When I first started reading books by Dallas Willard, I came across his statement that he believed memorizing scripture is more important than quiet time. I remember being a bit surprised, as I had been led to believe (through my reading and attending conferences/retreats) quiet time is the most important part of nurturing a relationship with God. I was also resistant to do this, as I wasn’t sure it could be done, especially as he suggested memorizing not just single verses, but whole passages, such as Romans 5:1-8 and 8:1-15, 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:1-17. But he said our minds are made for it, God wants us to do it and he will help us. I guess that removes the “I’m too old (or too whatever) to do that” excuse.
I must admit I haven’t put as much effort into memorizing scripture as I would like, but I have given it a shot. I started with Colossians 3:1-17 and have found it encouraging and edifying. It also helps me focus on my word for the year (crucified). The passage begins by telling us to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is. Then we are told to set our minds on things above as well.
In our world where so many things vie for our attention and affection, reminding ourselves through this passage of Colossians to set our hearts and minds on God seems to be the best way to hold our treasure in the right place. Through memorization, our minds will always be brought back to the right focus, which will enable our hearts to follow.
Over the course of my life, I’ve learned God’s grace covers every aspect of being a Christian. Some of you may be rolling your eyes and saying “Duh.” But for me and those of you like me who’ve had to break free of the tentacles of legalism, it was like peeling the layers of an onion. At first, I saw and understood only the obvious ways God’s grace is active in our growth in Christ. But little by little, he revealed more to me, like how grace covers prayer as the Holy Spirit takes our wordless cries and groaning and brings them before our Father. I had read Romans 8:26 before of course, but it really sank in as my mind was opened to how grace permeates everything we do.
And now guess what? It seems grace also covers and empowers our dying to self. Paul said his grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that means in everything, little and big. We don’t have to die to self by ourselves. We’ve been crucified with Christ and he now lives in us (Galatians 2:20).
It’s a huge relief to me and probably to you too, to know we don’t have to do this on our own. As we’ve already been crucified with him, all we have to do is live as though this is true – because it is. It’s also comforting to know dying to self looks different in each of us. Dallas Willard, in Life Without Lack, says the only requirement on our part is to die to self, but what it involves in each of our lives is a matter only we can decide. Just as God meets us where we are and gently, with wisdom and love, guides us in our spiritual transformation, he also lovingly shows us the way to live his crucified life with him.
OK, that’s an ambitious title for a short article, but consider it the inevitable segue to an important, perhaps even crucial, aspect of the Christian’s life. I’ve spent several weeks here on kenosis (the self-emptying of God when the Father sent his Son as a human to give himself for us) and death to self (putting to death our tendency to worship ourselves as our own gods, thereby putting into practice our own kenosis). What naturally follows is living a crucified life as Jesus lives in us.
Even though I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, praying and studying this, and trying to put it into practice, I’m not prepared to tell you I am actually living the crucified life. I like to think I’m taking baby steps and am making some progress. But that’s just it – it’s a process and not something we can ever claim to have accomplished. Only Christ knows how I’m doing and how much more I need to trust him to work this transformation in me.
What I do know is that I can’t do it alone. As Dallas Willard says, “The crucifixion of the self is a cooperative affair between us and the Lord. We cannot die to self without the help of God’s grace, for only God can satisfy our ultimate desire, and only God can convince our hearts that, when we die to self, he will raise us up.” He goes on to say we have to understand what it is and to accept it, recognize it and ask God to give this gift to us. Yes, he calls it a gift. “Christ was not crucified so that we wouldn’t have to be. He was crucified so we could be crucified with him. He did not die so that we wouldn’t have to die; he died so we could die with him. In death to self you are crucified with Christ” (Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23).
It seems God has given me crucified as my “one word” for 2021, so I will be sharing more thoughts on this as the year goes on.
