Our Embodied Will


This is at least my third  post on Dallas Willard’s article, “Warfare between the Flesh and the Human Spirit” in Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 1:1.   For Willard, the flesh “consists of our natural human abilities, considered in themselves and on their own, unaided by Divine assistance and direction.” And so, it is not surprising that the focus of the flesh is on desire, that is, for self-gratification.  When I do what I feel like doing, I am following the desires of the flesh.  The problem is that what I feel like doing is not always the best and it may even be in contradiction to the will of God. Willard sees the will or the human spirit as the “God-give ability by which we have an interest . . . in what is better or best.”  So, we follow the desires of the spirit when we choose to do what is good or best rather than just doing what we crave.

Willard says that we have three kinds of wills.  The first is what he calls a “vital or impulsive will.”  As one might expect, this is the will that chooses to do what is attractive, choosing to do what you (or your flesh) desire. Reflective will, on the other hand, considers what is good for the self and others and ultimately what God and Christ desires and chooses to do good even if it means I do not get to do what I desire to do.  Willard describes a third kind of will, the embodied will.

What Willard calls the “embodied will” is the actual life practices of either the impulsive will of desiring or the reflective will of choosing the good. Perhaps another way of saying this is that the embodied will reveals what is our daily disposition, commitment and practice about how life is lived. Our choices to follow the flesh or the spirit have actual consequences in the body. Spiritual transformation (or the lack thereof) will be demonstrated through life in our human body.  As Willard says, “Spiritual formation is never merely inward, but it is always also explosively outward.” How then do we make the embodied will to be the reflective will and not the impulsive will?

Well, we all know the experience of Romans 7, that when the flesh and spirit battle each other, “sin wins.”  But, when we experience God’s enabling, “Sin then loses as the desires of the flesh are ordered under the goodness and power of God in us.” Thus, this inability to win the spirit-flesh battle on our own is why, according to Willard, that we need Paul’s dual commands to crucify the flesh and to walk by the Spirit.  About crucifying the flesh, Willard writes,

Restraining the flesh is an essentially divine work, though we also must act. . . We simply refuse natural desires the right to direct our life.  We decide we shall not live for them to be satisfied. . . We make a general surrender of the right to get what we want in favor of the call to do what is good under God.”

Spiritual disciplines help us to retrain the body to embed “the will of Christ into our body.”

Walking by the Spirit involves trusting the Holy Spirit  “to enable me to do the good and right things I am engaged with.” It means a setting of our minds on the things of the Spirit and not placing our hope on our natural abilities. “Spiritual formation conquers the flesh and makes it the servant of the spirit, human and divine.”

A few questions remain for me: Is this helpful?  Does it work?  Does it prove to be true in our experience? Is it biblical or at least compatible with the biblical text?

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