Why Am I Here? The Four Great Questions In Life

Dallas Willard Part 2 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.


The Human As Spiritual Being

Fifty percent or more of people in this country believe that their dog is a member of the family. Isn’t that precious? It does a lot for the dog, but you have to think about what it does for the family. Dogs are wonderful. There’s an old country song: “If there’s a dog heaven, this one thing I know, old Shep’s got a wonderful home, and there’s plenty of room.” Personally I think that heaven is going to be much better than we could imagine about things like “plenty of room.”

But I think it’s important to get this idea of the human as a “spiritual being” straight. Someone already today has asked me if they could pick my brain. And I said if you pick my brain you’ll get blood, and that’s not what you wanted. You could pick my mind, and to pick my mind you don’t even have to open me up! Now, the body is absolutely essential to human identity. [1:47] And it is a glorious thing. It is meant to glow. Do you ever think about why Adam and Eve didn’t know they were naked? Now you’ve been waiting for this answer to this question; it’s because they glowed! Have you ever tried to see a light bulb when it’s on?  They glowed with the power of God. Now after they separated from God they didn’t glow, and they recognized their vulnerability, and they were terribly troubled by it. And they did what we all try to do: hide our vulnerability. God said, “Who told you you were naked?” Interesting question. Now then, after the power is turned off, then the word comes to Adam, “You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” Sweat. So now you can preach a sermon and teach a lesson on the theology of sweat. Why do we say, “I’m cool, baby”? Some people think cool is a gift of the spirit, I think, and actually it is. Because if you’re really cool, it’s because you’re not sweating it out. But if you have to go within your own power, you’re going to sweat. And ever since God said that, people have been trying to figure out how to live by the sweat of someone else’s brow. [4:00] And they’re still very busy, and clever people learned how to do that. The present economic catastrophe is a brilliant illustration of what that’s like.

So in heaven, we will work, but we won’t sweat. Try that one on. We’ve already been drawn into some discussions here about heaven, and that’s absolutely natural, because heaven is the natural extension of eternal living now. That’s why Paul said, “Death is dead; you’re already past death. You have died.” That’s pretty definitive, isn’t it? And you may recall that in 2 Tim 1:10 Paul talks about how Jesus Christ abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Abolished death! It takes you a while to get around that. But Jesus clearly indicated that those who keep his word will not experience death; they will never see death. That’s in John 8:51 and 53. I encourage you to look at it, because that changes the whole picture of death from the human picture, where death is kind of the ultimate curse, and fear of death governs human life. That’s why when you turn on the news, what’s the first thing that comes on? Unless there’s something of colorful but painful sexual nature, it will be who died. And if it wasn’t who died, it’s who almost died. It’ll be a house fire, or a mudslide, or a car wreck, or something of that sort. You ask yourself, why in the world is that? I hope you ask yourself that. It’s because the world is obsessed with death and destruction, full of fear, and that fear pulls their attention. And that’s why violence is the mainstay of so much of our entertainment or news or whatever it is, stirring the pot of evil. [6:50]

So we want to have a view now of eternal living. We want to understand that the body is precious, that matter is precious. The body is meant to be spiritual in its own right, because that’s where we live our eternal life. Now our identity is tied to our body; in eternity I will still be the son of Mamie and Albert Willard. That’s eternal, in the sense of from here on. That’s who I am. That’s why it’s so important; that’s why there’s a resurrection. It’s kind of odd, you know—if God had wanted a body, he could have just created another one. But he doesn’t do that for us. The continuity of life involves our body, and this body will forever live in the experience of the person who goes on forever. I will always be that person.

And that’s why it is so important for us to think about things like honoring our father and our mother, which for I would say most people in my experience is an unhealed, running sore in their lives. And it affects them so deeply, and as Paul pointed out, it’s the first commandment with promise. [8:40] A healthy life comes out of that. I wish I had time to talk about that at length in these sessions, but I just run on and on, and it seems like time is so short and I don’t get to cover so many things; but that’s huge. Honor your father and your mother. And then how hard that is in so many cases, and you have to be able to put that in the larger context of life to be able to do it. And so many people only become able to honor their father and mother when the point comes where they can pity them because of their age or their suffering or something of that sort. It’s so important first to understand the body. The body is meant to be a spiritual expression of the person. [9:42] And it can be that now. We have to stop hiding it, which is one of the main things we do with our body is hide. Adam and Eve had fig leaves; they could have just learned to fake it, which is what most of us do with our bodies. And of course little children are so delightful because they haven’t learned how to do that. They can’t hide their souls; they’re just right out there. And Jesus said, “You must repent and become like a little child, or you can’t enter the kingdom of God.” Because you have to get real to do that, lay aside all of the pretenses. And our body is meant to be redeemed.

