Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim 4.6-7 NRSV)
The his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, philosopher Dallas Willard explains why we train ourselves in godliness and what such training looks like in specific practices. He divides 15 practices into two groups.
Disciplines of Abstinence
- Solitude — “The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.”
- Silence — “Approach the practice of silence in a prayerful, expectant attitude, confident that we shall be led into its right use for us. It is a powerful and essential discipline. Only silence will allow us life-transforming concentration upon God.” Silence also includes the discipline of not speaking ourselves (James 1.26), helping us learn to listen and pay attention.
- Fasting — Abstaining in varying degrees from food or drink. “Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food.”
- Frugality — “We abstain from using money or goods at our disposal in ways merely to gratify our desires or our hunger for status, glamor, or luxury.” But we stay within bounds of what is necessary for our life. Simplicity and poverty, as spiritual disciplines, are expressions of frugality.
- Chastity — “Abstaining from sex and from indulging in sexual feelings and thoughts, and thus learning how not to be governed by them… Voluntary abstention helps us appreciate and love our mates as whole persons, of which their sexuality is but one part… The main effect we seek through [chastity] is the proper disposal of sexual acts, feelings, thoughts, and attitudes within our life as a whole, inside of marriage and out.”
- Secrecy — “We abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known… to help us lose or tame the hunger for fame, justification, or just the mere attention of others… As we practice this discipline, we learn to love to be unknown.”
- Sacrifice — We give up even necessary things in our life (as opposed to frugality, where we give up unnecessary things). “The discipline of sacrifice is one in which we forsake the security of meeting our needs with what is in our hands. It is total abandonment to God, a stepping into the dark abyss in the faith and hope that God will bear us up.”
Disciplines of Engagement
- Study — “Giving much time on a regular basis to meditation upon those parts of the Bible that are most meaningful to our spiritual life, together with constant reading of the Bible as a whole. We should also make every effort to sit regularly under the ministry of gifted teachers who can lead us deeply into the Word and make us increasingly capable of fruitful study on our own. Beyond this, we should read well the lives of disciples from all ages and cultures of the church, building a small library as we make them our friends and associates in The Way.”
- Worship — “In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols. We do this alone, as well as in union with God’s people.”
- Celebration — “We engage in celebration when we enjoy ourselves, our life, our world, in conjunction with our faith in God’s greatness, goodness, and beauty. We concentrate on our life and world as God’s work and God’s gift to us… Holy delight and joy is the great antidote to despair and is a wellspring of genuine gratitude.”
- Service — “We engage our goods and strength in the active promotion of the good of others and the causes of God in the world.” In such service we may train ourselves “away from arrogance, possessiveness, envy, resentment, or covetousness.”
- Prayer — “Prayer is conversing, communicating with God… We can train ourselves to invoke God’s presence in every action we perform.” Prayer (or Bible study) is less effective when not joined to bodily disciplines such as fasting and silence.
- Fellowship — “The fire of God kindles higher as the brands are heaped together and each is warmed by the other’s flame. The members of the body must be in contact if they are to sustain and be sustained by each other… The Life is one that requires some regular and profound conjunction with others who share it.”
- Confession — “We let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures. This will nourish our faith in God’s provision for our needs through his people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before our brothers and sisters. Thus we let some friends in Christ know who we really are, not holding back anything important, but, ideally, allowing complete transparency. We lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy. We engage and are engaged by others in the most profound depths of the soul… Confession alone makes deep fellowship possible, and the lack of it explains much of the superficial quality so commonly found in our church associations.”
- Submission — “A call for help to those recognized as able to give it because of their depth of experience and Christlikeness… In submission we engage the experience of those in our fellowship who are qualified to direct our efforts in growth and who then add the weight of their wise authority on the side of our willing spirit to help us do the things we would like to do and refrain from the things we don’t want to do.” Because they are servants, the wise people we choose may not see themselves as leaders.
All through the book Dallas Willard uses athletic imagery, noting that the biblical word for ‘training’ is the root of the English word ‘gymnasium.’ We engage in these disciplines in order to develop the character that naturally lives out the way of life portrayed in Jesus’ teachings, just as athletes engage in a daily training regimen so that they are able to perform feats on game day. That the training program these 15 disciplines embody is optional or nonexistent in churches (and clergy) is their fundamental problem, he says.
He covers many of the same disciplines as Richard Foster and Marjorie Thompson. But rather than devote a chapter to each discipline as they do, Dallas Willard lumps them all into one chapter and describes each discipline in a few paragraphs. He spends the bulk of his book laying a philosophical grounding for why we should practice the disciplines at all. In this he speaks often of the importance of the human body in Christian life and salvation. The final justification for the disciplines is the life of Jesus, who practiced them himself.
Some of these disciplines I do better at, and others more poorly. In general, Dallas Willard says if a discipline is one we enjoy doing and are naturally suited for, then it is not one we need to practice. We should practice the disciplines we are weaker in, like the pianist who practices the parts of the piece she doesn’t know as well.