Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God is a magnificent description of what exactly discipleship is. He spends much of the book building a case that it is possible to train apprentices to Jesus in such way that they would routinely do the things He said were right. In the 9th chapter he then gets into the practical questions, describing “A Curriculum for Christlikeness.” This post describes the objectives and approach of such a curriculum, while the next one goes in to the practical considerations for implementing it.
The Goal: Obedience and Abundance
Wouldn’t you like to be one of those wise people who know how to live a rich and unshakable life? One free from loneliness, fear, and anxiety and filled with constant peace and joy? Would you like to love your neighbors as you do yourself and be free of anger, envy, lust, and covetousness? Would you like to have no need for others to praise you, and would you like to not be paralyzed and humiliated by their dislike and condemnation? Would you like to have the inspiration and strength to lead a constant life of creative goodness? It sounds pretty good thus far, doesn’t it?
Wouldn’t you also like to have a strength and understanding that enables you genuinely and naturally to bless those who are cursing you – or cheating you, beating you out on the job, spitting on you in a confrontation, laughing at your religion or culture, even killing you? Or the strength and understanding merely to give further needed assistance to someone who has forced you to drop what you are doing and help out? To offer the other cheek to someone who has slapped you? Clearly, our entire inner reality of thought and feeling would have to be transformed to bring us to such a place.
And if you are the usual person reading this list, you are by now beginning to experience some hesitation and some doubt. Yes, a part of this sounds very like abundance of life: a very desirable condition to be in that immediately recommends itself to everyone. But other parts seem like obedience: something that well might spoil our plans or ruin our life. I may even be asking myself whether I really want to give up all the behavioral options that would disappear from my repertoire if I became a wise person who builds their house upon the rock.
But the truth about obedience in the kingdom of Jesus is that it really is abundance. Kingdom obedience is kingdom abundance. They are not two separate things. The inner condition of the soul from which strength and love and peace flow is the very same condition that generously blesses the oppressor and lovingly offers the other cheek. These Christlike behaviors are expressions of a pervasive personal strength and its joy, not of weakness, morbidity, sorrow – or raw exertion of will – as is so often assumed. And all those old behavioural options that we might think should be kept in reserve (just in case they turn out to be “necessary”) will not even be missed.
The Problem: Lack of Training for Obedience+Abundance
Unfortunately, the correlation between faith in Christ and the obedience/abundance of life in Christ has now become, apparently, something of a mystery. Yes, it is a relationship that has functioned well in many periods of Christian history. And there still are those today for whom faith in Christ progressively modulates into both obedience and abundance. I meet such people. But, not very many. The usual Christian experience does not progress in that way. And it is mainly because individuals are rarely offered any effective guidance into the inner substance of the path laid down by Jesus in his teachings and example.
At the present time intentional, effective training in Christlikeness is simply not available. There are no effectual programs of training that enable God’s people to do what Jesus said in a regular and efficient manner. Imagine, if you can, discovering in your church bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting on you. Or suppose the announced seminar was on how to live without purposely indulged lust or covetousness. Or on how to quit condemning the people around you. Or on how to be free of anger and all its complications. Imagine, also, a guarantee that at the end of the seminar those who have done the prescribed studies and exercises will actually be able to bless those who are spitting on them, and so on. That is, when you teach people to bless those who curse them, they actually do bless those who curse them – even family members! They recognize the occasion as it arises for what it is and respond from the heart of Jesus, which has become their own. They do it and they do it well.
Imagine further driving by a church with a large sign in front that says, “We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves to Jesus How to Do Everything He Said to Do.” If you had just been reading the Gospels – especially Matthew 28:20 – you might think, “Of course, that is exactly what the founder of the church, Jesus, told us to do.” But your second thought might be that this is a highly unusual church. And then, “Can this be right?” And: “Can it be real?” When do you suppose was the last time any group of believers or church of any kind or level had a meeting of its officials in which the topic for discussion and action was how they were going to teach their people actually to do the specific things Jesus said? We now lack a serious and expectant intention to bring Jesus’ people into obedience and abundance through training.
Numerous programs in local congregations and wider levels of organization are frequently spoken of as discipleship programs. We do not wish to detract from the good they do (and they do much good). However, the emphasis all too often is on some point of behavior modification. This is helpful, but it is not adequate to human life. It does not reach the root of the human problem. That root is the character of the inner life, where Jesus and his call to apprenticeship in the kingdom place the emphasis. Jesus as the actual teacher of his people has disappeared from the mental horizon of our faith.
