Conversatio Divina

Christian Disciplines as a Means to Grace

A Conversation between Richard Foster and Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard & Richard Foster

In the early ’70s, Richard J. Foster began to pastor a small congregation, Woodlake Avenue Church, in Canoga Park, California. One of his Sunday school teachers was a professor at a nearby university. His name was Dallas Willard. Together they began to equip a ragtag bunch of would-be saints—many coming from the counter-culture—and experiment with various disciplines of the spiritual life.

Although the church building no longer remains, many results of their labor do remain, having been poured into that congregation and numerous best-sellers by both Richard (Celebration of Discipline, Freedom of Simplicity, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Streams of Living Water) and Dallas (The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart).

Not long ago, Richard and Dallas sat down in a studio just a few miles south of the site of the original church to tape a curriculum project based on Celebration of Discipline. Woven into their teaching about the various Christian disciplines were musings about “the early days of ministry,” discussion regarding books they’ve since written, and a topic dead-center on the theme of this issue—the Christian disciplines as avenues to grace. The dialogue that follows was captured from that recording session.

DALLAS:    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you—where did the title Celebration of Discipline come from? Because that was an ingenious gift: to put those two together.

RICHARD:    Originally, I thought of the title The Liberty of Discipline because I wanted people to see how discipline moves us to liberation. We felt, however, that the term liberty, especially at that time, might have some political connotations that we didn’t want.

DALLAS:    In philosophy, especially moral philosophy, it has long been understood that the person of the greatest virtue is the person who is most free. There is a real, deep connection between them [virtue and freedom]. And the person who is the most disciplined is the most free. You might think of some great athlete or someone like Pavarotti stepping out to perform. Now, that’s freedom. And it comes out of great discipline.

RICHARD:    Exactly. And actually, we thought about the word freedom, but finally we just settled on the word celebration.

DALLAS:    I think it’s wonderful, a great gift.

RICHARD:    Well, it wasn’t like we really planned it.

DALLAS:    I’m sure God was giving it to you.

RICHARD:    You know, in those early days—when we were at that little church together—we did a lot of celebrating. There were hard times and struggles, but there were also lots of breakthroughs.

DALLAS:    It was a breakthrough for me to understand that celebration is actually a Discipline, because from my own background, you didn’t think of celebration as a Discipline. But when you understand the gospel and the invitation to live in the kingdom of God, you realize that celebration is one of the great ways of walking with God and getting to know God.

RICHARD:    Being aware of God’s amazing offer and then throwing a party in His Honor . . .

DALLAS:    That’s exactly right, and using the good things that he has given you as a way of entering into joy with others…

01.  The Heart of Celebration of Discipline and Renovation of the Heart

DALLAS:    Richard, if you had to tell someone what was the heart of Celebration of Discipline, how would you put it?

RICHARD:    Celebration is a primer on the spiritual life. It’s an attempt to open the door for people and give them the latchkey so they can get started with some of the most basic disciplines of life, where they are able to bring their bodies, their minds, who they are, and place all of who they are before God, and then watch the work of God and the interaction that comes from that.

I think that was a big shift in my thinking and for those folks in our little church. We began to realize that there really are some things you can do. Until that shift occurred for me, the idea that you can actually grow in grace didn’t mean that much. We were trying to go beyond the notion that you came to Christ, got it, and then you just hung around until you died.

That ties in with what you’ve done in Renovation of the Heart. Here’s a book that works on the whole self and how all of the self works.

DALLAS:    I think the emphasis on experiencing is something the two books share, and what I really wanted to bring out in Renovation was that, well, spiritual growth not only involves effort, but it is actually easy.

RICHARD:    (Laughs)

DALLAS:    The way it is easy is that when you work on the appropriate parts and don’t just put pressure on the will—that is, if you take care of your mind and thoughts and feelings and the other parts, instead of just trying really hard—you will find it is an easy path. That’s what Jesus said. But most of us have had to find that out the hard way because we haven’t been told the secret of the easy yoke.

