When a Saint passes away :: Reflections on the death of Dallas Willard

A little while ago I found out that Dallas Willard had finally passed away after a painful (and fairly private) battle with cancer. It’s an odd thing, really, when someone of such profound importance and weight passes on to be with Jesus. Recently I was reading a biography of someone with such weight and importance and in the introduction, the author wrote this:

“We often hear about people who ‘need no introduction.’ But if ever someone did need need one, at least in our day and age, it’s [him]. The strange irony is that we are talking about a man who changed the world, so if ever someone should not need an introduction–whose name and accomplishments should be on the lips of humanity–it’s [him].”

That’s a bit how I feel in wrestling with the emotions of the passing of this great giant of faith. When we say a ‘Saint of God’ has passed, it can mean so many things and can actually be watered down to such a degree because the word ‘saint’ has lost something these days. It’s become an altogether too familiar word. And while I think there is certainly a little kookiness about the saint-hood process within the Catholic church, I do appreciate the recognition that there are spiritual giants in the annals of history who changed us. Changed the world. Did something extraordinary within the Kingdom of God and while they do not replace Jesus, they give us something to imitate and hold onto. (If you would like to read a little bit about Willard, here is an article Christianity Today ran on him in 2006. Really good piece.)

They are the people that when we see their lives, we can truly remark “We stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Dallas Willard changed my life. I can honestly say I doubt I’d be a Christian today if not for reading his book The Divine Conspiracy more than a decade ago. 

I remember meeting Dallas 5 years ago, getting to spend a few days with him. He was so humble, gracious, patient and kind. The Spirit of Jesus was just all over this man. I walked up to him, awkwardly introduced myself and said, “I don’t know how to say this, but your book is one of the biggest reasons I’m a Christian. I just wanted to say thanks.”

I’m sure he’s heard this plenty of times.

Plenty.

But right there, in the corner of a stale-ly lit room, tears came to his eyes and he graciously said “Thank you.” We talked for a bit more and I had him sign my copy of The Divine Conspiracy and he wrote a really kind note in it.

I know that if all of my books and belongings weren’t currently in storage unit right now, I’d be rifling through it, looking for the book. Reading the inscription again and turning the well-worn pages of the text, re-reading all of my underlined passages, margin notes and wildly inscribed circles around key points (with exclamatory punctuation saying, “Why has no one told me this before!!!”).

There is a heavy sadness with the passing of such a great Christian man. But also a well spring of joy knowing that he is in the streets of heaven. That he has received a heroes welcome. That angels crowded and competed with each to walk this man into the gates and he finally got to see, in full, the God that he loved and served and knew so faithfully for so long.

The overwhelming emotion that I am feeling right now?

Gratefulness.

Grateful that God was able to use one man to have such an impact on me. On my wife and kids. And countless other people.

And so it is with a full heart that I can pray, “Thank you Lord for your enduring faithfulness that I see even more clearly because of this man. Thank you that through the life of your servant Dallas, I now know you more.”

With all that being said, we live in an age of social media. And for all the ways it is a mixed bag, it really does create an outlet for people to remember, grieve and give back what was given to them in times of loss. Here are a few quotes I’ve taken from my news feed. The first (and longest) from Todd Hunter, someone who was very close to Dallas and who gives a quintessential Dallas moment.

  • Many years ago in a private moment I asked Dallas: “what is your greatest concern about the kingdom-based spiritual formation movement?” Without hesitation he answered: “Willard-ites”. We sat silent for a few moments, that word hanging in the air. On his countenance, in his eyes, I could see a fear that someone might mistake Dallas or his teaching for the endgame, not the signposts he meant them to be of his profound love of Jesus and his kingdom. I can’t say much more or I’d run the risk of either hyperbole or sounding like what Dallas wanted greatly to avoid. Perhaps though I could end with this: no human being taught me more about life in Jesus and his kingdom. And I vow, until the day I die, to the best I can, as an apprentice to Jesus, to announce, demonstrate and embody the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
  • Dallas Willard went home today. I am saddened by his loss, he had a huge impact on my faith. I had the chance to meet him in 2010. He embodied everything he taught.
  • One of the most brilliant thinkers of our day is gone. RIP Dallas Willard.
  • Willard’s “The Divine Conspiracy” literally changed my life 14 years ago.
  • Deeply grieved to learn Dallas Willard (@DallasAWillard) passed away today. So much of who I am and hope to become I owe to God’s work in/through him.
  • Dallas Willard passed away into Christ today. We love you and we’ll miss you. // What a legacy he leaves behind…
  • Saddened by the news of Dallas Willard. Few have marked me more as a pastor regarding spiritual formation than Dallas.
  • Very saddened today to hear of the death of Dallas Willard. His writing helped changed my life & perspective on the Kingdom of God & what it means/looks like to live/serve in it.
  • Grieved to hear of Dallas Willard’s passing. His book, The Divine Conspiracy, saved my faith. I’m forever grateful for his life and work.
  • Dang, a life lived very well. Divine Conspiracy is one of my favorite books, and he was such a humble man.
  • Dallas Willard, a giant of our age, passed away today. You owe it to yourself to become familiar with his work. It will change you.