The Solution: A Curriculum for Christlikeness
It is a main purpose of this book to help us face this fact of the absence of Jesus the teacher and to change it. So we must propose a “curriculum for Christlikeness”: A Course of Study and Practice for Apprentices to Jesus in The Kingdom Among Us. We must begin to think about what, exactly, we would do to help people already committed to learning to do the things Jesus taught, so that they would actually come to do them routinely.
We must start by recognizing that the “teaching” to be done at this point is not a matter of conveying information. The task is not to inform the disciple, or student, about things that Jesus believed, taught, and practiced. Usually that will already have been done, and more of that alone will be of very little use. The student will already possess almost all of the correct information. If tested for accuracy on it, he or she would probably pass. And that information is essential. It is even a large part of the reason why the students have confidence in Jesus at all. Very likely they deeply want it all to be true. But they do not really understand it, and their confidence in its reality is shaky. The truth they possess does not form a part of their real life. In their bodily and social being they continue to be ready to act as though the information were not true, even though in their conscious affirmations they accept it. Here is the point where the training must begin.
Four Things That Should NOT Be Objectives
To correctly form a curriculum for Christlikeness, we must have a very clear and simple perception of the primary goals it must achieve, as well as what is to be avoided. Two objectives in particular that are often taken as primary goals must not be left in that position. These are external conformity to the wording of Jesus’ teachings about actions in specific contexts and profession of perfectly correct doctrine. They do not provide a course of personal growth and development that routinely produces people who “hear and do” what Jesus commanded. They either crush the human mind and soul and separate people from Jesus, or they produce hide-bound legalists and theological experts with “lips close to God and hearts far away from him” (Isa. 29: 13). The world hardly needs more of these. Much the same can be said of the strategies of encouraging faithfulness to the activities of a church or other outwardly religious routines and various “spiritualities,” or the seeking out of special states of mind or ecstatic experiences. These are all good things, but they are not to be taken as major objectives in an adequate curriculum for Christlikeness.
Special experiences, faithfulness to the church, correct doctrine, and external conformity to the teachings of Jesus all come along as appropriate, more or less automatically, when the inner self is transformed. But they do not produce such a transformation. Thus these four emphases are good in their place, and even necessary when rightly understood. But when taken as primary objectives, they only burden souls and make significant Christlikeness extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The Two Objectives
By contrast, the primary objectives of any successful course of training for the life that “hears and does”, are twofold. The first objective is to bring apprentices to the point where they dearly love and constantly delight in that “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus and are quite certain that there is no limit to the goodness of his intentions or to his power to carry them out. When the elderly apostle John came near to the end of his long life he said, “This is the message we heard from Jesus: God is light, and darkness in him there is not, none” (1 John 1:5). It is also, according to him, the message “we proclaim to you” (v. 5). It is the message we today are to proclaim. It is the message that impels the willing hearer to dearly love and constantly delight in that “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus. And it is the message that, finally, gives us assurance that his universe is “a perfectly safe place for us to be.” Love perfected eliminates all fear. When the mind is filled with this great and beautiful God, the “natural” response will be to do “everything I have told you to do.”
The second primary objective of a curriculum for Christlikeness is to remove our automatic responses against the kingdom of God, to free the apprentices of domination, of”enslavement” (John 8:34; Rom. 6:6), to their old habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action. These are the “automatic” patterns of response that were ground into the embodied social self during its long life outside The Kingdom Among Us. They make up “the sin that is in my members” which, as Paul so brilliantly understood, brings it about that “wishing to do the good is mine, but the doing of it is not” (Rom. 7:18).
To enable Jesus’ students to do what he said it is not enough just to announce and teach the truth about God, about Jesus, and about God’s purposes with humankind. This is the fallacy underlying most of the training that goes on in our churches and theological schools. Very little of our being lies under the direction of our conscious minds, and very little of our actions runs from our thoughts and consciously chosen intentions. Our mind on its own is an extremely feeble instrument, whose power over life we constantly tend to exaggerate. We are incarnate beings in our very nature, and we live from our bodies. If we are to be transformed, the body must be transformed, and that is not accomplished by talking at it.
The training that leads to doing what we hear from Jesus must therefore involve, first, the purposeful disruption of our “automatic” thoughts, feelings, and actions by doing different things with our body. And then, through various intentional practices, we place the body before God and his instrumentalities in such a way that our whole self is retrained away from the old kingdoms around and within us and into “the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13 NAS). This part of the curriculum for Christlikeness consists of disciplines for the spiritual life.
