The People of God in Individual Communion with God

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible

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Table of contents

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The story of the Bible is best read by keeping in mind what is to come. We see here in Genesis how God begins the process of forming an all-inclusive community with and through individuals.

God's Action

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion” (Gen 1:26). God not only creates; he infuses creativity into the dynamic universe he creates. Human beings reflect that same creativity even as they still need to develop ever more into the image of the Creator. The divine intent was that human beings should take responsibility for the earth (“have dominion”) in union with God, and that together they would progressively bring about the condition on earth that God had envisioned.

In the early chapters of Genesis, how God interacts with humanity–the with-God life–is expressed in three characteristic ways: it is conversational, direct, and intermittent.

Conversational. Perhaps the most striking feature of this stage is the conversational tone of all that occurs: God speaks to human beings and they speak back to God. The content of this two-way communication is specific, practical, and propositional (Gen 2:15-16). Human beings respond to God as to Someone with whom they are working. They are constantly interacting with God: obeying, disobeying, questioning, objecting, and rationalizing. The “garden” is not merely a human enterprise they are running alone; rather, it is a cooperative enterprise human beings engage in with God.

Even at this early stage God gives the human family substantial room to work out for themselves what they are to do and to be. In fact, God only limits them in the negative: they are not to eat of a certain tree. Everything else is for their choosing. Clearly human freedom is of fundamental importance in God’s plan, though Adam and Eve are not set free from the consequences of their choices. They are responsible for their choices.

However, it soon becomes clear that responsibility requires character, and that such character will come only through a process of formation. Formation, or more specific to our topic, spiritual formation, occurs in the dynamic exercise of human choice in response to divine purposes. We are formed by our reactions and choices to what God puts before us, which leaves open the possibility of hazardous results, as we will see throughout the Bible and human history. God alerts human beings to the dangers and tells them what they must do. “Sin is lurking at the door,” Cain is told, “but you must master it” (Gen 4:7; cf. 3:3).

Direct. Being conversational, the interaction between God and human beings is direct and not through intermediaries. In fact, in the early parts of the Genesis narrative there are suggestions that God was somehow physically present to the very senses of Adam and Eve: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God moving back and forth in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (3:8). Scripture seems to imply, they even saw God’s face (1:28-29; 2:15, 22), something that would later be forbidden to humanity on pain of death (Exod 33:20-23, Deut 5:24; Judg 13.22).

As the members of the human race chooses to act independently and contrary to God’s purposes, there is a gradual distancing of God from them; but God’s Spirit–that is, his nonphysical presence–continues to strive with them (Gen 6:3, KJV). Now the people begin to call upon the name of the Lord in a way that implies One who is absent (4:26). Yet some, like Enoch and Noah, still “walked with” God, and God with them. Thus, while the direct interaction of individuals with God is becoming less frequent in general, it does continue with individuals of singularly developed character, whose example becomes a beacon for the whole human family.

Intermittent. It is important to note that God is not constantly present with Adam and Eve or their immediate descendants. He did not “stand over them” but instead made room for them to obey or disobey. And God even allowed them to hide from him in their shame, though he still spoke to them as they hid (Gen 3:8-13). This space allowed by God’s “absence” is necessary. In order to move beyond an unknowing innocence, we must develop a character and an identity that freely seeks harmony with God. Of course, God’s “absence” allows for the opposite to happen. Whenever we turn away from God, we take on an identity that focuses exclusively on ourselves, and we then try to master our life and our world on our own. This is exactly what happens in the Garden of Eden, and the dreadful decline catalogued in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans begins: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). The natural outcome is an earth “filled with violence,” where “every intent of the thoughts of the heart is only evil continually” (Gen 6:11, 5).

In response to such an outcome, God judges. In the first general judgment of humanity after the fall of Adam and Eve, one person, Noah, is found worthy of escape and continued blessing. But after Noah, humankind continues on its path of independence from God (11:4). Hence, in the second general judgment at Babel, no individual is exempted. God sees that there is no limit to human arrogance and depravity (11:6). To defeat their project of building “a tower with its top in the heavens,” God permanently disrupts their communication with each other and scatters them over the face of the entire earth (11:1-9).

Human Reaction

So in the beginning God’s presence to humankind was conversational, direct, and intermittent. And with the freedom granted human beings by God “absenting” himself enough for humanity to make its choices, what did we do? Our responses were characterized by disobeying in God’s absence (Adam and Eve) and pursuing human objectives without regard to God’s gentle presence (Cain and Abel). Human beings go astray “like sheep”–as sheep do, following momentary interests, and the gentleness of God permits this to happen. Human self-will nurtures massive insensitivity and resistance to God’s personal overtures and finally causes a hopeless immersion in evil (Gen 6:1-7, 11-13).