RICHARD:    I always had what I called the “white-knuckle club”: folks who believed you could be like Jesus by screwing down the willpower and focusing on the try, try, try.

DALLAS:    And there is effort, as you well know. But while we are saved by grace, grace does not mean that sufficient strength and insight will be automatically infused into our being in the moment of need. You made the team, but you still have to work. But the work, I like to point out, is easy.

The secret of the easy yoke involves living as Jesus lived in the entirety of his life—adopting his overall lifestyle and not just trying to imitate his highlight reels.

And it’s interesting that though we emphasize grace so much, we are so desperately afraid of failure that we often won’t even try, so we don’t form the intention to do the things Jesus said by becoming the person he was. From that perspective—not making an intentional effort to learn from Christ how to live our total lives, how to invest our time and energies—the yoke of becoming like Jesus is not easy; in fact, it is impossible.

In Renovation of the Heart, I really wanted to help individuals just to begin to change the things that can be changed and see the consequences of that for all of life.

RICHARD:    Now, that’s how those two books work together, isn’t it? Your Renovation of the Heart shows how to work on forming our lives, trying to use the Disciplines as a means of being with God and inviting him to live his life thorough us. That’s when the yoke becomes easy, Christ in us and living through us.

DALLAS:    Exactly.

02.  Grace and Works

RICHARD:    You know, I think it would be helpful to people if we deal head-on with the issue of grace and works. I’ve heard you say sometimes that people are not only saved by grace, but they also get paralyzed by grace.

DALLAS:    Well, some of our denominations are especially prone to that. Actually, it has become almost an American heresy. You see that in the way that people use the song “Amazing Grace”—like in a recent Olympics, the [U.S.A.] girls’ gymnastics team won the gold medal, and as they were walking off, the network started playing “Amazing Grace.” You often wonder if there is a brain in the room or what’s going on. We’ve just taken grace to be a kind of smarm that covers everything.

Grace does free us from the bondage of Pharisaical righteousness; it says you can stop that because we’ve got something else here for you. But what grace is, is God acting in your life. It’s the action of God in your life.

RICHARD:    So, the opposite of grace is works, but not effort . . .

DALLAS:    That’s right, grace is opposed to earning (or works righteousness), but grace is not opposed to effort.

RICHARD:    You can’t will or work your way into the kingdom, but living in contact with God does take effort. I think it was Augustine who cut a path between unaided human initiative and total passivity when he said, “Without God, we cannot; without us, he will not.”

DALLAS:       That’s right. Effort is completely at home with grace. In fact, you have greater effort and greater results because grace is present in your life. Paul beautifully illustrates that in many of his statements, like in Ephesians 3:8, where he says, “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ” (NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.lockman.org)).

Now, that wasn’t forgiveness. That wasn’t transferred righteousness. That was power. And when you read Paul, you see that this man is a power-mad individual. But the power he desires is grace.

RICHARD:    And you grow in that through participation with God.

DALLAS:    That’s right. And you can grow in that. To grow in grace just means there is more of God’s action in your life, so you can grow more and more. Grace is as old as the Bible. If we had never sinned, we would still need grace because we would still need God acting in our lives. That’s what we are built for.

There is a wonderful phrase in Isaiah 63, where the prophet is reminiscing about how God acted in the earlier days with Israel. One of the phrases used there refers to how he sent the Holy Spirit in their midst. But he uses a phrase in verse 12 that is so beautiful; it says, “Who sent his glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand” (NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). That’s grace!

RICHARD:    In that passage where Zerubbabel says, “Grace, grace . . .”

DALLAS:    Indeed, and now, that’s a building program we’re talking about!

RICHARD:    (Laughs) Yes, it is, isn’t it?

DALLAS:    Zerubbabel is up against it. And the prophet says you are going to bring forth the capstone to that building shouting, “Grace! Grace to it!” (Zechariah 4:7, NASB). That’s what grace is—acting with God.

RICHARD:    Now, that’s the kind of building program you should have.

