I heard the news yesterday that Dallas Willard, a great writer on life with God and spiritual formation, passed away after battling pancreatic cancer. Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California while also writing and speaking as a Christian on issues of cultivating life with God. He is perhaps best known for his work, The Divine Conspiracy, and his influence on many well-known evangelical Christians, such as John Ortberg (who sometimes refers to himself as “Dallas for Dummies”). You can read John Ortberg’s fine reflections on Dallas Willard’s life and legacy, “Dallas Willard, a man from another ‘Time Zone'”, here.
I first encountered Dallas Willard’s work through a professor of mine, Jim Wilhoit, who introduced me to Willard’s seminal work, The Spirit of the Disciplines. In that work, Willard opens up the concept of discipleship in a way that is much larger than many normally think. Discipleship is not just about imitating Jesus at certain moments (like WWJD) but is rather approaching all of life in the way that Jesus approached life. This is what Willard calls “the secret of the easy yoke,” referencing Matthew 11:29-30. He writes: “the secret of the easy yoke…involves living as Jesus lived in the entirety of his life – adopting his overall life-style” (5). That book is a profound – and dense! – exploration of spiritual practices that enable us to live like Jesus in “his overall lifestyle.”
That first encounter with Willard’s writing led me to another of his books, In Search of Guidance (now re-published under the title Hearing God). At a time in my life where I deeply wanted to hear God’s guidance about my life direction, Willard helped me again look at hearing from God within a more comprehensive way. Hearing from God about specific things, Willard asserts, flows from the development of a whole-life approach where we develop a conversational relationship with the living God like Jesus did. We have “the burning need for God to be a constant guiding presence in our individual lives” (ix). I still often refer people to this book when they are seeking to hear from God. Willard provides both the overall framework of hearing from God but also very specific and practical advice on how to hear from God. Some thoughts from this book led me into a day in solitude to refocus with God. During that day, I sensed God calling me into full-time vocational ministry as a pastor.
Of course, much more could be written about Willard’s other works: his piercing exposition of the Sermon on the Mount in The Divine Conspiracy, his philosophically and spiritually informed framework for Christian formation in Renovation of the Heart (the inspiration for the title of my blog), the collection of essays and articles on discipleship in The Great Omission, and his jam-packed apologetic for spiritual knowledge in Knowing Christ Today. His work was profound and yet often so dense that many – including me – find it hard to understand everything he is saying.
Beneath and within it all was a great thinker with a pastor’s heart to see individual Christians and the church enter into the full life with God that Jesus intended when he called people to follow Him. Because of this – and Willard’s great influence on my own life – today I thank God for the life of Dallas Willard.
For other resources on Dallas Willard, please see: