How Dallas Willard Changed My Understanding of Personal Discipleship and Pastoral Ministry

Losing My Way

When I was in graduate school, and for a short time thereafter, I felt kind of spiritually lost.  In part, my lack of spiritual direction had to do with the fact that I was an evangelical Protestant studying at an extremely liberal divinity school.  It wasn’t so much my interactions with any one person that set me adrift; my dissertation supervisor, for example, was an intriguing dialogue partner who encouraged me to reflect theologically on what I was studying.  It really was the environment—its culture, values, norms, and habits—that was so disorienting.

Another reason for my spiritual disorientation had to do with my commitment to read the Bible with integrity.  Throughout my sojourn in higher education (not just during graduate school), I had been exposed to pastors and other Bible teachers (both famous and anonymous) who seemed to have no clue what the Scriptures actually meant in their original context.  They seemed oblivious to the constraints that should have been placed on their teaching by the language, culture, and history in which the Bible emerged. Indeed, they often treated these constraints with utter contempt. After all, many of them would have argued, issues of language, culture, and history only get in the way of what God really wants to say to His people today.

Seeing this kind of approach to the Bible was problematic for me precisely because I am an evangelical Protestant.  The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are an essential building block for my faith in Christ and are the foundation upon which my understanding of Christ is built.  But, as I look back on that time with some critical distance, I realize that I had doubts about whether the Bible could be read devotionally and read with integrity at the same time.

My sense of lostness had some serious spiritual and emotional consequences.  I had a lot of questions for God, and even though I was very well equipped to grapple with the hardest issues that Christianity has faced throughout its history, I was poorly equipped to deal with my own pain and my own sin.  Moreover, I rarely experienced that power of God at work in my life. I did not see the healing and the deliverance that so many people promised was available in Christ at work in me, and I had very little spiritual or emotional energy left to fight for what I knew I needed.

Help From a Guide That I Never Met

I needed some help.  Fortunately, God sent it to me in the form of Dallas Willard.  While I was in graduate school, I had a friend who was a big fan of Willard, so I knew a little bit about him.  But I had not really engaged his teaching until I had finished graduate school and was on church staff. My pastor encouraged all of us on that staff to pursue personal and professional development, and my work gave me the time and space that I needed both to process what I had experienced and to hear new voices.

I am, by no means, an expert in Willard’s thought.  But as I listened to the large volume of his lectures that are available on the internet, I found someone who spoke to my need.  Here was an educated man—an expert in a related field (philosophy) who was also somewhat familiar with biblical studies—reading the Bible devotionally.  Here was a man who was not just interested in seeing people informed; he was determined to see people changed.

I particularly appreciate his vision-intention-means rubric.  One could complain, both from a psychological and a theological perspective, that personal transformation is not as easy as Willard’s rubric made it out to be, but it gave me a way to read the Bible for personal and pastoral benefit without sacrificing my integrity as a student of ancient texts and cultures.  Moreover, it gave me a way to think about the Christian life that was more wholesome and more holistic than the Christian moralism I had inherited from my small church in rural Arkansas or the social activism that I had seen in graduate school.

Reading Scripture in a New Way: Vision, Intention, and Means

The first step in Willard’s process is to help people envision the kind of life that God makes available to us through Jesus Christ.  This part of the process was the easiest for me to connect with. In college, I was exposed to the theological ethics of Stanley Grenz (especially, but not exclusively, through his books Sexual Ethics and The Moral Quest).  Much of what Grenz was trying to do (whether he expressed it this way or not) was to help people see what a Kingdom life might look like.  Moreover, during graduate school, I took a class or two on leadership at Dallas Baptist University. Once again, I was exposed to the idea that a change in how we view reality can change how we behave.  Leadership, according to many experts, is not about getting people to perform at a given level. It is about getting people to imbibe the culture and commitments of an organization and to exhibit that culture and those commitments in everything that they do.

Reading the Bible to understand God’s vision of reality gives us a way to do justice to its varied content while also holding on to the classic Christian commitment to canon.  That is, it allows us to acknowledge the linguistic, historical, and cultural particularity of specific biblical books (or parts of books) while at the same time affirming that all of the various pieces of literature contained in the Bible fit together as a cohesive whole.  As we read one part of Scripture in light of both its context and its relation to other parts of Scripture, we begin to see a fuller picture of God’s vision for human existences, and we begin to see how God’s vision shaped—or did not shape—the behavior of those who participate in the biblical story.

