Living in the Depths of Life With God

This article was written in 1997 for Voice of the Vineyard.

A child learns at an early age that there is a side of them which others do not automatically know, and which to an amazing degree is under their own control.  They learn that they appear in a certain way to others, and that it is possible for them not to be what they appear.  And they learn that it is the same with others around them.  Thus they learn that human beings live on two different levels: the public world of appearance and action, and the inner and private world of thought, feeling and intention.

We also learn, at some point, that the inner world of thought, feeling and intention is one over which we may have very little control.  Dreams and images, fears and wounds, thoughts and impulses, fascinations and revulsions can crowd in upon us and overwhelm us in our inner world very much as things and events do in our outer world of action and appearance.

Anyone who has helped a child learn how to deal with their inner fears and impulses, so that they can make sensible choices, knows both how hard and how important it is for them--for us--to come to the place where they can not-do what they themselves want to do.  The inner world is no picnic, and can be filled with terrors much greater than the outer world.  It does not run as we choose, after all, and we never have any very good idea of what is going on in those dimensions of it that lie beyond our awareness and control.

The prophet Jeremiah's inspired insight reaches deeply into the human personality to say: "I know, O Lord, that a man's way is not in himself; nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps." (10:23 NAB)  And then he cries out, "Correct me Lord, but in a way that is good; not with Thine anger, lest Thou bring me to nothing."  He pleads for mercy, knowing that he and all human beings are at the mercy of external and internal forces that are totally beyond their capacity to deal with.

The three levels of our lives: Every life contains three levels, their order being determined by relations of dependence and openness. 

(1) The first level is that of action and appearance, where we live and interact with others.  It is most dependent on other parts of the self and most open to others and ourselves.  We know what we and others do, though we may never know why they do it.  But we do know that they did it because of what is going on in their inner world.

And usually they know (2) what conscious thoughts, feelings and intentions led them to their action.  They can tell you what they are if they wish--and can also mislead you about them.  The second level of life is not as open and obvious as the first, but is much more powerful in determining how life as a whole runs.

But (3) what makes us have the thoughts, feelings and intentions we do?  This is the part of our lives which mysteriously merges with forces outside of us, good and evil.  It has immense power over us, since it largely governs the thoughts, feelings and intentions we are aware of and consciously act from, but is rarely something of which we have any understanding at all.

It is especially at work in cases where we have no idea why we do what we do, or why we have the thoughts, feelings and intentions that drive us in action.  There is simply that in us which is alien to our conscious life and upon which our conscious life and action depends.  With Paul we cry out before our deliverance by Christ, "It is no more I, but sin that dwells in me!" (Rom 7:17)  And more happily, afterward, "I live!  Yet not I, but Christ who dwells in me." (Gal. 2:20)

Wisdom from the Proverbs. The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament is part of what is called the "wisdom literature" of the Bible.  a large part of the wisdom it contains deals with the various levels at which human life is actually lived, and with the various traps and deceptions into which we fall because we don't attend to those levels correctly.

An example is the homely advice given about eating and enjoying yourself when you go to visit people.  Be wary, the Proverb says, "of eating the bread of a stingy person, or lusting for his rich foods.  For he really is what is going on in his mind.  He keeps saying, 'Oh come on.  Eat  up!'  But he is thinking something else.  You'll wish you never had swallowed those tasty morsels, and your pretty words of appreciation will turn to dust in your mouth." (Prov. 23:6-8, paraphrase)

This illustrates, first, that part of the self where we take refuge from others.  The stingy man was not generous, but greedy, resentful and scornful of his guest.  But he also had an appearance to keep up.  So he hides his thoughts and feelings of greed and resentment--which will have later effects, no doubt.  But this Proverb also illustrates the deepest level of life and personality.  Why was he stingy?  He probably never knew.

Probably didn't even know he was stingy.  Just as many people filled with anger or shame, or who are following obsessive ideas, never know they are, and would not believe it if told.  That is why Jeremiah the prophet, once again, speaks of how "the heart is the most deceitful thing there is, desperately sick, who can understand it." (17:9)

Everyone has one.  When we speak the deeper life, accordingly, we are speaking of something which every human being has.  Sometimes in the religious context we speak as if some people did not have a deeper life at all, while others--very religious ones--do.  But the issue is not having a deeper life.  You cannot avoid that.

