In my last post, I described Dallas Willard’s vision for a “curriculum for Christlikeness” which he outlines in chapter 9 of The Divine Conspiracy. In that post, we saw that Willard lays put two primary objectives for this curriculum: enthralling the mind with God and breaking the power of the evil in our bodies. We turn now to practical considerations when implementing those objectives.
The Agents of Training: Our Side and God’s Side
The training required to transform our most basic habits of thought, feeling, and action will not be done for us. And yet it is something that we cannot do by ourselves. The familiar words of Jesus are “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But these must be balanced by the insight that, in general, if we do nothing it will certainly be without him. Obviously, the effects of training in any area cannot be transferred into us from another person, and rarely, if ever, will it be injected by divine grace. Others can help us in certain ways, but we must act. We must act wisely and consistently over a long period of time. Even so, we cannot “put off the old person and put on the new” on our own.
A picture of the factors involved in the transformation of our concretely embodied selves from inside (the “mind”) out (behavior) can be conveyed by what I call “the golden triangle of spiritual growth.” This image is designed to suggest the correlation in practical life of the factors that can certainly lead to the transformation of the inner self into Christlikeness.
The intervention of the Holy Spirit is placed at the apex of the triangle to indicate its primacy in the entire process. The trials of daily life and our activities specially planned for transformation are placed at the bottom to indicate that where the transformation is actually carried out is in our real life, where we dwell with God and our neighbors. And at the level of real life, the role of what is imposed upon us (“trials”) goes hand in hand with our choices as to what we will do with ourselves.
The function of the Holy Sprit is first, to move within our souls, and especially our minds, to present the person of Jesus and the reality of his kingdom. This is through the word of the gospel, in contrast to the realities of life without God. Our confidence in Jesus as the One is always a response elicited and supported by the spiritual movements of God. Thus, as Paul says, “No one can find Jesus to be Lord except by the Holy Spirit;; ( 1 Cor. 12: 2). After we receive the new life, the Spirit-continues to move upon and within us to enable us to do the kinds of works Jesus did (through “gifts” of the Spirit) and to grow the kind of inward character that manifests itself in the “fruit” or outcome of the Spirit in our outward life: love; joy, peace, longsuffering, and similar traits of Christ (Gal.. 5:22-23).
The importance of the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be overemphasized. But today our practice in Christian circles is, in general, to place almost total emphasis on the apex of this triangle, the work of the Spirit of God for or on the individual. Reliance upon what the Spirit does to us or in us, as indispensable as it truly is, will not by itself transform character in its depths. The action of the Spirit must be accompanied by our response. This active participation on our part has two aspects, represented by the bottom angles in the triangle.
First we must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being “right,” we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life.
Our life presents itself to us as a series of tasks. Our more serious challenges are trials, even tribulations. In biblical language they are all “temptations.” Just listen to how people carry on! For some of us the first tribulation of the day is just getting up. And then there is caring for ourselves. Then the commute. Then work and other people. But knowledge of the kingdom puts us in position to welcome all of these, because, as we have already seen, we are in a position to thrive on everything life can throw at us-including getting up of a morning! Whatever comes will only confirm the goodness and greatness of the God who has welcomed us into his world (James 1:2-4).
In order to carry through with the challenges of daily life in this way we must be deeply engaged in the other two points of the triangle: we must have the constant movement of the Spirit of God accompanying us, and we must incorporate substantial “spiritual disciplines” in our overall life plan. In fact, all three points of the triangle are absolutely essential-to one another as well as to the overall goal of spiritual growth. None will work on its own.
So it is absolutely essential to our growth into the “mind” of Jesus that we accept the “trials” of ordinary existence as the place where we are to experience and find the reign of God-with-us as actual reality. We are to see every event as an occasion in which the competence and faithfulness of God will be confirmed to us. But few disciples will be able directly to respond to their ordinary “trials” in this way, any more than they will be able directly to do “all things whatsoever.” They will have to adopt certain practices (the spiritual disciplines) that put them in position to respond appropriately.
Not only is the outcome of our progression in the kingdom not under our control, but we are not told in any systematic way how to do our part in the process. Well, at least we are not told in precise terms-certainly not in formulas. This is because the process is to be a walk with a person. But it is also because what is needed is very much an individual matter, a response to the particular needs of individual disciples. Perfectly general instructions simply cannot be given.
