Spiritual Disciplines Are Dung!

Putrid smelling dung — that’s what spiritual disciplines become without love. My comment surprised the pastor I was coaching.

But I heard Dallas Willard say on a few occasions something like, “The disciplines for life in Christ are not what is important. We make too big a deal about them.” He was concerned about legalism, pride, guilt, and excitement that ends in defeat.

Often he was asked to speak on the spiritual disciplines, but he’d spend most of the time teaching on the vision of the availability of life today in the Kingdom of God through confidence in Jesus.

One time Dallas was going to help me by speaking to a couple hundred pastors on Jesus’ easy yoke, but then he got sick with the cancer that shortened his life. So I asked John Ortberg to speak on his behalf and he told us, “We need to find a way to assess spiritual progress so the Pharisees don’t win.”

That’s the problem in the Church today. We measure ourselves by our Bible reading program, how much we pray, our church participation, if we’re spending enough time in solitude, and so on. It’s a pile of poop! Which is basically what Paul concludes about his track record of religious disciplines (Philippians 3:8).

From comments Dallas made, I believe he saw his book The Spirit of the Disciplines which he wrote in 1988 as a corrective to how some people misused his friend Richard Foster’s best-selling book which came out ten years earlier, The Celebration of Discipline.

Dallas wrote the outline for Richard’s book on a napkin in a restaurant! He had been teaching on the spiritual life in Richard’s little Quaker church for years. They taught that the disciplines are not a matter of righteousness — they’re medicines for the spiritually sick; they’re not tricks for a better life — they’re “means of grace”.

Richard’s book unpacked ancient, but largely forgotten Christian practices like meditation, fasting, solitude, and guidance. I loved the book when it came out and have referred to it many times since.

However, Dallas emphasized the spirit or attitude we bring to the disciplinesthat’s the key that unlocks the treasures of life in God’s kingdom. Am I captivated with King Christ as my Life Leader and Soul Lover? Am I delighting in the Lord who delights in me?

If our answer is yes!, then we won’t make the mistake of being heroic with disciplines, nor will we make the opposite mistake of being passive. Instead, we’ll respond to Jesus like people did in the Gospels:

  • Pressing in close to touch Jesus. (Mark 5:24, Luke 5:1)
  • Re-arranging our whole lives to be Jesus’ apprentice. (Mark 2:14)
  • Measuring our lives by how much we’re overflowing with God’s love to people around us. (Mark 12:31)

How are your spiritual disciplines going? We begin with enthusiasm, especially at the start of a New Year or after experiencing a spiritual high, but often we fade — either in performance or heart.

If you find yourself satisfied by accomplishing disciplines or not motivated to do anything you’ve probably slipped out of Jesus’ easy yoke rhythms of grace that bring rest for our souls and help us to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30)


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