Many of the pastors and leaders that we work with in our Soul Shepherding ministry have heard my wife Kristi and I reference how Dallas Willard has helped us to follow and serve Jesus. They’ve asked us to share more about what God has taught us through our mentor. In this article I answer that question by sharing a few personal examples of my Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Ministry to Me.
An Author Mentor Became a Soul Friend
Years ago I heard Earl Palmer say, “Find a Christian author who can lead you to Christ. Read everything this author has written and become his or her student.”
I sensed God talking to me. I wanted to do this, but whom would I study under? Earl Palmer said he had done that with CS Lewis. That’d be a lot of books! And at the time I had three small children and was busy establishing a private practice as a Psychologist. So I waited, holding this before the Lord in prayer.
When I approached 40 years old I had a nagging sense of emptiness. My marriage, family, home, and career we’re all going well, but I felt flat spiritually – I had lost my longing for Christ and my zeal for serving him.
Then I listened to Dallas Willard speak at a conference about spiritual transformation in Christ. My heart was re-awakened to Christ and his kingdom in my midst! Afterwards, I introduced myself to Dallas. His warm smile, the way he listened to me and affirmed me, and the insights that God gave him to speak into my situation confirmed what I sensed God whispering to my heart in Dallas’ seminar: “This is the author mentor you’ve been waiting for.”
Over the next seven years I read and re-read Dallas’ books, spent hundreds of hours listening to his teachings via CD, participated with him in a variety of meetings with other ministry leaders, and met with him privately for spiritual mentoring. The result has been that more and more Dallas’ thinking about life with God has become a part of me. So you can understand why it was such an honor for me to speak with him to address a group of 1,000 pastors and lay leaders as part of a Renovaré spiritual formation conference.
I made Dallas Willard my mentor. He made me his friend and he helped me to follow Jesus Christ, the ultimate Mentor, in ways that have made me more like my Lord in daily living and in ministry to pastors and others.
I pray that God will use my personal reflections on Dallas’ ministry to me to lead you to be with Jesus and become more like him too.
The first time I met privately with Dallas at his office at the University of Southern California I was overcome with how blessed and honored I felt to have time to converse and pray with him about my life and my ministry to pastors and leaders. Dallas immediately put me at ease and set me straight. He didn’t want to be “Dr. Willard” to me; he just wanted to be “Dallas.” And he didn’t want me to be impressed with him; he wanted me to focus on Jesus. Dallas treated me as a soul friend. He said that we were colleagues, following Jesus together.
Sometimes after meeting with Dallas I’ve asked myself why I spend so much time talking to him instead of just listening to the brilliant things he has to say! But the truth is that I can continue to glean his wisdom about life with God through his books and speaking and what I’ve really needed is for him to help me to think and pray through my application of his teachings to things like how I listen for God’s voice and how I lead spiritual formation groups for ministry leaders.
Dallas shares the gracious hospitality of Christ with me and whoever he comes in contact with: listening to students who approach him as he’s walking along, remembering the names of former students from decades ago who drop by his office, being patient with people who disagree with him, complimenting the waitress who serves him, helping the homeless that beg from him.
Most leaders of Dallas’ stature would not have made time to talk to me. I believe that Dallas’ hospitable heart towards people like me comes out of his participation in the kingdom of God. I’ve seen how he avoids hurry and how he resists being overwhelmed by the stacks of papers he needs to grade. I’ve heard him humming hymns as he walks down the hall before turning the corner to where I’m waiting to meet with him.
From Dallas being “Dallas,” not “Dr. Willard,” I’ve learned to appreciate that I have one Master and one Teacher, Jesus Christ (Matthew 23:8-12). So in my conversations, teaching, counseling, and in all I do – in these words I’m writing to you right now – I don’t want to impress people with me, I just want to draw them to Jesus as Dallas has done for me.
Live in God’s Kingdom Right Now!
Everything I have gleaned from Dallas comes out of his understanding of Jesus’ Gospel. And he has taught me to think carefully about my thinking because I live at the mercy of my ideas! Right thinking about God and life with him is the starting place for me to be formed by God in the image of Christ.
