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The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives Paperback – May 5, 1999
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Believers long for personal purity and power to live as our hearts tell us we should. But how does God change us? Willard reminds us that we can be like Christ if we follow his style of life: solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, meditation on God's Word, and service to others. The practice of these disciplines is how God guides us into a constant interaction with his kingdom. ''The book of the decade!''---Richard Foster.
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The book I chose to start reading was "The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives ("SD")." Just like all of his other writings and teaching, every single sentence of SD oozes with an intoxicating profundity and theological/moral incumbency and authority prompting one to reconsider what it actually means to be an active follower of Christ. Although some reviewers complain of "redundancy" (repetition may be the proper term), these reviewers likely do not understand the context for the content in SD, they have not been exposed to the entire divine conspiracy, or they were simply not in the proper stage of life or state of mind to fully appreciate the import of "repetition"--and there is no actual culpability of redundancy in SD.
(Dr. Black summaries the Dallas' divine conspiracy in `The Divine Conspiracy Continued,' stating "God's divine conspiracy is to overcome the human kingdoms of this world with love, justice, and truth. This includes the whole world and all of human society--at the individual, corporate, and governmental levels" [page 2]).
Any alleged redundancy is wholly intentional and this is a fairly large theme in SD: interactive learning utilizing our actual bodies as we imbibe truths to be utilized for God's Kingdom, defined by Dallas as the range of God's effective will. Again, this is where those exposed to Dallas' wider vision and other teachings are able to glean the import of SD.
For example, Dallas teaches that we are created in such a way that learning comes by way of participation, an "interactive" participation that requires repetition and the use of our physical bodies. Rather than simply read a book or listen to a sermon, if we want the real benefit of learning we ought to write out the main points (the actual use of our body--our hands in conjunction with our intentions--that is required in practicing spiritual disciplines). The result is an ability to retain what we read or are taught is increased by 8 times. We are interactively utilizing our physical bodies and minds, much like my typing this review.
It is somewhat difficult to write a review of SD without being a tad autobiographic. I do not believe that Dallas would have had any aversions. In fact, he would likely embrace such a review as an application and/or conclusion of a purpose of SD. To be honest, then, like many of my brothers and sisters, my thought life has been terribly skewed with feelings of failure and my actions have become marginalized. Worldly circumstances, recent and childhood traumas have manifested and become overwhelmingly difficult to deal with leading to the marginalization of my relationship with Jesus. I have felt this for years, and this became all the more clear after reading SD and Dallas is quick to point out that he is not seeking to condemn to reader. I am 45 years of age, my wife and I have been committed believers for 20 years, I graduated from a well-known seminary and I have been formally involved in the culture war for well over a decade. My focus has been against the relegation of Christian truth claims placed into the category of mere belief and taken out of the category of knowledge.
(For those well read or those in the academy this is known as the epistemic aspect of a worldview (a.k.a. knowledge). SD is also meant to provide a practical medium to combat this marginalization or relegation. However, this says nothing of my relationship, or lack thereof, and the present use of Jesus as a co-worker [or as my Teacher and general] in this fight).
I have become so entrenched in reading the requisite materials to help me engage the culture war that I lost sight of the real power and purpose that lay behind this calling. It took the contents of SD to show me where I have wavered off of the lighten path as Dallas writes and speaks with insights that are brilliantly haunting and difficult to shake.
My feelings of failure are by no means a result of reading SD or being exposed to any of Dallas' materials (as I have read and heard some unfortunately critics suggest). Rather, as a Christian I intuitively know that I am falling short--I am not condemned because of my present state--but I need help at this time of my life and I have found it again in the Christian worldview. I have far to go so it will be interesting to read this review a year from now. In short, I need relational help, counseling, and so forth, and this is where the contents of SD shine. For those of you suffering (even suffering a similar problem) I highly recommend using SD in conjunction with other avenues of help (e.g., counseling).
Up until his final days, Dallas was always very concerned about the same issues and his SD is one part of his overall solution, or divine conspiracy. As a world class philosopher, Dallas taught there is an external world and we can have actual knowledge of the world. In the context of spiritual growth, Dallas teaches that unless we realize we have the power to be like Christ now and to act in accordance with the range of His effective Will, then the answers Christians provide to four fundamental questions will have little import in the public square and the culture war. In his book `Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge,' Dallas states that it is his hope for everyone to understand "knowledge, but not mere belief or commitment, confers on its possessor an authority or right--to act, to direct action, to establish and supervise policy, and to teach" (page 17). What are the four fundamental questions? (1) What it real or what is reality? (2) Who has it made [well-being or blessedness]? (3) Who is a really good person? And (4) How does one become a genuinely good person? For Dallas, the answers to these questions comprise one's worldview.
One of the magnificent aspects of all of Dallas' SD is that he masterfully unpacks, in a very thoughtful and gracious manner, how one can presently begin living a properly full (or fuller) life, manifesting purpose, intention and the character of Christ versus focusing in the so-called "good days" when we were saved by God's grace. Dallas points out that focusing on our salvation and Christ's death (via God's grace) can undermine the full Christian life that is available now, by not simply focusing on an "instant" of God's actualized purpose for our lives when we are saved. The divine conspiracy as encapsulated by Dr. Black.
This is by no means an easy read and I suggest reading SD slowly when you are awake, and are psychologically and emotionally ready or you would be wasting your time (this is apparent in some of the reviews). The core of SD is unpacked in chapter 1 through 3 and 7 through 11. Dallas reserves chapters 4 through 6 for a biblical explanation of who we are and what spiritual life is all about, and he informs the reader to read chapters 7 through 11 and return to 4 through 6 as these are the chapters that focus on human nature and discipleship, including unembodied spiritual power--i.e., the spiritual life. Like some of his later writings, these chapters introduce the reader to God's view of the human persons, the flesh, our bodies working interactively with God's effective will.
Chapter 8 presents a rich "history and meaning of the disciplines" and chapter 9 Dallas presents the spiritual disciplines within two contexts: (1) disciplines of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice); and, (2) are the disciplines of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission). This list is by no mean exhaustive. Each discipline is accompanied by incredibly unique biblical, theological and philosophic insights unlike I have ever read before. SD, like all of his writings, must be read slowly and intently, readers should take notes, and they ought to re-read those sections that are most relevant to your life in order to put the contents into action.
Unlike many other books on spiritual growth, the end of chapter 9 provides the reader to put the disciplines into practice as we are provided a basis to gauge how committed we are in following Jesus. That is to say, Dallas is wise enough to recognize that we are all in different places in our relationship with Jesus. Some readers desire to change and others merely have the desire to want to want to change. Therefore, as a starting point Dallas' informs us that the "range of the disciplines is largely determined by our own established tendencies to sin that must be resisted . . . [hence] (w)hich disciplines must be central to our lives will be determined by the chief sins of commission and omission that entice or threaten us from day to day" (page 191). In other words, we begin with those discipline(s) that are correlated to contravene those worldly habits that we exercise the most.
In closing, I have much to do as I am now steeped in Willardian theology, a practical theology, and I look forward to being an active participant in the divine conspiracy.