Mental Health and Personal Holiness

A speech by Dallas Willard delivered ~2003 at a Christian Counselors Convention.


Now I have a lot to say to you and I hope it won’t be burdensome. So I want to come right to it and just sum it down in a number of points. I had told Heidi and others that I would be speaking on mental health and personal holiness.

Mental health and personal holiness and helping people to live the life under that theme. I can’t really think of anything that would seem to me to be more important for us to address. I don’t know. You all are mental health specialists and I’m sure that you have some ways of putting what mental health is. I read some in the literature of psychology and I have a statement on mental health here from a psychiatric handbook of the APA back in 1975 and here’s what it says it is. Here’s what mental health is.

A state of being relative rather than absolute. In which a person has affected a reasonably satisfactory integration of his instinctual drives. His integration is acceptable to himself and his social milieu as reflected in his interpersonal relationships. His level of satisfaction in living. His actual achievement. His flexibility and the level of maturity that he has attained.

Do you get that? Sound like something a philosopher would have written. Let me give you another statement of our mental health is and this is from Romans 12. We have to take Paul seriously. We have to take Jesus seriously. As people who really do understand important stuff. And when we read the words of Scripture, so many times our normal context has buffered them. And doesn’t allow them to come over like “this is real stuff now we’re talking about.” You know. Because so often, especially in our religious meetings and context, we read the scripture kind to find ways of reaffirming what we already think we know.

And the Bible is a wild book. When you think you’ve got it nailed. You haven’t. And what we have to do is come before and let it nail us. And so let me just read here a few words from Paul. A beautiful expression of mental health. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Give preference to one another in honor.

And you know we could spend all the time we have here just letting this soak in. But I’m hoping that as you read over the… I mean just think of that. Give preference to one another in honor. Not lagging behind in diligence. Fervent in spirit. Serving the Lord. Rejoicing in hope. Persevering in tribulation. Devoted to prayer. Contributing to the needs of the saints. Practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind towards one another. Don’t be haughty in your mind but associate with the lowly. Don’t be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil. And Paul continues and ends by saying, do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.

Now see, you don’t want to jump on that and start getting legalistic. And say now we’re going to have love without hypocrisy and start checking people out to see if they’re having love without hypocrisy. See, the Bible isn’t written like that. It’s written in a way that it describes a life that comes out of a source. And that’s why for example when you read Matthew 5 through 7, Luke 6, Sermon on the Mount, Sermon on the Plain. They don’t say exactly the same thing or when you read Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3. They don’t say exactly the same thing. They overlap a little. Well now, why is that?

Because it’s not law. If you get Colossians 3 you’ll have a Ephesians 4. If you get Luke 6 you’ll have Matthew 5 through 7. Because it’s talking about a source of life. And that’s what we have to understand you see when we come to deal with this issue of living the life. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that they’re a lot of folks today, among Christians and out who just believe you can’t do it. “That’s impossible.” And some people have even built into their theology. What I call a miserable sinner theology. And that is “no matter how far you go you’re still the same old rotten stinker.” And you just learn to dress it up a little bit differently but Mother Teresa and Hitler are really the same on the inside and they can’t change.

A lot of folks have believed that because of their experience with Christians. And their experience with themselves. See one of the great things about the church and the Bible is when you look back down through the ages, and when you get to looking around now you’re going to find some people who actually live the life. They actually live it.

Now there’s a problem with it and and now we’ve almost refined to a point of art, complaining about it. I mean here’s some words from John Stott in Christianity Today, before the last one. And he’s being asked about the Lausanne Conference on Evangelism. He is asked, well why, what has happened since that, that was some years ago. And Stott says “Why then was more not accomplished?” Because the world hasn’t exactly changed since that Lausanne Conference. Now here are his words. He says, “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to world evangelization remains our failure to be what we profess.” And he says, “My main concern for the church everywhere is that we often do not look like what we are talking about.”

