Dallas Willard: A Humble Man Committed to Not Try To Make Things Happen


For several years I was a member of a group that included the philosopher and writer Dallas Willard. In one of our daily sessions he commented, "A number of years ago I made a commitment to not try to make anything happen." This statement is mysterious. It could be attributed to his being a philosopher who liked to leave his hearers scratching their heads. Another explanation could be that he was a bit detached, living in an ivory tower, if you will, not in the dirt and grime of real life with the rest of us. Or perhaps this was just an unrealistic statement by a highly gifted person who had many beating a path to his door, a man who seemed passive but, in fact, was not.

It turned out that these words expressed the conviction of a man who was impressed by God to make the commitment. Their context was a speech he was asked to give. As Dallas sat on the platform, he decided that he would not try to make an impression. He wouldn't try to move people with emotional flair; he wouldn't attempt to wow them with eloquence or with deep philosophical ponderings they couldn't understand, a seeming obtuseness they would blame on themselves.[1]

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I asked Dallas what he meant and even challenged his premise. "When you write a lecture, you are making something happen," I countered. "The same when you write a book." He answered, "No, my commitment is to not attempt to create interest in my work. My commitment is to do good work, and then people can choose. God either will bless it or he won't, but what happens to my efforts is not my concern."

Consequently, he wrote books without having a publisher because he wanted the freedom to work on something as long as he needed to, without deadlines. It was the reason he didn't know his book sales, nor did he sell his books at speaking engagements. He didn't even have a speaking fee! What do you do with a man like this? Admire him? To admire Dallas costs us nothing; to follow his example could be traumatic, for it would rip control of our lives out of our hands.

Dallas provided us with a modern-day example of what Jesus did and what Paul taught. Jesus continually warned his disciples and the people he healed not to spread the word about his miracles. It would have made him prematurely famous and would have disrupted God's plan for the world. At the wedding at Cana he even tried to hold off his mother's request that he turn water into wine: "Dear woman, that's not our problem.... My time has not yet come."[2] I think most of us would have jumped at the chance to be the center of attention and advance our careers. There was no guile in Jesus' soul. He competed against the Enemy, the one who darkens the mind and soils the soul. Jesus was not conceited; in fact, he was the very opposite: humble.

Conceit, or thinking of oneself more than one should, is the currency of contemporary culture and power. It pervades every realm of life. From automobile ads to health-care products, we see promoted the belief that compared to others, we are the best or among the best. Many public figures have that Mussolini look, taken from that famous film clip of the Italian dictator in his military uniform. His arms are folded, his jaw juts out, and he has a look on his face that says, "I'm the best, Il Duce—the leader; I am a gift to the Italian people." Mussolini could strut sitting down. I think we all know the type; it doesn't matter if they are an Italian fascist or the secretary/treasurer of a church, people who are full of arrogance are easy to spot.

Dallas had a great deal of power or influence among thoughtful leaders and readers. He made serious headway into the redefinition of what it means to be a follower of Christ and the very nature of the gospel. In some ways, he was the modern Martin Luther. He brought a reformation to the definition of the words faith, grace, belief, commitment, and kingdom. What the next generation believes about the gospel has largely been crafted by this avuncular philosopher, yet it was never his goal to have such power.

This leads us to a discussion of power.


  1. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was famous for saying, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." He also quipped, "The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it's their fault."
  2. John 2:3-4.

This was taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull. Copyright © 2016 by Robert W. Hull. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

Image credit: Christianity Today.