Dallas Willard on the Kingdom of God: insights on what it is and how God rules

Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, is one of my favorite books of all time. In this book, Willard explores what discipleship is all about through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Much of Willard’s work in the book builds from the accessibility of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ. This is at least part of what I was trying to speak about in my message this past weekend at Eastbrook, “The Holy Spirit in Us: Living in the Kingdom of God Now.” Here is an extended quotation from Willard on the kingdom of God that I find particularly helpful.


“Now God’s own ‘kingdom,’ or ‘rule,’ is the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done. The person of God himself and the action of his will are the organizing principles of his kingdom, but everything that obeys those principles, whether by nature of by choice is within his kingdom.

“The Old Testament book of Psalms comes to a joyous, breathtaking celebration of God’s kingdom in Psalms 145-150. The picture there presented must be kept in mind whenever we try to understand his kingdom. Then we will not doubt that that kingdom has exited from the moment of creation and will never end (Ps. 145:13; Dan. 7:14). It cannot be ‘shaken’ (Heb. 12:27f.) and is totally good. It has never been in trouble and never will be. It is not something that human beings produce or, ultimately, can hinder. We do have an invitation to be a part of it, but if we refuse we only hurt ourselves.

“Accordingly, the kingdom of God is not essentially a social or political reality at all. Indeed, the social and political realm, along with the individual heart, is the only place in all of creation where the kingdom of God, or his effective will, is currently permitted to be absent. That realm is the ‘on earth’ of the Lord’s Prayer that is opposed to the ‘in heaven’ where God’s will is, simply, done. It is the realm of what is cut out ‘by hands,’ opposed to the kingdom ‘cut out without hands’ of Daniel, chapter 2.

“Thus, contrary to a popular idea, the kingdom of God is not primarily something that is ‘in the hearts of men.’ That kingdom may by there, and it may govern human beings through their faith and allegiance to Christ. At the present time it governs them only through their hearts, if at all. But his kingdom is not something confined to their hearts or to the ‘inner’ world of human consciousness. It is not some matter of inner attitude or faith that might be totally diconnected from the public, behavioral, visible world. It always pervades and governs the whole of the physical universe—parts of planet earth occupied by humans and other personal beings, the satanic, slight excepted for a while….

“So when Jesus directs us to pray, ‘The kingdom come,’ he does not mean that we should pray for it to come into existence. Rather, we pray for it to take over at all points in the personal, social, and political order where it is now excluded: ‘On earth as it is in heaven.’ With this prayer we are invoking it, as in faith we are acting it, into the real world of our daily existence.”

[From Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), 25-26.]

Discipline is the Price of Freedom

discipline

I came across this excerpt from D. Elton Trueblood’s 1970 book The New Man for Our Time on the topic of spiritual discipline. It caught my attention as I continue to give attention to the disciplines of grace necessary for us to grow in the spiritual life, drawing upon the influence of writers like Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, as well as other spiritual writers of much earlier eras and today.

When we begin to ask what the conditions of inner renewal are, we receive essentially the same answers from nearly all of those whom we have most reason to respect. One major answer is the emphasis upon discipline. In the conduct of one’s own life it is soon obvious, as many have learned the hard way, that empty freedom is a snare and a delusion. In following what comes naturally or easily, life simply ends in confusion, and in consequent disaster. Without the discipline of time, we spoil the next day the night before, and without the discipline of prayer, we are likely to end by having practically no experience of the divine-human encounter. However compassionate we may be with others, we dare not be soft or indulgent with ourselves. Excellence comes at a price, and one of the major prices is that of inner control.

We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matter is the character of our binding. The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously and to live abstemiously denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life with the dictum: Discipline is the price of freedom.

[From D. Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).]

How Does Spiritual Formation Happen?: themes of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart

DallasWillard-sm

This summer, I have been returning to some classic guidance on spiritual formation, am reflecting on how spiritual formation happens in our individual lives and in the church as a whole. I shared a reflection from Eugene Peterson yesterday, and have peppered in other thoughts on my blog over recent weeks. Having just re-read Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart this summer, I wanted to offer a high level summary of Willard’s thinking in that book here.

Willard says that spiritual formation must take account of the various aspects of our being: spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social, and soul. It is only when we thoughtfully account for all these aspects of our person that whole spiritual transformation will truly happen. He writes:

It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.” (41-42)

Such transformation happens according to “the general pattern of personal transformation, which also applies to spiritual formation” (85), which Willard describes with the acronym VIM, which stands for vision, intention, and means.

  • Vision: “The vision that underlies spiritual (trans)formation into Christlikeness is, then, the vision of life now and forever in the range of God’s effectives will—that is, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1-2) through a birth ‘from above’ and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in our lifetime on earth….What we are aiming for in this vision is to live fully in the kingdom of God and as fully as possible now and here, not just hereafter” (87).
  • Intention: “We can actually decide to do it…first of all to trust him, rely on him, to count on him being the Anointed One, the Christ…Concretely, we intend to live in the kingdom by intending to obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus….Now, on intention is brought to completion only by a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention (87-88).
  • Means: “Here the means in question are the means for spiritual transformation, for the replacing of the inner character the lost with the inner character of Jesus: his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character” (89).

