We Become What We Cultivate
The following column, by Mike Cosper, originally appeared in The Roadstead, our weekly newsletter. To have Mike's column delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here.
I’m slowly reading through Gary Moon’s biography of Dallas Willard, Becoming Dallas Willard. If you’re unfamiliar with Willard, he was a well-respected philosopher at USC and an author of quite a few books on the Christian life. Few people have had a more significant impact on the way I think about spiritual growth and life in the Kingdom of God as Willard has.
He was born in 1935 and, in his twenties, he had a revolutionary encounter with the Bible. He read the gospel of John and it lit a fire in his mind, revealing new ways of thinking about what it meant to be a Christian. For all of his life up to that point, his encounters with Christianity were largely in the context of fiery revivalist churches – preachers who shouted and stomped and wept, hoping to move the congregation towards some kind of decision. On that day, when he read the book of John end-to-end, he saw the Christian life in a whole new light. Rather than being primarily about a decision to be made, and rather than it being what he would later call a system of “sin management”, the gospel was an invitation to life with God. Jesus wasn’t just a figure to be admired and a martyr to be thankful for. He was the smartest man who ever lived, and his teachings were an invitation to a truly better way of life.
What I noticed as I read this story was the significant gap between his revelatory experience and the publishing of The Divine Conspiracy, which is perhaps his most important book, an expression of all of these ideas about the Kingdom of God and following Jesus. Willard read John in the mid-to-late 1950’s. The book was published in 1998, about 40 years later. I doubt it would be the masterpiece it is had he not spent forty years thinking about it and learning to actually embody it in his own life. And by all accounts, Dallas Willard was someone whose life reflected what he taught. He had a presence of loving gentleness that was transformative for those who had the privilege of knowing him.
This made me think about two things. First, I wonder what ideas lie dormant in my consciousness – or in yours, dear reader – that need the passage of time to take root and develop. Perhaps something that was significant a few years ago will someday give birth to our greatest work. Perhaps we’ll encounter that idea in a year or two. Whatever the case, Dallas’s story is an invitation to patience, both creatively and spiritually. I say creatively because part of Dallas’s legacy is in his ability to give fresh expression and definition to concepts that many Christians will find worn out or cliched. (For example, Dallas described prayer simply as “talking to God about the things that he and I are doing together.” The simplicity and clarity of this idea comes from his gift for language, something that I’m sure also developed over time.)
Secondly, and sort of conversely, it made me think about what might have happened if he’d written his book in the late 50’s or the 60’s. How would the book be different? I imagine that it would have been a good book, but the ideas wouldn’t have been as well threaded together as they became with the passage of time. This, too, is an invitation to patience.
I think a lot about the process of creativity. Every artist and ever innovator, whether we’re talking about Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright or a teacher like Willard, has undergone some kind of developmental process to make them who they are. Moon’s biography is built this way, trying to understand how Dallas became the great teacher and great person he ultimately became. Incidentally, Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up does the same thing, granularly walking through the development of Martin’s career from a banjo-playing magician at Knott’s Berry Farm to the writer, actor, and comedian we know today.
Regardless of who we are today, we are becoming something else. Life is developmental, whether we like it or not. What we pay attention to – what we cultivate – will shape who we become someday. If we’re passive, going through life always reacting to our circumstances, never making decisions about who we want to become, we will nonetheless develop. But it may be that this kind of passive-reactionary living cultivates bitterness, apathy, or sadness. If instead, we make determinations about what we want to become and design a life that can guide us in that direction, then we stand a much better chance at living a satisfying life. In Willard’s case, his life cultivated his intellect and his spirit, and he became a profound presence both in academia and in evangelicalism. (Not an easy feat, living in both of those worlds.) In Martin’s case, his devotion to creative work has allowed him to play in a variety of spheres. He’s a comic, a novelist, an incredible banjo player, and more. Newer work, like writing the Tony-nominated musical Bright Star, came much later. But that latter couldn’t have happened if he hadn’t done the former. Each step matters. Each stage of life matters. How we live it – what we cultivate – determines where we’re headed in the next one.
Speaking of Broadway
My guest this week on Cultivated is Alison Whitehurst, an actor whose work has led her to the Public Theater in New York and into national touring productions. She’s an incredibly gifted young artist, working and developing her craft. And her unabashed love of Jesus comes through clearly in our conversation. I found that affection inspiring and encouraging, and I think you will too.
Be sure and leave us a review and a comment in iTunes if you have a minute. It helps other people find the show.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my social media presence lately. I’m not happy with how much of it ends up being snarky and critical. It’s not to say that criticism isn’t worthwhile in our ever-more-maddening world, but perhaps Twitter isn’t the best medium for it. I’m determined to be more constructive and generative. We’ll see how that goes. Interestingly, Andy Crouch said something similar this morning, just as I sat down to write this. He tweeted, “New discipline I'm publicly committing to today (have been mulling this for a while): Use short, quick media like Twitter for praise, gratitude, and affirmation. Use longer, in-depth media like articles and books for critique and criticism.” It makes great sense to me.
I got to interview Phil Keaggy this week for an upcoming episode of Cultivated. I’ll have a lot more to say about it when that episode airs, but I can’t resist sharing how encouraged I was by his presence. He’s often in the conversation about the world’s greatest guitar players, and yet he was meek, humble, and incredibly generous with his time. I can’t wait for you to hear him. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, here’s a good introduction.
Lastly… A quick word on the Russian spy story that hit the news this week. One thing that’s apparent from the story is the way power played a role in duping people (as well as sex). It’s yet one more reminder of the danger of the pursuit of power. As I say in Faith Among the Faithless, the lust for power is a bit like a pet crocodile. You feed it and feed it and feed it until you run out of anything else to give it. So, it eats you instead. Dallas Willard had a good phrase that serves as an antidote to that lust: “Don’t presume, don’t pretend, don’t push.” Don’t presume that we deserve power, influence, or the attention and presence of others. Don’t pretend we are something we aren’t. And don’t push your way into places of influence or power. Let God open the doors for any of these things should they come, and be suspicious of them always, as power and influence can be incredibly corrupting.