The Inner Life

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

I had a farm in Maine, on the banks of the Sebasticook River. Actually, it was an abandoned farm, fallowed and given up years earlier to blackberry bushes, unpruned apple trees, and wild turkeys. The previous owners lived out-of-state and used it as a summer place. After the farmhouse was torched by local youths, the property was put on the market in 1973. When I first saw it on a hot July day that year, I was enthralled. From the approach down an old country road, the land sloped gently to the southwest and towards the river. This slight elevation afforded a panoramic view of distant hills with only a pair of faraway blue silos to suggest this was not wilderness. An ideal mixture of fields and woods in a remote and private setting was precisely what I was looking for. And so, by September I had made the purchase – fifty acres of God’s country for five thousand dollars.

When I moved to the property in the spring of 1974 the overgrown land was quickly reverting to its natural state. Where the old homestead once stood, trees had sprouted from the foundation. Old stone walls that in an earlier day had marked the boundaries of cultivated fields were overrun by brambles and thickets. And the hint of an apple orchard with its once tidy rows had long since been shrouded by native vegetation. Yet, to my young heart there seemed only endless possibilities for living close to the land. In this regard Pat was a kindred spirit, so when we married in 1975 and moved into a hastily constructed cabin, we energetically plunged into clearing a permanent home site.

It was hard physical work, but also an exciting time filled with a vision and hope for our future. All of the clearing was done by hand and I remember long days uprooting trees, big and small, to slowly expand the footprint of where the house would one day stand. I quickly discovered that trees are not created equal when it comes to their root systems. Cedar trees have shallow roots and can easily be deracinated by simply cutting one or two lateral roots and yanking the tree from the ground. Apple trees are much more challenging – even after every lateral root is cut the tree will not budge. Only by undercutting the trunk and severing the taproot can an apple tree be defeated.

I learned a lot about trees that summer and came to appreciate the silent invisible world of roots lying just below the surface. Ironically, even as I was learning about the hidden life of trees I gave little conscious attention to my own inner life. While I was digging up and exposing so many root systems, my inner life was languishing – unrevealed and unexamined. Selfishness, anger, and lust had free range in my soul with hardly a thought on my part that anything was wrong. Unfortunately, it would be many years before the truth about my character began to dawn on me, and many more years until I began to understand the difference and interplay between my outer life and inner life and the critical importance of the latter.

The outer life of course is familiar territory. It is where our body intersects and interacts with the world around us. It is our daily transactions with others, our comings and goings, our chores and jobs, our leisure activities, our words and expressions. Hearing, seeing, tasting and touching are all senses of the outer life. Our outer life consists of the things we do, the words we speak, the people we meet, and the actions we take. Increasingly, we mediate and shape our outer life through electronic means such as social media – over one billion daily active users of Facebook testify to the attention we spend managing our outer life. But, alas, the outer life feels physical pain, the outer life gets sick, the outer life breaks down, the outer life eventually dies. It is a visible world.

The inner life, in contrast, involves the mind and the will. It is the world of thoughts and emotions. It is where we process sensory inputs. It is a battleground for our desires, but also a receptor for transcendent moments of beauty. It is a dusty road where dreams are crushed, but also the soil from which hope springs. It is the domain of despair where regrets can pierce the heart, but also a land of visions where a song or kindly act can make the spirit soar. It is the breeding ground for hate, but also the wellspring of virtue. It is a great sea where storms of emotion can shipwreck a life, but also a safe harbor where the anchor of faith can hold firm. It is an incinerator or incubator for love. It is where our kingdom and God’s kingdom touch. It is the province of our soul. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is an invisible world.

J.R. Miller, a Christian pastor described the difference between our outer and inner selves:    “In every man there are two men. There is an outer man that people can see; there is an inner man that no human eye can see. The outer man may be hurt, wounded, marred, and even destroyed, while the inner man remains untouched, unharmed, and immortal. Paul puts it thus: ‘Though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day.’ He is referring to his own sufferings as a Christian. His body was hurt by scourgings, by stonings, by exposure. It was worn by toil, and by endurance of hunger, of hardship. But these things which scarred his body, leaving marks upon it, making it prematurely old – had no effect on the inner man. His real life was not wounded by persecution. It even grew in strength and beauty as the outer man decayed.” (J.R. Miller, 1895)

My inward journey has been a slow affair with fits and starts too numerous to mention in one writing. Suffice it to say that after praying a “salvation prayer” in 2000, I became increasingly aware of the gap between my professed belief as a follower of Jesus and my daily swirl of thoughts and emotions. I remember feeling particularly convicted when attending a conference where a speaker confessed her greatest sin was not so much any specific transgression; rather her overarching sin was that she “lived a compartmentalized life.” In other words, it was less about individual sins and more about the fact that she was able to put her transgressions in one basket and her spiritual beliefs in another. I found this enormously helpful because it explained the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing in my life. Looking back, this insight propelled me forward by turning me inward.

