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Dallas Willard’s Disciplines For Workaholics

“If there were a blood test for workaholism I’m sure Dallas would come up positive.” That’s a comment Jane Willard made to Gary Moon for his new biography Becoming Dallas Willard. (p. 138)

You may relate to Jane or to Dallas. Kristi and I do, as do many of the men and women in ministry we help.

Jane gave Dallas a sign, “Just say no!” She even got a team of people to “run herd” on him with his schedule. But he kept saying yes to students, pastors, leaders, publishers, and churches. He was giving to the one who asked of him as Jesus taught (Matt. 5:42).

He was also a study-aholic. Often he went into his study at home and locked the door for many hours (pp. 111, 153).

But Dallas didn’t stay stuck in his head or his workaholism. From my personal relationship with Dallas in the last decade of his life, I can attest that he was a wonderfully peaceful, joyful, hospitable, emotionally present, and gracious soul friend. Countless people, including those who knew him very well, have the same report.

How did he learn to keep his workaholism in check to be personally available to people as a spiritual teacher and as a soul friend to listen, gently guide, and pray? How did he become so much like Jesus?

Dallas took his own medicine and cultivated his prayer life — but not in a monkish way. The typical way that Christian spiritual formation is talked about didn’t work for Dallas Willard. Nor does it work for many of the pastors and leaders we help, especially those who are ambitious Type A’s, workaholics, and deep thinkers.

Dallas didn’t participate in formal retreats or practice “contemplative prayer” in the usual ways. His times for quiet solitude and spiritual disciplines were in his study, driving in his car, walking to class, watching ducks at the lake, fasting and meditating on chapters of Scripture during long plane flights, or being snowed in on a ministry trip to Chicago. (p. 154)

On occasion, Jane would find him lying down on the couch or sitting under a tree and he’d smile at her, “I know it may look like I’m not doing anything, but I’m actually working.” (p. 154) Prayer is the most important form of work.

Also, he disciplined himself to lay in bed in the morning and slowly recite the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23.

He liked to say that in solitude and silence, once you get past the jitters (from being adrenalized) then you find out who you really are (what you feel and need) and then you can experience the reality of God’s presence in your soul.

Dallas learned the secret of Jesus’ easy yoke. Most Christians misunderstand the “easy yoke” to refer to going on a retreat or doing something spiritual, but actually, it’s about getting work done in a relaxed and joyful way because we’re operating with Jesus in God’s power. We’re pulling a plow so hungry people can eat.

For instance, one time Dallas ministered Romans 8 from memory to a student while they were driving and “at the level of feeling” he appreciated the Word of God as “a living substance” and “the car was filled by glory… I was really never the same after that in how I thought about being loved by God.” (p. 155)

When I was with Dallas I saw him happy in Jesus. There was an anointing or real presence of the Holy Spirit on him that came from his prayer life. I experienced this when he listened to me for two hours at a time when we planned conferences together when he taught a class or seminar I was in, when we were in leadership meetings, or when we shared a meal.

“Watch for the hand of God to move and join in,” he always told me.

For two weeks in his Doctor of Ministry monastery class, I saw him every day strolling in the garden and smiling. When he taught he gave students opportunities to ask questions or to disagree with him and as he listened he put his hands behind his back to help him be open and non-defensive.

When I was waiting to meet with him outside of his USC office I’d hear him coming down the hallway and humming a hymn.

In church seminars, I heard him recite a passage of Scripture from memory and his voice would crack or he’d start to cry. At that moment I’d feel the Spirit of Jesus on me too.

He practiced frugality by driving an old car, living in a modest house, and dressing simply.

At conferences, he prayed for other speakers to be more successful than him.

After he spoke he let his presentation go like a helium balloon floating up into God’s hands.

I could go on and on! I think you can see how Dallas embedded spiritual disciplines into his daily living and working. They were so ingrained in him and made him so happy that in many cases they had ceased to be “disciplines”, but were simply part of his life.

Dallas Willard’s distinctive approach to spiritual disciplines in his own life is especially helpful for hard-working people. Of course, it’s not cookie-cutter! Each of us needs to look to the Lord Jesus as our coach who will help us customize a rhythm of life and work.

Listen to a previous companion SoulTalks podcast: DALLAS WILLARD: When Ministry-aholics Relax With Jesus Part 1


Listen to this week’s SoulTalk episode: Dallas taught Bill and Kristi to speak publicly with deeper reliance on the Holy Spirit. Bill shares his personal story of great anxiety when he spoke and how he learned to release himself of the pressure to perform and instead abandon outcomes to God. Hear how Dallas Willard’s commitment to speaking and living in and through the presence of God allowed him to speak with freedom and love as well as lead Bill and Kristi to experience the same. 

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