Introductory Note:

In this powerful essay Dallas Willard calls us to return to our first love, to relinquish ego and outcomes, and to position ourselves to meet the active grace of God. He describes a common pattern in ministry that occurs when “we find ourselves caught up in a visionless pursuit of various goals.” The final section of the essay is especially helpful. Dallas explains what we “can do—and must do—to receive and sustain the inner spiritual fire that keeps mission and ministry in its proper place.”

Renovaré Team

In conversation over lunch one day, Gordon Cosby of the Servant Leadership School at Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. asked Dallas, Why do churches and ministries so often lose the essence of their founding vision, to the point that the resulting institution, years later, is quite unlike the original dream? What happens along the way?” This essay is Dallas’ response to that question.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. —Jesus (John 12:26)

When you go to Assisi, you will find many people who talk a great deal about St. Francis, many monuments to him, and many businesses thriving by selling memorabilia of him. But you will not find anyone who carries in himself the fire that Francis carried. No doubt many fine folks are there, but they do not have the character of Francis, nor do they do the deeds of Francis, nor have his effects.

What is true in this case is not peculiar to it. Rather, this is simply one of the more obvious illustrations of a general tendency of human life — and of the spiritual life as well. It happens in the professional world, the world of business, of government, education, and the arts: A person of some great inspiration and ability emerges, and rises far above his or her origins and surroundings. Perhaps it is a King David of Israel, a Socrates, a St. Anthony or St. Francis, a Martin Luther or a George Fox or a John Wesley. In each of these people there is a… well, a certain something.

They really are different, and that difference explains why these individuals have such great effect, and why movements and institutions grow up around them. It is as if they stand in another world, and from there they have extraordinary effects in this world — as God acts with them. Organization of their activities takes place, and other organizations spin off from them as numbers of talented individuals are drawn to them and make their lives in their wake. But these other individuals — usually, but not always, very well-intending — do not carry the fire,” the certain something,” within them. The mission or missions that have been set afoot begin a subtle divergence from the vision that gripped the founder, and before too long the institution and its mission has become the vision.

This happens in secular” settings as well. Arthur Andersen was a man of rock-solid integrity, with a crystal-clear vision of Accounting as a profession. He built a magnificent accounting firm on strong moral principles. But eventually the people who ran the firm became obsessed with money-making and success, and then with helping clients make money and be successful. Just that, instead of holding those clients responsible (“account-able”) to the public goods they all professed to serve. These people — who acted in the good name of Arthur Andersen, but without his vision — brought disaster upon themselves and upon thousands of unsuspecting people who depended upon them. Had the moral fire burned in them that burned in Arthur Andersen, that would not have happened. But a false fire of greed and ambition burned in its place. The cuckold of success” laid its eggs in the nest of service-to-the-public-good, and a monster was hatched that destroyed the nest and all in it.

St. Francis and Arthur Andersen are among the more glamorous and notorious illustrations of a hard reality. In most cases, when the original fire dies out, the associated institutions and individuals carry on for a while, increasingly concerned about success and survival, and then they either find another basis to stand upon, or they simply disappear. (Consider the case of Charles Finney and Oberlin college, which he founded, or any number of other originally Christian colleges and universities.)

While the process seen here is not restricted to religious movements, it is especially obvious and painful to behold in their case. There is a real point to saying that in religious matters nothing foils like success. These types of movements touch the human heart very deeply and serve profound human needs. Because of this, they soon attract many who do not even want the fire of the founder — they do not really understand it. But they do need and like the light and the warmth it provides. Eventually, however, and without consciously intending to do so, they extinguish the very fire that provides the light and warmth, or it simply dies out from lack of being tended. Then an operation may continue under the name, trading in memorabilia. But it isn’t the same operation on the inside, and truthfully its effects are not the same.

Thus apostasy (“standing away from”) is in fact a natural and fairly normal process in life. It is what should be expected, not something to be surprised about. It would be remarkable and abnormal if it did not happen. It is never, primarily, a failure of belief or correct doctrine, or a conscious decision. It is a subtle shifting of vision, of feeling and will — of how people see things and feel about things, especially about themselves and what they are doing. The shifts in belief and the conscious decisions are only the epicenter of the soulquake.” They lie at the surface of life. The center lies miles deep in the soul of the individuals involved.