The issue is only what kind of deeper life are you going to have.  Is it going to be one grounded in God and his kingdom, filled with the thoughts, feelings and intentions of Christ?  Or will it be the plaything of a fallen cosmos, in which you find yourself on your own, filled with the sick and destructive powers of this age?  That is the issue.

The 'deeper life' of a tree.  The good tree, as Jesus taught us, brings forth as a matter of course good fruit, and the bad tree brings forth bad.  Both trees have a "deeper life."  That deeper life is simply what they are on the inside, and how their 'insides' interact with their environment.  Their deeper life determines what happens in the outer arena of action and appearance, where their fruit, good or bad, is known.  Jesus' little brother James extends this metaphor: "Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs?" (3:12)  The deeper life of the fig results only in figs.

So it is the deeper life of the soul that must be transformed if the fruit of action is to be good.  If we are engaging with the pornography of sex and violence, or if we cannot control our anger or our tongue or our fists, we have to do what is necessary to change the deeper and deepest levels of our life.  That is the only strategy that will actually work.  This is what Jesus call's "going beyond the goodness of scribes and Pharisees, and thereby entering the kingdom of the heavens." (Matt 5:20)

The scribes and Pharisees tried to be good by not doing anything wrong.  It is a strategy bound to fail because it misunderstands the three-level dynamism of the self.  Thus, as Jesus pointed out, it always leads to hypocrisy. (Luke 12:2)  Imagine a grapevine pretending to be a fig tree by tying figs to its branches.  No one is really deceived.

A winning strategy.  The deeper life of the self must be exchanged, transformed into another one: the one which Jesus has.  Although we endeavor to keep the law, that is not our strategy.  Instead, we aim to become the kind of person who would naturally do what the law says.  Just as a fig is the kind of tree that naturally bears figs.  When Jesus blessed his killers from the cross, that was not hard for him.  It was an expression of the deeper life in him.  What would have been hard for him would be to curse his killers.  That would be the fig tree producing olives.

Our deeper life begins to move toward Christlikeness when we simply ask him to really take charge of our life and set out to put into practice everything he said was right.  Of course in our distraught condition we cannot even do this on our own, but then we don't have to.  He sends the information of his gospel to stand in the world around us, and his Holy Spirit will act directly in the life of anyone who calls Jesus Lord.  Anyone who calls Jesus Lord is already acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. (I Co. 12:2)

The importance and dangers of deeper 'experiences'.  Now that the life of God himself is moving in us as students of Jesus, we will have many "deeper experiences" of fellowship, vision and power.  These are very important for our growth, but unfortunately they also are sometimes taken as a basis of pride and self-exultation--or even of exemption from the need to do what is simply right and adhere to the standard truths of gospel teachings.  Such is the deceitfulness of the old "deeper life."  But if we only keep the one goal of inner Christlikeness before us the old life will certainly be replaced throughout with the new one from the heavens.  Not immediately, to be sure, but certainly, and that will be manifest in not too long a time.

Disciplines.  Moreover, consciously chosen activities of service and fellowship, solitude and silence, study and worship, fasting and prayer, to name only a few, can serve us as the framework of a consciously chosen, personalized plan for "putting off the old person and putting on the new."  We can call these activities "disciplines for life in the Spirit."  Multitudes of Christ followers through the ages have found them a sure way of becoming a good tree in the Lord's garden, bearing steadily the fruit of his life in us.

Love is the deeper life.  Remember, what we are looking for in the "deeper life" is not just a deeper life.  We already have one of those.  What we need is different one, dominated by love of God with all our being--heart, soul, mind and strength--and care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves. (Luke 10:27)  With this naturally comes joy and peace, and all the elements of Jesus' inmost character.  From these, in turn, the deeds of rightness and goodness will naturally (supernaturally, of course) flow.

An old time Methodist, Billy Bray, was known for praising his Lord in all circumstances, especially those most discouraging.  Asked how he did it he replied: "I am so happy in the Lord that if they put me in a barrel I would shout 'glory!' out the bunghole."  This is the deeper life in spontaneous manifestation.

In such a deeper life we are, in Paul's language, "Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness." (Col. 1:11)  And this lays an adequate foundation in our character to bear the deeds of kingdom power that the risen Lord would do through us as we serve him in our generation.


Article Tags


DWillard.org is co-sponsored by the family of Dallas Willard, Dallas Willard Ministries, and FiveStone.