Insights and Applications From The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard
This Spiritual Disciplines List features some main disciplines for life in Christ with concise definitions for each. We call these “spiritual disciplines,” but the activities are physical, not spiritual. They are bodily activities that can engage and effect our whole person (Romans 12:1-2). So a more accurate term for the exercises in this list is “disciplines for a spiritual life in Christ.”
To excel in anything in life discipline is required. This is true for athletes, musicians, plumbers, accountants, and disciples of Jesus. Effective discipline is not drudgery, it is delightful! Of course, training has difficult aspects, but the hard work pays off to facilitate ease and joy of living. Just watch a master pianist and you’ll see that he or she is not straining to do well, but enjoying the music. Hence Richard Foster insists that we’re meant to “celebrate” as we practice disciplines for growth in Christ.
Dallas Willard insists that more important than our disciplines is the attitude (or spirit) we bring. In other words, why are we doing an exercise? What is our purpose? We need a vision that the risen Christ is before us, inviting us to apprentice ourselves to him and learn how to live our whole lives in the Kingdom of God.
Two Keys to Success: Indirection and Habit
Discipline works by indirection, Dallas Willard teaches. A discipline is something we can do that enables us to do what we haven’t yet been able to do by our own direct effort. Trying is not enough. (“Don’t try — train!” is a way to paraphrase 1 Tim. 4:7.) Our training is connecting us with a power much greater than our own — the Spirit of God that raised Jesus Christ from the dead!
So if you can’t break the power of an addiction to alcohol or pornography one step to get free (in addition to obvious measures like 12 Step Recovery and psychotherapy) might be to fast from food. With practice you can experience the reality that fasting is feasting: even though you’re not eating you’re sustained in the joy and peace of God by meditating on Scripture and praying. If you can get past headaches and grumpiness when fasting and learn to be sweet and strong without getting the food you need then you can apply this to resisting your compulsive behavior.
The other way discipline works is because we’re developing new and healthy habits. You can’t be good at golf without developing a number of specific habits in your body — there are seemingly a hundred aspects to a good golf swing! We can’t even drive our cars safely without habits. Without thinking about it we notice conditions on the road and break when needed.
The spiritual life works the same way. We need bodily habits that engage our mind and heart with God. We want to get into a position in our daily lives where we find ourselves meditating on Scripture, praying, or blessing the one who curses us without even having intended to do so. Using an intelligently designed course of disciplines over time will do that.
Grow in Grace with Jesus
Christ Jesus himself practiced this Spiritual Disciplines List and this was crucial to the peace and power that he lived with. I show this in my book Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke. Each chapter features an inspiring look at Jesus in the Gospels and how we can learn from him to de-stress and live a joyful, peaceful, and fruitful life.
Studying our Master’s rhythm of life in the Gospels is one of the most important things we can do. Jesus grew in grace (Luke 2:40, 52) and Peter urges us that we must do the same (2 Peter 3:18). Disciplines don’t set aside our need for grace nor do they earn us anything — they simply are means to help us be with Jesus to become like him. As the Son of God abided in the Father’s love so we abide in him and then he and the Father abide in us! (John 15:9-10)
To grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior we need to practice some tried and true disciplines from both major categories of disciplines: abstinence (self-denial) and engagement (connecting relationally with God and others). Using one side without the other will not lead to much growth. Abstinence makes space for deeper engagement with God and others and engagement gives strength to endure the challenges of abstinence.
The Spiritual Disciplines List
What activities belong on a Spiritual Disciplines List? There is no complete list! Any activity that helps you to grow your reliance upon the Spirit of Jesus might make your spiritual disciplines list. For instance, Kristi has used floating on a raft as a spiritual discipline! Or I’ve used coming to a full stop at stop signs and celebrating stop lights to practice waiting on God.
Here are some main disciplines of abstinence and engagement that have been helpful to Christ-followers over the centuries.
Disciplines of Abstinence (Self-Denial)
These are ways of denying ourselves something we want or need in order to make space to focus on and connect with God.
Solitude: Refraining from interacting with other people in order to be alone with God and be found by him. (Solitude is completed by silence.)
Silence: Not speaking in a quiet place in order to quiet our minds and whole self and attend to God’s presence. Also, not speaking so that we can listen to others and bless them.
Fasting: Going without food (or something else like media) for a period of intensive prayer — the fast may be complete or partial.
Sabbath: Doing no work to rest in God’s person and provision; praying and playing with God and others. (God designed this for one day a week. We can practice it for shorter periods too.)
Secrecy: Not making our good deeds or qualities known to let God or others receive attention and to find our sufficiency in God alone (e.g., see Matthew 6).
Submission: Not asserting ourselves in order to come under the authority, wisdom, and power of Jesus Christ as our Lord, King, and Master. (If you think of this as submitting to a person as unto Christ then it’s a discipline of engagement.)
Disciplines of Engagement (Christ in Community)
These are ways of connecting with God and other people, conversing honestly with them in order to love and be loved.
Bible Reading: Trusting the Holy Spirit-inspired words of Scripture as our guide, wisdom, and strength for life. (Related disciplines include Bible study, Scripture meditation, and praying God’s Word. For instance, see the Soul Shepherding booklets on Lectio Divina Guides, Ignatian Meditation Guides, and Breath Prayer Guides.).
Worship: Praising God’s greatness, goodness, and beauty in words, music, ritual, or silence. (We can worship God privately or in community.)
Prayer: Conversing with God about what we’re experiencing and doing together. (As we see in the Lord’s Prayer the main thing we do in prayer is to make requests or intercessions to our Father for one another.)
Soul Friendship: Engaging fellow disciples of Jesus in prayerful conversation or other spiritual practices. (Related spiritual disciplines or practices include small groups, spiritual direction, and mentoring relationships.)
Personal Reflection: Paying attention to our inner self in order to grow in love for God, others, and self. (The Psalms in the Bible model this.)
Service: Humbly serving God by overflowing with his love and compassion to others, especially those in need. (Also tithing and giving.)
Help For Incorporating Spiritual Disciplines Into Your Life
In Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke: Rhythms of Grace to De-Stress and Live Empowered I bring this spiritual disciplines list to life through sharing the stories of real people who need help with the stress and hurts of daily life.
I lead you in engaging and practical ways that you can experiment with these disciplines. Instead of telling you to go do a discipline, I take you by the hand and guide you closer to Christ through Scripture meditations, prayers, and other simple exercises. This book is full of Biblical insights I’ve learned from being personally mentored by Dallas Willard.
“This is ground-breaking! Pastors and others will come under this teaching and develop aspects of it in their own ministry.”