The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
Summary: Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.
This book, along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, were instrumental in introducing spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation into the parlance and practice of both mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity. This work has been in print for 27 years and it may be time to take a fresh look at what has become a classic reference work on spiritual disciplines.
Willard contends that one of the major challenges facing the church is the transformation of character in the lives of Christians. He contends that spiritual disciplines, which may be observed in the life of Jesus, are in fact the “easy yoke” of Jesus. He likens transformation to the athletic feats of sports figures, that only are possible through years of practicing certain disciplines. His thesis is that:
“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” (p. 252).
A critical aspect of Willard’s thinking is his understanding of what it means to be humans who are meant to image God in their embodied existence. What has been overlooked in much of the church is that the “spiritual life” which is a vital part of being human is one lived out through our physical bodies. Salvation is not a moment but a life of transformation worked out in our bodies. He spends several chapters laying out this theology of the body, culminating in a look at the life of Paul and how his own understanding of spiritual life exemplifies this embodied understanding.
Willard then in two chapters outlines the history of the disciplines and enumerates some of the most important. Critical in his survey of history was a monastic asceticism focused on forgiveness of sin. Willard contends that Protestantism either continued or reacted to this mistaken focus. He argues instead for a kind of asceticism focused on the discipline of the body through which spiritual transformation occurs as it positions us to interact with God. He then describes key disciplines in two groups, those of abstinence (including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those of engagement (including study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).
The final two chapters take up the issues of poverty and power. First, on poverty, Willard argues that the idea that it is more spiritual to be poor. While we are not to show preference for the rich and should care for and even patronize the businesses of the poor and live among them, the issue is using resources under the grace of God for the good of people and the glory of God. He also has an interesting take on power–we idolize power when the radical character transformation of disciples leads to a situation akin to life under the judges in Israel. In the church Willard argues that:
“The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12), and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. 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 Christians or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, 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” (p. 246).
The book concludes with an epilogue which is a personal appeal to apply the truth of the book. There are two appendices, the first of which is an excerpt from Jeremy Taylor “on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.” The second is an article on Discipleship that first appeared in Christianity Today in 1980. Don’t skip over this–it is a bracing challenge for church leaders to devote themselves to the work of making disciples.
I was struck afresh with how important this book for any of us who teach the spiritual disciplines and are committed to their practice in our lives. The disciplines are so much richer when we understand how God works through the disciplines for our growth in Christ. The central section, which can be a bit heavy going, is vital in a church that still often is “gnostic” in its view of the body. Most of all, it is a critically important book for any who are tired of nostrums and empty ritual and long for the experience of transformation.