Posts Tagged ‘Dallas Willard’

“Supplying Every Need,” Day 5: It’s a cat’s life

October 30, 2015

cover_graphic3I recently created a 14-day devotional booklet for my church called “Supplying Every Need.” We’re using it to prepare for our upcoming Stewardship Commitment Sunday on November 8. I will be posting a devotional each day between now and then. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34

Our cat, Peanut, is the very picture of contentment. Obviously a creature that sleeps 18 hours a day doesn’t worry about much. He doesn’t worry, for example, where his next meal is coming from. When his food bowl is empty, he’s learned through experience that all he has to do is meow and purr loudly and rub up against the leg of some human being in the house and one of us will fill his bowl.

Our cat, Peanut, obviously doesn't worry about much.

Our cat, Peanut, obviously doesn’t worry about much.

Peanut is being exactly what God created him to be. He doesn’t worry; he isn’t anxious. Instead he lives in a relationship of complete dependence on us humans—day by day—never doubting for a moment that we’ll provide everything he requires to live.

This is Jesus’ point about the birds of the air: it’s not that they don’t work. As Dallas Willard points out, “They are among the busiest citizens of the earth.” They work hard, “but our feathered friends do not seem to worry about the physical supports of their life, such as food and water and shelter. They simply seek it as they need it and take what they find. And that is how we should be. Having our treasures in heaven frees us to live simply in the present so far as our vital needs are concerned. We work hard, of course, and we care for our loved ones. But we do not worry—not even about them. Having food and clothing and God, we can be content.”[1]

Jesus used birds and flowers to make his point about not worrying. What can a cat or dog teach you about it? As you go through your day today, make note of how frequently you start to worry. Whenever you feel worry coming on, use it as a cue to pray: “God, please handle this thing that I’m worried about. I’m putting it in your hands.”

1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 209-10.

We are never “in the black” with God

September 2, 2015

I just read an extraordinarily good essay on marriage by Ada Calhoun in her “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. (It’s from July of this year.) But I’m less interested right now in the substance of the column—which, again, is excellent, and you should read—than in these three paragraphs:

One thing I love about marriage (and I love a lot of things about marriage) is that you can have a bad day or even a bad few years, full of doubt and fights and confusion and storming out of the house. But as long as you don’t get divorced, you are no less married than couples who never have a hint of trouble (I am told such people exist).

You can be bad at a religion and still be 100 percent that religion. Just because you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t make you suddenly a non-Christian. You can be a sinner. In fact, I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner, just as you are sure to be lousy, at least sometimes, at being married. There is perfection only in death.

It is easy for people who have never tried to do anything as strange and difficult as being married to say marriage doesn’t matter, or to condemn those who fail at it, or to mock those who even try. But there is so much beauty in the trying, and in the failing, and in the trying again. Peter renounced Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And yet, he was the rock upon whom Christ built his church.

“I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner.”

I love this, even though it grates slightly against something I profess to believe.

Within my particular ecclesial tradition, after all, we have this doctrine of perfection, that we can be “entirely sanctified” by the Holy Spirit, such that we’ll no longer sin—in this life, prior to death. In fact, we Methodist clergy tell our bishop, at ordination, that we expect to be perfected in our lifetime. It is, by far, Wesleyan Christianity’s most eccentric doctrine, and one that I hold to very—ahem—loosely.

According to my Wesleyan theology professor in seminary, Wesley himself didn’t know anyone for whom this had happened, and Wesley didn’t claim that he was yet perfected.

So maybe we can just concede that “perfection in love” is a remote possibility at best—and not something to get hung up on? Plus, I worry that this doctrine inflicts too much harm on people like me, whose consciences are already tender and easily wounded. Satan—whose name literally means “the accuser“—constantly whispers in my ear: “You are a failure. You are unlovable. You are a disappointment to others.” And now I have this other voice telling me, “You can be perfect. You should be perfect. What’s your problem?”

[I’m not saying that the doctrine of perfection, properly understood, inevitably leads to my particular struggle. And I’m happy to say that Satan’s “whispers” (no, not a literal voice in my head!) aren’t nearly as loud as they used to be. I’ve learned strategies to cope with them, thank God!]

All that to say, I mostly agree with this columnist’s view of what counts as “good theology.” And we need to keep this good theology in mind in light of the idea I expressed in yesterday’s post, “‘Learning to Love the Bomb’ of Our Past Failures.”

