Dr. Willard's Diagnosis
All scripture is inspired, but some of it is electric. The power of the Holy Spirit hums in the lines so thrillingly that you hardly dare to touch them. For me, the first chapters of Ephesians and Colossians spring to mind, especially the verses where Paul shows us Jesus Christ in his supremacy. God gave his one and only Son as "the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10). But Paul sets that mighty work inside a mightier one. With trumpets sounding in his soul, he exclaims that through Jesus' sacrifice, God was pleased "to reconcile to himself all things" (Col. 1:20) as part of a still mightier plan for the ages when God will at last "gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10).
As the Father rescues his people from the powers of darkness and resettles them inside the kingdom of his Son, they revel in his grace and sing about it in church. They take satisfaction in believing right doctrine and teach it in seminary. There they plan on going to heaven by and by and talk about it on tv. And, in the process, they experience some high-quality religious feelings.
Dallas Willard writes to say there's something missing in the last part of this picture. Extending a line of thought that runs through such Christian writers as Teresa of Avila, William Law, Jonathan Edwards, C. S. Lewis, and Richard Foster, Willard calls us to want and to plan for something much more ambitious, namely "thoroughgoing inner transformation through Christ" to "clean the inside of the cup." To rejoice in our forgiveness, teach right doctrine, and yearn for heaven are wonderful things. But, as Willard testifies in his classics The Divine Conspiracy and The Spirit of the Disciplines, and most recently in The Great Omission (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), God has much bigger things in mind for us.
He wants us to join his mighty project. That's a main reason we need thoroughgoing transformation. He wants people like us to become fit enough to follow Jesus inside "the infinite rule of God," becoming searchers for his kingdom, agents within it, witnesses to it, and models of it. We now have little kingdoms of our own, just as God intended. Depending on our age and level of responsibility, we have a small realm "where our choice determines what happens." God wants us "to mesh our kingdoms with the kingdoms of others," all inside his master kingdom, "which pervades and governs the whole of the physical universe."
What else are all these glad biblical instructions for?
- Put on the full armor of God.
- Seek his kingdom first.
- Fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.
- Heal the sick.
- Stir one another up to good works.
- Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.
- Teach everybody to obey everything I have commanded you.
- Let your light shine before others.
According to Willard, the problem is that a lot of us nod amiably at these instructions for a big Christian life in God's kingdom. Then we ignore them. For one thing, the instructions look like they're beyond us. For another, they are. The reason is that many of us are out of shape, spiritually speaking. God doesn't seem real to us, so we don't pray. And then God doesn't seem so real to us. When our own kingdom has a good year, we quit longing for the kingdom of God. We divert God's kingdom resources to our own side-projects and then lament when God doesn't bless them. (I'd like to see a cartoon of a Christian, palms up, complaining: "I stepped out in faith to build a Jesus Wins gaming casino that would employ hundreds, with a gospel singer lying on the King David Lounge piano and everything. But the casino went belly up. Where was God in my tragedy?")