Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 16

Serving The Jesus Way: Surrendering Our Kingdom to the God Who Is Enough

Dallas Willard

To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the One who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we cannot separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way he is doing it.Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 22.

01.  How Would Jesus Do it?

I have a recommendation for an enterprising Christian businessperson. Think of how the letters WWJD have been used. Why don’t you also sell bracelets, T-shirts, and bumper stickers with these letters: HWJDI? They stand for “How Would Jesus Do It?” It would be very helpful in reframing what it means to live the Jesus Way.

If we consider just “What would Jesus do?” we leave Jesus’ teaching and guidance at a superficial level. It isn’t just what Jesus would do; it is how Jesus would do it. Simply put, Jesus would do it as a servant.

We want to be clear about how Jesus lived as a servant. We hear stories of church splits and arguments among church staff members, and we wonder, Why is it that people in churches struggle so much to love others? The answer is simple: because we do not approach our following of Christ as servants. Being a servant to people displaces our judgments of them. It leads us to forgiveness and mercy.

Servanthood is a powerful position to live in, but we can’t approach it directly because we don’t have what it takes to do it. So let’s look at how we come to the place where we can live out redemptive servanthood for those around us and for our own life.

02.  Prerequisite: Life in the Kingdom

In order to live as a servant, we have to consider first what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. The basic message Jesus came to deliver was the availability of life in the Kingdom of God now from where we are. We’re familiar with Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand,”Matthew 4:17, paraphrased. but we have to examine them carefully, as well as examining our assumptions of what repentance means.

Repentance, as Jesus used it, did not mean that you get down and beat your head on the floor. And when you’re done, you’d better do it a few more times to make sure you fully repented. Metanoia means to think about your thinking. In that context it requires us to ask ourselves who is currently king or queen in our lives. If we’re honest, we will answer, “me.” As ruler of my life, I am the one who is running my life. That’s the problem. If I am running my life, I’m not going to serve other people.

In order to do things as Jesus would do them—as a servant—we have to learn how the servant God comes into our life and allows us to turn our kingdom over to him and learn to live there. Only then will we have the strength, understanding, and grace to live as a servant to others.

The Kingdom of God is actually just God in action. You find the Kingdom of God when you enter into the action of God. In theological terms, we often call it the “reign of God.” Jesus brings us into an interactive relationship with God, which is his Kingdom. Out of that we learn to leave our kingdoms behind and live as servants in the Kingdom of God.

03.  Living in Exile: Kingdoms Torn Down

The other concept important to understand in being a servant is that in order to get out of our kingdom, we have to go into exile. In human terms, exile means to be excluded from or thrown out of the little nests we have built for ourselves with hopes of securing ourselves on our own. The natural human condition is one of exile; we haven’t made it back to the garden yet. Exile, then, is a spiritual condition of alienation from God, who is the only true home of the soul. We have to accept the kinds of exiles that life sends upon us.

Exile was a formative experience that God allowed to come upon the people of Israel. After the great kingdoms that Judah and its kings thought they had built for God had been wiped out, the great prophets spoke about the Kingdom of God. (Actually, the Jewish people as a people are still in exile. You must not mistake what now exists as the state of Israel as the return from exile.)

We come to the kingdom of God through exile, through allowing our kingdom to be torn down. We become able to live as servants in the Jesus Way as we understand that our own kingdoms are now torn down. Then Jesus comes to help us enter into another kingdom: his Kingdom of the Heavens. He invites us, saying, “Whosoever will may come.” Only in the Kingdom of God can we stand in God’s strength and deal with all of the problems of human life.

04.  Picture of Kingdom-Drenched Servanthood

Jesus teaches us how to live as servants by his own example. Notice the words Jesus uses as he has his last talk with his disciples as they partake of the Passover feast in the upper room.
As they recline around the table, Jesus watches them. Perhaps he’s thinking, What would be the last, most significant thing I can say to them as I leave them?

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God, and was going back to God . . .John 13:1–3, NASB. Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (

Think of that: Jesus says and does what comes next because he is thinking that everything has been placed into his hands and that he came from God and is going back to God. With that knowledge in mind, this is what he chooses to do: get up from the table, take off his outer clothing, and put on a large piece of clothing (call it a towel if you wish, but don’t think too small when you think that). He takes a basin of water, washes the disciples’ feet, and wipes them with the towel with which he is girded.

