Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Spiritual Growth

Apprentice To The Master: Interview With Dallas Willard
by Jan Johnson

What does it mean to take Jesus' call to discipleship seriously? If you've pondered that question, you may have found and treasured the writing of Dallas Willard, a minister and philosophy professor at the University of Southern California. Willard has written a trilogy of books on "the spiritual life of those who have become convinced that Jesus is the One."
The first book, Hearing God, presents life as a conversational relationship with God and the second, The Spirit of the Disciplines, explains how disciples can interact with God in such a way that their character is changed. His most recent book, The Divine Conspiracy, focused on discipleship.

IN THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY, YOU SAY THAT MANY IN THE CHURCH HAVE MISUNDERSTOOD WHAT IT MEANS TO BE JESUS’ DISCIPLE. WHY IS THAT?

Churches today are full of people who haven’t been invited to become disciples. Being a Christian has come to mean going to church and being saved when you die. The ministry of the church is govern over to “making the final cut” and solving problems (marital problems, witnessing problems, apologetics, pain and suffering), not to discipleship.

In the New Testament, discipleship means being an apprentice of Jesus in our daily existence. A disciple, then, is simply someone who has decided to be with another person in order to become what that person is or to become capable of doing what that person does. What does Jesus do that I can be discipled to do? The answer is found in the Gospels: he lives in the kingdom of God, and he applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it.

WHAT DOES THIS KIND OF DISCIPLESHIP LOOK LIKE IN EVERYDAY LIFE? P. 26

You stay attentive to what you're doing at the moment. Let's say I'm a plumber and I'm going to clean out someone's sewer. How will I do this as Jesus would do this? If you encounter difficulties with the people you're serving or with the pipe or the machinery, you never fight that battle alone. You invoke the presence of God. You expect to see something happen that is not the result of you. If you train yourself to thank God when those "coincidences" happen, you'll see them as patterns in your life. The crucial thing is to be attentive to God's hand, not to get locked into one-on-one thinking: It's me and this pipe! Never do that.

But it takes training not to do that. A person has to be trained to think, Now is the time to praise God for the solution that just came to me. That's called "life in God." Training brings you to the point where you don't have to slap yourself up the side of the head and say, "I have to pay attention!" You routinely think, This is an occasion when God is present. This is a time to pray, to praise.

My main role in life, for example, is teaching in a university. As Jesus' apprentice, I constantly ask myself how Jesus would deal with students and colleagues. How would he design a course, and why? How would he compose a test, administer it, and grade it? What would his research projects be, and why? How would he teach this course or that?

That was the teaching of the New Testament: "whatever you do in word or deed, do all in name of Lord Jesus Christ" (Col. 3:17). Discipleship involves doing everything as if Jesus were doing it. As disciples, we say, "Yes, I will learn to do all the things that Jesus said to do." That's when we become his students. Through this process we learn things we never thought about. Our sense of the scope of the commitment grows. We build lives that are not just ours, but God's life as well. We see things come to pass that are not of us.

HOW DOES THIS TRAINING PROCESS AFFECT OUR INNER LIVES? P. 27

Discipleship focuses on the inner self, which is primarily our ideas, beliefs and emotions. Character grows out of our inner lives, and it governs what we automatically think and feel. As our character is transformed, our behavior is transformed as well. Our character, for example, may not be to love our enemies, but the character of God is to love them. As our thoughts and feelings are transformed to those of Christ, the loving of enemies takes care of itself. The person "who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice" (Mt. 7:24) has first been changed inwardly in his thinking and feeling. That's why Jesus said the good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit (Mt. 7:17-18). The point of training one's self by practicing certain habits is to renew the inner person, to make the tree inwardly good.

One of the advantages of inward transformation is that we drop the attitude that not doing what God forbids forces us to miss out on good things. No thought lurks back there such as, It would be better if I could do the wrong thing! I like to use the phrase, We learn the goodness of rightness. We learn goodness all the way down.

WHY ARE SOLITUDE AND SILENCE SO BASIC FOR DISCIPLESHIP? p. 27

The mind and the feelings are transformed through a process of training --which is where the spiritual disciplines come in. They teach us an inner posture of not having to have our way, which relieves us of one of our greatest burdens. Solitude, for example, is a wrenching behavior for most people. Why would anyone choose to be alone and do nothing for the day? Many of us need to be quiet and go away for a substantial period of time. It changes our whole world because we get caught up in an illusion of our self-importance. It's terribly threatening to be silent, or simply avoid having the last word in a conversation. When people insist that you do, your trained inner voice reassures you, My pearls of wisdom might not be missed. Yet you don't use spiritual disciplines to make legalistic rules for yourself and try to do them all. You choose a few and they have a spreading effect on the whole spirit. Or take fasting. While fasting, I’m able to think, I'm hungry, but I don't have to eat. These disciplines have trained our body and personality to be able to want something and not get it.

Solitude and silence are means of being with God. They form a context for listening and speaking to God. God will not compete for our attention. God waits us out. He has certain purposes which He's going to accomplish. How do we fit in? What choices will we make about our life? The tempting choice is to work, work, work, talk, talk, talk. That's not the New Testament picture. In Acts 6, the apostles gave themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer instead of doing everything that presented itself to do. They got others involved. We should always be looking to see how others could do what we're doing and teaching that we are not indispensable.