Now. See. First thing I’m here today to tell you is this. We can live the life that is set before us in Christ in the scriptures. We can do that. We can do that. We need to affirm that and we need to live it out in our ordinary life and when we’re dealing with, in my case when I’m dealing with students and others or colleagues or ordinary people as I go about in efforts to minister and so on. See what I what I constantly have to affirm is, the life you were built for. The life that you see in Jesus Christ. The life that you see in the great saints down through the ages and up to the present is available to every person.

Now let me just say there isn’t a thing in the scriptures… you think of what you regard as the greatest promise or the most difficult command in the scripture. And now you have that in mind.

I know you’re awake because I saw you doing that a while ago. I got to remember that. I think I might do that for my classes.

You take the greatest… what you regard as the most difficult scripture difficult command. I want to tell you. That what that command expresses is available to every person. Just that simple. You can do it. That’s the English of it. You can do that. Whatever it is. You can do that.

Now if I don’t believe that, I don’t have a gospel. So if I if I can’t tell you… I can’t come to you and say, “you know, the life of God is available to you in Jesus Christ if you receive that and walk in it. All of this will come true for you. See we have to combat that idea that somehow the commandments of God are designed to make us miserable. And when we look at the Sermon on the Mount or whatever Jesus said or Paul says. You know, put off the old man, put on the new. Lay aside anger, all those things we have to think. My, my, my, would just be… what would my life be without that? And turn away and say well that’s all hard. It’s the way of the transgressor that is hard. It’s not the way of the person who walks in righteous deeds.

But now having said that the first thing, that it’s available, I have to say the second thing. It’s not available to you if you’re thinking in terms of church as usual. In other words, if you want this, you’re going to have to go beyond the standard recommended practices of the church. It isn’t enough. It just isn’t enough. What is recommended is good, as far as it goes, but if that’s all there is to it, it will usually turn bad.

And thank God for Philip Yancey. I always like to kind of cross paths with and check to see he’s still alive. And when I listen to Philip, I get nervous. And then I think wait, that’s what a prophet is supposed to do. You’re supposed to be nervous. And then I go away, thanking God. See. Because what he’s talking about is taking religious practices and turning them into grinding legalisms. And they kill people. And it really doesn’t… I mean if there is a difference in terms of which religion you have, some is worse than others.

But there isn’t a religion in existence which taken by itself will not kill you. There isn’t a single one. And here’s why. You see you have to understand what religion. Is a social form that develops historically. But it is a social form and it primarily has to do with conformity. With acceptance and rejection. And religion is designed to help us deal with some of the most important issues in our lives. And thank God for it. But if all you have is religion, it will shut you down internally and focus you on your external actions. That makes for acceptance or rejection and you will not be able to have faith in God because you will have put your faith in religion. And it will kill you.

And that’s why Jesus says in John chapter 5. He says “How can you believe, that receive honor one from the other?” See that’s what religion is about. You don’t seek the honor that comes from God only. It’s so important to understand that. I hope you won’t be hurt by it. I hope you will… I was listening to man talk the other day and he had a wonderful phrase. He says “I don’t have time to tell you all the things I don’t mean by that.” So. And I don’t. So I’m just gonna have to say it and pray that the Lord will give you guidance on how to understand it. I don’t want it to pose as an attack on the church or an attack on religion. We’re talking about understanding here.

See there are over 38,000 different Christian denominations in the world today. 38,000. That’s according to Newsweek magazine sometime back. 38,000. Now, you know you could easily think that that was God’s way of reducing something to the absurd. You know. And it’s time for us to get the point and recognize that what we have to turn to is the inner reality that has probably given rise, in one way or another, to many of those denominations. So let me say the third thing to you.

The first thing is that life. Living The Life is available to every person no matter where they are. That’s what “whosoever will may come” means. Second thing is, you can’t find your way into that if you just rely on what will be given out in the ordinary course of events around the church or religious denomination. And while I certainly am not sympathetic with much that Freud said. I mean, his perception that religion was a primary source of mental illness is often true. And we just need to accept that and repent for it if we have furthered that. And find a way of getting away from it as quickly as possible.

