Book Summary: Becoming Dallas Willard by Gary Moon

Becoming Dallas Willard by Gary Moon

This is a fascinating biography of a man who had a tremendous impact on me. A professor of philosophy for many years, family man and Christian author and mentor, this book traces Dallas’ life back to its roots. It is immensely helpful in seeing the path he took to “become” Dallas Willard. I am not going to summarize Dallas’ life story here. Get the book. You won’t regret it. Instead, I am going to provide quotes and occasional commentary.

Dallas and Salvation

In typical Dallas fashion, Dallas blows the sides off what we had presupposed about salvation.

What does it mean to be saved? It means eternal living here and now; a life of interaction with Jesus here and now, and that is the only description of Eternal Life in the New Testament.  See John 17;3

This quote led John Ortberg (a good friend and disciple of Dallas) to write Eternity is in Session.

The author commented on Dallas’ view of salvation:

Salvation for Dallas meant far more than merely a decision.  It meant a new way of living, healing of the soul, living with God in the present moment.

The book describes an account when Richard Foster helped a man in the church to accept Jesus as his Savior. Dallas’s response: “Well, I hope that was good for him and Ieads him into accepting Jesus as his life. ”

Dallas was not all that convinced that just praying a prayer converted a man. A man must become an apprentice of Jesus to become one of His followers. For Dallas, salvation was “a new way of living, healing of the soul, living with God in the present moment.”

Some of Dallas’ Books

The following quote might provide the motivation for reading: Renovation of the Heart.

A carefully cultivated heart will, assisted by the grace of God, foresee, forestall, or transform most of the painful situations before which others stand like helpless children saying “Why?”

Wouldn’t we all love a carefully cultivated heart? Quoting Dallas’s wife Jane concerning Renovation of the Heart, Moon wrote:

Because of my decades as a therapist, my favorite chapters were six and seven, “Transforming the Mind,” about thoughts and feelings. I even have a favorite sentence: “The single most important thing in a person’s mind is . . .” Now, isn’t that an attention getter?

By the way, Dallas finished the sentence with: “What you think about God.”

When asked what his book, The Divine Conspiracy is all about, Willard said that it

presents discipleship to Jesus as the very heart of the gospel. The really good news for humanity is that Jesus is now taking on students in the master class of life. …Whereas the gospel of atonement or sin management is that your sins can be forgiven, the gospel of the kingdom is that you can live in the kingdom of God here and now. …. a person can have the gospel of sin management and continue to run life on their own. But if we are alive in the kingdom now, we know that our sins are forgiven, precisely because the life of heaven is now in us, and we are learning to live the moments of our life with God. … To glorify God means to think and act in such a way that the goodness, greatness, and beauty of God are constantly obvious to you and all those around you.

One recorded incident that I found interesting was a time when Dallas was asked “If you could only bring one book [besides the Bible] with you, what would it be?” Much to everyone’s surprise, he said The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. This was certainly one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

There is an extended story about how the book Hearing God came about. Don’t miss my summary of this book.

Big Ideas of Willard

Another landmark idea of Willard’s is that we are not called to “sin management.”

Simply managing sins does not lead to the abundant life that Jesus promised

Dallas’ interjection of “availability” is brilliant and precise. When Jesus said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” He was saying: “It’s available.”

The good news is more than the kingdom of God per se. The gospel is, more precisely, the availability of the kingdom of God. … Availability is what constitutes the news of his good news

One of the battles he faced academically was a rising school of philosophy that denied the reality of real things. Dallas pushed the envelope and declared that even intangible things like the kingdom of God are real:

You can go to the “thing” itself and experience and grasp its reality, even if that “thing” is the kingdom of God on earth.

One doesn’t think of Dallas as playful. Certainly not from his writings. But various stories in the book give us another picture of the man. He saw great value in play.

Work is the creation of value. Play is the creation of value that is not necessary.

One of Dallas’ most profound truths that was brand new to me was:

For those who have put their life in God’s hand, the Universe is a safe place.

This is truly a truth that must be lived to be understood. Who cannot catch this truth that the universe is  a safe place for those in God’s hand in all of the teachings of Jesus and Paul? Me! I missed it.  Jesus told us not to worry and be like the birds depending on their heavenly Father to feed them. (See the end of Matthew 6)  Paul told us that all things work together for good for those who love God. (See Romans 8:28).  Examples of understanding truth by living came from people like Lacy Borgo: “It was his idea that the universe is perfectly safe that completely disrupted my life,” she recalls.