Why Am I Here? Created in Love to be Responsible for Good

Now let’s look on the outline there and you’ll see an interesting topic which we might talk about. And the topic is, “Why am I here?” Ordinary questions of life. Now, the Bible begins at Genesis 1, not at Genesis 3. The first significant event in human history is not the fall, and the last one is not redemption as an act of God. The first significant event in human history is creation. This is where we learn why we are here. We don’t have to start with the light and the dark, and the sun and the moon, and all that, but those are good things. I love the fact that at almost every point, in the evening and the morning was such and such day, it combines that with a statement, and “God looked at it and it was good.” It was good. [12:01] Creative goodness is the natural expression of love. Why does God create? Because he loves. He loves, and love is his nature. The creation of goodness is the natural expression of love. And love creates what is good. If you love your begonia, you take care of it, don’t you? You hate your begonia; you don’t take care of it. You’re careless about your begonia; it’s in for a hard time. You love your dog; you take care of it. Actually, dogs seem to be able to love you a little bit. We have these interesting cases where dogs save people’s lives. We all love the old Lassie stories where Lassie hears someone in trouble and Lassie rushes to the neighbor and barks. And that’s a wonderful thing to see that. And horses can do something of that too. But that’s not really what their life is centered around. Personality is centered around love.

The center of the universe is love. The great triune Community, love. Now if you’re in rebellion against it, it’s going to look very scary. And I think that’s how you have to approach a lot of the things in the Bible, that if you just take them by themselves, you think, “How could God do that? That’s really tough.” And frankly this blocks many people from approaching God, because they get the idea that God is really mean. So you know, those of us who are trying to work our way into these things, we need to ask questions like, “How mean does God have to be to run the universe?” [14:43] And it might be that he doesn’t have to be mean at all, maybe he just has to be God, but given that you can understand why people are scared of that. Right? And you even have this teaching in the scripture that was right up front in the minds of the covenant people, that if you see God, you die. And people have died from less, right? Because God is overwhelming, and when he invaded human history by stages as recorded in the scripture, things really jump. You know, when he came down on Sinai that mountain was just pulsing with so much energy, it was jumping up and down. Power like that you just don’t mess with. So, still, he creates, and he creates what’s good. And he looks at it and says, “That’s real good.” And then he said, “Well, let’s make human beings.” Time to make human beings. It’s a little late in the day, but maybe that’s for the best. So let’s make human beings in our likeness.

What was that, “in our likeness?” How could we be like God? Well, he explains in the Genesis 1: 26 and 28; they lay out why we’re here. And it’s only if we get this straight that we can begin to understand eternal living. We are by nature suited to eternal living. “Let us make human beings in our likeness,” and then the next phrase tells you what the likeness is: “Let them have dominion.” Now if you don’t like “dominion,” just say, “Let them be responsible.” Because that’s what it’s talking about. Let them be responsible. And it’s very clear that the intent was that they would be responsible for life on earth. The first thing that we’re responsible for on that list is fish. Well, you know, this was before domestication, and also the human beings apparently had powers that they did not have later. So a little part of the story is how God brought all the living things before Adam and he gave them names. And that doesn’t mean he said, “Well that one’s Bill, and that one’s Charlie, and that’s #320.” He wasn’t labeling them, but discerning their natures. [18:28] That’s important if you’re going to have dominion, and be responsible for elephants. Now they have to train us how to be responsible, but the idea was responsible for the earth. And you go on through Genesis, and you see that’s what it was. The garden that was planted, I believe, was simply the earth. Be responsible, ok? This is it, the garden. That’s the basic nature of the human being: to be responsible for good. And that ties to love. To be responsible is to work for what is good. Now in a fallen world, we turn the responsibility around, and we see something bad, and we say, “Who’s responsible for this? Get their name and address, we’re going after them!” But that’s not the original deal. The original deal is being able to bring about what is good.

Will And Desire

Now let me fit one other word in there—Good, Love, and Will. [20:06] To understand will, you have to understand that it relates to desire in a certain way. And now this is going to be central to what we have to do here in the coming hours. Will contemplates alternatives; that’s the nature of will. It contemplates alternatives. That is why we have the term “deliberate.” We deliberate, and then we express that in a choice. And that’s will. Now contrast that with desire; desire does not deliberate. Desire says, “I want that.” And desire is essentially conflictual. You will recall that in James’s letter in the opening of chapter 4, he says, “Where do the wars and fightings come from?” Pleasure and desires. That’s where wars come from. Why doesn’t it come from will? Will contemplates, and will is not essentially conflictual. [21:43]

Now, one of the things that we most need to do for the topic in these hours is to pay attention to what the New Testament says about desire. And this is hard for us, because translators generally do not know what to do with the word epithumia, which is translated ordinarily, “lust.” And we think, wow, that doesn’t involve me! [22:16] Right? And it’s that epithumia really means “obsessive desire,” and it’s nice to break the word down if you have some Greek at your disposal, and get the epi and the thumia. It’s obsessive desire. It’s desire that won’t leave you alone, desire that expresses itself as a thirst that won’t go away, and you keep coming back to it. The opposite of it is what Jesus said, “Those who receive my word and drink of the water that I shall give to them shall never thirst again.” They will never again be under the domination of obsessive desire. Why? Because they will live for what is good by their will. See, will has the power to write desires off. And the process of spiritual formation is very largely a matter of bringing desire under the control of what is good. [23:41].