The third thing I want to say to you is that Christian spirituality can bring this kind of life. And it does. And the thing that often steadies us when we are most troubled is looking back down through the ages and into the scripture itself and seeing the people who have been set free into the kingdom of God as disciples of Jesus Christ. I mean exhibit number one is always Paul, the Apostle Paul. It is hard for us today to see the astonishing thing that God did in that man’s life. And really, in that generation I’m inclined to think that Paul is the only one who really got it. And that’s why he was pulled out and given the work that he had to do.

But today it’s so hard for us to realize the revolutionary character the things that he said. And we’re apt to go back from our advanced moral position and pick on him for what he said about women or slaves or something of that sort. And those are serious issues for us today but you have to understand where he was coming from.

And for example that marvelous expression of love that he has in first Corinthians 13. See. Love suffers long and is kind. Love does not envy, is not puffed up. Doesn’t exalt itself. Doesn’t behave like a jerk. You know we can say does not behave itself unseemly. But what does that mean today? And what it means it doesn’t behave itself like a jerk. Paul’s description of love there. See. That’s what I’m saying is available to you and me. And we can look at that and say I don’t know if I want that. Because my life would be so radically changed if I took that on. I’m not sure. And if we don’t have a lot of help being able to step into that. If we don’t have some good examples. We don’t see it around us in our churches and in our families. We’re not going to be able to think that’s even possible.

We’ll see when we look back see Jesus and we see Paul. And then we come on down to see these wonderful people like St. Francis of Assisi. I just mentioned him because he’s so well known but there have been thousands and thousands who have tapped the source of Christian spirituality in the living water that Jesus gives and have made it real in this world. See. And you can’t really find anyone that was in tougher circumstances than Paul or St Francis. I mean it was a hard life. But yet in the midst of that, they found the living water. And they drank from it and they gave it to others. And that, as I understand it, is what the theme of your convention is about. Living the life, and bringing others into that life. And see, when we go out to speak or to teach… I remember once, years ago, a student came. And he was a music student at USC and he had taken a general education course. And he came in, sat down. And here was his comment he said. “I think you’re happy.” I think you’re happy. How do you get to be happy?

Well philosophers talk about that all the time but most of them with a very long face. And I know I don’t try to put on a happy face. I don’t try to do anything. I just… But I do try to find the source and drink from it regularly and keep it with me all the time. See. You know, a few years ago we didn’t have water bottles. Well if you remember that far back. But it’s actually a good symbol you know because it isn’t just that we have the water in the well we’ve we’ve got it with us.We carry it with us. And so then, whatever I’m doing, whatever I may be, I’m drinking from the living water.

Now see, that’s what Jesus said, as opposed to religion, this is the religion of the spiritual life. And again in saying those words I wish I had time to tell you what I don’t mean by that. What I’m referring to is Christian spirituality. And now Jesus said you remember when talking with the woman at the well, it isn’t a matter of going to this place or that. God is looking for people. He’s looking for people who will worship him in spirit and in truth. In spirit and in truth. Not just in body. The body has to come along. The body is important.

But the real thing that determines is the set of our will. Who we really are inside. That’s the big thing. That’s the only thing that can take us off of pleasing people. And pleasing people is such a bondage you see. And it isn’t just religion. I mean this is endemic to human life in general. You get close to someone. You want to sort of agree with them. Be with them, conform to what they’re thinking. And if you don’t conform then that’s a problem. But you see we’re essentially out of sync with a world that is falling away from God.

