Q & A with John Ortberg

Dallas Willard Part 12 of 25

Dallas agreed to teach separate two weeks for the Renovaré Institute in Denver, a cohort of 40 students, mostly in ministry positions. He rehearses many of the themes from his speaking ministry elsewhere, so there is little new to be heard, but with more time with a “committed” group he is able to be more comprehensive than usual.


Ok, the big buzz around the dinner table for the last two nights is what in the heck do you mean by soul, anyway?


Dallas Willard: Ok.


John Ortberg: In two minutes or less!


DW: All right. Well, first of all, you know, we talked about the soul being the integrative factor in the various dimensions that the soul is what is supposed to make one life out of the many things that are dynamically running in us, because all of those factors are dynamic; they lead toward if not to action, and the problem is integration.


So let me give you an analogy, and that is your timer on your dishwasher. The soul is like the timer on your dishwasher. It senses the states that the dishwasher is in, it initiates processes, times them, synchronizes them with other processes so you don’t get the soap squirted in and then the drier turn on. That’s a good analogy.


Of course, it’s personal in the case of the soul, and so there is a difference in that regard. It’s not mechanical. Nothing in the human personality is mechanical, but it is an integrative factor. It is a reality in its own right, so when I’m doing this at length, I say the soul is a substance. That is to say it’s a genuine entity that has a character and causation of its own and enters with the other parts into causal interactive relationships. And the failure of the soul is the brokenness of the life. So the person who says I’m not going to eat a Twinkie and eats it, there’s some dysfunctionality there.


Q: Does God have a soul?


DW: I’m sorry?


Q: Does God have a soul?


DW: God has a soul, indeed he does. And actually it’s funny to watch how the translators try to get around that, and they mess it up when they do. Like, his statement, “My soul shall abhor you,” and they can’t give adequate translations, because really only the language of the soul can get in there.


JO: We’ll move it on to another question. I’ll just say I know you know what you mean by soul: keep working on the analogy.


DW: No, I appreciate that. I appreciate that.


JO: No, cause you know, I think we all want to understand it better, but it’s the kind of entity that’s hard to explain.


DW: It is, very difficult. And I come at this talking out of 2500 years of philosophy and thinking, and basically what I say about the soul is pretty much what Aristotle says about it. A modern treatment is by a book named Frank, and it’s just called Man’s Soul. And what is good about that book is, well, he’s a good thinker and writer to begin with, but he addresses it in the light of contemporary thought. So let’s all work on it together.


JO: Yeah, because I think the other elements of the person—heart, will, spirit, thoughts, feelings, body, social relationships—are much easier to grasp.


DW: I think they are; I think they are. Their function is simpler.


JO: Random question; you just asked about God and the soul. Our dog just died last week. Do dogs have spirits?


DW:  They don’t have spirits; they have souls.


JO: Ok. Brandon?…


JO: Do all animals have souls? Plants don’t have souls.

DW: They do.


JO: Plants have souls.


DW: Yeah. But plants aren’t persons. See, just because you have a soul doesn’t mean you’re a person. Persons are—they have other dimensions, and dogs are limited in their capacity to think.


JO: Just curiosity, how many here before listening to Dallas today would have said you understood that plants have souls?


[5:08] DW: But now, think about the plant, right? It’s got to eat dirt, drink water, take in sunlight, photosynthesis, grow, produce seed…


JO: So a living creature, a living created entity that requires integration will have a soul, because a soul is what integrates the functions to create a united living being.


DW: That’s right. That’s exactly right.


JO: Well why didn’t you say that in the first place? How come I’m doing your job for you?


DW: I was waiting for you to say it!


No, but that’s true. And your dog, your dog is a—


JO: Any living entity that has different functions will have a soul that unites those different functions to create the single living being or entity.


DW: Yes, that’s right. You see; living things are very different from non-living things.


JO: So the soul really has to do with life.


DW: Oh, I’ll tell you; that’s exactly right. It has to do with life. And now then you—


JO: One more time, any living entity, any living being that has different functions—you know, to gain nutrition, light, so—to grow and reproduce, will have a soul, and that soul integrates different functions in order to create a single living entity.


DW: Right. And so a rock doesn’t have a soul.


JO: Right.


DW: And then, now this is important when you start thinking in our—


JO: Because a living being has a kind of unity that no other entity has.


DW: That is exactly right, and it has to do with complexity and function and value. That’s why if you had to choose between destroying a toothpick and a snail, what would you choose to destroy?


JO: You’d destroy the toothpick.


DW: You would destroy the toothpick. Now suppose you have to choose between destroying a snail and a cat—


JO: Cat.


DW: He’s grieving over his dog.


JO: That’s just good common sense.


DW: Well, cats are something else, aren’t they? They really are.


JO: They’re not in the Bible.


DW: Now here, we read—“I charge you in the presence of God who gives life to all things.” God gives life to all things. Now he gives eternal life to human beings. Ok?


JO: Actually, I don’t know if I’ll be able to turn to it real fast, after our dog died I had never thought of Psalm 104 quite like this. Boy, this print is small. When you send—it’s talking about all creatures. “How many are your works, O Lord. In wisdom you created them all, the earth is full of your creatures. They all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up. When you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified. When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust. When you send your spirit, they are created and they renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure forever.”


DW: This is true environmentalism, and it is founded in Genesis 126 with reference to human beings. See, that’s why, you know, I mentioned when you start out, give them dominion and what do they have dominion over? The first thing is fish. Then you wind up creeping things, and then when you get to Psalm 8, you start with sheep. And then when you get that carried over to Hebrews 2, it is really everything. We see everything put in subordination to human beings, and yet we see that it’s not working very well at this point, but we see Jesus. That’s the way out. So, you keep that continuity, Psalm 8, and you wind up in Revelation 22:5.


JO: On the throne forever and ever.


DW: Absolutely.


JO: Yeah. All right, we’re going to keep going. Brandon, did you have something?


Q: Yes, I do. Dallas, I’m going to have to ask this question a lot more systematically than I would if I had more time.


DW: Well, we’ll carry on by email or something.


[10:00] Q: I hope that you can answer it and do justice to it and I can get it across, and I pray that it will come across in the short words that I’m going to give to it.


GM: Time’s up.


Q: That was fast, that was fast.


DW: Don’t let him stop you!


Discipleship And Political Involvement


Q: So, we’ve talked a lot about kingdoms and queendoms, and that all of us have personal dominion which we are to bring within the kingdom of God, and that’s the appropriate way to exercise our powers. And we’ve talked about how that should function in limited ways, with respect to children, with respect to strangers. What we have not talked as much about is how in many of us who have lived our lives in primarily metropolitan areas, one of the primary ways in the type of life that we now live is relating to people through the exercise of our political rights, so that the vote is now basically an exercise of my personal power. It expands my dominion, and in some parts of the country such as New York, I would suggest that is one of the primary ways in which people relate to one another.


And so my question to you is when churches undertake to make disciples, should churches focus on discipleship without explicitly providing instructions on how a disciple would be a democratic citizen, or should discipleship be assumed to eventually entail the appropriate functioning of the person in the kingdom of God who’s situated in a democratic society in which we have more personal dominion than most Christians have had in great numbers throughout the history of the Church?


DW: I would just say I have a little difficulty seeing that as an alternative. If I understand it, we should do both. And the churches should explicitly and constantly address citizen involvement. And that does not require them to take sides in terms of persons and parties, but it will have obvious implications for that. But the responsibility of the individual in the kingdom of God for the good or evil that lies under their influence involves citizen involvement above all, because that is where the greatest public good is dealt with.


Just to illustrate, now for example, all of the professions, the professional used to be independent. You train, you hung out a shingle, and that’s no longer true. The professions now are substantially under the direction of the political order. And just think of health care, and you know, you see that. So now to be responsible in the professional realm, you have to understand your responsibility for the profession in the public realm. Right? And the professions are the primary centers of responsibility in metropolitan areas especially, because they are that to which everyone turns to make things work.


In Los Angeles, some of you may know, we’ve had water mains breaking all over the place and flooding whole areas, and so on. Well, why is—who’s responsible for that? Professionals. The engineering profession is one of the main professions, and if you don’t have your engineers, then you’re not going to have your plumbers, and you’re going to have sewage running in the street, and so on. So the more complicated life becomes, the more important this is.


JO: Next question over here?


GM: And, yes, why don’t we run the microphone from the previous one that asked, Brandon—whoever was next. Whoever asks the next question, why don’t you just take the microphone to whoever John calls. Thanks.


God’s Soul


Q: Ok, thank you. My next question actually has to do with the previous question, if you don’t mind. If God has a soul, he has a spirit, what else does God have?


DW: I’m sorry…


Q: God has a soul and a spirit; what else?


JO: God has a soul and a spirit, what else does he have? Does he have a mind?


DW: He has a soul, and he is a spirit, and in the sense that human beings have a spirit, he has a spirit. God is a complex substance, personal substance. And he does not have a body. But he has a mind, he has emotions, and that provides the framework for his will, and then he has a soul that integrates all of those so that God never suffers from disruption of the harmony of his personality.


[15:22] JO: I know that this is complex and there’s lots of thought in back of it. Can you say a sentence or two—what does it mean to say God has a substance, God has substance, because we’re not used to the word “substance” used in that way.


DW: Right. That’s true. A substance is something that has independent existence and is capable of enduring through time and exercising causal relations of a specific type. Sugar is a substance. It’s a mass substance. Now, Fido is a substance, not a mass substance. He’s a particular substance. So that idea of being a certain kind of thing that exercises and receives influence is a part of the general idea of substance.


Now, we want people in the theology of it, then you get exercised about it and you say, well God’s eternal, he’s not in time. Well, that’s a big one to deal with. He is in time; his eternality does not consist of him not doing one thing after he does another. That’s being in time, doing one thing after you do another. So you have to reinterpret God along the lines of causation and time because he is a unique substance in that he absolutely does not depend on anything else. Everything else depends on him. Every substance beside that, including living substances, depends on something else. And God’s the only—that’s why he’s Yahweh. And Yahweh is associated again with that word “to be.” And being is all under him, and so that’s a part of the story.


JO: So he’s complex—soul, spirit, mind—by spirit you mean will?


DW: Yes.


JO: Are there parts to God; are there other parts to God that it would be helpful to know?


DW: Well, none that I know of. But, you know, you want to say things like this gets very deep very fast, and your traditionally Christians and thinkers have been torn between this idea of not knowing anything about God—I mean, there’s a whole stream of what is negative theology in the Christian tradition that says the only things you know about God is what he is not. Right?


JO: Right. There’s nothing he doesn’t know, no place he is not…


DW: Right, there you go. And then the tendency to say, well, the one who spoke out of darkness and gave light is the one who speaks in our hearts to give ourselves knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. So you see, you’re torn between those. And the more that Christian thinking drifts towards mere philosophy, the farther the personality of God recedes. And the more it drifts towards the personality of God, the less you have of the depth of God and the more you get, you know, good old uncle God, or something like that. And that’s—a lot of that is going on today.


JO: Ok. Next question over here.





The Role Of Knowledge In Discipleship


Q: My mind is mush right now. How much does an uneducated fisherman who wants to walk in the love and power of Jesus have to understand all this to change the world?


JO: Great question.


DW: Not very much. They need to understand things like all things are possible to God. They need to understand that, and that will help them venture in their life into the vastness of God to handle the things that concern them. But this is the wonderful grace of God. They used to have a tape in the cathedral of Notre Dame that you would listen to and it talked about the humility of God. And it’s a wonderful thought; God is humble. And that is one of those aspects in which Jesus expresses him so well.


[20:04] So we have to be very careful with this, and understand that God in his greatness reaches out to everyone, and when we say he’s at hand, we mean to everyone, even those who reject him. And so it’s quite important to understand that. But now on the other hand, you see, we have a lot of folks who aren’t simple fishermen. And one of our problems is we’re apt to cut down the teaching and the message so that those folks who have genuine issues to deal with just kind of at last drift off.


And, now some of your more ritual churches have a ritual that allows those people to come along with the simple fishermen and participate and have something to hold on to. If you are a non-ritual church, it’s more dangerous for the people who want to think to be in that church.


Discipleship In The Local Church—What’s Working?


Q: Very practical question, maybe more even to you, John. The hope is that all this will be gone through the local church, spiritual formation, making of disciples. And you’ve been a practitioner of that for a long time, and you’re now at a new place to do that. What are you finding in very practical ways that are working, that are not working. What is it in the system that works against it, as well as in the individual heart, etc. And what are you kind of seeing around different places around the nation. Because now this is the practical thing of how to move it in.


JO: Yeah. Well, you know, from the first time I talked to Dallas many, many years ago, because I’m in a local church setting, that’s been a recurring topic of conversation. I think I find, we find, there’s a long ways to go. I think there’s a lot of hunger; I think more and more people are interested in the kinds of conversations that are going on here.


I was on sabbatical this summer for seven weeks, and when I came back and I was meeting with our leadership team, I’d been back for less than a week and I had a conversation with them, and it’s so funny because it was precisely one of the statements that was on the sheet here. There’s something about the church that distracts us from actually talking about how are we doing in our life with God. And it just struck me when I was with that team, we’ll talk about services and programs, elder meetings, but we don’t spend much time talking about how are we doing in our life with God. And we might talk about that as a general ideal with the congregation, but beyond anecdotal or, you know, general impressions of stuff, we don’t have a good handle on how are the individual people in our congregation doing around that.


So I actually think one of the great challenges, and maybe somebody in this room or a church representative here will really move us a long way is, how does a church, how do people in the church find a way of life, kind of like the twelve steps, or a way of life, they’re not legalistic, they’re not mechanical, but they’re also not vague, you know if somebody’s doing the way or not. How do we as churches find the way, or even the ways; it may be different if it’s a city than it is if it’s a rural area or so, how do we help people enter into the way of Jesus? I think that’s the huge task.


I’ll say one more thing about that, I think its really interesting when you think about churches, you can ask, where’s a church that’s doing evangelism really well, where’s a church that’s doing music and worship really well, where’s a church that’s doing missions really well, and where’s a church that’s doing small groups great, where’s a church that’s really reaching young people; you can name all that stuff. If you ask, where’s a church where when people go there, they are regularly being transformed into loving, joyful, truthful, winsome people; it’s hard to name a church that’s known for that, and that’s, you know, the main thing. So, I hope lots of people here will embrace that experiment.


Yeah, over here.


Dealing With The Unconscious


Q: My question is about the unconscious. We’ve talked about how we use the will in order to participate with God in our spiritual formation, but many of the wounds of the heart are lodged in the unconscious. How do we participate with God in that change?


[25:02] DW: Well, this is an area that you have to deal with usually something other than disciplines, precisely because you can’t bring it before your mind and think about it in terms of means to change it. So there is an area of therapy, professional therapy, that helps, but I think the most important thing for us to think about is to have a regular ministry of healing through prayer, and fellowship really, because you need to be able to identify the wounds, because very often the person doesn’t know what the wounds are. They may remember some event that hurt them, but they’re not able to locate that in themselves.


And so this is where the whole idea of the healing of the memories and so forth has addressed itself, and this requires people who know how to do this. And there are degrees of it. I mean, there are cases where a good spiritual director can locate the problem and find ways of ministering to it. And then there are cases where you need someone who is deeply experienced with discernment, discernment and prayer for specific healing and ways of bringing people back to the wounds and bringing Christ into that and healing in that direction. And so this is a huge ministry, and, but we do want to say on this occasion that disciplines are not the answer to everything. They presuppose a certain basic health and spiritual vitality. And then you can go on.


JO: There’s a wonderful scene in, I don’t know if any of you saw the movie Awakenings with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, and this kind of hostile panel of psychiatric experts is examining DeNiro and skeptical of what’s going on in him, and one of them says in kind of a power play, “Are you aware of the unconscious hostility you’re expressing towards us right now?” And he says, “If it’s unconscious how could I be aware of it?”


And the one other thing I would add to that is there’s a really interesting book called Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, Carol Tavris and one other person. It’s the best, wonderful example from secular writers of Paul’s statement about “our thinking became futile.” It’s just being documented in all kinds of areas, as well as in memories. It’s not just that we have bad memories; we are selectively biased. People remember voting for candidates they didn’t vote for, they remember giving money that they didn’t give, they remember their kids walking and talking earlier than they did, and there’s actually some very helpful research they summarize.


Around about ten years ago the whole repressed memory syndrome was a big deal, and for some reason it became real big in a lot of circles that are interested in kind of spiritual formation healing. One of the things they documented is it’s virtually impossible for the mind to distinguish between a memory and a vividly imagined scene. And so all kinds of folks who went to, you know, therapists who were doing stuff they shouldn’t have been doing, and said, “When you were a little kid, didn’t something weird happen, can’t you remember kind of a vague sense…?” and of course when you start thinking about that, you say, well, maybe that would explain some stuff. And a lot of very bad things happened under the name of the healing of repressed memories. So it’s just good to have all disciplines speak into that in wise ways.


DW: What was that title?


JO: Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me. And they actually quote a number of particularly political leaders at the very beginning and say you always know someone is really messed up when you hear the phrase “mistakes were made but not by me.”


DW: Yeah.


Spiritual Formation For Those Searching Or Doubting


Q: Dallas, you said if you are in a non-ritual church it’s very dangerous for people who think.

DW: Say again?


Q: You said if you are in a non-ritual church, it’s a very dangerous place for people who think, so you suggested the other rituals. With that framework, I’ve told you a little bit about dealing with students who either are not sure they believe in God anymore or think he’s cruel and unkind—basically a crisis of belief, which on Monday I’ll have our first group meeting. So I’m glad I’m coming off of this. But you also said in response to Peggy that the disciplines aren’t for everything. So as I’m thinking about what I’m going to say and how I’m going to—I don’t want to say conduct, but conduct our time together until May once a week, I was wondering if it wouldn’t be good to impose—not impose like they have to, but suggest may be a better word—like, go out in nature so there’s some solitude. For people in that position or who are having crises of faith, how might we approach spiritual formation?


[30:45] DW: On the intellectual side, make sure that you listen to them, that you let them talk and that you let them say the things that some people are apt to think of as very dangerous to say. So you create an atmosphere where they can talk honestly. There is another side that involves ritual, and I encourage you to do some things that allow them to be involved with the teachings, central teachings of Christ and so on, but not confronting the issue of “do I believe this?”


And one reason why the ritual churches are able to hold some people who would fly off like a rocket is that they enable them to participate in rituals that have substantial meaning in them and can help people deal with their lives, but they’re not just statements. And we have a steady stream of people upward, from low church to high church, that often it’s a matter of people just having gone through the thin little words one time too many and they don’t come back. And they’ll go find some church with “smells and bells,” as they say, and some beautiful words to repeat, and without challenging them, “Now, do you believe that?” You know? And that’s what I would do, is I would arrange for some circumstances, perhaps some programs with your people, where you just do ritual. And let them experience that, because that can really help them grasp truths in a way where they’re not really ready to put them up front and run through them logically and say, “Now, do I believe that?” It’s a way of allowing people to say, I believe it by my actions. And so I would experiment with that, I really would. I don’t know how much freedom you have where you are to do that, but it’s actually something that works.


Q: […inaudible] Do you have any other examples of [rituals] that we might use?


DW: Well, tell them children’s stories; then ask them to think about them. Or get… Tolstoy has wonderful little short stories that are so unbelievably profound. And so come together one day and just read a story and then let them talk about it and reflect on it, and then end in prayer. You know?


JO: Otherwise, go serve together. I was talking to somebody before about how 20-30 years ago; serving was the last stop on somebody’s spiritual journey.


DW: Yeah. No, that’s really good. This is really very good.


GM: You took that up fairly recently?


DW: And he did say serve, not surf.


JO: I did say serve, yeah, yeah. But you know, when you just think about Jesus, talking about his presence in the “least of these,” and a lot of times especially I think in our generation, something gets opened up in people’s hearts when they’re serving, when they’re seeing people who are marginalized or suffering, and they become open to the need for a spiritual presence, and so to go and have an experience and then come back and talk about it and debrief it together, and just thinking about the worth of the person that you’re serving and what happens in you as you serve.


[35:23] DW: See, the thing is, we are actually prepared to act along these lines in ways that are with Christ without confronting the huge issues of theology.


JO: A line that you said a long time ago in this setting was the will is transformed by experience, not information. And that’s as true for somebody who’s seeking as it is for somebody that’s already a Christian. So thinking about what are experiences that people can have.


The Problem Of Evil


GM: John, while you’re picking the next person, and forgiving me for mishearing you on the serve vs. surf thing, Dallas, I don’t think I’ve ever heard your response to the theodicy question, and my guess one of the argument, the primary reason somebody might be moving away from instead of toward God is how can it be that God is all loving, God is all powerful, bad things happen to good people. How do you unriddle that?


DW: You want to take that one?


Well, the first part of the response to that is that for God’s purposes in human life he had to build a certain kind of universe, and it was a universe in which there is both law and contingency. And human beings living in that universe have to deal with the contingencies. And that includes the rebellion of human beings; we call it the fall, otherwise known as the jump. And that happened.


Now then, we have sequences of events involving nature and human history that are not good. They’re bad. And so now we are back to a different position. This is not a world in which everything that happens is the best. This is a world in which everything that happens can be turned to good in the hand of God. Now, this doesn’t cover all the cases, but Romans 8:28 covers the cases where you have people who do love God and are called into his purposes, and that would not mean what we call full time Christian ministry, though it includes that. Because what we’re talking about is full time Christian ministry in all of the vocations of life.


And the responsibility of God, of man under God, is to learn how to deal with all of those things that happen that are bad. And many of them now are the result of failure of human beings to be responsible. But back of that, you have to say that God has made provision for everyone, and they will be dealt with fairly and for what is best for them.


Now, this has a grim side to it, because you know I sometimes say that hell is God’s best for some people. It’s the best he can do for them; heaven would be worse. So there are grim alternatives in human life at many, many levels. But the main responsibility of human beings is to turn things to good under the creative will of human beings under God. Now, the point is that, or a point is, that that would not be possible in a world where there was no contingency. So contingency is essential to the development of human beings as God intends.


GM: So if I’m hearing you right, and I’ll be very brief, but basically you leave theodicy as a mystery and trust God’s goodness.


DW: That theodicy is—


[40:00] GM: A mystery.


DW: A mystery?


GM: You don’t try to solve it that a person is suffering.


DW: At the individual level, that is to say how is the goodness of God to be seen in the life that I have to live; it is very largely a mystery.


JO: But I don’t think you’re—I think you’re saying overall it’s not a mystery, that in order to have a universe that would achieve what God wants, it would require both for there to be certain consistencies in it, and for there to be able to be freedom. But what about this, the pain and the suffering seem so overwhelming. It’s not just that there’s pain and suffering. If God is all-loving and all-powerful and all-good, you know, when you have 8-year-old children who are sold as sex slaves for no fault of their own, you know, people who are in enormous pain or deformity from birth—couldn’t there have been contingency and law but not the extent of devastating pain and suffering that there is?


DW: As far as I know, that seems reasonable. But when you ask yourself, now, what would you like God to do? Then it’s not easy to answer. And you ask yourself, well, how much is enough and how much is not? And from the human point of view, I don’t think there’s an answer to that. So one winds up, and you can sympathize with it, because I hear this all the time in philosophical circles, and it’s not just philosophical. You often—these people are very deeply concerned about it, and they will say, couldn’t we have had less of it? I hope so. I hope we could, but I don’t know how to say how much would be enough.


And I think if you push it, what you do is you wind up eliminating contingency. And that’s one way to go, and a lot of people go that way. Like I remember a woman some years ago whose daughter was killed in an automobile wreck, and she psychologically had to believe that God caused that, because for her it was a much more painful thought to believe that this girl was at the mercy of chance or even Satan. So she took, as many people do, she took refuge in the sovereignty of God, which put God down to controlling these particular events.


JO: And you would not look at it that way?


DW: I don’t think so. I do think contingency is absolutely essential for the development of character, and I think that’s the heart of the theodicy side as far as I can see it. Though my heart goes out to people who just agonize over this, and many times they are believers and they do believe that God created the world, and that he will somehow make it right, but did he need to let all of this happen? And that’s, you know, how can one say anything but that—oh, it doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right. And, you know…


God’s Wrath


GM: Last question; I’m going to pass it down very brief, I’ll try to… Wrath. The wrath of God, the goodness of God. I love your definitions; just wondering if you have a definition of wrath that might help me better understand how God could be wrathful and also good and loving.


DW: Well, I guess I would say he can be wrathful very calmly. That what we perceive of him that falls in the category of wrath is more a matter of his righteousness and his greatness than it is what we would identify as wrath in human beings. And this is one of those places where we are apt to suffer from projecting an image that applies to human beings to God. So what I say is there’s something there that we need the word for, but it isn’t that God is out of control, slamming things around, enraged in that sense. I don’t think that is consistent with the character of God. And I don’t think in order to punish, if you wish, he has to be wrathful.


I had a couple once that counseled with me and they were talking about their child, and their trouble with him, and I said to them, well, have you ever thought about punishing him without anger? Because that creates additional dynamics. And they said, what? Just punish him in cold blood? Right? And you know, that’s deeply reflective of how human beings do it, and one reason why punishment is so badly done, is because when you get over there and you’re not punishing him in cold blood, as it were, then things tend to get out of control. And I think that’s where we want to think about God’s wrath in a different way.


[45:43] JO: Friend of mine said that’s one reason for his shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament; in the New Testament, it will talk about the wrath of God being revealed, but God is never the subject of the verb “to be angry.”


DW: That’s interesting.


JO: Yeah, in the New Testament that he’s not, because, you know, if you look at the Holocaust, it’s hard to imagine even if all emotions are analogous when we use them to God, what other emotion would be the right analogy to use for God’s response to that? But to do that without projecting impulse control issues onto God is hard. And Lewis has a really nice line about God’s anger. He says, “Anger is the fluid that love bleeds when it is cut.”


DW: That’s wonderful.


JO: Isn’t that good?


DW: Yes.


JO: Anger is the fluid that love bleeds when it is cut. In his book Letters to Malcolm.


DW: Now, that would be God’s anger. Because I know a lot of human anger that isn’t like that.


JO: It’s not love bleeding.


Yeah, over here.


On Decision Making


Q: I’d like to ask a question in reference to making decisions, and in your book Hearing God you talk about the various ways we can make good decisions and discern God’s will, such as circumstances or God actually speaking to us with characteristic thoughts put in our heads. Then you also talk about in the context of the kingdom and training for reigning, that sometimes God wants us to take initiative, and he will bless our initiative and help us achieve our goals. How do we find that balance? I know it’s within the context of the relationship, taking into account that we are to follow Jesus’ example who said that, “I tell you the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”


DW: Well, what you see the Father doing, I would do that with him. And Jesus, I think, when he was baptized the heavens opened, and I don’t think they ever closed on him. My thinking is that we are not quite in that same position, though I believe we can come closer to it. And so every faithful, hard-driving Christian I know of has cases where they have to make decisions, and God doesn’t say anything to them about it. And that’s just my experience. And what troubles people is they think then if they do not hear from God that they’re not in the will of God, that you have to hear from God to be in the will of God.


And I think that’s a really destructive view of this relationship, and so what I say is you should ask God if you need help or guidance—and by the way, he doesn’t just speak to you to tell you what to do. And there’s some real problems with the image of God in how people talk about guidance, and so on. But we should ask God, if we want to know what to do and we should ask God to tell us, just like that. We need to learn how to hear and how to do that, but you can do that; that isn’t a long project.


So we should ask God, and then my procedure is very simple. I ask God and then I listen, I watch. I see if there’s something coming to me with a peculiar emphasis and clarity that I have come to identify with God speaking to me. And I will tell you that 90% of that comes when I’m studying Scripture, to tell you the truth.


[50:01] So, but I will ask, if nothing comes to me in a reasonable period of time, like three or four days, then I will ask, Lord, is there something in me that is keeping you from telling me what to do? And then, I will watch, I will listen. Maybe I’ll counsel with someone. And then if nothing comes, then I say, “All right, Lord, I understand you want me to decide, and I know you will be with me, because this is your way of working. You want me to decide. And I am in your will, and you will be with me.”


So that’s the kind of thing that goes through here, and there’s some theological assumptions; one is, God does not mumble. Another is if he wants you to know something, he’ll tell you. Right? And if you’re in doubt about what he said, because you’re not infallible even if he’s speaking to you, ask again. That is the biblical pattern, and it works in life.


JO: And another one is, sometimes for sure his will will be you decide, rather than I will tell you what to do. Because, it’s like with my kids, my main goal is for them to grow up to be really good people, and if I always tell them, “wear these clothes, take this job, date this person, live in this place,” they’d never have the opportunity to exercise judgment and become really good people. And so I think part of where people get confused is, again, we think of God’s goal for us is doing the right things, rather than becoming the right kind of person. And if the goal is to become the right person, God cannot always tell you what choice to make. You have to make choices; because that’s the only way that personhood gets formed.


DW: Absolutely right.


JO: We’ve got one over here?


Making Room For Grace


Q: I liked your definition of grace; I hadn’t heard it said that way before reading or hearing from you. But the way I’ve always—well, the way I’ve always personally used grace is kind of the idea, I think, like between people of allowing them space to not be God and make mistakes and not condemning them for it, but that’s different from how you’ve defined grace, at least how God extends grace to us. So is that just a different definition of grace or is there a better word for that kind of interaction between people, or when—


DW: I think you’re simply making room for grace. You’re making room for grace, and you’re doing something good for them, and that, I would say in your case, would be love. Now, you are given grace that you can give to others, as Paul says in Ephesians 4. You can speak words loaded with grace that will build the hearer up. See, that’s grace that is given you in your fellowship with God. But I think what you’re describing is love, you see, and now then as love, it’s making room for grace. So here again with what John was saying about raising children; your love for them makes room for grace. That means, among other things, you get off their back. So I think that’s a good thing you’re talking about.


Spiritual Direction


Q: Ok, this is a question about a two-sided coin, and it’s spiritual direction. I’d like to hear from both of you on this. We are—well, first of all, there are many of us who are looking to be spiritual directors, and I think that’s probably part of what this is all about, in walking with people, and then also part of our assignments are to find a spiritual director. So I’m wondering if you can both comment on some important things to develop in yourself if you are headed in that direction, or are currently doing that, and then also what you would look for in someone who would be a spiritual director for us in light of what we are learning here, because I know there’s a great deal of difference in spiritual directors.


DW: Now, I don’t know if we should talk about that; I think we should defer to Jan Johnson, unless you have some special thing. Jan actually knows what she’s talking about on this.


GM: This’ll probably be the last word.


DW: Oh good! You get the last word.


[55:01] Jan Johnson: There’s some handouts that will be coming to you soon that will answer both of those questions really well, and if they don’t answer, go ahead and ask me more questions online. But you’ve only gotten the first of the three spiritual direction handouts.


DW: Well let me just add to that, and I think the word spiritual direction itself causes some trouble, because you don’t particularly want a director, you want a listener; a spiritual listener, a partner, a sharer. Someone who will listen to God while they’re listening to you. And they will reflect back, and they don’t tell you what to do.


And I think that’s really important to understand, and you don’t want a spiritual director who is over you in any respect, so that they will feel responsible for what you do. And now, beyond that, Jan really does have information that’s tremendously helpful on the details of how to go about finding an appropriate person. And I think that will be coming to you. But she’s just wonderful on this, and you’ve got anything to say about this?


JO: I remember a helpful little framework I saw years ago is, you know, a mentor is somebody where if you have a problem they’ll help you solve it, a therapist will help you understand it, a friend will sympathize with you over it, a spiritual friend or director—whatever the right language for it—will help you ask where is God in it. And finding somebody that helps you ask that.


For me, it was actually I really wanted to learn how to pray. It was not long after I’d read Dallas’ book, and then eventually I found a woman who was a sister in a community and just had a wonderful experience and gifting in doing that. And so I found myself looking forward to meeting with her.

Listen to all parts in this Renovaré Institute: Denver Cohort series