Book Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines

By | September 11, 2014

The Spirit of the Disciplines is a book written by Dallas Willard. I admit, it’s not what I had expected. I’ve previously read “Celebration of Discipline” and thought that this book would be similar. The books both have to do with spiritual disciplines but diverge from there. Richard Foster (author of Celebration of Discipline) examines twelve different spiritual disciplines, always considering how they may be practiced.

Willard embarks on a completely different, more philosophical journey. He seeks to make an argument for the need of spiritual disciplines and the reasons they are important. Willard is very intelligent, which in this case makes the book feel more academic rather than one which would appeal to a broader, general audience. To be honest, I expect that significant portions of the book would go over many people’s heads as Willard dives into philosophy of the nature of human life and the relation of the body and spirit.

Throughout the book Willard expresses how he believes himself to be fighting against a paradigm that views spiritual disciplines as something which only a handful of odd people practiced years ago but which aren’t to be used today and which may even be harmful. While this might be a belief which previous generations have held, it is not a position I’ve really encountered myself, making the book seem less relevant. That said, Willard does make good points about the disciplines, explaining how they are practices we ought to engage in in order to train ourselves to behave in a Christ-like manner. “The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves.” (p. 86).

Willard does get around to reviewing the disciplines themselves, but it is a relatively short section buried two-thirds of the way into the book. As typical (he tends to be long-winded and comprehensive in my opinion), he concludes the book with a fairly comprehensive examination of wealth and poverty and social systems and power.

Overall, Willard is very intelligent and has some great thoughts which I think are quite compelling. However he does write at a reasonably high level and his books take some effort to get through.

I leave you with a few choice quotes from the book:

“Habitual reliance upon God as we dedicate our bodies to righteous behavior makes sin dispensable, even uninteresting and revolting—just as righteousness was revolting to us when our behavior was locked into the sin system. Our desires and delights are changed because our actions and attitude are based upon the reality of God’s Kingdom.” (p. 118)

The entire question of discipline, therefore, is how to apply the acts of will at our disposal in such a way that the proper course of action, which cannot always be realize by direct and untrained effort, will nevertheless be carried out when needed.” (p. 152).

“In witnessing, the role of talking is frequently overemphasized.” (p. 164).

“The first act of love is always the giving of attention.” (p. 210).

“Few people understand that they need help to prosper, for they have not yet cleared their hearts and minds of the world’s perspective on well-being.” (p. 216).

“If those in the churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic. The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live. It will be a school of life…” (p. 247). (This is largely my vision for church.)

“Healthy abstention in chastity can only be supported by loving, positive involvement with members of the opposite sex. Alienation from them makes room for harmful lusts… To practice chastity, then, we must first practice love, practicing seeking the good of those of the opposite sex we come in contact with at home, work, school, church, or next door.” (p. 172). (Oh man, I could go on about how poorly the church has done at this because of what I call the evangelical fear of sex.)

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