DALLAS:    That’s what you want. You want one where God does it, and you don’t do it. That’s one of the traps for many people [thinking you have to do it yourself].

RICHARD:    And it’s not a monument to you.

DALLAS:    It’s not a monument to yourself, and you don’t even have to get your way—which is a big load off.

RICHARD:    You don’t even need your color on the walls.

DALLAS:    Absolutely not. When grace moves into our lives, we can put things in proper perspective. We understand that great truth that is worth repeating: grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning—which is an attitude, and it does indeed rule that out. And Paul is quite right when he says in Romans 3:27, “Where then is boasting?” (NASB). It’s excluded.

RICHARD:    It’s gone.

DALLAS:    Boy, wouldn’t it be wonderful to get rid of that! I wish we could get a movement on that somewhere. I think our society could use it tremendously, and maybe it could start with our churches.

RICHARD:    People constantly feel this is something I have to earn—I have to push myself up a hill—and when we give them clarity that grace simply eliminates that, people come alive. We were together in Cleveland just a few months ago, and wasn’t there someone who got this?

DALLAS:    Yes, you know that in the regional conferences on the Friday evening, I usually talk about grace, and I explain especially how grace is not just for guilt. And we have ministers of national repute who say that sort of thing in their programs—that grace is for guilt removal. But I tell them that grace is for life, and here is what it is and what it does for you; and this is how it puts you in a position where you stop striving for Pharisaical righteousness.

A man came up afterwards and with a great sense of relief said, “I got it tonight for the first time.” He got that grace is for life and not just for sin. This helps us avoid getting stuck in gospels of sin management. Because salvation, you know, is a life; it’s not just dealing with sin.

A sinner needs grace, but a saint goes through it like a jet goes through jet fuel taking off from a runway.

RICHARD: (Laughing) And when we see that it’s a whole life, and this life continues on, that’s why we can sing “Amazing Grace.”

DALLAS:    Indeed, indeed we can. And, as it turns out, that’s the only way to overcome sin as action.

RICHARD:    Exactly. So many people—the way they end up working with grace, maybe we should sing “nice grace” or “pretty good grace,” instead of realizing this is amazing grace.

DALLAS:    If we just get the right take on grace, discipline comes back into focus, and you see it’s a good thing; it’s indispensable, and it’s not something to make you miserable; it’s the doorway to life. That’s why, in the introduction to The Spirit of the Disciplines, I present the Disciplines as a part of the gospel, a part of the good news.

RICHARD:    That’s why that book is so valuable. It gives a whole picture of how these Disciplines fit in a theological, philosophical, psychological framework for life, for living life connected to God.

DALLAS:    I think once people begin to see that, they can hope for the broader human scene. What if you have leaders who are living in this grace, and they never say things like “Business is business”?

RICHARD:    Or “I’m not a liar, but I have to lie”?

DALLAS:    (Laughs) Yes, and it’s touching to see people do this, because they are conceding that they have to do something wrong. Now, they don’t, but that shows where they are. But suppose you had people who knew you didn’t [have to do wrong], because when you act in faith and out of a character of grace, God is actually there. So you don’t have to make everything come out right. And that is the profound and broad meaning of grace.

03.  The Disciplines and Grace

DALLAS:    Now, we know by experience that grace is the way into discipline, and discipline is the way into grace. But talk a little bit about how the Disciplines access grace as we have been talking about.

RICHARD:    That is exactly the right word. The Disciplines access, because as a means of grace, God invites human beings into an interactive, cooperative relationship, so it isn’t that I’m just passive or I’m active. I’m in a participatory relationship, and the Disciplines are the means by which, the way by which I bring myself before God, place myself before God; [then] the grace of God steps into that action—and, of course, it was grace before; even to want to do it was an action of grace—and begins to bring out of the mixture of that interaction things far beyond anything I could desire or want or dream . . .

DALLAS:    And so, when you go into solitude, you actually are opening a door. You used to tell a story [about] how you came to learn more about grace while experiencing the discipline of solitude.