Desire is not bad in itself; that’s why the Buddhist in the story goes wrong. They say if you want to walk into good life, get rid of desires. Well, number one, you can’t; you can only fake it. But number two; it wouldn’t be good for you. Desire is essential; we would never survive infancy without desire. But if we’re going to grow up, we have to master desire. Remember that time—in the early chapters of the Bible, God is so chatty; he’s always going around chatting with people. He comes into the garden—“We’ll have a little chat. Where are you, Adam?” “I’m in the bushes.” “Well, that complicates things.” But he doesn’t give up. You remember Cain? Cain is depressed.  And who comes to counsel him but God himself. “So now, Cain, you’ve got problems here, you know? Sin is crouching at the door; it would like to have you, but you don’t have to give in. You can do what’s right; come on Cain!” But as the story goes along there, one of the interesting things to see is that God kind of stops doing that after a while. After a few generations, you have that curious little phrase, “In his day, men began to call on the name of the Lord.” God had distanced himself, and things are not going well on earth, and so some drastic measures were taken about that. And Noah starts over again. “Noah found grace with God.” [25:45] That’s a remarkable statement; he found favor with God. And so there’s a kind of start-over. I don’t know how to go into the details, but it’s a fascinating story as God is working with people differently now as they go along.

But desire has to come under the direction of the will for what is good. So be careful when you talk about what you love, because very often it isn’t love; it’s just desire. I enjoy talking about these things with my students, because if you talk at the level of relationships and so on, you realize there’s some real problems with love. Because often people say they love what they desire. They don’t. I like to illustrate this by saying people say they love chocolate cake, but they don’t—they want to eat it! That’s different. And you talk to young people about desire and love, and they know there’s a big difference there; if you love something, you are prepared to act for what is good for that thing that you love. [27:24]

Let’s understand, then, the difference: will is crucial to our calling, which is to be responsible for the earth. And so the will has to be corrected because the will is the executive center of the self. Later on I want to talk about all of the different parts of the self, but I have to focus on the will, because that’s where the problem is. See, the will is primarily designed to trust God, to live in relationship to God. That takes care of what is good. That’s why the temptation is so important, because trusting God means that you accept that what he says is right and good. [28:14] And you are not misled by desires. See, the primary form of temptation is, “If I don’t do this, I’m going to miss out on something good.” That’s the primary form of temptation. And then growing in grace means you come to the point where you never think that thought, because you know who is taking care of you. Now Eve—I’m sure Adam was right at her shoulder; I don’t think he was over on the South 40 when this happened—Eve looked at that fruit, and she saw that it was good to eat (lust of the flesh); that it was pleasant to look at (lust of the eyes); that it was good to make one wise (pride of life). Those are the three things; they show up again in Matthew 4 in the temptation of Jesus. Bread, notoriety, power. Right? See, now that’s a constant lesson. These are things—when you read the Bible, you don’t worry about stuff that shows up once or twice. But when they’re there all the time, that’s what you really want to pay attention to. And so when you get to John chapter 2, three things in the world: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life. Now that’s all in the area of what will pull us away from what is good, and that’s what we are designed to live for, and that requires that we be persons who live in connection with God. [30:19] Long story that packs so much into it that needs to be unpacked, but basically that’s it.

The Four Great Questions:

  1. What is the ultimate reality? What can I count on?

So now, we have to understand these fundamental things before we can live like that. I have on your outline there, “The Four Great Questions of Life.” These are the questions that guide everything that we do. Every great teacher has to answer those questions, and every human being answers them by their actions whether they think about them or not.

So the first question is the reality question, and the reality question has to do with what you can count on, because reality is what you can count on. And it’s also what will run over you if you are wrong. You will have unpleasant encounters with reality. What is the ultimate reality? It’s God, God and his kingdom. That’s what you can count on, that’s what you run into if you get it wrong. [31:51] Adam and Eve ran into the reality. Idolatry is a mistake about reality, and it always has the form of what can you trust, when you trust something that is untrustworthy. Now in terms of our discussion last hour, that means we wind up trusting the vessel and not the treasure. We wind up taking something that is in our natural and social environment and counting on that in ways that it cannot help us. Now often it can help some things, right? Food helps. But you don’t live for food. And food is so emblematic; that’s why fasting in terms of food is so important in terms of spiritual disciplines. Now if you don’t, then you have that wonderful category that Paul mentions in Romans and again in Philippians, people whose god is their belly. Belly worshippers—you ever meet anyone like that? Now he’s not just talking about food, but people who live to fulfill their desires. And so the wisdom of Jesus, if you would save your life you lose it. If you lose your life for my sake in the gospels, you get your life, you save it. That’s reality he’s talking about; that’s the reality question.

