Home > spiritual disciplines > Thoughts on Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines

Thoughts on Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines

I want to be like Mike! Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. I can remember watching him play and being astounded at the way he dominated on the court. I made a decision a long time ago that I wanted to play just like him. In the 7th grade I got up the courage to try out for the basketball team even though I did not know how to play. My dribbling was terrible, my defense was non existent, and I could not do a wind sprint because of my asthma. I saw these problems as a temporary setback because I knew that I was born to play like Jordan. The coach did not see things my way at all. I was cut from tryouts after the first day. All I wanted was an opportunity to sit on the bench and be there ready to go in if he needed me. I knew that I could learn from watching the great players out there, but I did not think that practicing was going to help any. The truth is that if that day would have come for me to play I would have failed miserably because I did not take the time to practice for the game.

The reality for all Christians is that God requires us to get in the game (Mark 16:15). He expects us to get off of the bench and play until He pulls us out permanently. There are too many of us that are sitting on the bench (church attendance) who are not ready to go into the game because they are not willing to put in the practice necessary to be successful. In 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul tells us to “spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness” (NLT). He is stating that those who are prepared to be used by God are participating in exercises that make this growth possible.

Dallas Willard, in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, describes the nature, purpose, process, and product of the spiritual disciplines. In these next paragraphs we will discover how to practically relate this to life and ministry.

The Nature of the Disciplines
We have been called to be disciples of Christ. This means that we must be willing to do whatever it takes to follow Christ (Luke 9:23-24). I do not think there is any coincidence that disciple and discipline are similar terms. Those who followed Christ had specific actions they had to carry out in order to consider Him their teacher. I believe this give us a picture of what God wants for us today. Willard comments “a successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being – mind and body .” Basically he is saying that following Christ takes preparation. I have make sure that I am doing all I can to be ready for God to use me.

The Purpose of the Disciplines
“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 .” If I want to wholly give my life to God then I will have to practice the spiritual disciplines. Their purpose is to prepare me so that I can be in complete relationship with Christ. I have for years settled for partial relationship to Him because I was not taught about the disciplines. They seemed like something mystical and very unfamiliar to my faith community. Because of this disconnect I have not allowed myself to live in communion with the will of Christ. Romans 12:1-2 promises transformation to the believer if they give their life to God. If I only partially give myself to God is partial transformation possible? Imagine a butterfly that only has one wing. It is still a butterfly, but terribly prepared for the business of flying. The disciplines will allow the process of development to be completed in each one of us.

The Process of the Disciplines
“A discipline for the spiritual life is…nothing but an activity undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom .” In chapter four of his text Willard separates the disciplines into two different categories: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. The disciplines of abstinence include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. Each exercise represents areas of our life where we withdraw from certain activities. The disciplines of engagement include study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission. Each exercise here represents area of our life where we connect with certain activities. No one is intended to practice all of the disciplines. Each person knows areas in their life where they are spiritually weak. Through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit you can find which discipline should be practiced.

The Product of the Disciplines
“The reason you practice so much is so that you will do things automatically the same way every time .” We see in the Sermon on the Mount that Christ commands some drastic reactions out of His followers. We are told to “turn the other cheek ”, “love your enemies ”, and “not to worry about tomorrow .” Have you tried those actions lately? It is not possible to do any of those things without the power of God. The disciplines, when practiced daily, will help us to react naturally in this fashion. I will not have to struggle with making the right decisions in life because I will have been practicing it all along .

Practicing the spiritual disciplines means living in the presence of God now. They help us slow down so that we can hear God. Only through prayer, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and total surrender to the disciplines can we expect to be fully developed into the likeness of Christ. We use these tools as a way of being built in the people that He desires. God is patiently waiting on us. Will you take advantage of His free gift and allow this wonderful makeover to take place?

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1988)

Categories: spiritual disciplines
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