Reading the Bible for God’s vision can be a rather grandiose affair, but Willard won’t let us get away with that.  He insists that we find our own place in God’s story—or, perhaps more accurately, that we allow God to show us how His story should impact our being and doing.  As we do this, we will slowly but surely relinquish our claims to sovereignty over our own story—which, in turn, will leave room for God to be at work in our lives.

The second phase of the process—developing the intention to do what God has called us to do—was perhaps the most difficult for me.  I think that is why God was so active when I sought to embrace His vision of human existence as my own. With my years of study, it was not difficult for me to understand what God wants of humanity.  But for me to find that vision appealing? That was a lot more difficult.

My experience is that intention is not something that we can impose on other people.  Sometimes, it is not even something that we can muster within ourselves. For me, it was something that God had to do.  And, in my case, there were two areas of my life that God had to work on if I was going to develop the intention that I would need to carry out His will.

First, God had to convince me that I really did not want the sin about which I sometimes fantasized.  Let’s use a simple, yet provocative, example to illustrate the point. The idea of a wholesome, disciplined sexual ethic that also celebrates sexuality as a gift from God sounds great until a beautiful young woman in a bikini walks by.  Then we are left wondering whether vows of chastity until marriage and faithfulness afterwards are really in our best interest. God has to show us is that they are—and, hopefully, He is able to do so without allowing us to make some really disastrous decisions in the process.

Second, God had to convince me that sacrifice, and even suffering, really are a part of the “good news” that Jesus brought.  For many of us, the gospel is appealing because we think that we are getting something for nothing. We get to go to heaven when we die, and all we have to do is trust Jesus to make it happen.

The real gospel is a lot harder to stomach.  Sure, salvation is, in a sense, free. There is absolutely nothing that we can do to earn it.  But, as has often been observed, it will cost us everything. Are we still in on Jesus when we realize that fact?  What if following Jesus means that we will not be happy in this life? What if it means that we will be poor, or lonely, or misunderstood, or dissatisfied?  What if it leads to our death—or worse?

Learning to accept that the sacrifice to which we are called really is “good news” is just another part of acknowledging that God’s way is best.  And it is an ongoing task. Nevertheless, it is something that I had to do, at least at a basic level, before I could really form the intentionality that I needed to conform my life to God’s vision.

The third phase—finding the means to implement God’s vision for our lives—is the most problematic.  I have long said that the Bible tells us what we should do, but it often does not tell us how we should do it.  Still, Willard and others have found within Scripture good resources for helping people implement God’s vision in their lives.

I have found two biblical principles particularly helpful, and both have to do with the mind.  First, I try to focus on Jesus. Focusing on Jesus leaves less time and space for thinking about (much less doing) things that are not in conformity with God’s will.  Focusing on Jesus also reminds me that I am not alone. Jesus has already walked the road that I am walking, and he stands ready to help me.

Second, I try to implement the teaching of Philippians 4:8-9.  I work hard to focus my mind on things that are good. Focusing on these good things helps me see the bad things for what they are.  Willard has a lot more helpful advice, and, indeed, his advice is probably better than anything that I can generate. These are just the things that I have found in Scripture to help me.

The Payoff

Because of my exposure to Dallas Willard, I understand my task as a disciple of Jesus, and as a minister of the gospel, differently.  Knowledge is necessary and good, but dispelling ignorance is not our only (or, perhaps, even our primary) task. We sit at the feet of Jesus, learning from him about his vision for the world and about how that vision has—and has not—been realized in human history.  We acknowledge our own misgivings about his ways, and we ask him for the strength to adopt his ways as our own and to lead others to do the same. And we work under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit to find effective tools for transformation. Some of those tools will be found in our careful examination of Scripture, but I am convinced that others will be found when we turn our eyes towards a critical examination of how creation works.  In other words, the human sciences have their part to play in our endeavors, and we should use them to the best effect that we can to free people from slavery to sin and to lead them into the life that God wants for them.

B.H. Carroll Giving Day

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Published: May 8, 2018


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