I say essentially not accidentally. That’s where we stand. As the book of Hebrews says “Let us go forth unto him without the camp.” You see. It’s outside the camp. That’s where we are. With him. Because we’re living from a different kingdom. That kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. See. Spirit means unbodily personal power. Unbodily personal power. And the reality of that is seen most in God. God is spirit. God defines spirit. See. Now there is an awesome element of that there is a human spirit and it is our will. And it is that part of us that connects to God. We’re either surrendered to Him, expectant from Him, dependent on Him or we are surrendered to something else. You know that wonderful old hymn I Surrender All. We used to sing 85 verses of that at the end of our services, trying to get someone else to surrender all. Well I love that hymn. And I you know, I’m sometimes… The only way I can get to hear hymns anymore is sing them myself. It’s a good way to spend your time commuting, singing I Surrender All.

That’s the bottom line question about me. What is my will surrender to. What is my will surrender to. See that’s the spirit in me. And when Jesus says that God is looking for people to worship him in spirit and in truth, He’s recognizing that at the level of the spirit you can’t lie. You know you can’t lie without your body? And actually that’s one of the purposes God gave to it, so we can hide in it. From others. If we want to, we have that choice. Let’s see, we also can open ourselves and we can step into this realm where we trust God and deception and duplicity and division drop away. And we no longer are living in denial of things. We don’t have to because we’re not trusting ourselves. See. That’s the point about a lie is it’s one’s effort to manage the world. That’s what a lie is. If I’m not managing the world I don’t need it. But I have to learn to live that way. And many of your clients are focused on lies and living lies. You see. And that’s where personal holiness becomes a mental health matter.

Personal holiness is not a matter of obeying a bunch of legalisms. Personal holiness is a matter of who we are in the spirit. The holy person is not the one who keeps the law. The holy person is the one who is by nature the kind of person who would do that. See, religion misleads us into thinking that we want to behave in a certain way. No no. And that’s the source of its oppression and the destructiveness of it. We don’t want to behave in a certain way. We want to be the kind of person who would behave in a certain way.

That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said you have to go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees or you can’t make contact with the kingdom of the heavens. Not talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about making contact now with that living stream of water. “There is a river” the psalm says “the streams where of make glad the city of God.” See. What a wonderful phrase. Now you and I are invited to live in that river of life.

That’s Christian spirituality. That’s why Jesus said “Those who come to me will never thirst again.” Now, see, when we when we read those kinds of things we have to understand that that means something definite. That those aren’t just pretty words. See our temptation is to go off and make a song about it. It means something. I mean, really what Jesus is talking about there is having something in your life that is so rich and so deep by way of your relationship to God that you are not driven by obsessive desires of any kind. Desire does not dominate your life. And that is so essential. Go back to that statement from the APA handbook about integrating your instincts. Well you know, in one way you live in a culture where instinct is glorified. Where desire is taken as the standard of life. You know that commercial “Obey your thirst.” “Obey your Thirst.” You know that one? You remember who is advertising that? Kobe Bryant. Think about it. Obey your thirst. See that’s that’s a destructive piece of advice.

We should say, let your thirst obey you. And you be directed by the good. But we live in a culture in which people can’t distinguish what is good from what they desire. And our academic world is is pretty uniform back of the idea that you can only define good in terms of desire. And then you don’t know what a good desire is. So we have to distinguish those things. And the righteousness of Christ comes and brings this flood of living water. Whoever drinks of this water will never thirst again. But it shall be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life. And that’s what… When we look back down through time and we see these wonderful cases. We mustn’t say there are exceptions. Though in some sense they are, they’re not exceptions. There’s not a one of you here today, that could not have the life that you see in St Francis of Assisi. Not a one. You can all do that. We can all do that.

Now. I need to say something else that I can say everything I don’t mean. But see we have a hermeneutical problem. That’s a problem of interpretation of the scriptures and it focuses on this issue of what salvation is. So I want to talk to you just a moment about that because the barrier to this lies in what is commonly thought of salvation. We have a mistaken view about it. And that’s why good people such as John Stott or others can talk at great length about the problem. But not really say anything about how to solve it. Is because they are up against a version of salvation that cuts them off from the living water.