So now, getting obsessed with the visible and missing the invisible puts you at odds with reality. It puts you at odds with who you are, and you begin to think that you are just your body, and its social and larger environment, and you devote yourself to that. Those are belly worshippers; that’s what Paul calls a belly worshipper. Now that language—I don’t have time and you don’t want to hear how that fits in to ancient understanding—but the belly is the locus of desire. So Plato and ancient teachers that follow him wind up saying that you have three main parts to you, your belly, your chest and your head. It’s figurative, of course. The belly is desires, and to deal with that you need the virtue of temperance. Temperance is the ability to not do what you want, and to do what you don’t want. [35:08] Temperance deeply stands for character; that’s why we say someone lost their temper. That’s why we talk about tempering a metal so that it takes on the qualities of steel. We temper. We restrain. That’s the belly, and a belly worshipper is someone who just lives there. Now the chest is the emotions or the affections, the place of courage. Courage is the virtue of the chest, and it has things like shame, love and so on, that can actually withstand desire, but can come to worship themselves. Shame, for example, enables people not to do things that would be harmful to them. Shame is here [in the chest]. Now shame has got a bad name recently because of certain popular writers, and it can be used terribly wrongly. See, that’s where the chest is not subordinate to the head; the head is wisdom, or reason. [36:44] Now, the Greek thinkers couldn’t get above the head. Right? That was their problem. And the head has to be under God.

So now you have an order. Upside down is body first, God last. Right side up is God first, body last. The reality question. You have to get reality right or you can’t get your life right. That’s why it’s so important to understand that we are spiritual beings, not just in the sense that we have a will, but that most of what makes us up is in fact non-physical. Now here’s something confusing, and so I need to straighten it out as best I can at this point. Sometimes when we say something is spiritual, we just mean it’s non-physical. That’s a purely negative sense of spiritual, and it’s an important one. But spirit in God and man is primarily will. And that is a different sense of spirit. [38:16] And again, you can try to arrange this any way that you find helpful, but I think the spirit, the heart and the will are the same thing. They mean different things, but they’re the same thing. That’s very common in language, like the morning star for part of the year is the same thing as the evening star in other parts of the year. Usually it’s Venus, unless Jupiter or Mars get especially rambunctious. But morning star doesn’t mean the same thing as the evening star, being apparent in the evening and being apparent in the morning, that’s different. But it’s the same thing. And will refers to the unconditioned factor in you; that’s the spirit of the human being. It’s unconditioned. That’s will. Heart refers to the centrality of the will, and spirit refers to the basic nature of the will. So I think about it like that. Now we have to get an understanding of the will, then understand how it has to get the reality question right, and that draws on the mind and a lot of other things, stuff that’s in our body ready to go without thinking, and we will come back to that later to discuss that in greater detail.

  1. Who Is Well Off?

Now the reality question is obviously tied to who is well off. Who’s happy? Who’s blessed? And we have to get that right, because otherwise we will not be able to direct our will in terms of what is good. And as I’ve said, that’s really fundamental. And God created, and said, “That’s good.” He helps us understand what is well off. See, everything in the Bible is good for us if we understand it, and if we put it to the test, we check it out, authority is a wonderful thing, most of the things we know we know by authority, but good authority is authority that can be questioned and tested. And God is like that. He says, “Come now, let’s reason together.” God wants us to be involved in that. People often jump on Thomas for wanting to put his finger in the wounds; that was Jesus’ idea! Thomas didn’t think that up, Jesus thought it up. He said, “Come on guys, check me out!” And God is like that. He presents what is good, and says, “Come on guys, check me out.” [41:20] Just be sure that you’ve got the reality question in focus and then the question, “Who is well off or blessed?” will be answered rightly.

Now the answer that is given to us of Jesus is that anyone who is well off is alive in the kingdom of God. If you are alive in the kingdom of God, you are well off. You’re blessed. It’s good. That’s where safety resides. If you are alive in the kingdom of God, to put it in crude terms, God has got your back. So now you can go ahead and do what is right without worrying about what’s going to happen. You’re not going to miss out on something. God will see to it. You may not get what you want, but your “wanter” is your problem. And that’s where we do the work; actually that’s what’s going on in our life, is we’re working on our “wanter.” That’s what you have to do for a child, isn’t it? You have to help them come to understand that just because they want something doesn’t mean it’s good that they have it. And when they’re quite young, that’s a battle, so you have to be firm and loving and occasionally you have to let them do what they want to to find out it wasn’t good. That’s standard teaching, isn’t it? That’s what you do with a child as they grow up; you allow them on some occasions to do what they want to to find out that it was a terrible mistake. “I wanted that trinket, and it was broken ten minutes after I gave my allowance for it, and Mama and Daddy were right. I didn’t want that thing after all.” See, that’s the process of working on the “wanter.”

