Recently I reread Dallas Willard’s THE SPIRIT OF THE DISCIPLINES which refers to the spiritual disciplines of the Christian Life: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession and submission. Before you dismiss these as a new legalism let me assure you that they need to be interpreted within his definitions and the life of grace in Jesus Christ. “The Spirit of the Disciplines is nothing but the love of Jesus, with its resolute will to be like him whom we love.”
His over-riding concern is to expound the meaning of the yoke of Christ:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you will find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). He points out that “to depart from righteousness is to choose a life of crushing burdens, failures, and disappointments, a life caught in the toils of endless problems that are never resolved. Here is the source of that unending soap opera, that sometimes horror show known as normal human life.”
In contrast Willard posed the alternative in a life lived as Christ lived.
“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…. The secret of the easy yoke is simple…It is the intelligent, informed, unyielding resolve to live as Jesus lived in all aspects of his life, not just in the moments of specific choice or action.”
Being a Christian is not a matter of believing the proper things about Jesus. Saving faith is more than mere mental assent to correct doctrine. It requires appropriate exercise in the disciplines for life in the spirit through the embodied, incarnate life of our human personality. Salvation is not just forgiveness, but a new order of life. Life is growth is the spiritual life over the course of lifetime. It is holistic, involving the body as well as the spirit. In the full redemption of life by Christ the embodied human personality is accepted and made truly whole.
St. Paul tells Timothy to “Train yourself unto godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (2 Tim 4:7-8). Just as the fitness center, the personal trainer, and the desire to maintain fitness is an obsession today, spiritual fitness requires training for it to be effective. That requires practising the disciplines.
One of the best chapters in the book is entitled “Is Poverty Spiritual?” He makes the distinction between ownership of wealth and stewardship of wealth. He claims that many Christians have a prejudice against wealth. While riches may be deceitful they can be managed to serve the Lord. He criticizes “St. Francis’s idealization of nonpossession which had the effect of abandoning wealth to Satan and excluding those who control it from the service of God. This terrible mistake… can only be reversed by understanding that possession and right rule over material wealth is a spiritual service of the highest order.”
He states that it is the illusion of our age to think that we can abolish war, hunger, oppression, and so on, while not changing our souls. Social and political change will not eliminate greed, loneliness, resentment, sexual misery and harm, disappointment with one’s lot in life, hunger for meaning and recognition, fear of sickness, pain, old age and death, or hatred of other cultures.
Finally, he reminds people like me:
“Ministers pay far too much attention to people who do not come to services. Those people should, generally, be given exactly that disregard by the pastor that they give to Christ. The Christian leader has something much more important to do than to pursue the godless. The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph.4:12)…. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christian leaders or which are simply imposed by the world. Big, always BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us.”
When Christians are enjoying fullness of life in Christ people will be attracted from the surrounding community to learn how to live.
This book is a classic in Christian spiritualty and deserves a close read.