The Great Omission
Dallas Willard has written some of the most influential Christian books of the last 20 years. The Spirit of the Disciplines revived widespread interest in the spiritual disciplines. The Divine Conspiracy awakened a sleepy, increasingly institutional evangelicalism to the beauty of Jesus’ teaching and discipleship. Renovation of the Heart put spiritual formation front and center in the minds of millions of Christians. Willard, along with his frequent co-conspirator Richard Foster, has done much to steer the ship of Christianity toward revival.
The appeal of Willard’s books lies in their depth and incisiveness rather than in breezy wit or stylistic charm. If there is a weakness with his writing, it is a hint of coolness—an impersonal profundity. John Ortberg described his own book on the spiritual disciplines, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, as a sort of Dallas for Dummies.
Willard’s latest book, The Great Omission, offers a warmer—and frankly easier—introduction to his ideas. It collects some of his prior essays and lectures into a remarkably cohesive and worthwhile package. It’s not the ideas that are new: it’s the presentation. Willard writes in a chattier, more personal style than in past books. Though he still tackles deep ideas, he takes them more slowly and seems more aware of his readers’ ability to follow.
What truly sets the book apart is its focus on the practical. Although Willard has always shown concern about how we live as disciples of Christ, he has never spoken more urgently about the need to do Christianity—not just think and talk it. The title of the book hints at this focus. When we omit the teaching of obedience from disciple-making, Willard argues, we lead our converts into half-baked lives, not the abundant ones Jesus offers. “There is an obvious Great Disparity between, on the one hand, the hope for life expressed in Jesus … and, on the other hand, the actual day-to-day behavior, inner life, and social presence of most of those who now profess adherence to him,” he writes in the introduction. In an era of leadership scandals, disillusioned churchgoers and market-based Christianity, the Church desperately needs the model of genuine discipleship Willard describes.
One of the biggest gulfs in his previous work was personal testimonial. He offered many great ideas, but left readers asking: Had he found that the ideas actually work? No doubt his silence on this question was motivated by modesty, but the inclusion of a few stories of personal application, struggles and success would have rooted his ideas in reality and encouraged readers in their own efforts. The Great Omission fills in some of what was lacking in previous books. Willard speaks more openly about where he came from, spiritually speaking, and how his ideas emerged from his life and study. The final section describes books that encouraged Willard’s own spiritual growth. Yet he is clearly uncomfortable with personal revelation. Though The Great Omission is his most personal book, he still leaves the pursuit of spiritual formation, the disciplines, and discipleship as exercises left to the reader.
The final chapter is the most valuable. Dallas disciples (a term I’m sure he would loath) who admire his ideas often grow discouraged when we fall out of step with status-quo Christianity. Those of us who have caught the Willard bug live with an intense urge to shout out his good news to the rest of the church, not always in kindly tones. The last chapter offers loving, measured, experienced advice on what to do with the light God gives us—how to encourage change without pride or venom. This is the chapter “The Divine Conspiracy” most dearly lacked, and Dallas disciples need to hear it.
For those unfamiliar with Willard’s previous works, The Great Omission provides the best introduction. For those who have already caught the Willard bug, it refines and humanizes his prior ideas, and inspires us once again to genuine discipleship to Jesus.