RICHARD:    Oh, yeah. I was with a group of writers on an island, and I had paddled over to a very small little area, and I explored it. This was during the break, and I felt very responsible for them [the group]. But I found this knoll, and I climbed to the top and saw this little platform that someone had built, and there was a chair, and I sat in the chair, and I wasn’t even trying to be religious . . .

DALLAS:    Oh, my . . .

RICHARD:    I was just enjoying the view. And I remembered what my wife, Carolyn, had said when she had dropped me off at the airport: “I would like for you to come home refreshed.” So, I remember just praying, “Refresh me, Lord.” All of a sudden, there was this “I want to teach you Sabbath prayer.” I said, “You’ll have to help me because I don’t know what to do.” And then there were these three words, the first a command: “Be still, rest, shalom.

So, I began to enter into that, and then—and this is what you are thinking—I remembered that the meeting was about to begin, and I felt like, I’ve got to get back to the group of writers. I had this feeling of hyper-responsibility. But I heard, “Be still, rest, shalom.” Well, I entered into that for a while, and then I got this feeling: Oh, it’s been quite a bit of time; they are worried about me—this superego—they’ve sent out a search party. But I heard, “Be still, rest, shalom.”

But then the third temptation—and it was the most difficult because I thought, Oh, this wonderful experience, but I don’t have any paper to write it down. Maybe I had better go back.

“Be still, rest, shalom.”

Well, when I finished that period and got back to the group, interestingly, they had gone right on with the meeting and had not known that I was gone.

DALLAS:    (Laughing) Now, isn’t that something.

RICHARD:    Now, that is grace.

04.  Grace: Opening Ourselves to the Presence of God

DALLAS:    That is grace; indeed, it is opening us to the presence of God. One could say that God is not going to jump down our throats. But we at least have to open our mouths. The illusion is that passive consumption leads you to spiritual growth, and all you have to do is look to see that it doesn’t. This is one of the greatest illusions of religious people everywhere. You have to simply be present and cooperate.

RICHARD:    Yes, the Disciplines simply allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us. But it’s a great temptation with people who have been burned out on legalism, because they’ve tried that route, and it doesn’t work. Then, they are tempted to just sit back and wait for God to pour grace on them.

DALLAS:    And then, our religious services often promise the multitudes that if they come to the service, it will change their lives.

RICHARD:    Being at the right place or something.

DALLAS:    So there is a problem with over-advertisement, I think.

RICHARD:    You know the story of Moses and the seventy elders; and two of them—Eldad and Medad, wasn’t it?—who were out in the camp, and the Spirit came on them, and they weren’t even in the right place.

DALLAS:    Well, thank God, he isn’t limited by location!

05.  Pitfalls and Dangers

RICHARD:    Dallas, in all this work we’ve been talking about, there are dangers; there are pitfalls; maybe we ought to talk a little bit about those.

DALLAS:    Yes, and you can list a lot of them pretty fast, like treating Disciplines as if they earned you something. And that would mean falling into guilt if you did not succeed with one. That’s misconstruing the whole thing and will usually have the effect that you are not going to try this again because you don’t enjoy guilt.

RICHARD:    Or you try to become heroic about them; you think you are going to conquer the world by tomorrow.

DALLAS:    As you know, I often encourage people not to believe that saying, “No pain; no gain.” There is a lot of gain without pain, and a lot of pain without gain. One of the things you don’t want to do along these lines is to make yourself miserable. The Disciplines will not do more good if you suffer. That ties into the old idea that somehow suffering is meritorious. And that relates to particular things like, if I fast, God will do something because I’ve suffered. So there are all sorts of confusion about this.

Another danger, Richard, I think, is that people will undertake the Disciplines without teaching. They really do need to read Celebration of Discipline and find out what they [the Disciplines] are. They really do. It’s so helpful to do that and to understand what Discipline is, why it works, and if you want to go deeper, why God has made us so that we need to do that kind of thing.

RICHARD:    And that’s where your book The Spirit of the Disciplines comes in. It’s so important to get that broader, foundational understanding of how they work.