I used to think that the Gospel was: “Believe the right things about Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die.” I found this to be insufficient. In fact, that’s largely why I became a Christian Psychologist. Then another Gospel came into view for me: “Love people like Christ does to bring them healing and freedom. This is the purpose of life.” But Dallas taught me that these were only partial Gospels and that Jesus’ Gospel was: “Think again about how you are living your daily life in light of the opportunity to do all that you do in the kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 4:17, Dallas’ paraphrase).
The kingdom of God had been a largely unknown reality to me. I did not think much about it or even have a good grasp of what it was except that I hoped to go there when I died! Dallas helped me to understand that God’s kingdom is not far off and way later but it is God in action right now, God ruling all around me; it’s not just a hope for the future, it’s an eternally present reality that I can count on.
Dallas defines the kingdom of God as, “The range of God’s effective will; it’s where what God wants done is done.” And the good news is that the King is kind! The One with all the power knows me and loves me and has good purposes for me! He offers for me to live my whole life not in terms of the visible world, but in terms of his kingdom of the heavens in my midst.
Participating in the reality of God’s kingdom day-by-day became the storyline of my life, replacing other false and harmful narratives. Even though I “knew” better, deep down in my heart I used to think things like:
- “God is distant; I’m on my own.”
- “I have to do well to be loved by God.”
- “Sometimes God needs to be harsh with me to get me in line.”
- “I can’t be happy unless the person I’m with is happy.”
- “I need to be in control to be safe.”
- “I need to make things happen if I’m going to succeed.”
Instead I learned to respond to Jesus’ Good News adventure: “Right now I can do what I’m doing in God’s glorious kingdom of light and love. God is with me. I am accepted. I am safe and secure. I am empowered by God to do the work of his kingdom with him.” And what security, strength, and significance I experience as I learn more and more how to bring my life into God’s kingdom.
Become Jesus’ Apprentice
When I met Dallas I had been a Christian for almost 35 years. As I said earlier, my spiritual life had been flat for a number of years, but Christians who knew me referred to me as a “committed Christian” and a “disciple of Jesus.” The partial Gospel I had understood and committed myself to left me empty. Dallas showed me that the opportunity of my life was at hand: Jesus was taking apprentices in kingdom living! I could learn to do all that I do in interaction with Jesus in order to become like him. My whole life could be Jesus’ classroom for me to learn from him. I decided to become Jesus’ apprentice for life and this became the foundation of my identity, well-being, and power for life and ministry.
Like many Christians I had often approached situations in my life by asking WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) But Dallas showed me that this left things at a superficial level. I needed to use some different letters, a different question: HWJDI? (How Would Jesus Do It?) Dallas taught me to study the Gospels carefully and thoughtfully, to consider Jesus’ life when he was out of the public eye (reading between the lines of Scripture in a sense), like from the ages of 12 to 30 when he worked as a blue collar worker or in his early morning prayer times when he met alone with his Abba or as he was walking along the road with his disciples and needy people came at him from nowhere. Dallas taught me to observe the way Jesus did what he did and to incorporate this humility and graciousness into my personality and daily life situations.
In the mystery of the incarnation Jesus Christ, our Lord, had to learn to obey the Father (Hebrews 5:8). Our sinless Savior had to grow in wisdom and favor with God (Luke 2:52). He practiced living out the Great Commission before he gave it to us: he apprenticed himself to the Father, immersed in the Trinitarian presence, and obeyed the Father and the Scriptures in all things (Matthew 28:18-20, Dallas’ paraphrase). I learn how to live as Jesus’ apprentice by watching how he lived as an apprentice to the Father. And as I live with Christ in “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19) I can lead other people to follow Christ with me.
Abandon Outcomes to God
When Dallas was a young aspiring minister he was a street preacher. One day he was having difficulty finding a good place to preach because the streets were crowded with students standing on crates to deliver the Word of God. And he sensed the voice of the Lord come to him: “Don’t look for a place to preach – look to have something to say.” (I should clarify that Dallas is quick to say, “There is nothing wrong with looking for a place to preach. But this was God’s advice for me and it has served me well.”)
