The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Appropriate Outcomes

Appropriate Outcomes

Exploring the Intersection of Spiritual Formation and Creativity

In one of his many lectures Dallas Willard offers this proposition:

The appropriate response to a clearly articulated vision of Heaven is discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Just hold that thought for moment as I set the stage. In any pursuit there are particular outcomes that we aim for. Companies are made to build products, and they want those products built a certain way – an outcome of the manufacturing process. Those products are shipped through a network of handlers whose final delivery of the product is an outcome of a logistics process. The organization wants the products to be purchased by clients – an outcome of the sales and marketing process. Processes and systems pervade our world and our thinking. If we prioritize the importance of an incorrect process or system our organization can grow in a distorted way.

Consider the organization that prioritizes profit and loss – the accounting process – over their employees’ wellbeing – a Human Resources process. Unfortunately, this is too often the easy example that surfaces, and we know the outcome. The employees feel dehumanized, uncared for, and unhappy at work.

The task of prioritization is a challenge for the solo-preneur as well. The prioritization of outcomes over people, even ourselves, can lead to hurt. And yet, the world is organized in an achievement-oriented, outcomes-focused, way. Have an event, and the question afterwards is, “How did it go?” That, instead of “What was it like for you?” Being outcomes oriented is not inherently evil, but if our actions conform towards achieving our desired outcomes (which they do), it is incredibly important to articulate the outcomes we desire, and prioritize them, from both a personal and professional perspective.

The spiritual life

This truth can be applied to the spiritual life as well – the area of life that I believe undergirds everything else. There are a couple of assumptions when dealing with the spiritual life that come from my understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and my own experience following him. As we circle back to Dallas’s proposition these may be important to share briefly.

First, our wants are something that are a profound part of our character. This shows up as our actions conform to our deepest desires. Even if we’ve tried to change our behaviors, we can see our deepest desires override our own will in times of stress or offense. The thing here is that we, as individuals, do not have direct access to our will to be able to change it. And unlike some other propositions of life that advocate for detachment to quench our will and desires, Jesus proposes an honoring of our will, and the possibility of transformation of our desires. Practically, this often looks like a reordering of our wants. Want something more than something else, and our actions will conform to things we want more of. Do this kind of reordering enough, and that thing that we used to do that we would have rather not will be worked out of us – there will be no room for it.

Secondly, we, that is every one of us, are predisposed to following. We know that mentorship is key in areas of learning and professional development. Apprenticeship is the more immersive mode. We know that trustworthy elders are important in areas of life learning. While youth can bring with it a kind of reckless resolve for something dramatic and new, elders in the spiritual life can bring the knowledge of relationship with God that only comes from experience – often something more stable and relaxed. I think our predisposition to follow comes from our understanding that we have a kind of limited line of sight. Even if we are following our own imagination into the future, the disposition is following. We are envisioning a future that we then follow ourselves into. This general predisposition makes identifying and articulating who or what we are following especially important.

It’s important because we will only follow someone or something that has what we want and that we trust can give it to us. We follow our parents or some elder figure, and then our peers, and then our own visions. We follow rules and ideas. Often this happens concurrently, with some conflict, and maybe until there is a breach of trust. At which point we may begin to work to rebuild the trust, reconcile the relationship, and rethink the following we are doing.

Now for Dallas

Now to directly address Dallas’s proposition. I don’t have enough time in one of these notes to go through everything that the Kingdom of Heaven is, or the definition of discipleship, for that matter. But we need working definitions for both, so we’ll try these on for now.

Heaven is where God is. It is a defining of the world and reality that is inextricably linked to who God is, what God wants, and what we think God thinks of us. If God is love, then one way of thinking of this is that God is love, what God wants is the most loving thing possible, and God thinks of us through the lens of love. And if we need a reference on what love is we can lean on the writing of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. This is Heaven. A world in which love pervades all aspects of life, continually empowered by God’s own Spirit.

Discipleship, in its simplest form, is willful following. As a disciple we make ourselves a student to a teacher – not in a classroom sense, but a relational one. We follow as a younger brother would an older brother. We follow with trust, wanting what our teacher has, not only in skill but also in character. We immerse ourselves in their world. We acquire what we can, practice what we can, ask what questions we have, and ultimately become friends with our teacher as we grow. Discipleship is not only an activity, but also a disposition.

With these definitions in place we can begin to talk about Dallas’s proposition. If I were to propose to you that a particular kind of world existed – one in which the governing personality was love – what would be the possible responses? Such a world may be so out of the range of what we think is possible that we might need to address that. We may have considerable and significant questions, like where can I see this world now? Can I take a visit before committing to live there? How can I know that any of this proposition is real? If these questions about the validity of the proposition are answered, there is a secondary line of questioning. These questions have to do with the how of getting there. If Heaven is a real place – a physical experience of life with God – and I now want to live there, I have to figure out how to get there. Notably some are immediately inspired by the vision of Heaven presented to them. Without a need to validate the proposition, they often jump right to the question of how to get there.

The answer to the question of how is discipleship – following. It is putting one’s trust in the person of Jesus Christ and following him into a life with God. Here again may arise considerable and significant questions. Especially for someone who is newer to these propositions, the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ is a thing. Who is this Christ? If I give him my life, that is make myself his student and immerse myself in his life, will I be okay? Will I be safe? Will I get what I want out of life? Is this person – out of all the persons out there – the one to follow? These are important questions, and the documentation that we have of Jesus Christ’s life as found in the writings of the four gospels in the New Testament, for example, is the starting point for the answering of such questions. But that is just the start. Ultimately, with any proposition of life and the consequential following, there is a time of experimentation that is necessary. Experimentation takes the proposition out of the theoretical and into the applicable. I might start with small aspects of my life – I will be able to consider Jesus and follow him there more easily. As my trust in following Christ grows, my hold on other areas of my life will loosen. As my hold loosens, I may come to a place where I have no hold on my life. Rather Jesus has a hold on my life – and he and I work out the details of my life together.

The crux of Dallas’s proposition is one of outcomes. That is, following Jesus Christ has no bearing on a life unless the proposition of Heaven in clearly articulated. And if that proposition is clearly articulated, the natural next step is to begin to follow the person that can get us that kind of life. In a world full of manipulation – through word and image – it is a minor miracle to think that a simple proposition of life might be enough to move someone’s heart (notably not just their emotions, but their center). Could this be true? Could getting the reality of Heaven right be enough to change the world? If Heaven were real, wherever Heaven was would indeed be a different world. Maybe that is enough?

For those who have found Heaven to be real in their own lives, we have but one responsibility. To do what we can to live out that reality on a daily basis and as we go, to share it. The natural outcome of such sharing will be the turning of others – whomever is ready – to the reality of Heaven and the wonder of how they might enter into such a life themselves. At such a point we can share more. We are not gatekeepers of the wonder of a life with God. We take care as we are given the gift of affecting another life, but we don’t need to hold back. We can bring our whole selves to this endeavor. It is all useful. By this we fulfill what is commanded of us.

By this we become a part of the greater project, the outcome of which is too great for us to control. Thankfully. I wouldn’t trust myself with “trying to change the world” even though I have wanted to. No, the transformation of the world, I leave to God. The transformation of my world, I can do my part in, and in doing that, just maybe I’ll have some effect in the world I’m in.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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