Dallas Willard on How to Experience God


Scholar and author Dallas Willard wrote books on the spiritual disciplines (The Spirit of the Disciplines) and on experiencing God (The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God) so posing the question, “How am I supposed to experience God” was a natural for him.  The question came during a session of Catalyst 2010.  

Experiencing God comes by way of reading the Bible, prayer, and meditation to name just a few avenues.  Or some might argue, we experience God by way of spiritual disciplines.

For many, that’s where the pursuit of God ends. They associate disciplines with punishment. Who wants discipline?

But Willard says that’s a narrow view. Those who eschew the spiritual disciplines miss benefits that enable us to do things that are good, strengthening and rewarding.

Some also argue that striving to fulfill spiritual disciplines is the opposite of grace.  Willard disagrees. He claims grace doesn’t make us passive: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it’s opposed to earning. Effort is action, earning is attitude.”  He maintains those who believe they are earning grace through their efforts have the wrong basis for relationship with God.

Instead, Willard describes discipline as practice.  It is the difference between training to do something and trying to do something.  It is not worldly wisdom.  The world tells us, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Willard argues, “That’s not it. Find out what went wrong and then fix it.”  That’s discipline.

In answer to the question, “How am I supposed to experience God?” Willard suggests intelligent effort, exercised through the spiritual disciplines.  And includes this advice, “If you want to grow spiritually start by doing the next right thing that you know you ought to do.”

Willard says that’s what God wants you to do adding, “Nothing will drag you into the kingdom of God like doing the next right thing.”

Experiencing God has been a pursuit of believers for centuries.  One of the most adored books on living in God’s presence comes from a lay brother in a Paris monastery by the name of Brother Lawrence.

After his death in 1691 a few of his letters were collected and published under the title, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God.’

In it, Brother Lawrence simply and beautifully stated that to experience God one must continually commune with God:

“Sometimes I considered myself before Him as a poor criminal at the feet of his judge. At other times I beheld Him in my heart as my Father, as my God. I worshipped Him the oftenest I could, keeping my mind in His holy presence and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I made this my business, not only at the appointed times of prayer but all the time; every hour, every minute, even in the height of my work, I drove from my mind everything that interrupted my thoughts of God.”

As with Willard, Brother Lawrence points out our responsibility to seek God through spiritual disciplines, not in an effort to earn grace, but rather to experience it.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.