Book Review: Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard

A Review of The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives by Dallas Willard

BOOK: Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991.

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Introduction

Dr. Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines is increasingly considered a classic text in the spiritual disciplines. It is mostly written in a way that determined persons interested in gaining an understanding and appreciation of the spiritual disciplines could understand and apply. In the summer of 2013, the world lost an intellectual giant and leading Christian thinker and theologian in Dallas Willard. He was a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California and author of multiple books including Christianity Today’s 1999 Book of the Year, The Divine Conspiracy. I had the privilege to see Dr. Willard in person at a pastor’s conference hosted by Willow Creek Church in 2011. When asked from the stage why he chose a career in academia, Willard responded that he believed he could contribute more from the university, because the pulpit would always be open to him, but from the pulpit the university might become closed.  Seeing a man keenly aware of his gifting and skills and making a conscious decision to put his life in the place where he could contribute the most was a sentiment that inspired many pastors that day.

Summary of Contents

The book opens with a short forward and preface, both by the author, followed by eleven chapters, an epilogue, and two appendices. Chapter one opens with a tone setting quote from G. K. Chesterton that, “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.” From here, the book develops perhaps a most insightful assertion that the key to understanding the “easy yoke” Jesus speaks of in Matthew 11:29-30, is to really consider and look to the life of spiritual discipline actually practiced by the Lord himself, seen in the Scripture.

Chapters two and three delve into a modern and practical understanding of thinking theologically and applying that way of thinking to everyday life. One of Willard’s most poignant thoughts regarding modern Christians that they “live in constant tension between what they know they should be and what they think they can be – as well as what they are” (Willard, 1991, pg. 12). The author then asserts that new understanding, and more pointedly, practicing of the old disciplines is the answer to resolve this tension. The book introduces a tangentially interesting point about the late emergence of the cross in both Christian symbolism and theology.

Chapters four, five, and six launch into a disjointed theology of the body. According to Willard, the body, in relation to its role in being Imago Dei, was given a measure of independent power by God. The author states that without this power, humans could not resemble God nor be the co-workers with God he commanded Adam to be. In the life of the apostle Peter, the book describes how, through the power of God, lives are transformed over time and the book then explores the fullness of life that is experienced when connecting the spiritual life and the physical life.

Chapters seven and eight provide a historical overview of the spiritual disciplines, how they were viewed in different eras of Christian history and how they came to fall out of practice. In the apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus, the author compares two Biblical examples of how the disciplines were viewed and practiced in the first century.

Chapter nine is very comprehensive catalog of the spiritual disciplines and understanding their practice. Willard divides the disciplines into two categories. To the disciplines of abstinence, he assigns solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. To the disciplines of engagement, the author assigns study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission.

Chapter ten discussed the question of the spirituality of poverty. In it, Willard seeks to address a cultural bias that poverty is somehow a more righteous state. He provides an effective “test for the prejudice against wealth” and ultimately concludes that “while certain individuals may be given a specific call to poverty, in general, being poor is one of the poorest of ways to help the poor” (Willard, 1991, pp. 198-199).

In chapter eleven, Willard addresses the problem of evil and calls the churches action. While not always effective at making disciples, the author challenges churches to pursue spiritual transformation in people’s lives to become communities of justice and peace. The most effective section of this chapter is in the section on authentic metanoia, a deep desire to change from within. The book looks at both the apostle Peter and the prophet Isaiah when both were struck by a sense of “otherness” as they came in the presence of the Lord and truly recognized His holiness as the source of motivation to be transformed from within.

The epilogue, only three pages, is the author’s appeal to the reader to take action and begin a journey through the spiritual disciplines to respond when Jesus says, “follow me.” Of the two appendices, the second which is Dr. Willard’s 1980 article in Christianity Today, is an excellently organized piece that is essentially a summary of the book it now closes.

Critique and Evaluation

As previously stated, The Spirit of the Disciplines is likely already viewed as a classic text on the spiritual disciplines. However, the book often seems disjointed and unorganized. The author’s use of subheadings within each chapter is not just helpful, but necessary otherwise the author risks leaving readers at a loss to follow major premises of the book.

Some of the best points in The Spirit of the Disciplines are made in the first few chapters, where the author very effectively demonstrates that the church’s lack of practicing spiritual discipline fundamentally disables a Christian’s ability to take hold of the fullness of the spiritual life, and come to know it as the “easy yoke” that Jesus says it is to be. The author employs a very effective metaphor of idolizing an athlete. Simply attempting to perform as a great baseball player only in game situations is not just guaranteed failure, but is a complete miscomprehension of the very life choices, discipline, and practice of the athlete being idolized. It is a very fruitful exercise to be challenged, as the book does, to look at Jesus as one who daily practiced spiritual disciplines, and not just supernaturally opposing the tempter in the desert.

The stickiest part of the book is in Dr. Willard’s development of the concept of spiritual power and how this power relates to human bodies.  It is important to note that on this point, there is much well articulated and deserved criticism and caution. Willard’s lack of explanation leads readers very close to philosophies more appropriate to eastern mysticism than orthodox Christianity.

His point that “The body is our primary area of power, freedom, and – therefore – responsibility,” is fairly easy to grasp and apply to one’s way of thinking. His immediately subsequent point derived from Einstein’s revolutionary formula E=MC2 about the power inherent in a single atom of matter, and that it is somehow connected to the biological material of our bodies, is not so easy to grasp and Willard doesn’t seem to offer the needed Biblical reference points to solidify his meaning. However, causing the reader to consider the full redemptive plan of God that includes our physical bodies, as the book does in chapters four and six, is not just inseparable from Christian doctrine, but an effective call to discipline in the way we treat our bodies.

Application to Ministry

There are many obvious points in The Spirit of the Disciplines that directly apply to ministry. The aforementioned metaphor of an athlete role model is ripe for preaching, teaching, and relational disciple making. Chapter nine’s listing of the spiritual disciplines is an extremely helpful tool for Believers seeking to learn more about the disciplines, and specifically for pastors and teachers to use when leading Christian’s through a study of the spiritual disciplines. Finally, a careful study of what the book refers to as the late emergence of the cross in Christian symbolism can be a very fruitful conversation that helps growing Christian disciples to better understand the context, language, and perspective of the New Testament writers when they use terms like, “put to death” in Colossians 3:5, and “to live is Christ and to die is gain” in Philippians 1:21. But to reiterate, the loosely defined role of the body in relation to spiritual power is often cause enough for pastors not to recommend this book to casual readers.

Summary

The Spirit of the Disciplines is an excellent text and resource for any serious Christian interested in learning more about the spiritual disciplines. The presentation of the disciplines in chapter nine is a helpful resource for all Christians. More specifically, this book is especially helpful in understanding how the disciplines were understood and practiced throughout Christian history. Readers interested in The Spirit of the Disciplines may do well to begin by first reading Dr. Willard’s article included as Appendix II, then go to the beginning of the book, as that article provides an excellent overview and context for the reader to then delve into the deeper concepts the author covers.