This is an example of what Dallas later came to refer to as, “abandoning outcomes to God,” an expression that makes submission to the Lord concrete. Dallas says that “turning loose to God” the things in his life has helped him to let his career become a “careen!” God is in charge and Dallas is along for the ride! God is the one to provide speaking engagements, promotions, book contracts, or whatever. And to keep his focus on advancing God’s kingdom and not his own, Dallas regularly meets with a team of trusted spiritual friends and advisors who help him to discern what opportunities God wants him to say yes to.
If we’re honest, most of us must admit that in our lives and ministries we have tried to “make things happen” or we’ve pleaded with God for him to make something that we want to happen. We want our project of a successful life (e.g., marriage, family, finances, health, career, or ministry) to turn out well and we’re ready to use God or Biblical wisdom as a means to that end. But the way of life that Jesus modeled for us is to live in submission to the Father in all things: withdrawing from crowds and activities to be alone with Abba, listening for his voice, waiting on his timing, following his lead. Jesus said, “I only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19, paraphrased) and, “This happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 19:24 and elsewhere).
Abandoning the outcomes of situations in my life to God has been a learning process for me. Like many of the pastors and leaders I minister to, my nature is ambitious to excel, perfectionistic, and eager to please people. And yet I have found for myself and the people I counsel and teach that when we abandon to God our agendas, expectations, and what people think of us – taking our kingdom (or “queendom”) and submitting it to God’s kingdom – we come to live in Jesus’ “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30), God’s peace settles us down and frees us from anxiety. And this puts us in position, as Dallas likes to say, “to watch for the hand of God to move and join what he’s doing.”
Each of us needs to discover in our own personal experience the wonderful sufficiency of God’s kingdom: God is enough! If we have nothing else going for us and we have God with us and on our side then we are truly blessed! For instance, I have learned that it is possible for me not to succeed, not to get what I want, not to be appreciated by others, or to be in physical pain and yet to rejoice in these trials because like the Apostle John I am the disciple Jesus loves! (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20). In fact, I often remind myself (before it happens) that it is good for my character formation in Christ for me to fail, get disappointed, be criticized, or suffer an ailment because these are opportunities for me to be left leaning on and clinging to Christ alone.
Practice the Spirit of the Disciplines
Dallas is widely appreciated for his teaching on the disciplines of the spiritual life, but perhaps many people miss his emphasis that more important than the specific spiritual practices we use is why we do them: it’s the “spirit of the disciplines” that is the key to transformation in Christ-likeness. And the reason why we need to practice disciplines is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
But what is grace? We are confused about this today. Dallas explains that God’s grace is more than “unmerited favor.” If that’s all we know about grace it might paralyze us! We can’t sit back on a lounge chair and expect God’s grace to fall on us like sunshine! Receiving God’s grace is not a passive thing. Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. That’s why Peter urges us to “grow” in grace and it’s why he connects grace with knowing the Lord in an interactive and intimate relationship. Practically speaking, grace is God acting on our behalf right now!
So to grow in God’s grace Dallas says we need to do our part. Along these lines, he explains, “A spiritual discipline is something we can do that enables us to do what we can’t yet do by direct effort.” It’s like the preparations I have done in order to run marathons. I couldn’t have just decided one day to get out of bed and run 26.2 miles! I had to gradually build up my mileage, stretch before and after running, do weight workouts, know when to rest, eat healthy, and so forth. This is the analogy that Paul uses, for instance, when he says, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).