Dying to self is tricky, at least from a human point of view. As author and speaker Jill Briscoe says, the trouble with living sacrifices is they have a habit of climbing off the altar! We don’t like to do things that hurt and to crucify our flesh sounds really painful. And while it can be painful, it’s not a physical pain. Many believe the flesh is intrinsically evil, but Dallas Willard says the flesh in itself is not bad. “The problem with the flesh lies in its weakness and lostness when uncoupled from God’s Spirit, which is precisely the condition of humanity apart from Christ” (Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23).
He goes on to say: “To live in the flesh, to live with uncrucified affections and desires, is simply a matter of putting them in the ultimate position in our lives. Whatever we want becomes the most important thing. This is what happens when we are living apart from God; we make our desires ultimate because they are all we have. We look to them as if they were everything in our lives; thinking of my worth, my glory, my appearance, thinking of my power to sustain myself.”
Desires aren’t inherently wrong either, but as Dallas says, they are terrible masters. A good place to begin dying to self is to recognize our desires for what they are and being aware of how they can control our lives if we let them. Our desires can never be satisfied but trusting in Jesus and his work on the cross means accepting limitation on our desires. “Desire is infinite partly because we were made by God, made for God, made to need God, and made to run on God. We can be satisfied only by the one who is infinite, eternal and able to supply all our needs; we are only at home in God.”
Desires are from God and are good as long as we subjugate them to him and die to the pursuit of satisfying ourselves through anything but God. We don’t have to be slaves to our flesh and its insatiable desires if we can learn to die a little every day through Christ who gives us strength.
Next week: I Can Do All Things
Death is something no one wants to talk about. We don’t think about it unless we are forced to, but it’s part of life and reminders are everywhere. A hospital, a cemetery, a funeral home – all are visual reminders of our mortality. Every birthday brings us closer to our own physical end. Even with reminders, we carry on as though it won’t happen for many years.
Paul took a different tack. He looked it in the eye on many occasions and mentions it multiple times in his letters in the New Testament. He even welcomed it, saying it would be better for him to be with Christ, except that he was needed for the church. I believe he was able to do this because he had already experienced a different kind of death – death to self. It’s not something we hear much about, but just as kenosis is foundational to Christianity, so is dying to self. Paul mentions it much more than physical death.
Dallas Willard’s book Life Without Lack devotes a whole chapter to this subject. He asserts that we must understand death to self has nothing to do with death of self. “Death to self is not ultimately a negation, but a rising up into the very life of God (2 Peter 1:4). Thus our lives are saved by his life (Romans 5:10).” He also says you were not put here on earth to get rid of yourself, but to be a self, and to live fully as a self.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul gives us the definition of death to self: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NIV). “This is the essence of the death-to-self life: that we should no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died for us and rose again” (Ibid.).
Next week: Leaving the Flesh Behind
One of the few true freedoms we have is what we do with our minds. We are free to think about whatever we want. We can go anywhere in our imaginations, which is one of the reasons I love to read. I can go back or forward in time; explore outer space or become embroiled in a mystery. We can create, plan, solve problems – or get ourselves in trouble.
Controlling where our thoughts take us is difficult, but so very important. If we let our thoughts go in negative or destructive directions, our actions will likely follow. (For an in-depth study of this, I recommend The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.) It’s easy to get caught up in worry and anxiety, especially when situations in life seem – or are – out of our control.
What can we do about wayward thoughts and rabbit holes of negativity and discouragement? We can do as Jan Johnson suggests in the Trusting God retreat: make the pivot. As some of the psalmists did, process your feelings with God, rant and rave a little if necessary, lament and cry. And don’t worry – he can take it. Then pivot back to him, remembering the reality of who he is and what he’s done for us. And as always, he’s the one who can help us make the pivot. We’re never on our own, even when we’re down in the dumps or angry at life.
I was happy to learn that some of you signed up for the Trusting God retreat with Jan Johnson and Matt Rhodes. I hope you were able either to listen live or to have accessed the recorded event. I also hope you enjoyed it and benefited from the teaching and interaction.