The soulquake may be something that happens within the lifetime of individuals, as in the cases of biblical kings such as Saul, Amaziah and Uzziah — or many individuals that have come to public attention in recent years. Or it may occur across a few generations — rarely more than a few — as with the degeneration of the kingship in Israel from David, through Solomon, to Rehoboam.

Love of Christ and Service to Christ

A well-known contemporary teacher of ministers has remarked that few ministers finish well. This statement is even more true of ministries” than it is of ministers — who, I suspect, do better on the whole than appears to be the case. Unfortunately, on the other hand, nearly every denomination one could name vividly illustrates the process under discussion here, as do many educational and charitable organizations.

But what is the fine texture of the underlying change that reveals itself in the loss of the inward fire of vision to the outward accretions of mission or ministry? The central point lies in a fact noted by Henri Nouwen: Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ. What a strange thing to say! Perhaps it is an overstatement. But it is true that well meaning service to God has a very strong tendency to undermine the kind of vision of God that fuels greatness for God in the human scene. With the possible exception of David, who indeed ended well,” we see this constantly in the kings of Judah and Israel.

Uzziah’s case is especially instructive: But when he became strong, his heart was so lifted up that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.” (I Chron. 26:16 NAS) Uzziah became strong through his devotion to the Lord. For much of his life he focused upon knowing God in a close relationship. He did right in the sight of the Lord… And he continued to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding through the vision of God; and as long as he sought the Lord, God prospered him.” (26:4 – 5)

But the works that were accomplished through Uzziah’s association with God in action distracted him from his original vision and refocused him on himself and what he was doing. His heart was lifted up.” This language of the Bible became a standard way of diagnosing the failure of the kings of Judah and Israel. It always had the result that they took more upon themselves than was warranted. In Uzziah’s case it was his decision to perform temple rituals which were not permitted to him. But in most cases these kings formed human alliances or tried to establish practices that overestimated what could be accomplished by human strength. They glorified themselves and did not rely upon God.

Because they became wrongly focused, they could not live in the lesson of the prophet Jahaziel: Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s… You need not fight in this battle; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf… Do not fear or be dismayed… for the Lord is with you.” (II Chron. 20:15 – 17)

What, then, is the general pattern? Intense devotion to God by the individual or group brings substantial outward success. Outward success brings a sense of accomplishment and a sense of responsibility for what has been achieved —and for further achievement. For onlookers the outward success is the whole thing. The sense of accomplishment and responsibility reorient vision away from God to what we are doing and are to do — usually to the applause and support of sympathetic people. The mission increasingly becomes the vision. It becomes what we are focused upon. The mission and ministry is what we spend our thoughts, feelings and strength upon. Goals occupy the place of the vision of God in the inward life, and we find ourselves caught up in a visionless pursuit of various goals. 

Grinding it Out

This is the point at which service to Christ replaces love for Christ. The inward reality of love for God, and absorption in what he is doing, is no longer the center of the life, and may even become despised, or at is least disregarded. No time for that” becomes the governing attitude, no matter what we may say. The fire of God in the human soul will always look foolish to those who like its effects but do not understand where those effects come from.

At this point a pervasive consciousness of one’s rights and perks” may set in. Amaziah, who had been a fairly good king in Judah, defeated the Edomites —and brought their gods to Jerusalem and worshipped them! When rebuked by a prophet he said: Have we appointed you a royal counselor? Stop! Why should you be struck down?” (II Chron. 25:16)

Very often it is not the founders, but those who gather about them, who insist on the perks and rights. Often they see that as a way of serving the one they admire, and perhaps they are convinced that the founder is not an ordinary human being. David, when thirsty on the field of battle, made an off-hand remark about wanting a drink from the deep well by the gate in Bethlehem. Three of his mighty men” overheard his remark and broke through enemy lines to bring him the water. But he would not drink it He poured it out to the Lord,” because their devotion had made it too precious for him to drink. (II Sam. 23:16) This is a most illuminating insight into the good and humble heart of David, seen on many other occasions in his life. It shows how he saw himself in God’s world.

