The Rule of God: Reading the Classics

Dallas Willard is one my theological influences. He is difficult to read for some people, but for years his work just felt irrelevant to me. I was asked to go back and teach on one of his books by a friend a decade ago and found a mentor in working out knots I had been trying to untie in my own thinking for years.

Dallas is wonderfully precise in his language. He was a philosophy professor, primarily at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and a Baptist pastor and thinker. He transcended Southern Baptist thought as he centered his work around two primary questions.

How do we become the kind of person Jesus calls us to be?

What is life like in the Kingdom of God?

He modeled clarity and precision in his life and teaching that had outsized impact in the evangelical and larger church world. Several priests here in the Valley were formed by his work and became Episcopal/Anglican because of a Baptist pastor.

One of the things that stands out in his work on the Spiritual Disciplines is the reading of classical Christian writings. Remember I wrote that he was precise. His definition of a Spiritual Discipline is “something we can do that enables us to do what we haven’t yet been able to do by our own direct effort.”

We are called into the life of Jesus and his rule over us in the Kingdom of his Dad. Think about that for a second. If we are to live the way he calls us to live, as light-bringers, we are going to have to change. But change is difficult.

We are slave to sin, Paul says, and I am a slave to sin and my iPhone. I cannot merely try really hard to not be a slave once I am free. I have to learn new ways of being. I have to learn the practices of a free life in God’s Rule.

As a slave, I have to be nice in order to not get in trouble. And when I can, I have to fight in order to get my meager slice of enough. But as a free man in Christ, I am made to love others like God loves me. But I don’t know how to love. I know how to fight and be nice.

So Willard writes in his book The Divine Conspiracy that he was shaped by a couple of spiritual classics. If I want to learn to play like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, I want to practice like they practiced, learn from who they learned from. So I have been reading The Imitation of Christ. I am not teaching out of it; I am learning from it.

I read it at night or with coffee when I am not thinking about my next sermon or class. I drink it and take notes. And then I end up praying about how I can be more like Christ, which is the point. I want to become like Christ if he was living my life.

I am not good at this. Clergy are not called because they are holy, but because they are willing to be trying out loud. So, I am letting you know that I am still reading the classics and learning to be like my master.

Here are a few of the most reliable classics to start with:

  • Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle
  • Thomas a Kempis The Imitation of Christ
  • Jeremy Taylor The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living

"If you are thirsty, stop and drink. If you are hungry, eat. If you are tired, rest.” My teacher gave me this advice decades ago. I think many of us walk around the life of faith thirsty but unsure what to drink, hungry and tempted by McDonald’s.

None of these works is difficult to read, but they are also not action films. You cannot just turn them on and be amused. You have to engage yourself. But you will find, as I do, that a few paragraphs become a few pages, and soon you are being transformed by words that are hundreds of years old into something eternal and bright.

In Christ,