In Dallas’ thinking it is essential that our spiritual training program with Christ access our heart, which in the Biblical understanding is our will, not our feelings. This means being honest with God. Indeed, if we do disciplines rightly then one of the things that will result is that the Holy Spirit will help us to become more aware of the sins, stresses, hurts, or weaknesses in us that need to be brought into the light of God. We need to access our heart so that at the center of our being, and ultimately in all that we do, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
That’s when the fun begins – when we submit to God and look for him to bring his kingdom to bear on the situation! Dallas has urged me again and again in my life with God and in my ministry to approach what I do experimentally, venturing on God and his kingdom with an open mind and an expectant faith. Spiritual disciplines have helped me greatly in this regard… What might God say to me if I fasted and prayed before making this decision? How would God grow me spiritually if I gave one day every week as a Sabbath for prayer and rest? What would God do in the ministry meeting I lead if we spent the first half of it in meditation on Scripture and sharing our hearts with one another and then we covered the business?
I’ve also learned from Dallas that for spiritual disciplines to be effective in helping me to become more like Christ I need to balance out my practice of the disciplines of engagement and the disciplines of abstinence. Like most evangelical Christians, before I met Dallas I focused on devotional practices like Bible study, worship, prayer, fellowship, confession, and service. But Dallas urged me also to use self-denial practices like silence, solitude, fasting, frugality, secrecy, and sacrifice. It is when we “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11) that we make space in our souls to engage with God and others, which in turn encourages and sustains us greatly.
For instance, Dallas has encouraged me to use regular times of extended silence and solitude with Jesus to help me to “unhook” from all the ways that people and the world can get a hold of me and to discover that in lonely places with God I am not alone and “He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3). Dallas has also exhorted me to memorize and meditate on Scripture, especially long passages from the Bible that in his words are “electrifying” with the life of God, like these favorites of mine: Luke 12:22-34, Colossians 3:1-17, 1 Corinthians 13, Philippians 3:7-14 and 4:4-13, Psalms 16, 23, 27, 46, 91, and many other Psalms. Spending hours going over and over one passage of Scripture like this and praying God’s Word into my life and the life of other people has helped me to take on the mind of Christ, not just for my Sabbath time, but in daily life also.
And I have found that when the Word of Christ dwells in me richly (Colossians 3:16) then, as Martin Luther taught, I can use it as a “pocket lighter” for meditation and prayer throughout the day, practicing God’s presence in all that I do, which Dallas says is the point of having a “quiet time.” (“Get the fire started so you can keep it going all day long.”) Learning to be in tune with God’s presence in daily life trains me for what Dallas believes is the key to effective ministry: rely on the presence and anointing of the Holy Spirit rather than just my own strength and abilities.
Learn to Obey Jesus
One day, not long after I first met Dallas, I was driving down the freeway and listening to his teaching. I was hurrying because I was late for an appointment. A rude driver cut in front of me recklessly. Irritated, I crowded his bumper.
Just then Dallas said to me: “Jesus says that we are to bless those that curse us. Do you do this? How would you learn to become the kind of person who naturally and spontaneously offers a blessing to someone who offends or mistreats you? You get a lot of chances to practice this when you drive on the freeway and people cut you off. This is an example that spiritual formation in Christ must be made concrete. Jesus’ teachings are very practical; he teaches us how to deal with the things we struggle with every day.”
It was as if Dallas was sitting in the passenger seat of my car! From the CD player in my car the Holy Spirit used Dallas to convict me of my angry reactions to rude drivers and to challenge me to become a more generous-spirited person. But I had tried to change my impatient, aggressive behavior before. What would make things different this time?
Dallas’ wisdom was: “Don’t try – train!” Trying harder just gets us more of the same problem and adds frustration to it! Instead we need to learn to train with Jesus to learn from him how to rely on God’s grace in new ways. So I began a program of learning to bless the drivers that “cursed” me rather than getting angry at them. The Lord Jesus became my Coach and my car became our workout gym!
I practiced a variety of spiritual disciplines to help me to put on the character of Christ. I watched and prayed with Jesus before I got into my car: “Lord, thank you for your mercy to me when I offend you. Help me to bless those that curse me as you do for me.” And I trained myself whenever another driver offended me to pray, “Hallowed by Thy name.” At first, I did this through gritted teeth! And sometimes I got angry anyway, but I kept going to God for mercy and I stuck with my training program. Gradually I learned to become less irritated with rude drivers and more appreciative of the preciousness of the name and presence of the Lord with me. One thing that helped me with this was learning to drive slower and to use my time in the car for meditation and prayer. Eventually, I learned to pray with compassion for rude drivers (most of the time!): “Dear Father, I’m happy to let this driver go ahead of me. He’s in a hurry. Protect him as he drives. Help him to get home safely to his family.”