One lesson really helped me and has stuck in my mind since I heard it from Jan. She told the story of how she mentioned to Dallas Willard that she had been struggling with a pipe and felt the problem was insurmountable. He told her it was never just her and the pipe – Jesus was with her and she was never alone. Then Jan asked attendees to share their problem, phrasing it as “It’s not just me and _______.”
It’s not just me and this computer. It’s not just me and this flat tire. It’s not just me and this tree root. It’s not just me and this person I’m arguing with. What a great way to look at trials and frustrating situations. It’s never just me alone with whatever is going on in my life. God is always with me, always on my side and when I ask, he helps me figure it out – or gives me peace about it.
Learning to trust God is a daily, ongoing process. If you’d like to share something you learned from the retreat or needed to be reminded of, we can help each other along the path to greater trust.
Trust is something we all learn about as we grow up. Playing cards provides a lesson that for many, is hard learned. I remember hearing the advice to trust everyone but cut the cards, meaning you can’t really trust anyone. When my dad worked as a carpenter for several years, he taught me the adage “measure twice, cut once.” I’ve never built anything, but I learned to sew and that’s when I learned I can’t even trust myself. Measuring twice didn’t ensure I could get it right.
Many people have trust issues with God too. We pray and he doesn’t deliver, so we decide he can’t be trusted. Bad things happen so we decide we can’t trust him to always be on our side. Not knowing God very well leads to mistrust; the more we know God, the more we trust him.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I talk about Dallas Willard from time to time, citing his books and quoting his material. I’d like to share a resource with you that is based on his book, Life Without Lack. It’s a five day, online retreat called Trusting God, presented by Jan Johnson and Matt Rhodes – and it’s free. You don’t have to attend the live sessions; you can access them anytime. It starts next week and you can register here: https://trustinggodretreat.com/signup
Learning to trust God – and learning that we can trust God – is much more important than measuring twice and cutting once. It will make all the difference in how we live as Christians.
Like it or not, we’ve all been forced to slow down during the COVID crisis. Those who have been used to a fast pace of life might be having trouble with staying home instead of keeping a frantic, overloaded schedule. For me, since my chicks left the nest and my husband retired, a slower pace of life is the norm. I enjoy being home and living a quiet life.
One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 30:15 in the NLT: “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength.” Resting and quietness come more easily to us introverts, but perhaps this time of forced rest will be an opportunity for everyone else to practice the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude as well.
Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is an excellent book explaining not just the disciplines, but the why of them. Jan Johnson, a student and mentee who actively carries on his work and ideas, has published Spiritual Disciplines Companion, Bible Studies and Practices to Transform Your Soul. I only recently acquired the book and naturally chose the section on Silence and Solitude as my starting point.
Our lives will probably go back to at least a semblance of what used to be normal, but for now, let’s take advantage of this time to return to God, rest in him, be quiet and trust, for that is indeed where we find our salvation.
I was never one for memorizing scripture. I didn’t see the need for it, but over the past several years, I’ve changed my mind. I started after I heard a speaker talk about shelter verses. She told us she memorizes a few verses for difficult times, ones she could always rely on for encouragement. Now I look for verses that help me understand who God is, such as Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20.
Memorizing, according to Dallas Willard, is more important than quiet time. It’s the most important way we participate in the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). “Our life takes a godly and good direction when our mind is consciously occupied with God’s written words. Those words then increasingly eliminate the conscious mental contents that would surely lead us away from God” (www.renovare.org).
Our minds are powerful, but easily distracted and even led astray. We need to be careful what we allow in our thoughts and be intentional with what occupies us. By keeping scriptures deep in our minds, “God’s words reside in our body, in our social environment, in the constant orientation of our will, and in the depths of our soul.” Memorization helps us abide in Jesus and his words abide in us (John 15:7-8). Hiding God’s word in our hearts causes his word to become a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:11 and 105). It’s never too late to start and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. It’s good exercise for the brain too!