The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

“Until our thoughts of God have found every visible thing and event glorious with his presence, the word of Jesus has not yet fully seized us.”

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This is my new favorite book.

I had tried to read this once before, but, for some reason, I just wasn’t ready for it. After reading some other books by Willard and others on Spiritual Formation, I tackled this one again. This time, it was life-changing.

There is too much information in this book for me to try to recap it in a reasonably-lengthed review. Let me just say that, in my opinion, if every person in the world who calls themselves “Christian” would live by the principles in this book, they wouldn’t need any other books outside of the Bible. And the world would be a much better place.

There are so many things that I grew up hearing and, consequently, believing, that just aren’t quite accurate. One of the most important is the idea that the Kingdom of God is something that we don’t begin to experience until after we die. Much of mainstream Christianity teaches a gospel that is inaccurate. It might produce Christians, and they might very well “go to heaven” when they die. But the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is here, now, and available for us to walk in now. This was the gospel that Jesus taught when he was on the earth. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17); “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The Beatitudes are all about “the kingdom of heaven.” He told his disciples, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'”

This is the Gospel of Jesus, and if we can grab hold of this and live in it, our lives will be changed.

Another thing that I got from this book is the knowledge of the immediate presence of God. I’ve always had this sort of head knowledge that, yeah, God is all around us. But, in reality, I mostly believed that he was “out there” somewhere, that he was watching, and that he could, somehow, interact with us. But what if we understood that God is right here with us. He’s in this room with me while I’m typing this. He’s in the atmosphere (the ancient Christians’ understanding of “heavens” was vastly different than ours . . . “heaven” begins at ground level), he’s in the air that I’m breathing. This knowledge has had an impact on my life that I can’t even begin to describe.

Willard writes about Jesus being the smartest person who ever lived. I wonder how many of us Christians have truly thought about this? Have we ever considered that, when he changed water into wine, he didn’t just wave his hands and say, “Abracadabra,” but that he actually rearranged the molecules in the water to make it wine? How does this kind of knowledge affect one’s prayer life? Let me tell you, it’s huge!

The book begins with Dallas describing the world as “flying upside down.” I’m going to list a few of my favorite quotes from the book, and the first one deals with that subject.

“What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound. That is what it means to fly upside down.”

“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.”

“Some current critics of the U.S. Supreme Court like to point out that it does not allow the Ten Commandments, though written upon the walls of its own chambers, to be displayed in public schools. But where do we find churches, right or left, that put them on their walls? The Ten Commandments really aren’t very popular anywhere. This is so in spite of the fact that even a fairly general practice of them would lead to a solution of almost every problem of meaning and order now facing Western societies. They are God’s best information on how to lead a basically decent human existence.”

“The key, then, to loving God is to see Jesus, to hold him before the mind with as much fullness and clarity as possible. It is to adore him.”

“Dear Father always near us, may your name be treasured and loved, may your rule be completed in us— may your will be done here on earth in just the way it is done in heaven. Give us today the things we need today, and forgive us our sins and impositions on you as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us. Please don’t put us through trials, but deliver us from everything bad. Because you are the one in charge, and you have all the power, and the glory too is all yours—forever— which is just the way we want it!” (This is Dallas’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer)

“But Jesus’ own gospel of the kingdom was not that the kingdom was about to come, or had recently come, into existence. If we attend to what he actually said, it becomes clear that his gospel concerned only the new accessibility of the kingdom to humanity through himself.”

“The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings. No one is actually being told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. Nor are the Beatitudes indications of who will be on top ‘after the revolution.’ They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.” (Dallas’s teaching on the Beatitudes is staggering and radical.)

“Still today the Old Testament book of Psalms gives great power for faith and life. This is simply because it preserves a conceptually rich language about God and our relationships to him. If you bury yourself in Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life.”

“The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do. Just as we desire and intend this, so far as possible, for our children and others we love, so God desires and intends it for his children. But character, the inner directedness of the self, must develop to the point where that is possible.”

“Until our thoughts of God have found every visible thing and event glorious with his presence, the word of Jesus has not yet fully seized us.”

I am “an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”

“We are becoming who we will be — forever.”

I could go on and on and on.

I can’t overemphasize how important this book is. From beginning to end, Dallas Willard crafted an explanation of the Christian life that is unsurpassed by anything else I have ever read. I will definitely be reading this one again.

TTFN, y’all!

Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Teaching on Faith and Formation

They had three different memorial services for Dallas Willard, after he passed away in 2013. The essays in this book are divided into the same categories as the three memorials; close friends and family, colleagues in the philosophy realm, and students and others that were inspired by Dallas’s life and work.

I didn’t recognize very many of the names. Richard Foster opened up the book, followed by Dallas’s wife Jane, then his daughter, grand-daughter, and his son. The first two essays had me crying all the way home from work (I listened to this on my drive home from work each day).

