I first heard the idea in moments that passed years ago but can easily feel like now. It was deep into fall, that time of year when the excitement of pumpkin-flavored everything wears off, maple trees turn from bold vulnerable and thickening clouds hover low and permanent. It was early in the evening, but the automatic headlights of my minivan had turned on hours ago. As I exited the highway, I could barely see the stoplight at the end of the ramp change to green in the blur of constant rain. My windshield wipers swooshed, letting me see just clearly enough to change lanes and make the turn into the Panera parking lot. Walking in to meet a friend, my old black wool pea coat felt like someone else’s – somehow both too roomy and restrictive at the same time – and I wondered if it was time for a new one.
In those moments from the exit ramp to parking lot, Dallas Willard’s words lingered in the way that perfectly crafted sentences demand rereading before moving on. In my three-decade quest for a flourishing spiritual life, I had never considered the possibility he offered:
The Pharisees defined goodness as doing the right thing. Jesus defined it as becoming the kind of person who would naturally do the right thing. – Dallas Willard
I must have played this section of the podcast eight more times on my way home that night. The idea that Jesus is not the only Living Being capable of oozing goodness without effort was, and still is, shocking.
The Pharisee in me feels more natural than the Jesus in me. I feel good about myself when I follow rules, check boxes and do the hard, right thing. A few years in a row, I wrote out a “Life Plan” and listed specific goals for my spiritual life. It felt amazing. Or at least imagining myself accomplishing the goals did. Looking back now, it reminds me of when I was a teenager who had “church” friends and “school” friends: there was a separation that seemed normal – even necessary – then, but disturbs me now.
Until those pre-winter moments when the view out my windshield was just enough to keep going, spirituality was one of many categories in my life. I treated it like work. Or exercise. It was something I did, not who I was. Some days – and many moments – it still is. Living as an integrated spiritual being, instead of a compartmentalized human doing, is an everyday struggle.
Yet I find solace in the memory of that November day, because Dallas Willard’s words opened the possibility that Jesus-like goodness can flow from me as freely and naturally as my self-doubt and fear, that my faith doesn’t have to feel like a measure of self-discipline. Just believing this is possible – for me, for my daughters, for our broken world – can feel like enough.