One thoughtful commenter, my friend Tom, said he struggled with the idea that we can be grateful, not merely for the tragedies of our lives that we don’t cause, but even for the tragedies that we do cause, usually in part through our own sinful choices. (In my experience, most “tragedies” are self-inflicted.) He wrote:

What a difficult issue for me!… It is true that everything “shapes us,” so if the ultimate result is a good thing, maybe we can even be “happy” for those bad things along the way. This is okay for the “mishaps,” but more problematic for the “misdeeds.” I mean I am really in conflict over this point you are making. I think on the one hand you could be right–on the other, should I acknowledge that I could have been even a better “specimen” had I gone straight rather than on detours? “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Should Samson be as happy about how he ended up as Daniel?

As I said in reply, it’s not a question of being “as happy as” someone who was more faithful to the Lord than we were; it’s a question of seeing, in retrospect—after genuine repentance for our sin—that God has indeed used the experience to help us, to heal us, to save us.

I can’t psychoanalyze Samson, but if his actions at the end of his story reflect genuine repentance, then, yes, even in his death, I imagine that he was “happy,” if you want to put it that way. He was at least at peace. His life had finally resolved all the contradictions that led him to that terrible place, and for that he could surely be grateful. He could take satisfaction, in the end, that he was finally getting his life right with God.

Who knows?

I continued in my reply:

I don’t draw as sharp a distinction between “mishaps” and “misdeeds,” simply because sin remains pervasive in our lives, regardless what is happening to us. God is always relating to us, as the late Dallas Willard memorably said, “on the basis of pity.” We don’t cross some threshold at which point our life is now “in the black.” We’re always in debt, always in need of grace and mercy at every moment—even as we are being sanctified.

It felt good for me to write that. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Here’s a wonderful song about being wrong by Colin Blunstone, from his masterful 1972 album, Ennismore.

Assessing the “problem of pain” with Dallas Willard

May 22, 2015

I’ve talked and blogged a lot recently about theodicy and the problem of evil—I even enjoyed a lunch conversation yesterday with a clergy colleague on that very subject. As if on cue, on his blog this morning, Scot McKnight summarizes the late Dallas Willard’s argument from The Allure of Gentleness. Willard is addressing the David Hume argument that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t allow people to suffer.

Willard answers this argument, in part, by appealing to freedom—as everyone must. But his words about the necessity of freedom are powerful. They include:

They overlook the fact that by surrendering responsibility they surrender freedom and the capacity for virtue as well. The person who cannot be blameworthy cannot be praiseworthy either (121).

So what we must look at is the question: Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil? (122)

A world that permits the development of moral character—one that makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do become—is of much greater value than any world that does not (126).

But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom (126).

This seems exactly right to me.

Here’s a thought I’ve been playing around with: At the risk of being self-centered, suppose that God wanted me to exist and to become this person that I am—understanding, of course, that I haven’t fully arrived as the person God wants me to be, nor will I until resurrection.

Still, if God wanted me to exist, this world, through which God has shaped me (and is shaping me), would also have to exist as it is. Otherwise, I would either not exist, or I would be an entirely different person. Therefore, if the world were any different, I wouldn’t be in it. Since I’m grateful to be here, how loudly should I complain?

Maybe somebody smarter than me can properly frame and defend that argument.

McKnight concludes Willard’s argument as follows:

Hence, many things happen that on their own cannot be good; God is not the author of these things; a world like ours is better than a world not like ours when it comes to pain; and there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

If your God is big enough there is no problem with evil — he claims here to be re-expressing David Hume (133).

Predictably, some commenters on McKnight’s blog dislike even attempting a justification for suffering and evil. We should remain silent, they say, and concede that it’s a mystery. I’ve blogged against that idea plenty of times. One commenter put the objection like this:

This is pretty standard Christian apologetic (free will, suffering somehow is “good” for us) and IMO it’s pretty weak. For starters, tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will. How is a 2 year old with bone cancer engaging in or the recipient of any free will? And how is that suffering “good” for her or her family? What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative “benefit” of that suffering? Gapaul is right . . .trying to rationalize theodicy away just makes the problem worse.

My response? I would first ask this person if, in his own experience, suffering has “somehow” been good for him. If he’s honest, he would say, “Of course it has,” at least in many cases. We are often shaped in beneficial ways by our suffering. If his suffering had been any different—remember—he would be a different person (and remember, God wanted him to exist). It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that if his suffering were any different, someone else besides him would be experiencing it.

He then says, “tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will.” While I’m not sure how to quantify “tons,” especially relative to the rest of the suffering that happens in our world, I would first say we can’t know to what extent that child’s cancer is related to free will—and I’m not speaking of the child’s free will (to which he wants to limit the conversation) or even necessarily the parents. For example, we probably can’t say with certainty what causes someone’s cancer, but there are often environmental factors that likely contribute to it. Some of these factors are caused by the free choices of human beings, aren’t they? Air and water pollution, diet, pharmaceuticals, radiation… you name it.