I will confess that some of the essays by the philosophy colleagues were a bit over my head, and not quite as inspiring. And there were a couple of the other essays that I simply didn’t like. One person was a gung-ho evangelist type (not there’s anything wrong with that, mind you) who seemed to try to transfer his own passion for evangelism onto words that he thought Dallas would have said in a large stadium full of people. It sounded more like what Billy Graham would have said. I found myself thinking, “I don’t think Dallas would have said that at all!”

The book closes out with John Ortberg, a close, life-long friend of Dallas’s, talking about all the questions that people constantly asked Dallas, all beginning with, “Hey, Dallas!”

I could easily add my own essay to the mix, about how Dallas Willard’s work has inspired me, and continues to inspire me. I’ve read The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God (previously titled In Search of Guidance), and Renovation of the Heart. I’m currently reading The Divine Conspiracy. Very slowly. Dallas’s work has been described as “dense.” It is that and more. It’s like every single word has meaning, and must be chewed slowly, like a delicious steak dinner.

One of the contributors said something to the effect of, “When Dallas died, we lost a five-star general in the army of the Lord.” That very well may be true, but he left behind a lot of people to carry on the work of transformation in the body of Christ. Many of those contributed to this volume.

TTFN, y’all!

Renovation of the Heart, by Dallas Willard

Let me start out by saying this is a tough read. John Ortberg once described Dallas’s writing as being “dense.” Well, this book is certainly “dense.” It took me just over a month to finish it, and I will read it again, even more slowly, right after I finish my re-reading of Practice Resurrection, by Eugene H. Peterson.

In this book, Willard introduces the concept of “spiritual formation,” and goes through all of the various parts of the human being that need to be renovated, or transformed: the mind, the will, the body, the soul, and even the social dimension of the person. He tackles each of these dimensions individually in one or two chapters each.

He finishes the work with talking about how we need to be children of light, and then goes into a final chapter about how this all should play out in the local congregation.

There are many moments in this book that caused me to stop and think about what he had written, most especially what he wrote concerning being and making disciples, from Matthew 28:18-20. I’ll end this with a quote from Ray Stedman, that Dallas quoted in the last chapter.

“God’s first concern is not what the church does, it is what the church is. Being must always precede doing, for what we do will be according to what we are. To understand the moral character of God’s people is a primary essential in understanding the nature of the church. As Christians we are to be a moral example to the world, reflecting the character of Jesus Christ.” (From Ray Stedman’s book, Body Life: The Church Comes Alive)

For anyone interested in spiritual formation, this is a must read.

TTFN, y’all!

Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks, by Dallas Willard, edited by Gary Black, Jr.

I gave this book three stars on Goodreads

It might seem strange that I would only give a Dallas Willard book three stars, as much as I love his work. However, this book is a compilation of, as it says, essays, interviews, and talks that were found as Gary Black and Dallas “rummaged through several boxes of other writings–as well as audiocassette tapes of sermons, lectures, and speaking engagements.” The variety of topics in this anthology is almost stunning.

The book begins with what most know Dallas for, spiritual transformation. As I began reading this work, I literally read the first essay four times before moving on. Not because I couldn’t understand it, but because it was so good!

The book moves on to interviews on various topics, articles on discipleship, writings on theology, and finally, on leadership.

Now for the reason I only rated it three stars. There were parts of this book that I loved, that I will, no doubt go back and read again. However, there were a number of articles, essays, speeches, and so on, that were much more philosophical than I care to get into. After all, Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Cal. And, while those writings were quality writings, many of them just simply went over my head. I am not trained in philosophy. I think that I could, eventually, understand them, but that’s not the direction I am currently moving. I am more interested in discipleship and, especially, spiritual transformation.

I will, at some point, revisit some of those writings that deal with those two topics. And that’s one of the great things about this book. There are forty-one different writings, and most of them are short enough to be read in just a few minutes.

For anyone interested in spiritual formation and discipleship, I would recommend getting hold of this anthology. Some of the other works might surprise you, as well.

TTFN, y’all!

Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You, by John Ortberg

Soul Keeping is an interesting book. While it is largely about what the title suggests, it is also largely about John Ortberg’s evolving relationship with Dallas Willard. John talks as much about Dallas, I think, as he does about the soul. But it’s all relevant conversation, as Dallas Willard had much to say about the soul and its relationship with God.

I have to confess that I have not thought a lot about my soul. At least until I read this book. I find that I’m thinking more about it, now, even to the point of having conversations with my own soul.

Don’t call the men in the white coats, just yet.

One thing that is learned from this book is a definition of the soul. Most people believe that they have a soul, but few would be able to define or explain it, if you pressed them. I’m still not sure I could adequately do so, but, my understanding, after reading this, is that the soul is considered to be the “operating system” of the human being. It’s not the same thing as the spirit, nor is it the same as the heart (and I’m referring to the spiritual understanding of “heart,” not the physical one).

