Reflections on Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God

Dallas Willard’s, The Divine Conspiracy, reaches deep into the heart and soul of Christianity. In contrast to fleeting worldly philosophies and pop culture, Willard assures that Jesus is forever relevant and gives wholeness to one’s life. (Willard, 20) He then invites his readers to a front row seat of Jesus’ “Discourse on the Hill” as recorded in Matthew 5-7, where Jesus reveals the truth about the Kingdom of God; a truth that replaces outward forms of religion with integrity of the heart. This new culture of the kingdom of God is not lived through outward conformance to law, but by one’s inner desire to be united with God’s heart. Jesus must become more than knowledge; His presence must permeate the very being of one’s self. Only then, can the power of Jesus shine and flow through one’s life. Christianity is not just a state of forgiveness, but a changed life.

Willard seeks to persuade his readers that changing one’s thoughts and lifestyle toward godliness can only spring from knowing Jesus and being transformed into His likeness, from the inside out. Willard gives me a deeper understanding of this process, using the term dikaiosune, a word used 92 times in the New Testament. (Thayer’s Lexicon) This term marks the “character of the inner life when it is as it should be.” (161) He notes that “for Paul, the redemptive act of Jesus becomes key to understanding the very dikaiosune of God himself (Rom 1-8). It is the person of Jesus and his death for us that makes it clear what is good about God that makes him ‘really good.’” (163)

My faith soared as Willard described Jesus’ presence in our souls, in the heavens, and in every living particle. Willard’s words concerning physical death and his reminders of Jesus’ teachings about death fill me with hope. As I meditate more on these scriptures, I believe my subtle fear of death can be replaced with an expectation of the thrill of being with Jesus in a new body, remaining with my eternal soul. Willard’s words, “nothing like what is usually understood as death will happen to those who have entered his life,” (96) and “at ‘physical’ death we become conscious and enjoy a richness of experience we have never known before” (99) leave me with hope in eternity, rather than fear of death. Willard continues his thoughts on kingdom life in Christ as he takes his readers to the scene described in Matthew 5-7, commonly known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Though I have read and studied what Willard renames the “Discourse on the Hill” hundreds of times, his commentary on these verses gives me pause as he pens, “Here we have full-blown, if not salvation by works, then possibly salvation by attitude.” (118)  I have previously focused on these beatitudes as “attitudes to be” in order to know the joy of Christ. His view that the blessed state of Jesus’ audience was not the result of being poor, sad, or persecuted (119), but was instead from the inexpressible thrill that came from Jesus’ mercy-filled teaching that the Kingdom of God was now accessible to the unacceptable and outcast—to everyone. I am moved by the truth of Willard’s observation of Jesus that states, “Draw any cultural or social line you wish, and God will find his way beyond it.” (127) Willard’s definition of the Scythian (142) and his contemplation of the phrases more relatable to Westerners such as the “good Iraqui” or “good Communist” (127) give me deeper insight into the account of the Good Samaritan, reminding me to see beyond one’s outer appearance. My suburban town is approximately sixteen percent Indian, resulting in a new local mosque, neighbors who are Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindu, without any acceptance of Jesus as the only way to God. Willard’s words are a good reminder that these are my neighbors, not only figuratively, but literally. The best way to show them Jesus is through my life of love and care for them first, and then through my words. Willard turns his readers thoughts again to the “Discourse on the Hill.”

Willard’s ordering of the inner attitudes that Jesus calls for on His “Discourse on the Hill” makes sense to me. Until one repents of attitudes of anger, and its counterpart, contempt, one cannot grow in the character of Jesus. These sinful attitudes create deep wounds in human relationships and cannot coexist with the heart of Jesus. Willard continues, explaining how greed and sexual lust destroy character and leave behind a wake of relational and personal destruction.  In contrast, when one envelops the heart of Jesus, the outflow of their heart will produce love, purity, acceptance, and putting another’s needs above one’s own. There is no more room or desire for the old lifestyle. This progression of character allows for one to become so secure and filled with the love of Christ that they lose the desire for the approval from others. It is Christ alone, whom the true disciple longs to please.

Willard’s warning concerning the natural desire for others’ approval gives me valuable advice for helping to create a vulnerable atmosphere needed among my Christian community as he states, “There is very little time and occasion for openness in most of our gatherings because we fear it. We think it may lead to confrontation, anger, and divisiveness. We are not open because we fear what others will think of us and do to us.” (222) As a church leader, I want to help nurture this atmosphere.

I will contemplate Willard’s thoughts as he states, “When I ask someone to do or be something, I stand with that person in the domain of a constraint without force or necessitation. We are together. A request by its very nature unites. A demand, by contrast, immediately separates.” (256) While I understand and appreciate this posture, the Scriptures do give authority to church leaders, though they are to be servant leaders who lead by example. The Scriptures teach that a Christian who deliberately keeps on sinning should not remain in the fellowship without repenting (Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:1-5). This is for the person’s good; not for purposes of shaming, but instead for keeping the church pure and helping the sinner repent. While I agree with the attitude of his posture, I also believe that without leadership authority the church will become weak, and the impure leaven will spread (1 Cor 5:6-15). This fine line between “tough love” and “request” requires much prayer and discernment—and Christ-like love.