Solitude and silence train us to let go of thinking we have so much we "have to do" -- that's a dangerous phrase. There's very little that I have to do and those things generally apply to my personal relationships. I realize this by going into solitude and silence. These disciplines put me in a context where God can speak to me and I can listen. As a pastor or teacher, the great danger is that I could get up and rattle on for years. More than anything else, I need to hear from God about what I am to say and who I am to speak to.

WHAT DO WE FOCUS ON DURING THESE SOLITARY MOMENTS?

If we want to be disciples, we should ask Jesus to reveal Himself to us. We need to read the Scripture and ask, "Lord, reveal yourself to me in such a way that I will see your beauty." To see Jesus clearly, we need to fill our souls with the written gospel. A. B. Simpson read the four gospels through several times a week and his life was turned around. On a retreat or within a certain time, we can read through the four gospels repeatedly, jotting down notes and thoughts on a pad as we go, letting them become part of our soul substance. When you read the gospels over and over, they frame your world and make it obvious how you are to act.

Without the help of the written gospel, our minds are filled with junk and framed by commercials and news stories and so our character and actions are confused, befuddled and dissipated. That's where most people live. They drag into church confused and scattered, hoping to have a rousing service to pump them up and get them through the next week. Then they'll need another charge. The way to redeem that is to give the mind an intensive bath in the Word of God.

Through the written gospel, Jesus reveals himself. As we deal with people, we can imitate what we've read and pondered -- for example, the striking quality of Jesus' generosity. He gave time and attention to people, whether they were lepers, Roman centurions or rich Jewish kids who knew everything. He was absolutely generous that way. He didn't have to touch lepers to heal them, but he touched them anyway. We reflect on these scenes through journaling or meditation or talking with a "spiritual friend." We put into practice things what God gives us in these times. This is how we experience the reality of the kingdom.

HOW CAN DISCIPLESHIP HELP THOSE OF US WHO ARE ALWAYS IN A HURRY?

We can learn how to act quickly without hurrying. Quickness is an attribute of action. Hurry is an attribute of the spirit. First, we need to recognize when we're being drawn into hurry. At that point, stop and take time out. Then we go over how God is with us and we're acting with Him at our side. When we step back in, we expect God to do something to help. If we're late for a meeting, we don't have to drive 85 m.p.h. Instead, we drive 65 m.p.h. and say, "Lord, I'm looking to see what you're going to do about my situation."

I had this happen recently when I was ready to board a plane to Boston. They decided to change planes and I began to be concerned. (Forgive me, the following sounds so religious!) The Lord said to me in that manner which indicates that it was not from me, "It's going to be OK." After an hour had passed, I began to say, "Really?"

Once again, God said, "It's OK." I rested in that. It was fine. I got there, changed clothes, and walked into banquet room after they'd said the blessing. I ate and spoke and everything was fine. That should be the ordinary course of life.

Hurry involves the idea that something is out of control and we must take control. I will drive 85 m.p.h. and I will get there! Hurry is an act of unfaith. That's a world we have to choose out of and others are so relieved when we do. You move beyond the level of immediate, unthinking responses, which govern most people's lives. In Peter's denials of Christ, he allowed immediate responses to govern him. Peter should have wept bitterly when Jesus told him what he was going to deny him, but Peter didn't. He said, "No way." After the denials, Peter did weep bitterly, but he knew he could never allow himself to give in to such unthinking responses. Silence, solitude, fasting and Scripture memorization train us to respond differently to events when an immediate response is required

HOW CAN WE BE MORE INTENTIONAL ABOUT MAKING DISCIPLES?

We can't make disciples until we have their consent. We can ravish them with the kingdom of God, but they have to decide they're committed to learning how to do everything Jesus said. That's a choice people make like those who say, "I'm committed to learning algebra." They believe it's important to learn algebra. It's worthy of sacrificing something to do that. Or they might to it with the sense, "Well, gee, I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I'll like this."

Jesus told them they couldn't be his disciples unless they took up their cross. It wasn't that Jesus wouldn't let them, but they could not. They would not be able to be disciples without this costly commitment. It's like a teacher who says, "Verily, verily I say unto you, unless thou canst do decimals, thou in no wise can do algebra." You need to know decimals before you can do algebra. Committing one's self to become a disciple is painful. Jesus knew this. That's why people have to be ravished with the kingdom of God. They have to be captivated with a vision of life in fellowship with Jesus.

WHAT DOES "DISCIPLESHIP EVANGELISM" LOOK LIKE?

Discipleship evangelism means more than bringing people into the church, but also helping them say, "Yes, I will learn to do all the things that Jesus said to do." We speak about the beauty of Christ and the kingdom. We say, for example, "Here's what your life can be if you choose to live it in the kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus. God has an eternal purpose for you. You'll never cease existing. Your problem is not to stay alive, but what sort of person you're going to become."

We invite them to become Jesus' student in every part of their life -- their relationships (which is always primary), their spouse, children or work. In relation to themselves, they can say, "I am thankful to God for who I am." Then we talk about, "What do I do today? Where am I in my career? What does my career amount to? What about my debts and home?" We talk about how they can take the kingdom of God into all those spheres. We talk to them about asking themselves, How would Jesus live his life if he were me? As they work through these answers and put them into practice, they experience the reality of the kingdom of God.

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