I suppose it was inevitable that eventually I would have to look honestly at my inner life. The Bible says that God looks at our inner life, “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:7) And God’s word clearly insists that the inner life is the source of our actions. For example, Jesus tells us it is the source of our words, “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) James tells us it is the source of our conflicts, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1) Paul tells us that our thoughts control our spiritual growth, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

 Moreover, the goal of the Christian life, which is to become like Jesus, necessarily focuses primarily on a renovation of the inner life. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29) We call this process spiritual formation, which is simply the formation of our inner life. Dallas Willard put it this way, “Spiritual formation for the Christian is a Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self – our “spiritual” side – in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself. In the degree to which such a spiritual transformation to inner Christlikeness is successful, the outer life of the individual will become a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. We will simply “walk the walk,” as we say.

In retrospect, I believe it was the Holy Spirit who led me to writers such as Willard and Richard Foster who explained Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, and describe the nature of the inner life in a compelling and encouraging way. They also introduced me to the writings of Christians who throughout the ages have grown in their spiritual life by first looking inward. As one observer describes it “To judge by their writings, Christian authors of all generations have concerned themselves deeply with a specific aspect of the human experience, what they refer to as the ‘inner life’ of human beings. Their exhortations encourage each reader to tend to his or her ‘inner life’; to become ‘alive inwardly’ and to perfect the ‘inner virtues.’ Though it admittedly sounds a bit mysterious and mystical, I think there is great practical wisdom in what these authors are suggesting.” (Marshall Bartlett) I too found great practical wisdom in attending to my inner life, distilling from my study and practice two principles that have guided me on my journey.

First, I attend to my inner life simply by thinking about it, by reflecting and meditating on it. To think about what I am thinking about. To think about my emotions and the thoughts that are causing them. To think about what I really believe about my values, relationships, and goals. To think a lot about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. To think about my direction by reflecting on questions such as, “Am I getting nobler, better, more helpful, more humble, as I get older? Am I exhibiting the life that men take knowledge of as having been with Jesus, or am I getting more self-assertive, more deliberately determined to have my own way? It is a great thing to tell yourself the truth.” (Oswald Chambers) In short, to seek greater self-awareness. But I have found reflection of itself to be of limited usefulness unless coupled with specific activities of the outer life, which is my second principle.

Namely, I attend to my inner life by selective external activities, which are sometimes referred to as spiritual disciplines – reading the Bible and great literature, praying, writing and meditating on God and His word, exercising – perhaps a walk in a woods, volunteering, building friendships. These are not inherently righteous acts, so they are never done for outward appearance. They are only sanctified by God when used to redirect and refocus the inner life.

A few years before Pat and I sold the Maine “farm,” I planted several lines of Maple trees to mark off a driveway and parking area. These I had found in a grove of saplings that had sprung up under a gigantic Maple tree growing nearby. I literally ripped about a dozen of these from the earth and then settled them and their tiny roots in holes I had dug twenty feet apart. They looked pretty pathetic when first planted and I did not give them much chance to survive. Well, after Pat and I moved, we were able to return to the land periodically and observe their progress. Hope upon hope, the trees not only survived, they thrived. Despite high ledge conditions the trees had slowly and silently spread their roots. After thirty-five years, their trunks were straight and proud and their crowns wonderfully intermingled. And every fall the hidden years of root growth were reflected in a colorful and glorious display of foliage.

For some of us, the autumn of our life is at hand. For others, it may still be spring or summer. But the great news is that wherever we are on the journey of our outer life, it is never too late to attend to the inner life. This after all is where our life with God starts and ends, and his promise of an abundant life in His kingdom is surely as good today as ever.

May the Lord reward you with insight and imagination as you journey inward.

S