However, individuals of character, such as Enoch and Noah, still respond to God and are “selected” and, in turn, find “favor” with God (Gen 5:21-24; 6:8, 13-22). That is God’s way, and it is always so. In this way God lays the foundation for the next form of God-with-us, in Abraham and his family. But early humanity as a whole rejects God and, as the population increases, asserts its power in a unified activity against God at Babel.

Blessings and Benefits for Our Formation

The major formational advantage of this individual communion with God is the good effect of God’s direct presence. Our lives find their direction when God is present with us, and we are directionless without him. Intimate, individual communication with God is something that cannot be done away with in spiritual formation today. Or ever. We must constantly seek out this intimate, individual communion. We need the full assurance of God’s greatness and goodness that comes only from his direct presence. This, frankly, cannot be derived from any other source.

The eternal fact of our lives is that we are constantly being upheld by God’s direct action upon us. This fact is not abolished by human withdrawal from God; rather, God preserves it and develops other ways to support it, as we shall see in later sections of the biblical record, starting with the stories of Abraham. But being aware of how God is upholding us must run through the texture of our entire life like a golden thread. And we can only become aware of his constant work and presence by experiencing individual communion with God.

Limits and Liabilities for Our Formation

But God-with-us in direct, conversational relationship cannot be our whole life. It gives us neither character nor identity. It promotes passivity instead of vigorous righteousness and self-identity with God, whether he is present or absent. When God is not actively present with us, there is nothing to pull us or sustain us in a direction toward God. We are left entirely on our own, facing bare choice. And our feelings, desires, and wayward thoughts will triumph–or become tools of God’s great enemy, Satan.

The gentleness of God’s presence can be resisted. We can even fail to recognize God’s presence. Our hearts can become hardened in self-will and thus incapable of recognizing when God is moving upon it. Or we may simply reject God’s overtures even when we know it is God, failing to appreciate his gentleness. It is sobering to realize that we can grieve and resist the Spirit of God.

Within this conversational, direct, and intermittent form of God-with-us, humanity’s progress and development under God is restricted to whatever occurs within individual lives. Humanity as a whole has no identifiable God center or God context within it or around it to draw it toward God. What is lacking in this early stage of human history is, in a word, mediation.

From this point onward, God will use mediation to be present with us even when he is “absent.” Examples of this mediation are social structures like the family, the tribe, the nation, and religious institutions like the tabernacle, the Temple, and the Church. Mediation will now be the ongoing story of God-with-us, developing through various forms from Abraham, the friend of God, to the end of the Church age, reaching its fulfillment and perfection in the mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5), and in his continuing incarnation in his Body, the Church.

Insights and Instructions for Our Formation

What can we learn from this stage of God-with-us? First, we learn that God desires and intends cooperative efforts and direct, conversational relationship with us. Very simply, we are made for this. To use Augustine’s famous words, “Thou has made us for Thyself, and we are not at rest until we find our rest in Thee.”

God does not abandon this direct mode of his presence with us after the human failure witnessed in the first chapters of the Bible. God will not be defeated (Rom 8:3-4). Out of respect for the human condition, God establishes indirect means for working with us, for our own sake. This fact of indirection is plainly spelled out in biblical and human history. It is something we must understand and respect in our own day and in our own spiritual life.

A second thing we learn is why there must be a human, or mediated, side to God’s relationship to us. Earthly institutions are needed to enable God to be present among us even when, from the merely human point of view, he appears absent. God’s presence on earth in mediated, outward forms is necessary because of the human condition. The human condition is such that earthly institutions serve as necessary constant points of reference to God without his being directly present to us.

We also learn from the biblical record that our finitude and limitation cannot be successfully overcome by the immediate presence of the infinite God. Adam and Eve fell despite directly being in God’s presence. God has now shown us a different path. We need gradual and humble steps toward God, as can be seen, for example, in God’s choice of an aged Bedouin and his barren wife. Or in a shaggy tabernacle built by escaped slaves. Or in a ruddy-cheeked boy smelling of sheep. Such are the humble steps God uses until the One comes who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

The biblical record of God using these “things on earth” to draw human beings closer to him can instruct us endlessly. And what about us? In the course of our own spiritual formation in Christlikeness what physical things does God use as his instruments to bring us to the point where we will be able to “reign forever and ever” in a world where there will be no night and we will once again see his face (Rev 22:3-5)?

Dallas Willard. “The People of God in Individual Communion with God.” In The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, edited by Richard J. Foster, Gayle Beebe, Lynda L. Graybeal, Thomas C. Oden and Dallas Willard, 1-5. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.