Dallas Willard, one of today’s most brilliant Christian thinkers and author of The Divine Conspiracy (Christianity Today’s 1999 Book of the Year), presents a way of living that enables ordinary men and women to enjoy the fruit of the Christian life. He reveals how the key to self-transformation resides in the practice of the spiritual disciplines,
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My wife disappeared into the dark. I caught up with her again and we continued down a dark, confusing winding path. It was mid-October and the air had a slight chill in it. We were at a local corn maze and had gotten so lost and disoriented that we forgot what we were supposed to be doing. That’s how I felt reading The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. I will summarize the main teaching of this book, then detail the reasons for my confusion in reading it and finally explain the one th
The main purpose of the book is to explain how by seeking after God through the use of disciplines (solitude, fasting, reading, etc) we grow closer to Him and better imitate the life that Jesus lived. It is by neglecting these disciplines that the witness of the church is weak, many Christians have moral failures, and the mission of Christ’s people is not being accomplished.
The first reason for my confusion was that it took him so long to say what he set out to say. He says that this is the one insight that will be developed throughout the book, “Full participation in the life of God’s Kingdom and in the vivid companionship of Christ comes to us only through appropriate exercise in the disciplines for life in the spirit.” (pg. 26 italics original). But, it’s not until page 156 that he starts to explain what those disciplines are. The majority of the book is his complaints about how few Christians can give practical explanation to how to live as followers of Jesus, as he says, “Our most serious failure today is the inability to provide effective practical guidance as to how to live the life of Jesus.” (pg. 110) The irony is that this quote is still around 40 pages from when he will start giving practical guidance.
The second reason for my confusion reading this book were the many untrue statements. He said that the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the term ‘Redemption’ was, “progressive sequence of real human and divine actions and events that resulted in the transformation of the body and the mind.” (pg. 111) Whereas, the Apostle Paul understood redemption as only a divine action. He also overstates the importance of the discipline of solitude as the only way to have a stable, radical relationship with God (pg. 105). Not to mention how he built his understanding of some of the disciplines from speculating on Biblical texts (see pg. 151).
However, even with some of these negative components, here was the thing I took away from it that made me glad I read it. I was challenged for my laziness in pursuing Christ. Mr. Willard gave an analogy of how children try to mimic only how their favorite athlete acts in the game, but not in their private life that is filled with proper diet, exercise, and training. This is often how Christians try to imitate Jesus: only with His public acts not His private training. (pgs 3-5) I have been challenged to break away from my public acts: my family and church, to seek after God in quiet, like Jesus did. This has been a weakness of mine and Mr. Willard helped me to see how frequently Jesus did this. He helped me to read Mark 1 in a better light. When Jesus broke away from everyone to seek after God and then came back prepared to leave all the crowds who wanted Him because He was sent to preach, helped me to see the priority solitude and seeking God in prayer has for me to stay focused on the mission that Christ has given to me.
For this reason I have been challenged and helped to love God more and to seek after Him with more effort.
Dallas Willard is a Southern Baptist-ordained theologian who has a refreshing way of overturning my assumptions. In The Spirit of the Disciplines, he hammers on the tendencies of people like me to slough off disciplines such as solitude, silence, fasting, and frugality in favor of more saccharine interpretations that are more mental than physical. Yet, Willard makes the case that authentic Christianity is physical and that, if Jesus became flesh and used these disciplines to enhance His relation
I found myself in profound agreement with him from the following two lines in the preface, forward. “Holiness and devotion must now come forth from the closet and the chapel to possess the street and the factory, the schoolroom and boardroom, the scientific laboratory and the governmental office.” (p. xii) “The Spirit of the Disciplines I snothing but the love of Jesus, with its resolute will to be like him whom we love.” (p. xii)
I stood convicted from that page forward. In that sense, there were parts of the first eight chapters in which I wanted to say, “I’m convinced; let’s move forward.” Of course, even as I type that, I realize that I gained something from every chapter. To illustrate this, I’ll try to share one choice morsel out of each chapter.
“The Secret of the Easy Yoke” posits the idea that anything less than walking with the Lord Jesus Christ is doomed to: “…a life of crushing burdens, failures, and disappointments, a life caught in the toils of endless problems never resolved….The ‘cost of discipleship,’ though it may take all we have, is small when compared to the lot of those who don’t accept Christ’s invitation to be a part of his company in The Way of life.” (p. 2)
“Making Theology Practical” demonstrated that the reason Protestants have discounted the disciplines is because, “Centuries ago, disciplines such as fasting, service, and giving were confused with meritorious works, as well as with a useless and destructive ‘penance.’” (p. 25) Naturally, denominations which focus on “grace alone” would reject this “works-oriented” approach but ironically, this has probably led to “cheap grace” on their end (p. 25).
“Salvation as a Life” cites Soren Kierkegaard as noting, “…how there is always a certain worldliness that desires to seem Christian, but as cheaply as possible.” (p. 39)
In “Little Less Than a God,” Willard contends, “The sober truth is that we are made of dust, even if we aspire to the heavens.” (p. 46)
While explaining the “Nature of Life,” we read: “Very simply, spirit is unembodied personal power. Ultimately, it is God who is Spirit (John 4:24). Electricity, magnetism, and gravity, by contrast, are embodied non-personal power.” (p. 64)
“Spiritual Life: The Body’s Fulfilment” teaches, “Our experience of others is also inescapably an experience of their embodied existence.” (p. 83) “The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men and women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves.” (p. 86)
The chapter on “St. Paul’s Psychology of Redemption” offered the interesting insight that, not only did Paul emphasize the idea of self-control throughout his writings but, the idea of self-control appears five times in the first two chapters of the Letter to Titus (p. 102).
“History and the Meaning of the Disciplines” is an interesting chapter because Willard clearly demonstrates where past practices have encouraged the belief that certain extremes are useful to gaining God’s favor or forgiveness. There are some horrifying descriptions of instruments of torture used to “earn” forgiveness. Portions of the chapter are nauseating, but necessary.
Finally, in Chapter 9, “Some Main Disciplines for Spiritual Life,” Willard offers a short taxonomy of spiritual disciplines, bisected into Disciplines of Abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice) and Disciplines of Engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission) (p. 158). This is really the meat of the book as he discusses the advantage/necessity of each discipline for bringing one closer to God.
Chapter 10 attempted to help believers see that there is nothing virtuous in poverty for its own sake (p. 194) and Chapter 11 served as a sermon to pound home the insight that what believers do actually matters in terms of God’s long-term plans for the redemption of this world and the people within it. This is a much needed corrective to much preaching, as is the entire book.
I find The Spirit of the Disciplines to be valuable primarily for Chapter 9. However, those who are not already open to the idea of spiritual disciplines will certainly want to experience the solid foundation that Willard brings before he actually considers the disciplines themselves. For me, this book is useful, but it is not as stimulating as The Divine Conspiracy–even though it touches on some of the same themes in places.
Only one chapter is given to the listing and explaining of the various disciplines. The bulk of the book is a persuasive argument for the practice of the disciplines with appropriate disclaimers and caveats (though those take very little space).
Basically the author argues that the transformation of the Christian life comes through living life the way Jesus did, following his example. (And of course we understand this doesn’t mean tunics and sandals and no phones.) But it does mean things we bui