What You Have To Do To Achieve the First Objective
With regard to our first primary objective, the most important question we face is, How do we help people love what is lovely? Very simply, we cause them, ask them, help them to place their minds on the lovely thing concerned. Love is an emotional response aroused in the will by visions of the good. Contrary to what is often said, love is never blind, though it may not see rightly. It cannot exist without some vision of the beloved. As teachers we therefore bring the lovely thing – in this case, God – before the disciple as fully and as forcibly as possible, putting our best efforts into it. So the question for the first part of our curriculum is simply how to bring God adequately before the mind and spirit of the disciple.
A part of God’s call to us has always been to think. Indeed the call of Jesus to “repent” is nothing but a call to think about how we have been thinking. And when we come to the task of developing disciples into the fullness of Christ, the most fundamental part is to form the insights and habits of the student’s mind so that it stays directed toward God. When this is adequately done, a full heart of love will go out toward God, and joy and obedience will flood the life (see Ps 16:5-11).
There are three main ways in which God comes before the mind, where we can lose ourselves in love of him. Through them, the lovely God wins the love of the disciple. He comes to us (1) through his creation, (2) through his public acts on the scene of human history (especially the life and death of Jesus), and (3) through individual experiences of him by ourselves and others. Through these media, our training must present God to the minds of students in such a way that they can see his magnificent beauty and their love can be strongly and constantly drawn to him.
What You Have To Do To Achieve the Second Objective
This process must go hand in hand with the second main objective in a curriculum for Christlikeness: breaking of the power of patterns of wrongdoing and evil that govern our lives because of our long habituation to a world alienated from God. The patterns of wrongdoing that govern human life outside the kingdom are usually quite weak. They are simply our habits, our largely automatic responses of thought, feeling, and action. Typically, we have acted wrongly before reflecting. And it is this that gives bad habits their power. They do not, by and large, bother to run through our conscious mind or deliberative will, and often run exactly contrary to them. It is rare that what we do wrong is the result of careful deliberation. Instead, our routine behavior manages to keep the deliberative will and the conscious mind off balance and on the defensive. That leaves us constantly in the position of having to deal with what we have already done. Therefore it is primarily in the body and its social context that the work must be done to replace wrong habits with automatic responses that flow with the kingdom of Jesus and sustain themselves from its power. Without this replacement of habits, direct efforts in the moment of action to do what is right will seldom succeed.
Jesus shows us how to live in the kingdom. We do not just hear what Jesus said to do and try to do that. Rather, we also notice what he did, and we do that too. We notice, for example, that he spent extended times in solitude and silence, and we enter solitude and silence with him. We note what a thorough student of the scriptures he was, and we follow him, the Living Word, into the depths of the written word. We notice how he used worship and prayer, how he served those around him, and so forth. If we are to succeed in having the mind or inner character of our Lord, we must follow an order of life as a whole that is appropriately modeled after his. Thus, our plan for a life of growth in the life of the kingdom of God must be structured around disciplines for the spiritual life.
A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, all of the “spiritual” disciplines are, or essentially involve, bodily behaviors. But really, that makes perfect sense. For the body is the first field of energy beyond our thoughts that we have direction over, and all else we influence is due to our power over it. Moreover, it is the chief repository of the wrong habits that we must set aside, as well as the place where new habits are to be instituted. We are, within limits, able to command the body to do things that will transform our habits – especially the inner habits of thought and feeling – and so enable us to do things not now in our power. In this second part of the curriculum for Christlikeness, then, the main task is, by engaging in ways of using the body differently, to disrupt and conquer habits of thought, feeling, and action that govern our lives as if we or someone other than God were God and as if his kingdom were irrelevant or inaccessible to us.
What is clear and, for our purposes, essential is that a small number of disciplines are absolutely central to spiritual growth. They must form a part of the foundation of our whole-life plan for growth as apprentices of Jesus. These are, on the side of abstinence, solitude and silence and, on the side of positive engagement, study and worship. It is solitude and silence that allow us to escape the patterns of epidermal responses, with their consequences. They provide space to come to terms with these responses and to replace them, with God’s help, by different immediate responses that are suitable to the kingdom environment. They break the pell-mell rush through life and create a kind of inner space that permits people to become aware of what they are doing and what they are about to do. As we, through relocating our bodies into solitude, escape and change the inputs that have constantly controlled our thoughts and feelings, we will have additional freedom to place our minds fully upon the kingdom and its peace and strength. In study that we place our minds fully upon God and his kingdom. And study is brought to its natural completion in the worship of God. Other disciplines, such as fasting, service to others, fellowship, and so on, might be discussed as well, and, indeed, in a full treatment of a curriculum for Christlikeness they must be discussed. But if these four are pursued with intelligence and prayer, whatever else is needed will certainly come along.
In the next post, we will turn to the practical steps Willard suggests to achieve the two objectives of the curriculum for Christlikeness.