Moreover, since I’m a Satanic realist, I don’t discount the role of demonic beings who have some measure of freedom to influence our world and cause great harm. God gave these angelic beings freedom, which they in turn abused, just as we have.

Finally, the Bible describes Creation, in general, getting out of joint because of initial human sin, and giving rise to pestilence, for instance. Again, this initial sin was freely chosen.

He asks how suffering could be good for the child or her family. Let’s first be humble and admit that we can’t know. For one thing, we can’t foresee the consequences on the world if the child hadn’t gotten cancer. I’ve been close to enough to people who have suffered and died with cancer—including my father—to know that God can and does bring good from it.

And as for our loved one who is suffering and dying, there is nothing that they’re going through in this life that won’t instantly be redeemed by heaven.

When we talked about theodicy in seminary, we tended to leave heaven out of it—as if it were “cheating” to smuggle that consolation into the discussion. Without heaven, I completely agree that the problem of evil can’t be solved. But since our hope for resurrection is the central tenet of Christian faith, why would we justify suffering on any other basis?

He goes on to ask: “What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative ‘benefit’ of that suffering?”

Whether we undergo the same kind of pain as someone else, does any of us make it through life without a considerable amount of it? If so, I’m unaware of it. There are all kinds of pain, after all, and physical pain isn’t always or usually the worst, right? Regardless, I’ve experienced enough pain to know that God can redeem it.

Finally, every one of us will face our own death sooner or later. No one escapes it. Death is ultimately the worst kind of democrat. Is there potentially any crisis more potentially painful than that?

The early Christians used to be deeply concerned about “dying well.” Our generation would do well to recover their concern.

Sermon 02-08-15: “Basic Training, Part 5: Forgive Us”

February 19, 2015

Basic Training Series

Forgiving others—and sometimes forgiving ourselves—is among the most difficult things we’re supposed to do as Christians. As I discuss in this sermon, we struggle with it, in part, because we refuse to accept that our relationship with God and with one another should be based on grace, not merit. We don’t deserve the many gifts that God gives us—the gifts of life, eternal life, love, and material possessions.

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:9-15

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Do you feel sorry for Pete Carroll? I sort of do. In case you don’t know, the coach for the Seattle Seahawks had his team poised for victory in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. While the Patriots had taken a late four-point lead, the Seahawks were on the Patriots’ one-yard-line with less than a minute left in the game and one timeout. Meanwhile, they have the best running back in the business, Marshawn Lynch. They had three chances to hand the ball off to Lynch and let him bust his way over the goal line to put his team up by three with seconds remaining.


It seemed so easy to win at that point except… What did they do on second down? Instead of handing the ball off to Lynch, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass, which was intercepted at the goal line. Game over. The Seahawks managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. For someone like me who was mildly rooting for the Seahawks because I always root for the NFC team, plus the Patriots are—you knowevil, it was frustrating to say the least. Read the rest of this entry »

Do you have trouble forgiving yourself? Maybe it’s pride

February 5, 2015

divineconspiracyIs Dallas Willard describing me in the following words about forgiveness?

I have a hard time forgiving myself, and Willard says it’s not because of my great humility (as I’d hoped) but pride: I’m unwilling to accept that God and my fellow human beings have to relate to me on some basis other than the fact that I’m a terrific human being whom they just love to be around. Sure, at one point in my life I needed God’s grace and mercy, but surely by now I’ve turned the corner, paid off all my debts, and am now “in the black,” morally speaking—carrying my own weight, proving to God and society how worthy I am.

My sins, therefore, expose a truth that I don’t want to face.

Today we sometimes speak of people who cannot forgive themselves. Usually, however, the problem is much deeper. More often than not, these are people who refuse to live on the basis of pity. Their problem is not that they are hard on themselves, but that they are proud. And if they are hard on themselves, it is because they are proud. They do not want to accept that they can only live on the basis of pity from others, that the good that comes to them is rarely “deserved.” If they would only do that, it would transform their lives. They would easily stop punishing themselves for what they have done.[†]

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 263-4.

Sermon 11-16-14: “Treasures in Heaven”

November 20, 2014
My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn't worry about much.

My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn’t worry about much.

In our culture today, greed, like pride, has become a “respectable” kind of sin, which we too easily tolerate. In today’s scripture, however, Jesus tells us that this sin, far from being respectable, is so harmful that it has the power to distort the way we see everything else in life. It prevents us from loving our neighbor the way we should. In this sermon, I share a couple of specific things we can do to free ourselves from enslavement to money and possessions.