And now generally speaking, our function now is to train to reign. Training and reigning is what our life is about. [43:46]. That interacts with the reality issue, because as we train we are learning to come to grips with reality. And sometimes the teaching is a little bit bothersome to people. They have this wonderful story in Luke 19 about the so-called “unjust steward.” And the unjust steward was a guy that was not doing his job, and so he got put under the microscope—this is Luke 16—and he got fired. And so he said, “Now what am I going to do? I’m unemployed, and physically I’m not able to go out and dig ditches.” Verse 4: “I know what I’ll do, so that when I’m removed from the stewardship, they will receive me into their homes.” So he summoned each of the master’s debtors and began saying to them first, “How much do you owe my master?” and they said 100 measures of oil, and he said, “Sit down quickly and write 50.” Now this is standard business practice, to say that the steward was unjust was not to say he did something that was crooked. It’s to say that he did not meet the standards of being a good steward. And actually he’s being very wise here. He is making a choice. He’s deliberating. And when you think about his master you have to understand that this way his master got something, and if he had just headed for the brush, his master wouldn’t have gotten anything, because his master didn’t know what the business was, and so it was dependent upon this person’s wisdom to make something good for himself and for his master. And, well, you know the story I think, and what is remarkable here is Jesus’ response, verse 9. “Make friends for yourself by means of the Mammon of unrighteousness.” In a very little thing, be faithful. He who is unrighteous in very little things is unrighteous also in much. If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous Mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you?” See, that’s training and reigning. Being faithful in little things.

How can you do that? By understanding God is here. God is here! That means among other things that you are freed up to make decisions, because learning to live in the kingdom of God is a matter of being responsible (zing! Back to Genesis!). And being responsible means you make judgments. You make judgments about what is good and what is not. See, one of the ways in which people have messed up Jesus’ teachings is to turn him into a legalist. And that means that you just sort of take what he said and do that. So it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, you take his words and you do that. He said turn the other cheek.  How do you apply that? Well, in order to understand that, you’re going to have to figure out what the life of the child of the kingdom is. It isn’t just, “Do what he said.” See that’s the person who says, “Ok, I’ll turn the other cheek and then I’ll kill you. But I will have done what Jesus said. I’ll knock your block off, but I turned the other cheek and you hit that one and now I’m in the clear.” Or the great teaching about forgiveness that comes to Peter, where Peter comes and he sort of thinks he’s heard Jesus talking about forgiveness, and he says, “Well, I’m going to be big about this. Seven times! So Jesus, how often should we forgive our brother? Seven times?” Now, Jan Johnson is going to teach us some about Ignatian exercises. You have to think about how Jesus looked at Peter when he said “seven times.” It will be a good exercise for you in a time of meditation to move yourself into that scene and look at Jesus look at Peter when he said “seven times.” Jesus said, “No, seven times seventy.” And after you’ve done seven times seventy you don’t have to forgive anymore. Really? Do you think that’s what Jesus meant? No, see, he’s trying to loosen up Peter’s categories and get him to think in a different way about life in the kingdom of God. [50:03] You can just see Peter saying, “Well, this is 345. Am I going to get to seven times seventy?”

See, you have to understand that training for reigning means coming to exercise judgment. That’s what it means to be responsible. Otherwise, the teachings of Jesus will just kill you, and that’s why people stay away from them. We will talk about the Sermon on the Mount later, but when most people read it, they read it as a Pharisee. They read it in terms of the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees. “’Blessed are the poor’? So I must go right out and get poor. Hallelujah, I’ll be blessed. But I’m not going to do that, so I guess I’ll just feel guilty about it.” See, the vision of what is good, life in the Kingdom of God, the care of God, that’s a good life. That’s why Paul says, “everything works together for good.” He didn’t say everything is good; that’s quite a different story. And that’s not true. Everything is not good, or not everything is good. But, everything works together for good to those who love God and are called into his purposes; that’s his kingdom, that’s where you’re living. Now, not everyone can write a check on that. You can only write a check on “all things work together for good” if you love God and are called into his action, his purposes. Then you can write a check on it; you can bank on it, as they say.

  1. Who is a “good person?”

Who’s a really good person? That’s the third question on your list. [52:14] No question about that one from Jesus. A really good person is someone who is permeated with agape love, soaked in it. So that’s where the great Commandment comes from. You have to understand that when Jesus answers this lawyer about what is THE great commandment, he’s telling them the best way to live. How to be a good person, how to live in the blessed life, in the reality of God. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Put love in all of those dimensions. And what was love? Love is acting for the good of what is loved. So, and we have to come back and spend lengthy time on this, to love God with all your heart would be to have your will devoted to what is good for God. What God wants is what is good for God. He doesn’t have a problem with desire; his desires are integrated into his will, which is integrated into what is good. That’s a truly good person. And that enables us to see why we are here and what we’re doing, because that kind of person is going to exercise their kingdom for the sake of God. And that will mean to be responsible under God for whatever is in the range of their influence.