I remember reading it for the first time and thinking the idea that God is completely for us and that all he created is therefore slanted in our favor was wrong, or at best it was crazy. Since my childhood everything I had learned said otherwise. This fearful line of thinking was at the root of my sense of self and my sin. To give it up, to trust that God was good and that there was goodness to be found would mean the undoing of me and my sinful habits—it would mean a dangerous freedom.

“The obviously well-kept secret of the ordinary,” Dallas once wrote, “is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows. . . . That is why everyone, from the smallest child to the oldest adult, naturally wants in some way to be extraordinary, outstanding, making a unique contribution or, if all else fails, wants to be thought so—if only for a brief time.”

I have loved this quote of Dallas for a long time and have often compared it to an atheist’s view of our destiny.

Bertrand Russell View:

You are the product of causes that have no purpose or meaning. Your origin, your growth, your hopes, fears, loves, beliefs are the outcome of accidental collections of atoms. No fire, heroism, or intensity of thought or feeling can preserve your life from beyond the grave. All the devotion, all the inspiration, all the labor of all the ages are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system. The whole temple of human achievement must inevitably be buried in the debris of a universe in ruins. That’s what we’re all headed for.

Dallas’ View:

Our destiny is to be part of a tremendously creative team effort, under unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment. God’s aim in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with Himself included as its primary sustainer and most glorious inhabitant. He is even now at work to bring this about. You have been invited, at great cost to God Himself, to be part of this radiant community. You, right there in your life. You will not only survive death, you yourself were made to bear an eternal weight of glory you cannot now even fathom, and you will one day know.

Dallas and People

There is a lengthy description of Dallas and Richard Foster’s time at a little Friends church. Richard was the young pastor. Dallas a lay leader. It was a living laboratory where Dallas’ ideas about the kingdom of God and discipleship were worked out. Moon writes:

What were the explosive ideas explored in the living laboratory? The three most prominent were the kingdom of God as a present reality, salvation as an ongoing life with God, and the participation in spiritual disciplines as a means of transformation.

Dallas greatly respected Agnes Sanford. He had two books with him as he was dying: The Bible and Agnes’ The Healing Light. Moon provides this story from early on in Dallas and Richard Foster’s relationship.

At this time Agnes Sanford was about to begin a three-day conference on prayer at Bill’s church. Dallas suggested to Richard that if he wanted to learn to pray for people, he should attend this conference. Richard, who had read her book The Healing Light, was skeptical. “Why should I?” he replied. “Because,” Dallas said simply, “When Agnes prays things happen.” “You see,” Richard said, “Dallas saw in Agnes someone who actually did it—who went to the ‘thing’ itself, who had a real and interactive relationship with the Trinity. She was fearless.”

Moon recounts many encounters Dallas had with his grad students:

Dallas believed in pushing against boulders. “Why don’t you go home and push on a large rock for a while!” was the advice a graduate student once got from his mentor when he was faced with a mental block—a common occupational hazard encountered by those who make a living from sustained intellectual work.

For more details about Dallas and People check out:

Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Teaching on Faith and Formation: Edited by Gary Moon. This contains 30 testimonies from people closest to Dallas. Read it and you will be encouraged to become an apprentice of Jesus.

Dallas-isms 

Dallas was known for creating pithy phrases that capture big ideas –  called “Dallas-isms.”

    • The fires of heaven burn hotter than the fires of hell.
    • Know does not mean “to know about him.”
    • Don’t be asking for an opportunity to speak, ask for something meaningful to say
    • Knowledge, biblically speaking, always refers to interactive relationship.
    • Reality is what you can count on, and what you run into when you are wrong.
    • Dramatic communications from God are not signs of Christian maturity.
    • Simply managing sins does not lead to the abundant life that Jesus promised.
    • If you want to do what Jesus did on the spot, you have to practice what he did off the spot.
    • Not planning to go to London does not help me get to New York.
    • Consider carefully the type of persons who were first called Christians.
    • An obsession with doing Jesus’ commands may prevent one from being the kind of person he is.
    • Holiness is not different action but different being.
    • What does it mean to be saved? It means eternal living here and now, a life of interaction with Jesus here and now, and that’s the only description of eternal life in the New Testament, John 17:3.
    • The question of the evangelist should be, “If you don’t die tonight, what are you going to do tomorrow?” And the answer should be, “I’m going to trust Jesus with all of my life, with everything, and that will allow me to live in the kingdom of God.