This is the second of three sermons on stewardship.

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:19-34

Audio-only this week. Click the play button below or right-click here to download audio file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the news last week, we learned that Robert Plant, the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin, turned down a contract from business mogul Richard Branson that would have paid him and the two surviving members of the band around $300 million to reunite and tour.

Three-hundred million dollars!

That’s a lot of money to turn down, isn’t it?

If I were Robert Plant’s pastor, I would give him some advice. And I would love to be Robert Plant’s pastor, especially if he tithes. But I would tell him that our Lord might be calling him to bury the hatchet with his former bandmates, to go on tour for a few months, and make $300 million.

You might say, “Wait a second, Pastor Brent, you’re a preacher. You’re telling me that the Lord would be O.K. with Robert Plant making $300 million?” Read the rest of this entry »

Dallas Willard on anxiety

November 14, 2014
Dallas Willard, who died in 2013.

Dallas Willard, who died in 2013.

This Sunday I’ll be preaching the second of three sermons related to stewardship. My text will be Matthew 6:19-34.

I’ll be preaching as much to myself as to anyone else—as always. I am greedy enough about money. But another “earthly treasure” to which I am often enslaved is what Dallas Willard, in his masterpiece on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy, calls “delusions of respectability”: I desperately want people to approve of me, to esteem me, to hold me in high regard.

So the following words from Willard challenge me, but they also fill me with hope: I know for sure he’s describing how life should be, and in my better moments I’m at least taking baby steps in the direction of living this way. I am learning from my experience that invisible, spiritual treasure, “beyond any risk or threat,” is really there:

Jesus now concludes this section of his discourse (Matt. 6:19-34) with another touch of humor “you have no need to be anxious about what will happen tomorrow,” he says. “You can do your worrying about tomorrow tomorrow. Each day contains just enough problems to last to the end of that day (6:34).

Soberly, when our trust is in things that are absolutely beyond any risk or threat, and we have learned from good sources, including our own experience, that those things are there, anxiety is just groundless and pointless. It occurs only as a hangover of bad habits established when we were trusting things—like human approval and wealth—that were certain to let us down. Now our strategy should be one of resolute rejection of worry, while we concentrate on the future in hope and with prayer and on the past with thanksgiving.

Paul, once again, got it: “Don’t be anxious about anything,” he says, “but in every situation, with prayer and supplications, with thanksgiving, let God know what you want. And the peace which God himself has will, beyond anything we can intellectually grasp, stand guard over your hearts and minds, which are within the reality of Jesus the Anointed” (Phil. 4:6-7).

We will find all this so much easier, of course, once we have been freed from our old dependency upon the opinions of others and upon our “treasure” of material goods.[†]

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 212-3.

What if we decided to obey God?

March 21, 2014

divineconspiracyAs I’m reflecting on James’s harsh, uncompromising words about, well… words in James 3:1-12 for this Sunday’s sermon, I keep coming back to Dallas Willard’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard says that one obstacle we face in actually doing what Jesus commands us to do is believing that Jesus knows what he’s talking about. Do you doubt it?

Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christiains alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informedbrilliant, or smart.

Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.[1]

I’m thinking of Willard’s words because it’s clear to me that I—and probably we—don’t really believe Jesus (whose own words about words are echoed by his brother in this passage) when it comes to the things we say. We may still be conscientious enough to resist “big” sins, but who on earth can be bothered to mind the words we say (or, often in my case, write)? I’ve noticed, for instance, that we’re mostly desensitized to the use of God as an expletive, as in “Oh my God!” or OMG.

Is this a problem for anyone?

Doesn’t the idea that anyone would be scrupulous today about such a small thing as cursing—by which I mean old-fashioned “cussing”—seem hopelessly quaint? Heck, some of the cool preachers are even doing it in church! Never mind the literal cursing we do by saying things to wound, insult, demean, or ridicule others. Never mind the gossip. Never mind the self-justification. Never mind the boasting.

If it’s true that the tongue is a “fire, a world of unrighteousness… set on fire by hell… a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” you’d hardly know it by me!

Does it matter to us that we sin in this way? Does it matter that Jesus (and James) commands us not to do things like this?

Again, here’s Willard:

We would now say, and say correctly, “Trust Jesus Christ.” But we have already seen in previous chapters how the idea of having faith in Jesus has come to be totally isolated from being his apprentice and learning how to do what he said…

If people in our Christian fellowships today were to announce that they had decided to keep God’s law, we would probably be skeptical and alarmed. We probably would take them aside for counseling and possibly alert other responsible people in the group to keep an eye on them. We would be sure nothing good would come of it. We know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.