What about when my wife got frustrated with me? Or when someone I was ministering to criticized me? Or when a co-worker slandered me behind my back? There are many opportunities to bless those that curse us! I discovered that they were all just like having someone cut me off on the freeway. Learning how to be patient and generous on the freeway helped me to do so in many other situations. I thank the Lord that more and more I saw that what came out of me when I was mistreated was not anger or defensiveness, but the mercy of Christ.
Blessing those that curse us is one example of learning to obey Jesus from our hearts by relying on the Holy Spirit. There are others like: Be the light of your world… Do not get angry; forgive… Do not lust; show respect… Do not worry; trust your Father… (Matthew 5 – 7). Jesus sets before us a life of practical holiness, a life that works well, a life of love for God and others in which we will good for whoever is near us at the moment. This is a fundamental component of the Great Commission that Jesus gave us (Matthew 28:18-20). And yet in recent generations it has been hard to find groups of Christians who are implementing a comprehensive plan for learning to obey Jesus. Dallas calls this “the great omission in the Great Commission.”
Thankfully, in our generation Dallas’ ministry is changing this. Dallas has helped spiritual formation leaders like me to put on the character of Christ personally and then to teach others to, as Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, paraphrase). For instance, recently James Bryan Smith came out with the “Apprentice Series” of books designed to help people (especially in small groups) learn how to become like Christ. Dallas calls this, “The best practice I have seen in Christian spiritual formation.”
Pray for Others to Succeed More than Self
Imagine the Christian world today with all the churches in a city uniting together for the kingdom. Imagine if Christ-followers like you and I routinely and naturally sought to bless and promote one another over our own selves. Imagine the fulfillment of Jesus’ John 17 prayer for all of his disciples to be one even as the members of the Trinity are one. Dallas has shown me that this is possible, one person at a time.
Most of us in life and ministry face temptations to be jealous of other people’s success or to compete with them. Yet, Paul taught us: “In humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). This is what Dallas does and I have learned to emulate this from him. He prays for God to bless other ministers, speakers, and authors more than himself. This is his way to die to envy and selfish ambition and to will good for others. And yet it seems to me that the more Dallas prays for others to surpass him the more God blesses his own ministry!
Along these lines, time and again Dallas has urged me not to quote him so much (as you can see I’m not following his wishes in this article!), but to just use whatever I’ve learned from him as if it were my own thinking. He says, “If it’s any good it came from God anyway!” This is so refreshing in an age in which so many of us Christian leaders hurry to copyright whatever we write in order to protect our interests, stake out our turf, and promote our name.
Dallas gives his highest priority to mentoring pastoral leaders. In fact, recently when I was discussing with him my own ministry to pastors he said to me, “Well, pastors are only the most important people on earth!” Dallas has impacted thousands of people with Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom through his speaking and writing ministry and yet the Christian leaders that he has mentored have reached an even greater number of people. How can we measure the impact for the kingdom of God in our generation of Richard Foster, John Ortberg, JP Moreland, James Bryan Smith, John Coe? The list goes on and on of Christian pastors, theologians, philosophers, and psychologists that call Dallas a spiritual father, mentor, and friend.
Isn’t this just like Jesus? His greatest legacy was the 120 ministry leaders that he discipled. These men and women gave their lives to follow him, were ready to die for him, received the power of his Spirit, and reached the world with his Gospel (Acts 1:13).
I thank God that the Spirit of Christ has lived so powerfully through Dallas Willard and that some of the mind of Christ and anointing of the Holy Spirit in Dallas has come to live in me!
My wife Kristi and I have a ministry of soul care and spiritual formation mentoring for pastors and leaders called Soul Shepherding. Dallas and Jane Willard have been personal mentors to us. It is our joy to pass on what we have learned over the years from them and others.