This morning Dallas Willard passed away. I’m not sure if anyone has told him yet.”
John Ortberg wrote these words in his personal reflections of his friend, Dallas Willard.
I was shocked and saddened this last week when I heard the news of Dallas Willard’s passing. Dallas is now experiencing the fullness of our transformation in Christ that he so passionately taught and he himself lived. I had the privilege of sitting under his tutelage and sharing meals with him for a week-long residency for my Master’s program. Dallas was an unassuming and kind man; brilliant, thoughtful and marked by humility. Those who knew him knew he was “the real deal.”
But even more than the remembering and honoring of the man (which he would adamantly oppose himself) I would like to focus on the great contribution to the spiritual life. We would do well to reflect on his words.
Willard challenged the typical approach to the spiritual life for most evangelical Christians. One of the key emphases within Willard’s thinking was that the spiritual life does not consist merely of things we do and do not do. It is not simply about action, but about a heart transformation. Thus, he says, we need to be transformed in our entirety from the inside-out.
Such transformation does not come merely through mental assent to a system of belief, but by ordering our entire lives around the life of Christ. We must enter the ‘easy yoke’ that Jesus referred to when he said: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart; and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
Willard astutely writes: ”The ease, lightness, and power of his Way we rarely enjoy, much less see, as the pervasive and enduring quality of our street-level human existence” (2).
Why is that? It is because we have shunned his Way for a misdirected sidestepping of true spiritual transformation. We have settled for religious activity without submitting to the metamorphic process by which we become altogether new creations (2 Cor 5:17).
Willard perceived that one of the faults of today’s church to be that we go out and make converts but not disciples–people who accept a certain church’s formula for salvation but are not necessarily in the process of training to be more and more like Jesus.
Willard wrote, “Generally, what I find is that the ordinary people who come to church are basically running their lives on their own, utilizing ‘the arm of the flesh’—their natural abilities—to negotiate their way,” he says. “They believe there is a God and they need to check in with him. But they don’t have any sense that he is an active agent in their lives. As a result, they don’t become disciples of Jesus.”
One of the key practices in our spiritual transformation, he taught, was fixing our minds on Christ. It is the first level of our freedom in Christ. “Set your mind on God first and always. Psalm 16:8 – ‘I have set the Lord always before me.’ This will take care of 99% of your troubles.”
All of the disciplines of the Christian life help us here. Jesus spent time in solitude, and so must we. Jesus spent time in prayer, and so must we. Jesus spent time fasting, and so must we. Obviously, the list could go on.
Spiritual disciplines are activities “undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His Kingdom” (156). They are the same means that Jesus utilized to be only about His Father’s business. They are the same means that enabled Peter and Paul to be attentive to God’s guidance in life.
The pathway for true spiritual transformation is not just asking ‘what would Jesus do?’ but entering into the entire way, truth, and life of Jesus. Only then can we be changed.