Spiritual Disciplines

Evangelical and mainline Protestants are now discovering the “spiritual disciplines,” thanks especially to writings by folks as disparate as Quaker Richard Foster and Baptist Dallas Willard. Foster lists the disciplines as meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Foster is founder of Renovaré, which will be having a conference in Houston the first weekend of October.

Brian Jones isn’t impressed by the focus on disciplines. He thinks it’s all overkill, and can do more harm than good. He thinks we study the Bible too much–considering that early Christians didn’t have their own copy of it. He thinks we pray too much–he thinks its fine to pray two or three times a week. He thinks spiritual growth comes from the work of God, not our own work, and has more often happened in his life because of suffering, God’s silence, and gatherings with other Christians.

I think Jones has some useful points, but he goes overboard. Yes, God is the one who brings about growth, but we cooperate with him. Yes, the “spiritual disciplines” movement tends to be individualistic–his emphasis upon corporate worship is important. But when we pray and study God’s word, we’re following the example of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles.

I’ve been reading Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, which is a book Jones would no doubt have serious problems with. I do, too. It’s a book about discipleship. One of my pet peeves is the use of “disciple” as a verb (e.g., “Bob discipled Larry”). Disciple comes from the Latin, discere, to learn, related to docere, to teach. One is not “discipled”–one is taught. A disciple is a student, with a particular teacher. Hence, Jesus says,

“Go ye therefore and teach (make disciples of) all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Willard is clear about this, fortunately. But he still says we haven’t done it. We’ve gone nearly two thousand years without making disciples; we’ve just made converts. He dismisses even Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship, with a flick of his wrist and an upturned nose (p. 8). He seems to assume–and here is the great danger with many books about spirituality, especially those introducing some new spiritual technique–that there are different ranks of Christians: mere converts and true disciples. That’s dangerous stuff. Anyone who thinks along these lines needs to reread 1 Corinthians 12-14.

The fact is, the Christian church, from day one, has been filled with saints and sinners, martyrs and betrayers, fiery hot and lukewarm. The people who taught me the Christian faith were disciples, as were the people who taught them, as were faithful men and women of all ages.

Willard, to his credit, says Christian discipleship is about obedience to Jesus (p. 45). Many contemporary spiritualities, he says, “are so many versions of idolatry. They are nothing but human attempts to use human means to achieve identity and power for the individual” (p. 48).

As for other definitions: the “spiritual disciplines,” for Willard, though they are things we do, must always remain supernatural–Christian spirituality must be “union in action with the triune God” (p. 52). “Spiritual formation” is “formation of our spirit in conformity with the Spirit of Christ” (p. 53). These are fine as far as they go.

The term, “spiritual formation,” is a new one for many Protestants. It comes from Catholic spirituality, where it is the specific process of the spiritual preparation of an individual for ministry or for life in a religious community, instilling in them specific spiritual habits. I think Protestants would do well to look at their ministerial preparation programs and evaluate them from this standpoint: do they prepare you to be a person of faith and prayer?

In an almost throwaway passage (p. 62), Willard uses more traditional Protestant language to make his point, and I think perhaps he would have been more effective had he used this terminology throughout. The problem, he says, is that for too many Protestants the gospel is reduced to justification by faith alone, and shorn of regeneration and sanctification. This is a book about sanctification, and the gradual transformation of character over a lifetime of obeying Jesus. Too many nominal Christians are content sitting in the pews with their names on the membership roles–what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

Willard cobbles together his approach from many different sources. Regrettably, Platonism is one of them. He assumes congruence between Greek philosophy and Biblical teaching (p. 142ff); both, he says, “take the soul as an entity in its own right.” They have “the same assumption about human existence” (p. 144). Spiritual formation, then, is something affecting the soul, and then proceeding to affect the rest of life, “including the body” (p. 156).

At the heart of Willard’s understanding of spiritual discipline and spiritual formation is his understanding of “Sabbath.” This is not the Sabbath, mind you, but Sabbath as principle, as metaphor. It is “the key to the keys to the kingdom” (chapter 5). The “moral principle” of Sabbath is to “do no work”, “casting all your anxiety on Him.”

“Making Sabbath real in the midst of our life” involves “solitude, silence, and fasting,” “the central disciplines of abstinence.”

For most of us, Sabbath will not become possible without extensive, regular practice of solitude. That is, we must practice time alone, out of contact with others, in a comfortable setting outdoors or indoors, doing no work. We must not take our work with us into solitude, or it will evade us–not even in the form of Bible study, prayer, or sermon preparation, for then we will not be alone (p. 35).

Here’s where I must pull sharply back on the reins and holler, “Whoaaaa!” Sabbath as abstinence from Bible study and prayer? Sabbath as mere retreat into ourselves? This is certainly not the Biblical understanding of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is not a principle, it is a day, a day set apart by God in memory of his work of creation, as well as a sign that he is the one who sanctifies us. It is not a day kept alone, but one in fellowship with God, in the communion of prayer and studying his Word. It is not a day of solitude, but involves a “holy convocation,” coming together with others. It is not a fast day, but a day to enjoy the fruits of creation–God didn’t simply withhold manna on it, but provided a double portion on Friday so that there would be food.

The book is an unfortunate hodgepodge of common sense and head-scratching novelty. But Willard’s popularity does underscore the dearth of spiritual depth in much of contemporary Christianity. It points to a hunger that can only be satisfied by true communion with God.