St. Francis also provides many illustrations of this type of enduring humility. But in his case it proved too much for his order” to follow, and within a few years he was in a struggle with his followers because the regulations he proposed for them (the rule”) was too lowly for them. He lost. He even became an object of derision among some of his earliest associates because of the fire that burned within him.

As we have just noted, such a departure from the founder” may be accompanied by assumptions to the effect that he or she was in some sense not normal,” not flesh and blood” — whereas in fact it is their very normalcy,” and their acute awareness of it, that led them to adopt the measures they did to keep themselves centered on God — to keep the vision right and bright. They, and not their followers”, understood the inward battle that has to be fought. Their followers often rely upon the assumption that the leader is unusual” or abnormally gifted” to relieve themselves of the burden of genuinely being like him or her. This is usually firmed up by a total lack of understanding of how the leaders came to have the vision of God they do — and sometime the leaders are not clear about this either.

So we can summarize the process by which the mission and its goals replaces the original vision as the ultimate point of reference for the people involved. Vision of God and of oneself in God inspires a combination of humility and great aspiration for God. This combination leads to remarkable efforts in dependence upon God. Great effects are achieved because God acts with efforts made in dependence upon him and for his sake. The effects take on a life of their own. Surrounding people see nothing but the effects, which indeed are very remarkable and worthy of support. Sometimes the human support may also be of God. But the effects of all this have to be carefully watched, to prevent them from corrupting the heart away from an appropriate vision of God and the humble valor flowing therefrom.

King Solomon began well. He knew about God, at least, from his association with his father David, and he understood he could not carry out his work by himself. He prayed for wisdom and knowledge. God gave it to him. He became very great. (II Chron. 9

But to strengthen his position he formed alliances through marriage with royalty of many nations, and his seven hundred wives turned his heart away from Jehovah to worship their gods. (I Kings 11:1 – 6) By the time he died, he had evolved a government that was bitterly oppressive, with the people ready to rebel, and he had a son to rule after him who was a fool. It is not unreasonable to think that what really happened to Solomon was a building program.

The Vision of God

But does this have to happen? Is it simply unavoidable? The answer is, in general, No.” Some individuals manage to avoid it, though many do not. And some groups or organization have long postponed it. The early Christians hold the record for sustaining the inward fire of vision in the founders.” For two or three centuries, it seems, the vision of Jesus Christ as Lord burned brightly in their hearts. The tremendous successes of the movement only very slowly generated an outward vessel” that replaced the treasure of Christ as the center of attention and devotion in their lives.

The earliest generations of Christians were remarkably successful in passing the sacred vision that positioned and guarded them in life on to the next generation. It was not an entirely new phenomenon. In the Old Testament, Joshua (Ex. 33:11) and Elisha (II Kings 2:9) were two cases where the disciple sought the Lord as did their masters (Moses and Elijah), and as a result carried on through their lives in the same spirit.

In later Christian history we find clear examples of the trans-generational sharing of the original fire in the Jesuits, the Quakers, the Moravian Brethren and the Methodists. No doubt there are many other cases not so well known. So it can be done. And there are many cases of individuals in each generation who have finished well.” What is essentially involved?

The answer is simple in concept, but obviously it is not easy in execution — and especially for the trans-generational case. It is a matter of identifying and sustaining the sense or vision of God, self and world that pervaded and animated the originators. One cannot write a recipe for this, for it is a highly personal matter, permitting of much individual variation and freedom. It also is dependent upon grace — that is, upon God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own.

All of this acknowledged, there are things any person can do — and must do — to receive and sustain the inner spiritual fire that keeps mission and ministry in its proper place, preventing them from becoming the limiting vision that obsesses us and eventually strangles us.

The first thing is to heartily acknowledge the practical inevitability of the loss of vision. The acknowledgement must be something that is explicit and regular. One need not become paranoid about it, just honest. One must find ways of keeping it before oneself and one’s associates without becoming a bore. Creativity and good taste are to be used.

Secondly, we must identify, understand and adhere to the founding vision. This is not easy. Even the founders” themselves may not be clear about exactly what moved them and how they came to be the persons they are. Often a commendable modesty and humility prevents them from inquiring very deeply into their own lives, and certainly from imposing what they find there upon others. But, while this attitude is commendable, it has the built in handicap of making it very difficult to sustain the vision, in oneself and in others. So one must be honest, thorough, and explicit about what the vision was — and what it must now be. The focus must be on the vision, not upon the individuals who have it, even though it must be the individuals who bear the vision and carry out the mission.