Willard’s thoughts on prayer enrich my understanding as he writes that prayer is: “talking to God about what we are doing together. That immediately focuses the activity where we are but at the same time drives the egotism out of it. Requests will naturally be made in the course of this conversational walk…This is our walk together. Out of it I pray.” (267)

I could not agree more with Willard in the last section of his book concerning the crisis of discipleship in the church. While Willard sees this as a crisis, I feel he takes some of the “teeth” out of his concern by conceding statements such as, “It is true that the implicit understanding that nondisciple Christians have with their leaders and congregations will have to be brought to light and dealt with in some appropriate way. (332) While this is such an important statement and need, I think conferring the name “Christian” on nondisciples is confusing. The term “Christian,” used only three times in the New Testament, was most likely a derogatory term to describe those who were “like Christ.” In today’s Christian world, the term “Christian” is usually equated with one’s salvation. Wearing the name Christian because one states a belief in Jesus can give a false hope for salvation. Scriptures such as Matthew 7:21-23 and James 2:19 speak to this situation. In Matthew, the religious felt assured of their “salvation” because of good deeds; yet, Jesus said He did not know them. James states that even the demons believe, and shudder. In Luke 6:46, Jesus asks his followers why they called Him Lord but did not do what He said. Galatians 5:19-21 (written to those who had become Christians) lists worldly, sinful behaviors, and Paul states that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. I believe, if this crisis is to change, the terms Christian and disciple must become synonymous. While Willard seems to support this, he, in my opinion, portrays a sense of hopelessness that this can change.

It will take courage to change this crisis and to be willing to teach all who claim to be Christians or desire to become Christians to follow this call from Jesus. It will also take courage for leaders to teach, as Jesus did, that unless we follow Him wholeheartedly, we cannot be his disciples (Luke 9:23-24; Matt 16:24-26). This is a difficult teaching; it requires much courage to say that if one is not willing to be His disciple, one cannot be ensured of living eternally with Him. Jesus had the courage and love to speak the truth, such as in John 6:53-68, when many followers turned away from Him after hearing the “all in” posture necessary for following Him.  

Willard asks, “When do you suppose was the last time any group of believers or church of any kind or level had a meeting of its officials in which the topic for discussion and action was how they were going to teach their people actually to do the specific things Jesus said?” (345) This question brought me back to our early days in the ministry when my husband was asked to leave a congregation that had just begun to grow, with campus students being converted to Christ. One of the elders told him, “We don’t have a problem with anything you preach. It’s all in the Bible. The problem some have is that when you get out of the pulpit you expect people to do it. This makes them uncomfortable.”

I am now blessed to serve in a congregation of several thousand where discipleship is the norm. When someone desires to follow Jesus and become part of the church, they study the Bible with a disciple (Christian). In these Bible studies we cover teachings such as: how the Bible is put together (its cohesiveness leading to Jesus); Jesus (who He says He is); the heart and actions of a disciple; sin; faith; grace; repentance; baptism; the Kingdom lifestyle; the church, and the importance of practicing one-another relationships. The goal is to help all fall in love with our Lord. If one wants to be saved, but does not want to be a disciple of Jesus, I believe it is unloving and unrepresentative of Jesus’ teachings to compromise His words. And, as Willard so powerfully explained, it also would show that one has not yet fallen in love with Jesus nor given their trust to Him. No one is perfect, and we all fall short. However, the leadership in my church asks for everyone to participate in a small discipleship group where we practice “one another’ scriptures. We confess our sins to each other and pray for each other. In community, we talk about deep things in our hearts, encourage each other, laugh and cry with each other, bear each other’s burdens, and help each other see when we fall short. When one makes the decision to be a disciple, they welcome this lifestyle and these relationships. I believe this connection is at the heart of Willard’s book.

While discipleship is a strength in my church, it can also become a danger in that one can be converted to “discipleship” instead of Jesus.  I agree with Willard’s assertion, “One of the greatest weaknesses in our teaching and leadership today is that we spend so much time trying to get people to do things good people are supposed to do, without changing what they really believe.” (336) This is such an important point, yet too easy to miss.

Because Willard reaches to the heart, true repentance and change can result; however, this must not be a mere pipedream. Too many souls are at stake. I deeply appreciate Willard’s stated main purpose, “…this book on Jesus and his kingdom …help us face this fact of the absence of Jesus the teacher and to change it.” (346) There are no shortcuts. I pray for the courage, patience, and love to take this as seriously as Jesus does, in my life and in the lives of others as I strive to obey Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20). I pray to have His attitudes and character.

I anticipate the future and want as many as possible to know what Willard describes, “Those who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus learn an undying life with a future as good and as large as God himself. The experiences of this life as his co-conspirators now fill us with anticipation of a future so full of beauty and goodness we can hardly imagine.” (409) I long to follow Jesus all the way through the passage of physical life and one day see Him face to face, continuing to live in His presence. I know, as Willard reminds, that “our continued existence is not primarily for our benefit, but God’s.” (424). This reminds me of David’s words expressed by Luke in Acts 13:36, and Paul’s sentiments in Phil 1:21-26. I thrill at Willard’s description of my destiny:

No, we should think of our destiny as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment. This is the “eye hath not seen, neither ear heard” that lies before us in the prophetic vision (Isa 64:4). (435)

As co-conspirators in God’s divine conspiracy, may we all love and follow Him wholeheartedly. Out of this love, let us go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20) so that as many as possible might be ushered into God’s eternal kingdom and “now and not yet” experience what no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor mind has conceived (1 Cor 2:9).

Willard, Dallas, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998.

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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