What the world needs most today is moral and spiritual knowledge. The last chapter of Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today talk about pastors as teachers of the nations. I’ve probably read it fifty times.
When Jesus extended the invitation to “all you who are weary,” He was speaking to those who were burdened by the religious life. This might describe at least a few pastors.
So what does an easy yoke look like? Remember that a yoke enables us to do work that would be impossible otherwise without it. Rabbi’s spoke of their way of life as a yoke.
Dallas often talks about the challenge of allowing our service of God to overtake our communion with God.
I trained originally to be a therapist—a clinician, but discovered I wasn’t as good at it as I hoped and found the work quite draining. I discovered, instead, that I really loved the church. But after a few years in ministry, I began to become frustrated. I found myself asking, “What does it mean to be human? How do people change? Why is change so hard? Why doesn’t it happen more often in the church?” I found that we’re pretty good at helping newer Christian deal with surface bad habits. But after a while, people feel like the change process kind of stalls out.
People attend, volunteer, tithe, serve, avoid scandalous sins, but most don’t seem to be transformed more and more into joyful, loving, winsome persons. What is more disturbing than that is that no one really seems to expect such transformation. No one says we need a consultant to deal with this terrible problem. We rarely see the kind of renewal described in Romans 12:1-2, and we don’t seem to see this as a big problem.
Now, if genuine transformation doesn’t take place, we settle for pseudo-transformation. For example, dietary laws, Sabbath keeping and circumcision was the focus of first century rabbis. Why? These were the boundary markers, visible but relatively superficial, that helped determine who was in and who was out. Think about hippies, yuppies, or bikers. You can easily imagine a typical member of each of these groups. It’s not hard. There are clear boundary markers. all have ways of marking who’s in and who’s out.
In the absence of actual transformation, we resort to and settle for measuring who’s in and who’s out. This kind of legalism is simultaneously exhausting and trivial. Noxious to those on the outside, and impossible for those inside. Dallas: Spirituality, wrongly understood or pursued, is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God.
The behaviors or practices used as markers can be good things in themselves, but as a marker they breed judgement, condemnation, pride or discouragement. Without love, all of my accomplishments and distinguishing markers are meaningless. The aim of the spiritual life is always love.
We tend to measure spiritual maturity by devotional activities. How many are reading the Bible, are in small groups or are praying? How often and how long? In the first century, the Pharisees would have won this contest. We need a way of developing people where Pharisees aren’t the winners. We must distinguish between means and ends.
Journaling. My wife, Nancy, doesn’t like journaling. At some points, she would struggle since this seemed to be a kind of boundary marker some used to mark spiritual maturity of depth. But Jesus never journaled. Moses, Elijah, Esther loved God, prayed, sought to live in God’s power, but never journaled. Again, what are the means, and what are the ends? You have more important things to be guilty about than quiet time frequency!
When we measure spiritual maturity by frequency or quantity of devotional practice, we might actually be fueling pride. We might easily neglect weightier things like being loving (or unloving) and generous (or stingy).
We aren’t called to a spiritual life, but just to a life.
The most helpful distinction I learned from Dallas early on about this easy yoke and spiritual formation is: there is a tremendous difference between training to do something and trying to do something.
Consider 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and the analogy of a runner in a race. Strict training. We are in strict training to win an imperishable wreath. How about physical transformation. What does that training look like? Dallas: Training means arranging my life around those activities through which I am able to do what I am cannot now to do by direct effort. Generally, transformation in any sphere of life will involve this sort of training. This is true of physical, intellectual, musical realities. Training makes the difficult thing easier for us—an easy yoke.
We enter into training to win an imperishable wreath. Luke 6:40 says no disciple is above the master, but every disciple, when fully trained, will be like his master. Train yourself into godliness. The easy yoke is a life of training (not just trying) to be like Jesus.
Spiritual discipline is not a barometer of your spiritual growth. Maturity is not measured by quantity of disciplines. The discipline then becomes a boundary marker (an end) rather than a means. I don’t get any “credit” for the training work I do, like practicing free throws. No one is much interested in my practice free throws, but whether I can make them in the big moment of the big game.
Are we causing people to assume that they need to go out and try hard to be joyful? Have we actually shown them how to be joyful? This would be training. We have the opportunity to teach people how to live by grace.
Training is simply the means by which I live by grace. Wesley spoke of “means of grace.” What if I have a problem with joylessness? But I’m commanded to be joyful. How do I do that? Do I just try harder to be joyful? Does that work? How do you train for joy? One thought: have you ever noticed how many ‘holidays’ there are in the Old Testament? There are countless feasts. Go eat great food. Sell what you have, buy food and wine or strong drink, and eat and drink. This trained people for joy.