This leaves us caught in a strange inversion of the work of the Judaizing teachers who dogged the footsteps of Paul in New Testament days. As they wanted to add obedience to ritual law to faith in Christ, we want to subtract moral law from faith in Christ. How to combine faith with obedience is surely the essential task of the church as it enters the twenty-first century.[2]

Do we believe that Jesus knows what he’s talking about? If so, will we do what he says to do?

Will it be unthinkable to us that we, his apprentices, would ever willingly do otherwise?

Until it is, I suspect we’ll keep on doing otherwise.

1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 134.

2. Ibid., 140.

“People always live up to their beliefs—or down to them”

October 7, 2013

divineconspiracyI finished my sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount yesterday. One resource that informed my preaching was Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. I’d recommend this book to anyone who seeks to live out Jesus’ great sermon.

One of Willard’s goals for the book, after all, is to convince us that living it out is a live option for his disciples. It’s possible. It’s attainable. It’s what Jesus intends for us to do.

Does this seem incredibly obvious to you? Then you didn’t grow up in my church. You weren’t influenced by my preachers, teachers, or professors. I grew up loving the Sermon on the Mount as a beautiful but impossible ideal not meant for the real world. Of course Jesus is describing the way we ought to be, but we can’t really achieve it on this side of heaven, can we?

Willard wants us to know that we can—not perfectly, of course, but let’s not make perfect the enemy of the good, as they say.

One important obstacle we have to overcome, Willard says, is our skepticism that Jesus knows what he’s talking about, that his way really is best. We Christians profess to believe his words, of course, but our actual beliefs are betrayed by our actions. To enable people to become disciples, Willard writes, “we must change whatever it is in their actual belief system that bars confidence in Jesus as Master of the Universe” [emphasis his][1].

We often speak of people not living up to their faith. But the cases in which we say this are not really cases of people behaving otherwise than they believe. They are cases in which genuine beliefs are made obvious by what people do. We always live up to our beliefs—or down to them, as the case may be. Nothing else is possible. It is the nature of belief. And the reason why clergy and others have to invest so much effort into getting people to do things is that they are working against the actual beliefs of the people they are trying to lead.

I once heard a pastor explaining to his congregation how it caused his stomach to hurt when people did not come to the evening service on which he had worked so hard. I have been a pastor, and I can understand how he felt. But he would have been more effective had he simply dealt with the beliefs of his people that kept them home on Sunday evening.[2]

The challenge of training disciples, Willard emphasizes, isn’t, as we usually think, a matter of imparting more information.

So, to drive home the crucial point, a great deal of what goes into [discipleship] consists simply in bringing people to believe with their whole being the information they already have as a result of the initial confidence in Jesus—even if that initial confidence was only the confidence of desperation.[3]

1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 307.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 318.

The most harmful idea about prayer

September 20, 2013

At least to me. It’s a variation on that tired theme, “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us.” From Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

And God’s “response” to our prayers is not a charade. He does not pretend that he is answering our prayer when he is only doing what he was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference in what God does or does not do. The idea that everything would happen exactly as it does regardless of whether we pray or not is a specter that haunts the minds of many who sincerely profess belief in God. It makes prayer psychologically impossible, replacing it with dead ritual at best. And of course God does not respond to this. You wouldn’t either.[†]

I like the way Willard says that this belief makes prayer psychologically impossible. I know from experience that this is true. If you don’t think God is going to do anything in response to your prayers—other than “change” you, of course—you can’t go through the motions of prayer for very long. The call of duty never seems quite loud enough.

I wonder if this is why we easily venerate more exotic forms of praying (meditation, lectio divina, prayer beads, prayer labyrinths, etc.), however helpful they may be in and of themselves, above the simpler, humbler form that Jesus himself offers in his model prayer of Matthew 6:7-13 (which we’ll focus on in this Sunday’s sermon).

If you don’t actually ask God to do anything for you or someone else (asking is near the center of all biblical prayer), then you can’t be proven wrong. There’s no danger your faith will be tested. We can easily turn prayer into an exercise to produce within ourselves a warm, vaguely “spiritual” feeling. If that’s what we’re going for, then we won’t be disappointed. And there are plenty of “techniques” to help us accomplish that. They insulate us from both disappointment and God.

Prayer—true prayer in the biblical sense—is something riskier than that. God may not give us what we ask for. But even if he doesn’t, it won’t be because he can’t or won’t out of principle. He always can, and he sometimes will.

At least if we dare to ask.

[†] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 244.