Jesus chooses to do this act of service knowing where he has come from and where he is going. This is not a ritual act. They need their feet washed because they have been sitting there with dirty feet. No one was going to wash their feet, and there was no host in the house to do it. Jesus, to make the point about servanthood, serves because, as he said, “I am among you as one who serves.”Luke 22:27, NIV. Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

To serve means to do something good for a person, to do an act of love. Love looks for what is good and puts itself out to do that. There wasn’t anything special about foot washing except that it was what needed to be done. That is service: doing what needs to be done. As Jesus rises from washing their feet, he says, “I have taught you to do the thing that I have done for you, and that is to serve and to give what is good to those who are near to you.”John 13:15, paraphrased.

Jesus’ earlier remark that he knew he had come from the Father tells us this was part of his thinking as he became a servant. That’s important for you and me to understand when we’re going to serve. Most people fail to serve because they have a sense of the scarcity in their lives. Out of their scarcity they refuse to serve because they’re worried that if they serve someone else, there won’t be enough left for them. We can serve only out of abundance. Jesus had that abundance because he knew his Father had given him all things, and he knew where he came from and where he was going.

05.  Jesus Knew What He Was About

We get insight into how well Jesus knew where he was going by his interaction with certain Greeks.See John 12:20–26. They came to Philip, possibly because he had a Greek name, and requested an interview with Jesus. His response to these Greeks seemed strange: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”John 12:23–24, NRSVUE. Scripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. This tells us he knew not only that he had come from God but also where he was going. He was going to his death. These Greeks most likely wanted to take him to the great cities of the Mediterranean world such as Alexandria or Rome to teach in large, sophisticated communities of Jews and Gentiles. This would have enhanced Jesus’ career as a teacher and shown how much greater he was than contemporary teachers, or even earlier ones such as Plato and Aristotle. When they offered him this opportunity for a world lecture tour, he said, “No, I’m not going in that direction.”

To explain his refusal, Jesus offered the illustration of the way a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies. Only then does it bear much fruit. He was talking not only about himself, but also about us. Our life needs to be like a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and brings forth much fruit. Picture how you might take a grain of wheat or a seed and put it into the earth and go away. A plant comes up and bears fruit or grain of the same kind, but when you look for that grain you planted, where is it? It has disappeared. In the midst of annihilation, exile, and death, it brings forth much fruit.

06.  The Cross-Shaped Life

Jesus’ service lay in the path of his future through the cross. As he gave up his life, it was multiplied manyfold. But it didn’t stop there: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.”John 12:25–26, NKJV. Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Jesus’ path toward the future was portrayed in a lovely way in Philippians 2. Jesus was described as being equal with God as a member of the Trinity, and from this, Paul taught us how to live: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.”Philippians 2:3–4, paraphrased. Regarding others as more important than ourselves is much like a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying. Out of that death comes much fruit. Followers of Christ don’t look out merely for their own personal interests but also for the interests of others. This parallels the love in the depths of the Trinity: though Christ Jesus existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. That’s the Jesus Way. Then in the likeness of man, Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even to the death of the cross. Therefore God highly exalted him.

One of the greatest things we can learn when we think about this is to watch how Jesus simply turned everything loose. He stepped out of his position. He came down to the earth and gave himself up to mortality and death (which is what he meant when he said that a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, but brings forth much fruit). He let go of everything to which we would have held on. In those circumstances the system of God (or Kingdom of God) takes over. That’s why we don’t move into servanthood directly but through life in the Kingdom of God.

07.  Trusting God, Not Self

To follow Jesus and the Jesus Way is to abandon completely to God the control we have over life as we try to build up our little kingdom. Ever since the Garden of Eden, the human way has been to build a human kingdom. It was the story of the tower of Babel. It continued to the time of Samuel when Israel became tired of the system of the judges. Without a king, they simply had to trust God to bring them a judge. But they wanted something to trust other than God. When Samuel, grieved that they wanted a king, didn’t want to be a part of it, God said, “No, do what they say. They haven’t rejected you, they’ve rejected me.”1 Samuel 8:7, paraphrased. It’s sobering to think that God agreed to let them have an earthly king even though that kingdom brought endless problems. It became a wedge between God and the people. Even though David was a man after God’s own heart, he operated in a system that allowed him to pursue his own kingdom, and he did so in ways that were not good. He did not live as a servant. He lived as a king and took the power of the kingdom into his own hands.

