“For anything to become real it has to be personal. If it does not become personal, it will not be real.” 1Dallas Willard didn’t say that, but the statement captures the heart of a series of talks he delivered in Johannesburg, South Africa, over three decades ago.
Dallas had been asked to come to South Africa by Trevor Hudson, a young minister who had learned about Dallas in 1985. During a time of prolonged illness, a friend had given Trevor copies of cassette tapes of a few of Willard’s talks. These messages soon found their way into Trevor’s heart and onto the pages of The Spirit of the Disciplines.
Over time, Trevor and Dallas established a lasting friendship. Willard visited South Africa several times—every time Trevor asked. Much later, when Dallas’ time of earth-life drew to an early close, it was Trevor who was chosen to fill Dallas’ central teaching role in the Renovaré Institute.
The talk you are about to hear—either in its entirety or in parts—is very central to the teaching of Dallas Willard. In many ways it provides a summary of the four key ideas that drove most of Willard’s writing and teaching through the course of his career—or “careen” as he sometimes described it.
To put it very simply, Dallas believed that invisible things such as the Trinity, the Kingdom of God, and the risen Christ are very much real, and present in the here and now—as real as the “energy” and “matter” that you find in tables, chairs and the atoms that form them. And he believed we human beings are uniquely designed to be aware of this Presence, and further, that we can know, learn from and interact with this reality on an ongoing basis.
Dallas also believed that it is precisely these types of living interactions that produce real and measurable change—authentic transformation. 2 In short, he understood that Jesus is still in the business of making apprentices the same way he did 2,000 years ago. Face to face.
Henri Nouwen once told a gathering of ministers: “Ministry is the least important thing. You cannot not minister if you are in communion with God. A lot of people are always concerned about: ‘How can I help people? … Or preach well?’ But these are all basically nonissues. If you are burning with the love of Jesus, don’t worry—everyone will know. They will say, ‘I want to get close to this person who is so full of God.’” If your faith is personal, it will be contagiously real.3Dallas Willard was just that type of person.
Nouwen, Willard, the Early Church, and devotion masters through the centuries held many views in common, especially when the subject was “Practicing the Presence of God in Everyday Life.”
Foundation of “Practicing the Presence”
In his introduction to this talk, you will hear Dallas as he lays the foundation for practicing the presence of God. In fact he uses those words:
“This evening, we are going to be laying a foundation by talking about the presence of God in our life. [But] What is our everyday life? Put it in other questions. Who are we? And, why are we here? What kind of life were we meant for? Are we just an accident, here for a few years and passing away?
Your Identity: Who Are You?
According to Dallas Willard you and I are “unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” We are not only loved by, but also “liked” by and willed into existence by, God. We are created in God’s Image and to grow in God’s likeness. And because at the heart of reality is a community—the Trinity—you and I are also designed to live in a harmonious community of other-centered love.
The Purpose of Everyday Life: Why are you Here?
“Your life is your opportunity to participate in the cosmic drama of God’s eternal plan for the most glorious universe possible,” Dallas claims. “Your life is God’s paint brush on the canvas of history. You are here as part of an eternal plan of an infinite God. You are yourself an eternal never dying spirit. You are never going to cease to be, so if you are planning on that, change your plans. …God has put you here in this point in time and space for you to create with Him that part of the universe that makes up your life.” [Just after 8:50.]
And if that does not seem to provide enough grandeur, Dallas reminds us of the “Creation Covenant” established in Genesis 1.26: “You are a ruler,” he says. “But you were meant to rule with God. The human being is created as a community. We are not even created as individuals. We are each created as a community and that is because, like the Triune God, which is a community, the human being is to be a receptacle of love.
What Went Wong?
But look around. For most of us, it seems, earth life does not seem so much like an Eden-type existence. What went wrong? Dallas continues, “… Now, you see, all of this was supposed to happen by human beings living in community with God Himself. They were never supposed to do this on their own. …God has put you here in this point in time and space for you to create with Him that part of the universe that makes up your life. …So, whenever you think about your everyday life, think about it as a part of God’s cosmic drama.” [Around 10:30.]
The call to live each day practicing the presence of God, is a call back to Eden; a challenge to stop choosing self-rule and isolation and to choose instead continuous and transforming friendship with the Trinity. We are to exchange the present reality of “non-with-ness” for living a “with-God life.”
How Can Life Be Set Right?
Dallas offers the following solution to the “what went wrong question?” He says, “Now, how is the creation covenant designed to work? It was designed to work with people living in the manifest presence of God. … It won’t work any other way and it will work now even though there is evil in the world. The manifest presence of God—it was meant to work by human beings living before God as they might live in the midst of a loving family because that’s exactly what God had in mind. [Just after 27.24.]
In his posthumously published book on the 23rdPsalm, Life Without Lack, Dallas describes in wonderful detail three virtues needed for living a radically different and “with-God” type of life. These virtues are: trust (also known as faith), humility, and love. While not explicitly explicated in this brief talk, you hear the echo of these virtues when Dallas turns his attention to the topic of living in God’s presence.
To make the solution of living in the manifest presence of God, living, as it were, a life without lack, there are at least six things needed for which there are no substitutes: 1) An appropriately good and beautiful vision of God; 2) Greater intentionality for how we spend the moments of each day; 3) Practical strategies for increasing our awareness of God’s presence; and growing in the virtues of 4) Trust, 5) Humility; and 6) Love.