Thirdly, steps must be taken to live in the central content of the vision. The wisdom of Proverbs tells us: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don’t place your faith in your own understanding. Acknowledge God in all you do, and he will smooth your pathway. Don’t think you have got it figured out” (3:5 – 7) And again: Watch over your heart with all diligence, for what is in your heart will determine what your life amounts to.” (4:23)

At the center of care for the heart is the love of God. This must be the joyful aim of our life. That is why Jesus, underlining the deep understanding of life worked out through the Jewish experience, stated that the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) This is a command. It is something we are to do, and something we can do. We will learn how to do it if we intend to do it. God will help us, and we will find a way.

The love of God, and only the love of God, secures the vision of God: keeps God constantly before our mind. Thomas Watson tells us that The first fruit of love is the musing of the mind upon God. He who is in love, his thoughts are ever upon the object. He who loves God is ravished and transported with the contemplation of God… God is the treasure, and where the treasure is, there is the heart.” King David gives us the secret of his life: I have set the Lord continually before me; because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” (Ps. 16:8)

Vision of God secures humility. Seeing God for who he is enables us to see ourselves for who we are. This makes us bold, for we see clearly what great good and evil are at issue, and we see that it is not up to us to accomplish it, but up to God — who is more than able. We are delivered from pretending, being presumptuous about ourselves, and from pushing as if the outcome depended on us. We persist without frustration, and we practice calm and joyful non-compliance with evil of any kind.

God looks to those who are humble and contrite of spirit, and who tremble when he speaks. (Isa. 66:2) He resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (I Peter 5:5) Remember, grace” means that he is acting in their lives.

So the humble are dependent upon God, not on themselves. They humble themselves under the mighty hand of God.” (I Peter 5:6) That is, by depending upon God to act. They abandon outcomes entirely to him. They cast all their anxieties upon him, because he cares for them.” (vs. 7) The result is assurance that the mission and the ministry will be accomplished, in God’s time and in God’s way. They don’t need to be the vision, and the goals we set for them are God’s business, not ours.

We do the very best we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially. But we do not carry the load, and our ego is not involved in any way with the mission and the ministry. In our love of Jesus and his Father, we truly have abandoned our life to him. Our life is not an object of deep concern.

In order to sustain and develop such a life of loving abandonment to God, an overall plan of life is required, incorporating special practices that care for the inner person. These are the familiar disciplines for spiritual life. We cannot discuss these here, but the next step forward for the person who has decided that they will love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, is to put in places those regular practices that will make it possible. This will take some time, and it will require study, experimentation and guidance by the Holy Spirit. But it can be done; and when it is done, life becomes incalculably easier, sweeter and stronger. Mission and ministry are no longer burdensome, though they may be quite challenging and strenuous. His yoke is, nonetheless, easy, and his burden is light, and there is rest in the soul. (Matt. 11:29:30)

For those who have known this in the past, the call is to return to the first love and do the first works, and then learn how to develop that first” position into the life we are now living. For those who have never known it, the call is to focus on the love of God to us until our heart, soul, mind and strength overflow with love in return. We love him because he first loved us.” (I John 4:19)

And for those who, standing in the love of God, are concerned about the next generation around them, and about their entry into the full vision of the God of love, the call is to make these matters a subject of serious and prolonged discussion and prayer with those who will lead into the future. Talk openly, regularly, honestly and lovingly.

Eventually judgments must be made as to who will be entrusted with the future of the organization. These must be made lovingly but firmly, and under the mighty hand of God.” They cannot be avoided. What we can do is prepare for them by intelligent, biblical and constant teaching and practice, by word and by example. And in this matter too, we have to rely upon the action of God in our midst (grace) — God, whom we love, and whose love we constantly commend to others.

Everything comes down to actually loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to making foremost in our plans those activities that will meet the active grace of God to let that love be our life.

Living in the Vision of God has been reposted with permission from Also published in The Great Omission by Dallas Willard, Harper One. 

Photo by Victoria on Unsplash

· Last Featured on November 2021