After a while, the destruction of the people of Israel as a kingdom was carried out by God’s plan, and as a result, the wonderful teachings of Isaiah and the great prophets appeared. That’s where the realization of the Kingdom of God first emerged—out of exile. When the Jews had nothing but desolation, they discovered there was a “God in Heaven” who was present with them and very much in action even without the temple and royal palace in Jerusalem. That language about “God in Heaven” emerges at the end of Second Chronicles and in Ezra and Nehemiah. Daniel displays most the understanding and language about the Kingdom of God. In Psalm 145 and the other later psalms, the idea emerges that when everything is desolate, there is still God. Job’s story is one of a man who lost everything but glorifies God.

We have to learn this individually so that we come to understand that God is enough. In Psalm 16, the psalmist stands before God and says, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not be moved.”Psalm 16:8, KJV. Scriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible. The life and buildings of Jerusalem could be moved, but not God. All of the kingdoms and queendoms of the world will pass away, but God will still be sufficient.

So our question is this: Is God enough? When everything else is gone, there is still God. It is in exile that we learn the sufficiency of God. Out of our knowledge of the sufficiency of God, we can fall into the earth and die.

By turning over our kingdom into God’s kingdom, we are set free from the burden of controlling our world and our lives. Great freedom comes through the cross. Those who have taken up their cross and face execution don’t have a worry in this world. Everything is settled. They are not worried about where their goat ran off to or how to pay unpaid bills. It’s all taken care of in the cross.

The cross cuts us off from the burden of self-control and frees us into servanthood. Out of love, we can then serve our neighbors and love those who are shut out from the world. If we are not servants, we can’t do that. The reason our churches struggle with showing mercy and receiving others is that we don’t live as servants.

08.  Whole-Life Servanthood

Being a servant is not a matter of particular acts. Being a servant is a matter of our whole lives. We live as servants, receiving everything we need from the Kingdom of God. We don’t keep our kingdom to ourselves, living only for self and occasionally doing an act of service. We live as servants, and as we do that, it frees us to enter into a different attitude toward life.

When most people contemplate sacrifice and service, they wonder, But who will look after me? When we learn to live the Jesus Way in the Kingdom of God, we know who has got our back. We know that if we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, when the time is right, God will exalt us. In the meantime, we cast all our cares on God because he cares for us.1 Peter 5:7, paraphrased. That’s why we have to learn to live our life in the Kingdom of God before we can become servants. We drop the burden of carrying our life because God has picked us up. He doesn’t allow the righteous to fall because he is at their right hand. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, so we can live as servants in the spirit of God.See Psalm 91:7; Romans 8:35–39.

Living as servants doesn’t make us superior or self-righteous. It doesn’t make us think how good we are: the little Jack Horner syndrome, where we stick in a thumb and pull out a plum and say, “What a good boy am I!” We stay away from that because we are now living from the sufficiency of God.

When we live this way, we can take care of the needs of own soul while we live as servants. When we die to self, we bring forth much fruit. Fruit comes from strength that comes from life that comes from an inner source of vitality, and that vitality comes into our souls and makes them flourish as we live as servants in the Kingdom of God.

09.  To Dig a Little Deeper

  1. Use an electronic concordance to search for the phrase “God in heaven” used by Israel in exile. To get started, look up 2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 1:2, Nehemiah 1:4–5, and Daniel 2:18–19. In all, you’ll find just fewer than twenty references. Read each reference slowly, thinking about these refugees living in exile (or in the ruins of Jerusalem) and how they trusted in a powerful God. how do you identify with them? or not?
  2. Read again the sections above, “Prerequisite: Life in the Kingdom” and “Living in Exile: Kingdoms Torn Down.” Then read psalm 145 slowly. Notice especially verses 11–13. Think about what it was like, living as an outsider in exile, but believing this to be true. How does that speak to you today?
  3. Read psalm 16 slowly. What phrases describe what a person who’s living in the kingdom of God might say?

10.  To Read and Study More about the Kingdom of God:

Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco: Harpercollins, 1998.

Ladd, George Eldon. The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Murray, Andrew. Abide In Christ. Several editions, including Wilder Publications, 2008.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994, 472–477.


Professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Dallas Willard is an ordained Southern Baptist minister and has written several books including Hearing God, The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, The Great Omission, and Knowing Christ Today.