This is serious. See that’s why, you know, remember what Mark Twain said about the weather? Everyone talks about it no one does anything about it. So now I have constant talk about how shallow we are as Christians. And how “why aren’t we like what we talk? And so, what you gonna do about it?

Okay very simply. The the version of salvation we’re up against is the idea that salvation is simply a matter of having an arrangement nailed down for after death. So I give it to you just as plainly as possible. And you will hear our leading spokesmen say these kinds of things. I’m sorry to say it. I have to say it. They will tell you that salvation is a matter of forgiveness of sins. They will tell you that grace deals only with guilt. They will tell you that the Gospel is that Jesus receiving the suffering you should suffer for your sins. And because of that, you need not suffer for your sins. If you believe that he suffered for your sins then your sins will be forgiven and when you die they will be able to find any reason to keep you out of heaven.

It’s getting very quiet in here. Now if you have that view of salvation. You think that’s the essence of the gospel. You’re going to have no pathway into the life that we’ve been talking about. See that’s not a part of that Gospel. And that is why in the New Testament, what is presented is not just forgiveness, but a new life. A life from above. Theologically it’s called regeneration. But see that has disappeared from our vocabulary. We just want to talk about justification.

So you’re just as if you’d never sinned. Okay, what now? Well, here you are. And there’s nothing essentially involved in that about living the life. Okay now I will say this is plain as possible so if you’re gonna shoot me, you can shoot me as plainly as possible. If that’s all there is to it, then the kinds of things that we talk about and bemoan not having, simply have no place in the Gospel that has been presented to us. So now we have to go back to the New Testament and read it carefully. Go back for example in John chapter 3. John chapter 3 doesn’t say a word about forgiveness of sins. It talks about a birth from above. Receiving life from above. John 3:16 is not about forgiveness of sins. No matter the guy with rainbow hair in the end zone who is holding up that sign.

John 3:16 is about life now. See it’s about life now. God so loved the world that he gave His Son to that world that those who put their confidence in him would not lead a miserable failing existence. But have eternal life which is the kind of life God has. The only statement about what eternal life is you find the New Testament, I believe, is John 17:3 “This is eternal life. That they would know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you’ve sent.”

Now “know” in the scriptures never means what we call knowledge today. Knowledge today is more or less knowing the right answers whether you believe them or not. That’s true in the university. It’s true in the church. Knowledge, biblically, is interactive relationship. Always that way. When the prophet says, speaking for God, to Israel “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth.” He doesn’t mean he doesn’t know about the rest of them. He means you are the only people that I have entered into interactive covenant relationship with.

When Mary says “How can I be pregnant? I don’t know man.” She knew about men but she was not in the appropriate interactive relationship to become pregnant. See that’s what we do when we come before the Lord and we say, as Mary did in the Magnificat, “So be it to me according to your word.” I will receive, I will enter that interactive relationship. See that now that’s what salvation is.

Salvation is: interactive relationship with the covenant making God. It’s a real thing. It’s something you know by experience. And when we know that, then we can instead of just sort of being parked on the highway of life with our hood up waiting for the heavenly AAA to take us out. We’re going on down the road of life. And everything we’re doing, we’re doing an interactive relationship with Jesus. And the Spirit and the word all the instrumentalities of the kingdom of God. We have life in the kingdom of God. That salvation. Don’t worry about heaven, it’ll take care of itself. Right. Now if you don’t have that, you ought to worry about it because you’re going to be dead a lot longer than you’re alive. But if you’re walking in fellowship with Jesus Christ and you see him acting with you. You know what it is for him to speak with you. You see things happening that you couldn’t possibly have accomplished. See that’s the mark of the presence of God of the living water flowing through your life. Did you see stuff happening you’re not even tempted to take credit for because you know yourself it couldn’t possibly be you.