This must be vigorously and holistically applied to our lives with God’s grace for growth. When we do that, what does it look like? Willard cites these passage as a “New Testament descriptions of what the apprentices of Jesus are to be like”:

  • Matthew 5-7
  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12-7:1
  • Galatians 5:22-6:10
  • Ephesians 4:20-6:20
  • Philippians 2:3-16; 4:4-9
  • Colossians 3:1-4:6
  • 1 Peter 2:1-3:16
  • 2 Peter 1:2-10
  • 1 John 4:7-21

In the local church, while the individual work is intimately involved, the plan for spiritual formation is built around the definition of Matthew 28:18-20:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Specifically, Willard describes three essential emphases for churches to really move toward this reality of spiritual formation in their life together (240):

  1. Making disciples – the church must aim for actually apprenticing people to Jesus in their lives
  2. Immersing the apprentices at all levels of growth in the Trinitarian presence – the church must call disciples into the lived presence of the Triune God that is accessible and available at all times and in all spheres of our lives
  3. Transforming disciples inwardly – through spiritual practices/disciplines, the church must help disciples grow in such a way that doing the words and deeds of Christ is not the focus but the natural outcome or side effect of living

This is Willard’s basic thrust in Renovation of the Heart, which helps us see how true spiritual formation in Christlikeness happens in the lives of the individual believer and local church.

What Is the Essential Virtue?: further insights about the easy yoke from Dallas Willard

Renovation of the HeartYesterday I shared an excerpt from Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart about what Willard sees as the essence of discipleship in the easy yoke of Jesus referenced in Matthew 11:28-30. I wanted to share one additional thought from Willard on this, which flows directly from living as a disciple of Jesus within His easy yoke.

When we abandon outcomes to God, living in true soul rest in God through Jesus Christ, we live with honest assessment of our inability to live the “with-God” life on our own. As you would guess, to truly live the life with God calls us to life, not relying upon ourselves and our own strength, but upon God and His strength. This leads us to a fundamental posture of humility, which Willard describes further in what follows.

Humility is the framework within which all virtue lives. Angela of Foligno observe, ‘Our Lord did not say: Learn of Me to despise the world and live in poverty . . . but only this: Learn of Me for I am gentle and lowly of heart.’ And ‘One of the signs by which a man may know that he is in a state of grace is this—that he is never puffed up.’ Accordingly, we are to ‘clothe [ourselves] with humility,’ Peter said (1 Peter 5:5), which certainly means loss of self-sufficiency. ‘God gives grace to the humble,’ he continues. ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you’ (verses 5-70. Humility is a great secret of rest of soul because it dose not presume to secure outcomes.

Here is a simple fact: We live in a world where, by God’s appointment, ‘the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The Lord ‘does not delight in the strength of the horse; He does not take pleasure in the legs of a man’ (Psalm 147:10). He has a plan for our life that goes far beyond anything we can work out and secure by means of strong horses and good legs.

We simply have to rest in his life as he gives it to us. Knowledge, from Christ, that he is good and great enables us to cast outcomes on him. We find this knowledge in the yoke of Christ. Resting in God, we can be free from all anxiety, which means deep soul rest. Whatever our circumstance, taught by Christ we are enabled to ‘rest [be still] in the Lord and wait patiently [or longingly] for Him’ (Psalm 37:7). We don’t fret or get angry because others seem to be doing better than we are, even though they are less deserving than we.

[From Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 209-210.]

For more on the topic of humility, you may enjoy reading my ten reflections on Andrew Murray’s short but powerful book Humility, which begins here.

What Does It Look Like to Rest in God?: insights about the easy yoke from Dallas Willard

Renovation of the HeartOne of the most striking aspects of the writing and teaching of Dallas Willard is his ability to open up with fresh perspective what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One of Willard’s most powerful contributions to disciple is found in his explanation of Jesus’ well-known invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Willard refers to our discipleship response to this invitation as living in “the secret of the easy yoke” in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines. As I am currently re-reading Renovation of the Heart, I came across this basic description of what Willard sees as the essence of discipleship in the easy yoke of Jesus. I hope it speaks to you as much as it did to me.

Jesus heard the soul’s cries from the wearied humanity he saw around him. He saw the soul’s desperate need in those who struggled with the overwhelming tasks of their life. Such weariness and endless labor was, to him, a sure sign of a sou not properly rooted in God—a soul, in effect, on its own. He saw the multitudes around him, and it tore his heart, for they were ‘distressed and downcast’ like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36). And he invited such people to come and become his students (‘learn of me’) by yoking themselves to him—that is, letting him show them how he would pull their load. He is not ‘above’ this, as earthly ‘great ones’ are, for he is meek and lowly of heart (Matthew 11:28-30).

His own greatness of soul made meekness and lowliness the natural way for him to be (Philippians 2:3-11). Being in his yoke is not a matter of taking on additional labor to crush us all the more, but a matter of learning how to use his strength and ours together to bear our load  and his. We will find his yoke an easy one and his burden a light one because, in learning from him, we have found rest to our soul. What we have learned is, primarily, to rest our soul in God. Rest to our soul is rest in God. My soul is at peace only when it is with God, as a child with its mother.

What we most learn in his yoke, beyond acting with him, is to abandon outcomes to God, accepting that we do not have in ourselves—in our own ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’—the wherewithal to make this come out right, whatever ‘this’ is. Even if we ‘suffer according to the will of God,’ we simple ‘entrust our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right’ (1 Peter 4:19). Now, this is a major part of that meekness and lowliness of heart that we also learn in his yoke. And what rest comes with it!

[From Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 209.]