Monday, January 16, 2006

Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives

This year is already off to a great start in the "good reads" department. In fact, this is one of the very best books I've ever read on the topic of the disciplined Christian life. Dallas Willard is a recognized expert on the subject, and his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is a simply excellent study on the purpose and practice of the spiritual disciplines. And, in keeping with my intention to further study and internalize great books like this one, here is my attempt to distill some of what I have learned.

Living a life that reflects the character, actions, and attitude of Jesus is the central goal of those that call themselves Christians. And it is a curious paradox that very few Christians, if asked, would claim to be living such a life. Many who undertake their discipleship seriously would say that they were trying in various ways to follow after Jesus, but very few say that they are in fact very close to their goal. Such claims may be attributed to humility or a desire to exalt the life of Christ. But at their core, do Christians believe that such a life is even possible?

Regardless of what today's Christians may think, the New Testament regularly exhorts the Christian to precisely such a life using startlingly realistic language. It is clear that figures such as the Apostle Paul believe that such a life is possible and indeed to be expected of those who are growing in maturity and faith. But how is such a life attainable? Why do today's Christians live such a disconnect from the life of the One they claim to follow? It is certainly lack of awareness of the problem and it is not unwillingness—many, many Christians desperately want just such a life. Willard claims that that such a life is not only possible, but within the grasp of every person who follows Christ.

The key idea that Willard spends a book unpacking is simply this:

The secret of the easy yoke…is to learn from Christ how to live our total lives, how to invest all our time and our energies of mind and body as he did. We must learn how to follow his preparations, the disciplines for life in God’s rule that enabled him to receive his Father’s constant and effective support while doing his will...It is the intelligent, informed, unyielding resolve to live as Jesus lived in all aspects of his life, not just in the moment of specific choice or action. pp. 9-10

In contrast to another outstanding book on the disciplines, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Willard spends the vast majority of his book developing a theology of the human person, the power of sin and the power of the cross which breaks sin’s bondage over the human. Originally intended to image God and to be active agents in realizing his rule and gracious love over creation, we have fallen far, far short of that goal. We instead exercise great power and freedom to exalt ourselves as kings and queens, destroying ourselves and each other in the process. “…the biblical conception of the spiritual is that of an ordered realm of personal power founded in the God who is himself spirit…” Thus, the salvation Christians can experience through the cross is a life given over to the exercise of spiritual power oriented again toward it’s original goal: the realization of God’s rule and love in the here and now.

After turning from a theology of the disciplines, Willard spends time looking at historical conceptions of the disciplined spiritual life and attempts to recover the realistic, within-your-grasp language used by Jesus and Paul (and others) throughout the New Testament. Citing dozens of examples throughout the New Testament, Willard is convinced that Jesus and Paul both assumed that Christians would obey their teachings, and that their teachings included rigorous spiritual disciplines.

Specifically, Willard outlines two categories of spiritual disciplines: those of abstinence and those of engagement. “…the disciplines of abstinence counteract tendencies to sins of commission, and the disciplines of engagement counteract tendencies to sins of omission…. Abstinence, then, makes way for engagement…A proper abstinence actually breaks the hold of improper engagements so that the soul can be properly engaged in and by God.” While being sure not to make any exhaustive or precise list, Willard lists specific examples of each type of discipline. For abstinence, he includes solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. For engagement, he includes study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission.

Willard has left me with a challenge. In order to live the life to which God calls me--that is, to live a life that imitates the character, actions, and way of life of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ--I need to adopt not only knowledge about him, but the overall way of life he practiced that enabled him to be intimately connected with the Father. Thus engaged with the saving work of Jesus, I am free to live a life in which the Kingdom of God is more fully, more richly realized. In this way, I participate in God's saving work in the small world in which he has placed me.


James Wood said...

Hmmmmm, you've got my attention. I think I need to get this book on my "to read" list. For some reason that list keeps getting longer instead of shorter.

I do like that Willard does a lot with the theology of disciplines. I have really found that to be lacking in books like Foster's.

Greg Brooks said...

I'm excited that you've read this book--I love everything Willard writes! Here at Southwest, in the Sunday School class that we attend (along with a lot of other folks you've met) we are studying Foster's book about disciplines. It looks to be a great class.

Willard's website is packed with articles.

Alien Shaman said...

Per your recommendation, I am reading Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, which is quite good. As I reach the half-way point of it, already there are numerous things to think about.

I am currently in the section regarding "Virtues" and find it to be something worth reflecting on.

That said, this book sounds interesting as well, but I don't know if I agree that "many, many Christians desperately want just such a life." If they did, things would be different from the way they are now.

I would say that a disturbingly large number of "Christians" profess, but do not lead anything that is truly a fundamental Christian life - they don't walk the walk.

As a leader, I hope you can teach your congregation to not give up on walking because it is "too hard" teach them to crawl and eventually they will start walking.

Agent X said...

Allow me to suggest another reading for your list. It is not a book on spiritual disciplines, specifically, but as I read your post, I kept thinking of how that living as a subject of "the empire", that being a combination of the U.S. and close allies plus the global economy, we have been robbed of our imaginations. We cannot even imagine what a Christian life looks like.

The book is Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Walsh & Keesmaat. These two were both formerly students of N.T. Wright. Their study of Colossians brings a lot of Wright into stark contemporary application. The book has changed my life tremendously. Every minister I have shared it with has called me up on the phone trembling with with new found fear of God. One claimed he was up all night repenting....

I have never read another book like it. If you already have, then you know what I mean. If not, it will challenge you like nothing else ever has.

Dwayne Hilty said...

Are you ever going to stop raving about this book? Ok, I'm just kidding. I have enjoyed hearing bits and pieces from you about this book, and you're inspiring me to finish "The Divine Conspiracy" by Dallas Willard.

About your sounds like Willard is tackling what seems to be generally avoided by giving a theology on the human person. I know some people make quick comments about it, but I wonder how our own lack of humanity only seperates us further from our understanding of the holy?