In the days of Dwight Moody, the evangelist, he went to England and an academic man, a good man really, not a bad man, but an academic Christian, followed him about to observe him and then finally said to him, “Mister Moody you know I’ve been watching you now and I have decided that truly it is the work of God with you because you couldn’t possibly explain your success on your own.” And Moody was a humble man. Larry complimented me by saying I was humble and I always remember a statement of Winston Churchill’s about one of his colleagues. If they said he’s humble and Churchill said “Yes he has so much to be humble about.” That’s true isn’t it. See. And Moody was like that. He was just an old shoe salesman that got loose for the Lord.

Now see, he was walking in the flow of the living water. I see that’s how we must… we have to understand grace that way. Grace isn’t just for guilt. Grace is for every moment. Do you know that if we had never sinned, we would still need God? And when we’re redeemed and our sins are forgiven we need Him for everything we go through. See, that’s the life of the spirit which Paul said is life and peace. The mind of the spirit, he said, is life and the mind of the flesh is death. That mind that is turned to the spirit and is watching that. Experiencing it day by day. Oh the Bible so full of this. God with him. God with them. God with. God with. Take your concordance and read it. That’s the story of the Bible. God with. So Emmanuel is not just a big deal about Jesus. In Jesus, “Emmanuel” is focused to the ultimate extent. And how that comes to us.

Well I have to quit. I wish you could think a little bit about just this idea of discipline and I’ll close with that because… Discipline sounds so terrible, let’s not even talk about. Let’s talk about this. I mean just imagine, see instead of just thinking how wonderful John Woolman or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa or whoever you like to think about, instead of thinking about how wonderful they were, and they were they are wonderful. Every time I just thank God for Billy Graham. I thank God for who he is. And that’s a large part of his effect, is who he is. And I just thank God for St Fra… I thank God for John Woolman. I thank God for John Wesley. You can just go over the list of these wonderful people.

Now here’s a simple thing. Let’s do what they did. Not in terms of their wonderful actions that are apt to be focused on let’s look at what they did to get in a position to do those wonderful actions. How did they spend their time? What did Jesus do on His day off? See, it’s what we do with our time that determines whether or not we can live from the flood of living water. And so let’s don’t call them disciplines because that gives a bad tone. Like I’m gonna give you a whippin’ right now. ‘Course you can’t… that’s no longer legal but you get the idea. Because it’s thought of as punishment. Discipline isn’t punishment.

Discipline is opening the door to the floods of living water into our lives. It’s just such a thing as taking time to be alone. Just to be alone. To be silent. Extensive periods of time. Practices like memorizing long passages of scripture so that you can just marinade your mind in that wherever you are. See. Like if you memorize Colossians 3 then you’ll have that with you. So when you’re standing in line at the bank. Instead of fretting about people, you can just… “If you then be risen with Christ seek those things that are above where Christ on the right hand of the Father. Set your affections on things above not on things on the earth.” See, now you will experience the substantiality of the word as you do that. And you will be nourished and changed and formed and power will go out of your life if you do that. And that’s how these people had the tremendous effects they did.

Just give you… One thought here from George Mueller to conclude with. Mueller, you know, was a great Christian who supported orphans and preached and gave incredible amounts of money to missions and it all it was all given to him he didn’t make it he just took it. Here’s what he says. “I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord. But how I might get my soul into a happy state and how my inner man may be nourished. I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God and to meditation on it.”

Now you see. You turn that into a legalism it will kill you. The single most common complaint I meet with from serious Christians going about talking is “quiet time.” So we have to take care of the inner flow. And if that isn’t there, we can’t live the life. We live the life from the inner flow. Don’t worry about it affecting your outer world. It will affect it. We have to take care of the inner flow to live the life. And when we live that life we will be able to let it go to those that we are with. Our family and our clients, and all those that we deal with. In such a way that the real spirituality that were called to, as people who live in Christ (And that is not just a form of words. Our life is something coming from Christ. He’s with us. And he’s working with us constantly.) can bring us to the fullness of the blessing of the kingdom of God. Right where we are. Thank you very much.

Transcription based on output from this Watson tool.