The Pattern of Teaching (with a Case Study in Anger)
So in addition to implementing whatever is necessary to achieve the two primary objectives of the curriculum (i.e., enthralling the mind with God and breaking the power of the evil in our bodies), individual disciples will, at least in some cases, require individualized direction and help to deal with particular teachings of Jesus. For example, suppose you are someone who is struggling with the command to lay aside anger or to stop being contemptuous of others. The key in such cases is to aim at the heart and its transformation. We want to “make the tree good.” We do not aim just to control behavior, but to change the inner castle of the soul, that God may be worshiped “in spirit and in truth” and right behavior cease to be a performance.
We want to become the kind of person who is not dominated by anger and who truly loves and respects others. And we want to assist others in that transition. This means, of course, that the teaching cannot be captured by rules: for example, “Never say someone is a fool,” “Always give in,” “Never go to court,” and so forth. You could follow such rules and still be filled with anger, or not follow them on appropriate occasions and be completely filled with love.
If we miss this point, we cannot help but fall into the worst kind of dead legalism. We can be sure that trying to follow Jesus’ teachings will then ruin our lives. We have all experienced so much well-intentioned meanness in our lives, by those who felt “responsible” and wanted us to be responsible, that Jesus, as the best-intended, will be experienced as the meanest in his “laws.” The root of true Christlikeness will then be destroyed.
Anger and contempt toward others is only removed by the vision and experience of God being over all, ensuring that all is well with me and that others are is treasures. I no longer need to engage in the violence of name-calling, for I do not need to “put others down” in order for me to be “up.” I no longer need to secure myself in life, for I am secure. Moreover, the shock of being dealt with in love and fairness and mercy will certainly change the behavior of others. “When your ways please the Lord, he causes your enemies to be at peace with you” (Prov. 16:7).
The pattern can be applied to all cases, for example: the spirit of nonretaliation (“other cheek”), blessing for cursing (Jesus’ “method” in 1 Pet. 3:23), going the second mile, living without intentional lusting, and so on. The pattern has two main elements:
- Clearly positioning the context before the heavenly Father’s present rule through Jesus
- Walking the individual through actual cases in their own lives to give them experience-based understanding and assurance
Some Practical Points About Implementation
In order to implement something like a curriculum for Christlikeness in the context of a local assembly of believers, it will usually be vital to just do certain things and not talk a lot about them – at least until some time later. If we are leading such a group, we must, first, be sure that the curriculum outlined is in fact the substance of our own life. Do we, or are we obviously learning to, love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Second, we should prayerfully observe those we serve and live with to see who among them has already been “ravished with the kingdom of God” and is ready to become Jesus’ apprentice. These we help to consciously do so, and we then can devote serious time to leading them into and through the curriculum, adapting it as needed. It may at first not be possible to carry this on as a congregational project, though one should not be furtive about it. We can pour ourselves into a few people without fanfare, and soon they can begin sharing the work of forming other disciples. You can count on it to spread, for, in truth, there is nothing on earth to compare it to.
Finally, we should speak, teach, and – if that is our place – preach the gospel of the kingdom of the heavens in its fullness. Practically, that means that in our various communications we focus on the Gospels and on teaching what Jesus himself taught in the manner he taught it. This, with intelligent prayer and loving deed, is our method for “ravishing people with the kingdom of God;’ and thus preparing them for the step into out-and-out apprenticeship.
Once again, we do not need to talk a lot about what we are doing. In time it will be obvious. And we certainly are never to be judgmental of Christians who are, honestly, not yet disciples. In most cases they never will have had a serious opportunity to become apprentices of Jesus. But for the most part they will quite certainly respond well to the word of the kingdom and the call to discipleship when it is clearly presented to them.
We must, of course, settle it in our minds that there will always be difficulties in the local setting when one becomes serious about discipleship to Jesus and an associated curriculum. We may not soon have bigger crowds ai:ound us – and in fact they may for a while even get smaller – but we will soon have bigger Christians for sure. This is what I call “church growth for those who hate it.” And bigger crowds are sure to follow, for the simple reason that human beings desperately need what we bring to them, the word and reality of The Kingdom Among Us.