Chapter 6: “Trust Completed in Death to Self.”

[16] Jan Johnson, Invitation to the Jesus Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008), 189-190.

[17] Willard, Life without Lack, 25.

[18]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity  (New York: The MacMillan Company,  1970), 109.

[19] Dallas Willard’s sermon series on cassette tape, “Life without Lack” Tape 6, The Sower’s Yield, Chatsworth, CA.

[20] Philippians 4:11

[21] Bernard of Clairvaux Selected Works The Classics of Western Spirituality Gillian Evans, ed (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987), 195-197.

[22] “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,” chapter 1 in Dallas Willard The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988).

[23]Janet O. Hagberg,  Real Power  Stages of Personal Power in Organizations  (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1994), 133.