  1. How can one become a “good person?”

Now how do you get to be that way? Well, you get to be that way by becoming a disciple of Jesus. [54:35] Discipleship to Jesus is how you become a truly good person and have a blessed life in the reality of God and his kingdom. Now this is a process. It has to start with turning one’s life over to Christ, to God in Christ, accepting from his hand not only forgiveness and the meeting of needs, but instruction and teaching. If you have a disciple, you have to have a teacher. You can’t have students without a teacher. Now this is one of the great missing links in our understanding of Jesus; we don’t think of him as teacher, and this is a desperate failure because if we don’t think of him as teacher, we’re going to think of someone else as teacher. Who is the teacher, now, for us? And if you think that Jesus is a kind of plastic figure, that just stands in the shadows and suffers and all of that, or perhaps he’s going to come back triumphantly and whip everyone into shape; if that’s all, then we’ll not have him as our teacher. What does it mean to have him as our teacher? Well, we’re with him learning to be like him. That’s what a student does. A little child who is in third grade and learning arithmetic from their teacher is with their teacher, learning to be like their teacher in that respect. They are coming to know what the teacher knows. That’s the general structure of teaching.

And that’s why the old text that we love from the gospels, “What think ye of Christ?” What do I think of Christ? How do I think about him? [57:13] And the New Testament struggles with that. It starts out, “Who is this Jesus” “Oh, he’s the carpenter.” So you go up from there. “Who do you say that I am?” A good text. And Jesus watched Peter, and Peter was thinking, and he said, “You’re the anointed One.” That’s Christ. “You are the one we’ve been hoping for.” And Jesus complimented him and then led him further by immediately saying, “You know, I’m going up to Jerusalem and they’re going to kill me.” And Peter said, “Shhh, shh! I want to talk to you, Jesus. That’s not you!” And so now we have another big vessel/treasure contrast here. “Peter, you like the things of human beings, not of God.” God’s way is through death, not around it; because only beyond death lies resurrection. If you’re going to have a resurrection, you’d better have a death. And that is one reason why Jesus planned very carefully how he was going to die. He was going to die in the public arena, where the best people on earth, the Romans and the Jews, killed the best man on earth. And he was not going to avoid that. The kingdom of God is beyond death. The resurrection testifies to the truth about everything that Jesus said about the kingdom in his ministry. And it was contrary to human desires and human wishes.

And Peter—this is a good illustration of how you can be inspired of God and still be wrong—did you ever notice that? He says, “God revealed that to you, Peter.” And then shows him how wrong his understanding was. The donkey that spoke to the prophet Balaam under the inspiration of the Spirit was still a jackass when he was done. So we want to remember that just a brilliant inspiration doesn’t necessarily change our character. [1:00:34] And doesn’t necessarily put us on the right path with reference to these great questions. Inspirations are wonderful; they’re kind of like lightning, they illuminate everything for a moment.

But there are still the long-run issues that stand out, and so now in approaching these questions we are coming to grips with why we are here. We are coming to grips with why the will is so important, and also with how the will has to work together with all the dimensions of the human being to bring people into what I like to call “routine, easy obedience” to Christ. That’s where we’re headed; “routine, easy obedience” to Christ. But you don’t get there just by an act of will; you get there by aligning the will with God and then bringing the other parts of the person into alignment with your will towards God. [1:01:53] So teaching is necessary, training is necessary, breaking habits—that’s all necessary. That’s the range where human reaction and grace come together in transforming knowledge of God.

Now as we do that, then, our whole life changes, and we begin to see that work, for example, is a major part of our transformation. Work is the creation of value, and that’s true no matter what the work is. Work is the production of value. And whatever we’re doing is, if we are holy before God, whatever we’re doing is holy. So now we have to take all of this out of the domain of religion, which by the way can also be holy. That can be a wonderful thing. We take it out of the domain of religion and put it into the area of discipleship for whole life. Discipleship for whole life, because if we don’t understand that, then our problem is going to be that when we go to work, we’ll take a little vacation from God. So if our church is hitting on all cylinders, it’s working for discipleship. It makes disciples, and then trains disciples to live in the kingdom of God. That’s at least the people that are following Christ, as he seems to have worked it out, that’s what they’re doing. As a group, a church, however you define that, we make disciples. And then we surround them in Trinitarian reality, baptizing them in the name—the name is the reality biblically—the name never means just a sound, but the name is a reality. That’s why, to go back to our talk earlier, you don’t want to take the name of the Lord in vain, because if you do that, you take him in vain. And that’s not nice. Not good for you. And so you don’t want to do that.

So, you baptize them, you surround them in Trinitarian reality; that’s what you do with disciples. So disciples come together; Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst. And of course he brings the other members of the Trinity with him, as John 14 spells out very nicely. It’s the presence of God in the disciples, around the disciples, and then you teach them to do everything that Jesus said. [1:05:19] Now don’t start backwards; don’t start by teaching them to do what he said. Don’t go there. That will kill you. It has killed many people. They say, “Well, I’ll do what Jesus said.” No, no. You won’t. You have to start at the other end—whose disciple are you? And then community, Trinitarian community, and then you’re in a position to see the goodness of everything Jesus said, and to be able to carry out the things that he said because now you are changing, your thoughts are different, your feelings are different. Those are all changing. And what your body is ready to do without thinking is different now. So when you come to look at something that Jesus said to do, now you look at it with entirely different eyes; you see it as an invitation to live in the kingdom. That’s what everything he said is: an invitation to live in the kingdom. To live with grace, to live with power, and you find out that you can do the things that Jesus said. In fact, you wouldn’t think of doing anything else. That’s where the “routine, easy obedience” begins.