The Spirit of the Disciplines changed my life. It helped me understand the heart of what Richard Foster was talking about in Celebration of Discipline.
Do we see Jesus as a master of life (not just spiritual life), and are we now arranging our lives to be yoked in communion with Him?
We assume that spiritual disciplines are somehow opposed to “grace.” We’ve shrunk grace down to merely the forgiveness of sins. God was gracious far before the first act of sin. Creation itself is an expression of grace. We were meant to run and live on grace. Our first waking moment is meant to be received as a gift. Dallas: “Saints burn more grace than sinner ever could. Saints burn grace like 747s burn jet fuel.” Disciplines are “receivers” of grace.
Back to joylessness and easy yoke. The easy yoke for us in ministry begins with joy. What is the first thing I should do to help our church be a place of deep transformation? Dallas: “You must arrange your life so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy and confidence in your own everyday life with God.” This was the first strategic leadership step he recommended. The biggest thing we reproduce as leaders in our churches is our own lives.
Churches are becoming harder places for pastors to serve with contentment. When Dallas was growing up, he doesn’t remember the question being asked, “Is that pastor successful?” People gathered to love and learn. A successful ministry career wasn’t on the radar, but now it is a huge question. “Building something impressive looking” is a huge pressure.
When it comes to our being joyful, do we believe that it is actually someone else’s job to make us happy? An active and engaged congregation? Attentive and caring elders or support staff? My spouse?
Or, am I training for joy? I can work backwards from
• “What would my life in the kingdom of God look like if I was really being transformed by love, joy, peace, etc.?”
• to “What are the barriers that get in my way?”
• to “What are the practices or relationships that God might use to give me grace to grow beyond my current challenges and unhealthy habits.”
Perhaps I’m invited to the discipline of celebration. I could make one day a week a celebration day. I wear my favorite clothes. I eat great food. I spend time with people who encourage, refresh, bless me. I listen to great music. This might train me in a more joyful way of living and leading.
As church leaders, the great illusion is that “when the church is finally going well enough”, then I will find joy. That’s a very unreliable foundation for joy.
Another element of the easy yoke for those in ministry? Finding my worth and identity in who I am and not in how it’s going. It’s learning to release outcomes.
Dallas once had finished a talk, and immediately afterwards, we were walking along and he was singing an old hymn. I’m usually asking, “How did it go? Did I do well?” It was like watching a child release a helium balloon. Dallas wasn’t attached to the results of his talk. I don’t have to live under the burden of trying to control the outcomes.
How do I release outcomes? It’s a lifelong process, but it has to get all the way into my body. I find who I am, my worth, in being loved by God. One of the practices that helps me here is solitude. When I’m with people, I read body language and facial expression to see what they think. Spiritual practices disrupt the normal patterns that keep us captive.
Spiritual disciplines are something I do with my body. The main thing in disciplines like solitude and silence are what I don’t do.
In this sense, disciplines are always about freedom. Training enables me to freely do what I want to do in the critical moment.
We need to learn the importance of doing nothing sometimes. I must regularly do nothing. This isn’t just a psychological category. We sometimes talk about self-care as though it were an end in itself. Bible prefers the word “soul” to the word “self.” We tend to prefer “self.” Soulish vs. selfish. The song goes “Then sings my soul (not my “self”).
When I do nothing at times (in Sabbath, for example), I remember in my body that it is God’s work and not mine that matters most.
When I was transitioning to Willow Creek, I asked Dallas if he had any counsel for me. Dallas: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. There is a difference between being busy and being hurried. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried. Being hurried is a condition of the soul.”
There is a connection between being unhurried and being present—to God and to others. We think spirituality is about how much we are supposed to do. What if it’s about something God wants to “undo”?
On vision. We need to find the right vision. I once asked Dallas, “Why do many leaders start well, but fail to finish well?” Dallas: “Anytime there is a great work of God, it will begin with someone having a great vision. Only, it isn’t a vision of what we will do. It is a vision of God, and what a glorious being God is. It’s a vision to realize how good and joyful a thing it is to be alive in God. Out of that will grow a vision of what we may do for this beautiful God.” Some will want to become a part of this movement, but their focus will shift to the mission from the vision. We will focus on what we are doing, rather than keeping at the heart the original vision of God.
Questions: What one idea do you find most helpful from what John had to say?
I’d love your comments and feedback.