It is my opinion that The Spirit of the Disciplines is the definitive work on spiritual disciplines. While Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline gave us a great overview of the spiritual disciplines, Willard’s book goes into the meat of the disciplines, discussing history, why we need them, and what the long-term effects are.
I won’t lie. It’s not an easy book to read. There are about three chapters toward the beginning (four through six, I think) that you might want to just skip. Willard even suggests that. I muddled through them, though. But once you get to chapter seven, where he discusses Paul the Apostle’s “psychology of redemption,” things get really good. The perspective from which he suggests we read Paul’s writings, especially Romans, is mind-blowing.
From there, Dallas goes into some history of the disciplines, and then, in chapter nine, actually discusses a number of the disciplines, but not in a lot of detail. His list is slightly different from Foster’s list, but it brings the point across that there is not a fixed list of disciplines. As Dallas, himself, said in the conference recording, Living in Christ’s Presence, there was one instance where he was practicing “the discipline of not having the last word.”
But I must say that the truly revolutionary chapters of the book are the last two. In chapter ten, Dallas discusses poverty and the prevailing myth that poverty is somehow more spiritual than being rich. He completely destroys that myth, and reminds us that the Scriptures never tell us that we are supposed to eliminate poverty from the world. Yes, we are to care for the needy and poor, and he is all for that. But the point is, you can’t help the poor if you are poor. So intentional poverty is no more spiritual than possessing a lot.
The final chapter is both inspiring and devastating. Dallas relates the practice of the disciplines to the “power structures of the world.” He points out that we really shouldn’t be asking “Why” when horrible things happen (crimes perpetrated by others). Rather, we should be “deeply thankful that something is restraining us, keeping us from fully doing what lies in our hearts.” Dallas fully believes that the answer to society’s problems lies in the transformation of the individual through the practice of the spiritual disciplines. This begins with the Church, and the Church is failing miserably at this, because there are very few, if any, local churches that are truly making disciples. He says, “There is a way of life that, if generally adopted, would eliminate all of the social and political problems from which we suffer. This way of life comes to whole-hearted disciples of Christ who live in the disciplines of the spiritual life and allow grace to bring their bodies into alignment with their redeemed spirits.”
Then, in one of the boldest statements I have ever read, he says, “Ministers pay far too much attention to people who do not come to services. . . . The Christian leader has something much more important to do than pursue the godless. The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12).”
Why do I say that this is both inspiring and devastating? Simply because it shows me how lacking I am in discipleship. For one thing, none of the churches that I have attended, throughout my whole life, have truly equipped me to be a disciple. I have never attended a church (until now) that even talked about the “spiritual disciplines.” In fact, I would be surprised if any of the pastors of those church even know what they are. I’m not trying to be harsh. It’s just a realistic truth. The pastor that I now serve with (I’m the prayer ministry leader, and working toward developing spiritual formation in our church) is hungry for these things. The time is ripe. The Church needs to step forward and become the kind of disciples that Dallas Willard describes in this book.