And that’s where spiritual formation comes out, is in the transformation of the person who does the things that Jesus said because that’s who they are. [1:07:09] And when they look at something and they say, “Well, if I do what Jesus said I won’t get that,” they realize “God’s got me in his hands. I don’t have to do that. If I don’t do that, I’m not going to be missing out on something good.” See, that’s the form of all temptation. “If you don’t do this, you’re going to miss out.” That explains the whole scene where you see public failures of various kinds. The problem is not the failure; the problem is where they were living all the time. The person who has a gross failure of some sort, that isn’t the problem. That’s the symptom. The problem was how they were living all along. So instead of holding sexual desire into abeyance, you transform it, and you don’t think the same way. You don’t feel the same way. And that means, if you don’t fulfill it, you don’t think “Oh wow. I’m really missing out on something.” This is a major step in coming to grips with our fallen condition, is to just understand that you don’t miss out on something good by refusing to do what you know to be wrong. And if you’re set in that path, you’ll soon convince yourself it’s ok. Because when you’re on that path, your desires will suborn your mind so that your will can do what you want to do. [1:09:05] And here will come the reasons, and you hear them all the time.

So now we want to take our submission to God into our whole life, and I want to just put this up here, the wonderful expression of holistic faith. It’s about work. Work is where we hallow the name of God. It came off of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in the Second World War, but it was inscribed on the wall. Hallowed Be Thy Name. That’s the surrounding idea; that of course is from the Lord’s Prayer. What does “hallowed” mean? We don’t know much about hallowing. We have Halloween, and we know the word shows up in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To hallow means to hold precious, separate, dear: to treasure. Let your name be treasured. Isn’t that interesting that that shows up as the first request in the Lord’s Prayer? Before anything else, “hallowed be thy name,” and the reason actually is pretty obvious, because if this were done, most of everything else would take care of itself, because it expresses an attitude towards God. [1:11:17] And that attitude towards God then controls gradually, through a process of growth, everything. Hallowed be thy name. God be with my hands and in my making. When I do what I do, I do it with the expectation that God is acting with me. He’s interested in creation. Anything good. [Reads the prayer…..”Hallowed by thy name in industry; God be in my hands and in my making.  Holy, Holy, Holy; Lord God of hosts; Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.  Hallowed be Thy Name in the arts; God be in my sense and in my creating.  Holy, Holy, Holy; Lord God of hosts; Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory. Hallowed be Thy Name in commerce; God be at my computer and at my cash register.  Hallowed by Thy Name in government and that’s old language; government doesn’t mean what we call government; that means my governing, my ruling.  God be in my plans and in my deciding. Hallowed by Thy Name in education; God be in my mind and in my growing. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts; Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.  What did I say to you?  GOD is here.  Hallowed be Thy Name in the home; God be in my heart. Lord God of hosts; Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory but I say to you, God is here.  God is here and in my loving.]

How We Think About God

So this is how we begin to move into the richness of a life where God is governing us in his kingdom. So really, I want to just leave you with this thought, that the big issue in life is how we think about God. It may be an exaggeration, but I’ll say it just so we can struggle with it: all human troubles come from thinking wrongly about God. [1:13:56] We have to get God before our minds habitually, in a way that he actually does rule in our lives. It isn’t always inspecting everything and turning everything around, it’s focusing on what is right, what is good. And in that, the freedom of grace, the freedom to choose, to make judgments, to trust God—even to be wrong, maybe. Being right isn’t the only thing in life, you know? In fact it’s a very heavy burden to be right. And in many ways the door to the kingdom opens when people give up on that. That’s a major part of what we repent of to enter the kingdom of God. It comes with a vision of God. And these words from William Law, if you’ve read the book—I hope you have, I know that it’s a part of your studies—he’s advising his son about how to go on in life.

[First of all, my child, think magnificently of God. Magnify his providence; adore His power; pray to Him frequently and incessantly. Bear Him always in your mind. Teach your thoughts to reverence Him in every place for there is no place where He is not. Therefore, my child, fear and worship and love God; first and last, think magnificently of Him!

-Condensed from Chapter 18 of William Law’s Serious Call To A Devout And Holy Life



  1. I don’t want to make a bad analogy, but when you say that the spirit and the heart and the will are the same, is that somehow connected to the Holy Spirit being the will of God?

