November 22, 2017

IM Book Review: Dallas Willard’s Best Book

spirit of disciplines bookThe Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives
by Dallas Willard

1988. HarperOne; Reprint edition (May 5, 1999)

Note: As of this writing, the ebook addition of this book is now available for only $3.99 on Amazon.

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When we mentioned Dallas Willard last week, one of our commenters wrote and asked where the best place to start would be in reading his books. I know many folks like The Divine Conspiracy, and so do I, but before reading that fine work I would recommend one that sets forth Willard’s fundamental teachings about spiritual formation: The Spirit of the Disciplines.

Several sentences in the book’s preface summarize Willard’s perspective:

My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing — by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.

Faith today is treated as something that only should make us different, not that actually does or can make us different.

We have simply let our thinking fall into the grip of a false opposition of grace to “works” that was caused by a mistaken association of works with “merit.”

When we call men and women to life in Christ Jesus, we are offering them the greatest opportunity of their lives — the opportunity of a vivid companionship with him, in which they will learn to be like him and live as he lived. This is that “transforming friendship” explained by Leslie Weatherhead. We meet and dwell with Jesus and his Father in the disciplines for the spiritual life.

I want us to take the disciplines that seriously. I want to inspire Christianity today to remove the disciplines from the category of historical curiosities and place them at the center of the new life in Christ. Only when we do, can Christ’s community take its stand at the present point of history. Our local assemblies must become academies of life as it was meant to be.

Above all else, Dallas Willard believed that the new life in Jesus was meant to be lived, not just accepted intellectually or believed. In my view, Willard is simply reinforcing the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-10 —

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (NASB)

God’s grace that saves us in Christ is received by faith alone, but faith in Christ does not remain alone. God ushers us into a new life, a new creation, in which we are free to practice good works of love. In fact, God has already provided these works and prepared us for them, and it is our daily joy to walk with Christ in them.

Willard preachDallas Willard won me over early in this book when he used a baseball illustration that resonated exactly with my experience. When I was young, it was common for my friends and me to imitate our favorite ballplayers. We would mimic the stances of our favorite hitters, holding the bat at just the right angle, following their routine as closely as we could. We had our favorite pitchers too and we’d try copy their leg kicks (Juan Marichal was a special challenge) and the form by which they threw the ball and followed through to the plate.

Of course, if merely imitating our favorite players’ actions would have enabled us to actually do what they did, the big leagues would be filled with young boys who grew up to be skilled adult athletes simply by posing in front of their mirrors or in the pick-up games in which they pretended. As Dallas Willard says:

The star performer himself didn’t achieve his excellence by trying to behave a certain way only during the game. Instead, he chose an overall life of preparation of mind and body, pouring all his energies into that total preparation, to provide a foundation in the body’s automatic responses and strength for his conscious efforts during the game.

If this sports illustration doesn’t float your boat, Willard makes it clear that this process is true of any discipline capable of giving significance to our lives. It is a general principle of human life that 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.”

Thus, as Dallas Willard asserts, we have misunderstood fundamentally what it means to “follow Jesus” or to “be like Jesus.” We ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” and fail to ask the deeper question: “What kind of overall life did Jesus live that enabled him to do what he did, organically and naturally, because his actions “in the moment” grew out of his deep, secret life of companionship with the Father?” We aim for “at-the-moment” action while avoiding the life of practice and preparation.

The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. …We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.

Dallas Willard calls this “the secret of the easy yoke,” and it is fundamental to his entire approach to personal formation for those who want to follow Jesus. The rest of the book builds on this important foundation.

  • Along the way he reemphasizes that theology is not a realm of study primarily, but a realm of life. It is especially important that we recognize the place of our bodies in this process. Any development of the “inner person” takes place only in my embodied self.
  • He also introduces the Bible’s pervasive theme of the kingdom and shows how, from the very beginning, human beings were created to embody God’s rule in earthly settings as they live in constant companionship with the King.
  • The teaching of Jesus tells us that he came to introduce God’s Kingdom into this world and make its reality available on a new level for human beings. Spirituality, for Willard, is “a matter of another reality. It is absolutely indispensible to keep before us the fact that it is “not a ‘commitment’ and it is not a ‘life-style’…” Nor is it a matter of taking certain social or political  positions, though all these things may flow from it. This “formation” of which he talks is rather a matter of integrating our lives into the reality of the Kingdom, or as I would put it, learning to walk in the new creation.
  • There is a chapter which sets forth Paul as an example, both in his teaching and practice.
  • There is a further chapter that explores the history and meaning of the disciplines.

All these details add depth and context to Willard’s primary point: encouraging Christians to take up the overall life of companionship with God that will bring forth the fruit of Christ-formed living from us. The “disciplines” that he goes on to explore in the latter part of the book are activities “undertaken to bring us into more effectual cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom.”

I doubt you’ll read a better book on life with Christ than The Spirit of the Disciplines. This is theology at its best, a wise and loving gift to the church, the testament of a man who cared above all that those who embrace God’s grace through faith see its fruit borne in their lives through love.

Comments

  1. We know what to do.

    We just flat out refuse to do it, so much of the time. Although once in a while we will step outside of our comfort zone…a little bit…if the cost isn’t too high.

    Thanks be to God that we have a Savior.

    __

    Luther was spot on when he decided that the very first of the 95 Theses would be;

    “The entire life of the Christian is one of repentance.”

  2. James D says:

    This is a book that has been on my to read list for some time. – having read the divine conspiracy first.

    “Thus, as Dallas Willard asserts, we have misunderstood fundamentally what it means to “follow Jesus” or to “be like Jesus.” We ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” and fail to ask the deeper question: “What kind of overall life did Jesus live that enabled him to do what he did, organically and naturally, because his actions “in the moment” grew out of his deep, secret life of companionship with the Father?” We aim for “at-the-moment” action while avoiding the life of practice and preparation.”