Another great Dallasism that Mary Poplin turned into a book is the question: “Is reality secular?” I “stole” that idea for a talk I did at an AI Conference which I entitled: “Is Technology Secular?” What is real was a major part of his professional work as a philosopher. But he lightens it up a little for us lay folk:

Reality is what you run into when you’re wrong.

In his relentless pursuit of truth, Dallas was following His master:

Jesus is the kind of person who would be the first to say you must ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads.

Coming to the end of oneself is a major theme in advancing the kingdom within our own life for Dallas. Thus he quipped:

Where do you find God? At www.endofyourrope.com

When asked to describe the church, Willard said:

This isn’t a delivery room; it is the nursery. . . .

When asked about our purpose here on earth:

Why did God not take us on up to heaven? . . . We are left here to be witnesses. . . . We are put here to know God. . . . We are put here to arrive at the chief end of man [which is to glorify God]. … How can we glorify God? We glorify God by bearing much fruit. . . . You bear fruit by abiding. And to abide is to rest in. We are left here [to learn how to hear God’s voice and] to learn how to rest in God, to abide in him and bear fruit. . . . How can I abide? We find the answer in John 15:10. If you “obey” you will abide.

Later, he would call obedience the engine that pulls the train for spiritual transformation,

Dallas and Renovaré

 Key ideas taught in the Renovaré Institute (which was intellectually founded on Dallas’ ideas).

    1. It is actually possible to become like Jesus.
    2. Living in the kingdom of God: What is the gospel of Christ?
    3. The total human system—all of which is to love God.
    4. Learning how to hear God.
    5. Spiritual disciplines: concept and history.
    6. Salvation as a life lived with God.
    7. Celebrating each of the streams of living water.
    8. Importance of classical devotional literature.
    9. Scripture as fifteen ways of being “with God.”
    10. Being with God in prayer.
    11. Living as an apprentice to Jesus.
    12. Spiritual Formation in the roles of our life.

An Overview of Dallas Willard’s key ideas

    1. An adequate understanding of spiritual formation is needed to effectively care for one’s spiritual life.
    2. The nature of spiritual formation in Christ determines the method by which it is to be known.
    3. Relationship with God is an experiential reality.
    4. The Word of God carries with it God’s experiential presence.
    5. God’s experiential presence (or Word) is inherently transformational.
    6. As embodied persons in relationship with a loving God, informed human participation is essential for spiritual growth.
    7. The good news is that God’s reign is available to anyone who relies on Jesus.
    8. Jesus is the master of living life under God’s reign and he wants to teach his students how to live under that reign in their actual lives.
    9. Students of Jesus will rule the universe with him for eternity.
    10. Sin is primarily a disconnection from the life-giving resources of God.
    11. Bodily disciplines place the regenerate person into contact with the life-giving resources of God.
    12. Understanding formation in Christ involves understanding how to bring the various dimensions of the human self under God’s reign.
    13. Knowledge of the reality of Christ and his kind of life is available.

Dallas and the Bible

To observe someone living in a way that matches the wild descriptions of Jesus makes us want to read the Bible again to find out what we have missed.

To know how much Dallas revered the Scriptures, when asked what spiritual discipline was most helpful to him he said: “Memorizing Scripture.

Our Relationship with God

Dallas once used this metaphor to describe our relationship with God:

The mid-size dog had a solid white coat. His eyes seemed blue, but it was hard to tell as they were clouded by the blindness. As we watched, the woman ran backwards, making large figure-eight patterns. She was dragging her feet across the pebbles and old asphalt as she ran, creating scraping sounds for her dog to hear. The dog had a tennis ball in its mouth and seemed to be laughing with joy as he tried to stay close to her. The woman was smiling back at her companion and saying, “I’m right here.” “I see you.” “I’ve got you.”

We are like this blind dog and God leads us in ways we cannot really see but we hear Him continually telling us: “I’m right here.” “I see you.” “I’ve got you.”

Summary

I cannot summarize this book. You need to read it and be inspired to have the character of Christ formed in you (a definition of Spiritual Formation).