Excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy

Who Is Our Teacher?

Who teaches you? Whose disciple are you? Honestly.

One thing is sure: You are somebody’s disciple. You learned how to live from somebody else. There are no exceptions to this rule, for human beings are just the kind of creatures that have to learn and keep learning from others how to live. Aristotle remarked that we owe more to our teachers than to our parents, for though our parents gave us life, our teachers taught us the good life.

It is hard to come to realistic terms with all this. Today, especially in Western cultures, we prefer to think that we are our own person.” We make up our own minds. But that is only because we have been mastered by those who have taught us that we do or should do so. Such individualism is a part of the legacy that makes us modern.” But we certainly did not come by that individualistic posture through our own individual and independent insight into ultimate truth.

Probably you are the disciple of several somebodies,” and it is very likely that they shaped you in ways that are far from what is best for you, or even coherent. You are quite certainly, as I am, the student of a few crucial people, living and dead, who have been there in crucial times and periods to form your standard responses in thought, feeling, and action. Thankfully, the process is an ongoing one, and is to some extent self-correcting.

Originally we are the disciples of our parents or other family members most intimately related to us. Usually this is very good. They may be dear, strong people who know God and walk in his ways. It has mainly been so for me and for many others.

But not always. Our original family connections may be anything from mildly debilitating to disastrous. We know much more about this today than we did just a few decades ago. We have a pretty good idea, for example, of how children raised with alcoholic parents turn out. They learn from their relationship to their alcoholic parent how to be in this world — fairly tragically in many cases.

Then we are the disciples of our teachers, then of our playmates and peers — one of the most potent of discipling” relationships — then perhaps again of our teachers. But now, in our teens and twenties, our teachers play quite a different role. They do much to set in stone the major thrusts of our more or less consciously chosen self-image that will make or break us in the important connections of our life. 

These last teachers often include some very glamorous and powerful people. They may indeed be teachers — instructors of some type, as in the armed services, or even academic professors. But they may also include public figures of various kinds: artists, musicians, writers, professionals. Nearly always they convey to us a strong impression of what life as a whole is all about. This provides the absolutely necessary orientations of conscious behavior toward ourselves, others — and God. We must have such orientations, even if they be wrong.

It is one of the major transitions of life to recognize who has taught us, mastered us, and then to evaluate the results in us of their teaching. This is a harrowing task, and sometimes we just can’t face it. But it can also open the door to choose other masters, possibly better masters, and one Master above all.

The Earthly Society of Jesus”

The assumption of Jesus’ program for his people on earth was that they would live their lives as his students and co-laborers. They would find him so admirable in every respect — wise, beautiful, powerful, and good — that they would constantly seek to be in his presence and be guided, instructed, and helped by him in every aspect of their lives. For he is indeed the living head of the community of prayerful love across all time and space.

On that assumption, his promise to his people was that he would be with them every moment, until this particular age” is over and the universe enters a new phase (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5 – 6). More generally, the provisions he made for his people during this period in which we now live are provisions made for those who are, precisely, apprentices to him in kingdom living. Anyone who is not a continual student of Jesus, and who nevertheless reads the great promises of the Bible as if they were for him or her, is like someone trying to cash a check on another person’s account. At best, it succeeds only sporadically.

The effect of such continuous study under Jesus would naturally be that we learn how to do everything we do in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17); that is, on his behalf or in his place; that is, once again, as if he himself were doing it. And of course that means we would learn to conform to everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). In his presence our inner life will be transformed, and we will become the kind of people for whom his course of action is the natural (and supernatural) course of action.

Adapted from The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard (Harpercollins, 1998).

Text First Published March 1998 · Last Featured on Renovare.org September 2023