There is a wonderful story at the beginning of this book that illustrates the importance of the soul. It has to do with a mountain stream that provided clean, fresh water for a town. There was a man, who lived up in the mountains, close to that stream, who kept the stream clean. He was paid by the town. One day, the town decided that it could no longer afford to pay this man, whom they hardly ever saw, to do this job. So he stopped.

The stream began to get dirty. It began to get clogged by branches, leaves, and other forms of refuse. The town’s water got dirty. It wasn’t fresh any more and began to smell. People began to get sick. The town council got together again and decided that they could, in fact, find resources to pay the man again. So he started working on the stream again.

Eventually, the stream became clean again. The “keeper of the stream” did his job, and the town was revived.

The stream is your soul, and you are its keeper.

John Ortberg has a wonderful writing style that is unpretentious and even entertaining. Admittedly, he gets a little silly, at times, but I don’t mind. He is much easier to understand than Dallas Willard, and manages to communicate some of the same truths. His homage to Willard is moving, to the point that I was in tears as the book concluded. Which is bad, because I was driving. Remember? I was listening to it on Audible.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the condition/state of their soul, which could very well be the most important part of you.

TTFN, y’all!

Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, by Dallas Willard

hearing-god-updated

This was my first reading of this book; the first of what will probably wind up being at least three. I essentially just read through, not underlining or taking any notes, just to get a first impression. My plan is to read it again, paying closer attention to parts that really impress, grab, or inspire me. And believe me, there were plenty of those.

Hearing God is about exactly what it says it’s about. “Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.” And while it might appear that he is primarily speaking about audibly hearing God’s voice, he is not. Willard is quick to clarify that there are many ways to “hear” God, and audible voice is not the primary means. In fact, he opines, the more mature we are in Christ, the simpler and quieter will be the means by which we hear God.

There are many points at which this book drastically changed the way I think about things, just as in other Willard works I have read. I wish I had discovered this man earlier, but God knew when I would be ripe to read these things.

TTFN, y’all!

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

spirit of disciplines

It is my opinion that The Spirit of the Disciplines is the definitive work on spiritual disciplines. While Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline gave us a great overview of the spiritual disciplines, Willard’s book goes into the meat of the disciplines, discussing history, why we need them, and what the long-term effects are.

I won’t lie. It’s not an easy book to read. There are about three chapters toward the beginning (four through six, I think) that you might want to just skip. Willard even suggests that. I muddled through them, though. But once you get to chapter seven, where he discusses Paul the Apostle’s “psychology of redemption,” things get really good. The perspective from which he suggests we read Paul’s writings, especially Romans, is mind-blowing.

From there, Dallas goes into some history of the disciplines, and then, in chapter nine, actually discusses a number of the disciplines, but not in a lot of detail. His list is slightly different from Foster’s list, but it brings the point across that there is not a fixed list of disciplines. As Dallas, himself, said in the conference recording, Living in Christ’s Presence, there was one instance where he was practicing “the discipline of not having the last word.”

But I must say that the truly revolutionary chapters of the book are the last two. In chapter ten, Dallas discusses poverty and the prevailing myth that poverty is somehow more spiritual than being rich. He completely destroys that myth, and reminds us that the Scriptures never tell us that we are supposed to eliminate poverty from the world. Yes, we are to care for the needy and poor, and he is all for that. But the point is, you can’t help the poor if you are poor. So intentional poverty is no more spiritual than possessing a lot.

The final chapter is both inspiring and devastating. Dallas relates the practice of the disciplines to the “power structures of the world.” He points out that we really shouldn’t be asking “Why” when horrible things happen (crimes perpetrated by others). Rather, we should be “deeply thankful that something is restraining us, keeping us from fully doing what lies in our hearts.” Dallas fully believes that the answer to society’s problems lies in the transformation of the individual through the practice of the spiritual disciplines. This begins with the Church, and the Church is failing miserably at this, because there are very few, if any, local churches that are truly making disciples. He says, “There is a way of life that, if generally adopted, would eliminate all of the social and political problems from which we suffer. This way of life comes to whole-hearted disciples of Christ who live in the disciplines of the spiritual life and allow grace to bring their bodies into alignment with their redeemed spirits.”

Then, in one of the boldest statements I have ever read, he says, “Ministers pay far too much attention to people who do not come to services. . . . The Christian leader has something much more important to do than pursue the godless. The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12).”

Why do I say that this is both inspiring and devastating? Simply because it shows me how lacking I am in discipleship. For one thing, none of the churches that I have attended, throughout my whole life, have truly equipped me to be a disciple. I have never attended a church (until now) that even talked about the “spiritual disciplines.” In fact, I would be surprised if any of the pastors of those church even know what they are. I’m not trying to be harsh. It’s just a realistic truth. The pastor that I now serve with (I’m the prayer ministry leader, and working toward developing spiritual formation in our church) is hungry for these things. The time is ripe. The Church needs to step forward and become the kind of disciples that Dallas Willard describes in this book.

TTFN, y’all!