[1:16:43] Well, the question is whether or not we will align our will with God’s, and the Holy Spirit woos and influences us, but very gently. Isn’t it interesting that we are permitted to grieve the Holy Spirit? God allows that. He doesn’t just slap us around. We are permitted to resist the Holy Spirit. Thus, one of the most stunning things is to understand the gentleness with which God approaches us. But the Holy Spirit is not our spirit. Our spirit is our capacity to choose, and that is—if I may put it so—the most sacred part of the human being. God himself will not override the human will. And that’s where the real struggle goes on. And now I understand you may have a theology that disagrees with that, but I think that we just have to accept the fact that God made us with a will, that he will allow us to rebel against him and to stay there, though he will approach us and bring to our minds things that can help us, and perhaps in many ways influence our choice, but he will not make the choice for us. So one of the reasons why I bring this up, and thank you for the question, is because people so constantly overlook the fact that the human spirit is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the human spirit. He doesn’t make our decisions for us. We have to decide what we’re going to do. And now it’s true, as he says in John 15, “Without me you can do nothing.” But if you do nothing, it will be without him. So the idea is to learn how to work with God, receive his grace, by choice. It’s ok, he works far beyond our choices, I agree with that, but he does not bypass choice. See, many people have adopted a view of grace and the spirit that makes us passive, and there are lots of things that go with that. We are always to be active. And we will have to go into grace further later on, but grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning, but not to effort. And we must put forth an effort.

  1. Earlier in the morning when you were talking about the Trinity, what is your response to The Shack and people’s reaction to The Shack?

[1:20:07] Thank you. I had to read it, because so many people asked me about it. And you know, my wife read it, and when she gets after you to do something… Actually I enjoyed it, and I think it has helped people partly because the normal Christian simply has no way of thinking about the Trinity. They just can’t think about it. I’ve said only a little bit about it here, but I think… Of course, now people are worried about thinking wrongly about the Trinity, and that’s a concern that is legitimate. But I think the book has helped some people get more of a grip on what God might be like. It may have misled them in other respects. But in these matters a wrong idea may be better than just a vacuum, and especially for people who are, to the best of their ability, committed to God anyway. So I have some other books that I would refer people to if they wanted to go deeply into the Trinity, but that might not be a bad place to start, if you understand it’s an exercise in fiction. It’s imaginative; it’s a work of art, not a systematic treatise, so take it in that respect. So I don’t think I would send someone there to get an understanding of the Trinity, but I might start them there and then say, “Let’s go on to some of the other authors that are more helpful.” Sometimes people are not helpful because they are being too careful, and sometimes they’re harmful because they’re not careful enough, so you know…it’s a living relationship that we’re talking about. So I think it has helped some people, and certainly has stirred up, I think, a profitable kind of ferment in people’s minds.

  1. You said something on one of the audios we listened to about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and expecting that to be the thing that transforms us. So the idea is that we preach, and we teach, and we pray for people, and we ask the Holy Spirit to transform and change people. Can you come in a bit further on what you think about that? I think you said that so often we rely on experience, and experience doesn’t necessarily change us.

[1:23:20] Well, it depends on what you’re changing. There are some things that come by prayer, some things that come by ministry of the Holy Spirit, but it helps people to realize for example that Jesus never prayed for anyone to be healed of lying. That’s a character issue. That doesn’t come passively. You have to be engaged in that. Now, can the Holy Spirit be involved in that? Can prayer? Yeah, sure, but fundamentally if you wish to be changed in character, you have to commit yourself to a course of action. And that’s where things like spiritual disciples come in. But among other things you have to decide that you’re prepared to do without it. For most people in our world, if you had a pill that would cure them of lying, they wouldn’t be tremendously enthusiastic about taking it. Because lying is a fundamental human resource, and if you decide you’re going to do without it, you’re taking on a major change of life. For one thing, you’re going to have to learn how not to do it. It isn’t simple. So any kind of character issue involves a commitment of your will to a course of change. You don’t have to fully understand what’s going on. These guys that signed on with Jesus for his two-and-a-half-year spiritual formation tour, they had no idea what they were tying into, but they were impressed with him, and among other things these were people who were at an age that they never expected a rabbi to pick them up. And that was a big deal. So you want to remember that, and of course Jesus dealt with misunderstandings about it, when he said things like “If you do not take your cross and follow me you can’t be my disciple.” So that was a very radically different thing than rabbis and disciples did. But you see that was a commitment of the will, and they faced choices. After he told the group, you remember, that they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they all said “Yuck!” and walked off; they weren’t going to do that. And so he said to his disciples, “Will you also go away?” They had to make a choice, and that was a tough choice. “Where will we go?” So they had gotten into it far enough to know that he was giving something no one else had. But they really didn’t know what it was. They were just committed to it. That commitment to change is what we have to have, and it will not happen if we are passive. We have to be active. And that, of course, is where we have to rework a lot of our notions like understanding that we’re unworthy, but we still have worth. See, a lot of people think that if you’re unworthy, you’re worthless. No, that’s not the way it works. God sees our worth, even though we are unworthy. So worthiness is not the basis of the deal, and we can work through that if we commit ourselves to a path of change. And that’s why in answer to the last question; discipleship to Jesus is how you get there.

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