    I am of the opinion that what we should be seeking to be is Jesus if he we us- not trying to copy a first centaury Rabbi, but imitating Christ as if he were me; with my talents, personality traits, limitations, allergies, culture and weaknesses. This goes as far as if Jesus had my sinful history too. The gift of grace being that which allows us to start over from where we are now, and return to the way that Christ would live.

    • James D: Very well said.
      “This goes as far as if Jesus had my sinful history too.” That’s a starting point I never considered. It’s a much more realistic starting point for me, rather jumping to perfection. Thanks!

    • will f. says:

      That’s helpful, thank you. Yeah, ‘what would Jesus do’ never worked for me: I’m so warped by lust and greed, how the heck would I know? And wwjd doesn’t do much when the issue is, say, what to do about this burden of resentment I have about something an ex said to me a decade ago, since He didn’t have any failed romances to get over. Great idea, of Jesus being able to make us more Christlike but still making use of all the detritus of our personal lives, our mistakes, our crimes..
      I am grateful to all internet monk commenters.
      Where’s eagle?

    • Christiane says:

      ‘Patience’ is one of those essentials in Christian life, if a person wants to live ‘in imitation of Christ’ . . . patience with one’s self as wounded, and patience with others.
      For folks who demand that others live as they want them to live,
      here is a confrontation from a Christian who also explored Dallas Willard’s quest to live in ‘Imitation of Christ’ long ago in fourteenth century medieval Germany:

      “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be,
      since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”
      (Thomas a Kempis)

  3. I guess that there is something wrong with me because every time I try to read ANYTHING by Willard I fall asleep after a couple of pages. It’s not that it’s boring, per se, it’s just that the prose is so thick that I can’t seem to get through it. If everyone SAYS his writings are so great then they MUST be, but for ME they are Sominex.

    • My experience with N.T. Wright.

      • Wright is not so much revelatory as he is pedantic. I have read little of his writings that are not simple recapitulations of basic Christian teachings. In that respect I guess you could say he is a pedagogue more than a prophet.

        • Phil M. says:

          Well he certainly manages to make a lot of people upset with him if all he’s doing is talking about recapitulations of basic Christian teachings. But then again, basic Christian teachings should be upsetting to some people.

          • Christiane says:

            I have seen ‘basic Christian teaching’ so taken down by some fundamentalists to something called the ‘biblical gospel’ that it is devoid of many important lessons that Our Lord taught us

            . . . I have since suspected that when folks begin to ‘focus in’ on their version of ‘the gospel’, it is more about what they are able to handle and control, rather than what can be (sometimes painfully) at work in them.

        • I agree that Wright is quite orthodox theologically, However, much of what he writes directly contradicts/opposes much of the doctrine of conservative Christianity, especially in the U. S.

          • Christiane says:

            ‘conservative’ is not what the far right is anymore . . . it has become something much more extreme
            (it is no longer our grandfather’s generation’s definition of ‘conservative’)
            . . . and I think the Christians you are talking about may fall more into the category of ‘fundamentalists’ in their faith: highly literal, bordering on cultic, exclusive, and isolationist

            . . . there are some evangelical Christian people who quote Wright’s works in a positive way;
            but I can see how far-right fundamentalists would not accept him

    • Kathleen says:

      This also happened to me at first. I found that reading The Spirit of the Disciplines (especially the beginning part) and Hearing God were a bit more straightforward than some of his other books and helped me understand his style a little more. It also just took multiple tries. If I tried to read and wasn’t in the mood, I would put it back down and pick it up a couple of days later. At some point, I would finally be ready to dig in.

      And I’m thankful for my patience with his writing because The Spirit of the Disciplines is the first book I have ever read that gave me hope of actually becoming more like Christ in this lifetime. In fact, I have been suffering from depression for the past few years, and it was the first time I felt true hope in a long time. Not to say this will be true for everybody, but I do encourage those who really want to read Willard to keep trying if his writing seems too lofty or philosophical or just plain confusing at first.

  4. “effectual cooperation with Christ…” that phrase sums it up for me: esp. the idea of “cooperation”. He leads….we follow. I recommend Willard highly.

  5. +1 for Juan Marichal reference.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      +1. For me when I was growing up, it was about trying to pitch like Luis Tiant. Another challenge.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    The answer usually is where we haven’t looked, if that makes any sense. Sometimes I read the news, or watch for what passes for news on television, and wonder “where is the Kingdom in all this?” Where is a sign of the Kingdom or an act of Kingdom power? Then I hear about something I should already know after so many years. The Kingdom starts within. Willard puts it so well: ” Nor is it a matter of taking certain social or political positions, though all these things may flow from it. This “formation” of which he talks is rather a matter of integrating our lives into the reality of the Kingdom, or as I would put it, learning to walk in the new creation.”

    I’ll confess to not having read from Willard’s work. But that is about to change.

  7. If one suffers from depression, or something like it, is it sensible to fast? Would it be more advisable to eat healthily and regularly? Or would a short fast, say until 5.30, not make much difference?

    • No discipline is “required,” despite what many have taught. And just as it would probably not be effective to train a football player by requiring him to play the violin, the disciplines should be appropriate for each person and congregation in their unique settings.

  8. It is impossible to engage in disciplines without falling into despair or using them as a basis for trying to impress God. “Love God and do what you please.” –Augustine.

    • BA-LO-NEE. Does it work that way in other areas of life (sports,music, languages, pick anything complicated and difficult…. ) No ?? Then why should it “always” lead to despair or faulty motive when applied to another list ? thank you for your gross over statement.