DALLAS:    And in the end, we have to have a view of the gospel and salvation that incorporates and makes sense out of the Disciplines.

RICHARD:    That’s why the Gospels are so valuable—in the Bible itself—just seeing how Jesus practiced the Disciplines. One of the dangers, I think, is to focus just on the Disciplines rather than the life the Disciplines lead to.

DALLAS:    That’s absolutely right. I actually backed my way into the practice of Disciplines before I even knew the name. I was very concerned to preach in such a way that people would be converted, and I knew that prayer was crucial to that, but, as many ministers will tell you, praying adequately is not easily within reach. I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew that I should try it. I just happened upon some empty rooms in the college where Jane and I were at the time. On the fourth floor of the Sunday school building of the church that was associated with the college, we had these little chairs that were so small no one could sit down in them, so those rooms were empty all week. Now, I say I backed my way into them because I went in to pray, but by staying, I was in solitude and silence. And I began to experience the effects of this even though I didn’t know what it was. I came to realize that if you are going to pray, you need to be at a place to do that in your heart.

RICHARD:    That’s so interesting because at the college where I was teaching, they had this chapel building that was condemned; it had to undergo renovations before it could be used. It became for me a kind of private chapel, and I used it to walk around it—it was about an eight-hundred-seat chapel—just pace around. No one would ever come in there, and it was a situation where not having the money to renovate helped me a great deal.

DALLAS:    I was just talking to a college chaplain in the Midwest who had come to the end of himself and found himself sitting on the front row of the empty chapel for hours. He told me how that [experiencing solitude] had put him in touch with God. It’s amazing how we don’t have enough teaching; we have to be more or less driven to the experience of solitude and silence before we find out.

Of course, we have some teaching now, and things have changed in recent years, and that’s very good. But local churches have to come to grips with this and especially to understand that church as usual is not adequate for spiritual growth. We need to begin as pastors and leaders in the churches to practice these things and know our people well enough to lead them into the practice of them, to shepherd and teach them through the process, because one of the main pitfalls is that people try once, and it doesn’t work, and they give up. That’s where they need a pastor or a teacher or a friend to just step in and say, “No, no, it doesn’t work that way. You have to learn how to do it.”

RICHARD:    You know if some of these great tennis players had quit after the first game or two when they were getting started . . .

DALLAS:    It’s amazing. I think here, too, we see where the wrong teaching on grace has misled us. The idea that grace means the spiritual life is something you don’t have to practice is all wrong. You have to practice, period. You have to practice prayer, and you have to practice solitude, and you have to practice loving your neighbor as yourself.

RICHARD:    You remember the story about a man coming out of the subway in New York and asking the police officer how you get to Carnegie Hall, and his answer was, “Practice, young man, practice.”

DALLAS:    Yes. And it’s true in sports and for spiritual growth. We just need to accept that it’s the same thing. As leaders in our congregations and wherever we are influential, we have to say to people, “This is what you have to do.”

06.  Work Needed in Congregations

RICHARD:    It’s one of the areas where I think a lot of work is still needed in congregations. I mean, since we began in that little church years ago, a vast amount of literature has come out, teaching many good things. But, still, in churches I think this life is viewed as an optional way to live for those who have that kind of temperament, rather than as the standard operation for those who claim to follow Christ.

DALLAS:    I know this is true and ties in with a lot of deep theological stuff and also just plain old dumb habits. You know the seven last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” If something is a little different, we come up against that, but we have to break through that, and I think I see many churches now doing this, and it’s quite an encouraging thing. Quite a number of what would be classified as “megachurches” are doing things differently in this way. In some cases, I know that the pastor, at the encouragement of the elders, is saying, “We are going to do something different. We are not going to focus on having wonderful services, but we are going to focus on the Disciplines, and the Disciplines as a way of carrying through with discipleship.”

It’s just returning to the Great Commission and saying we make disciples, and we surround them with the Trinitarian reality, and we teach them to do everything Jesus said. If you do that, the Disciplines naturally fit in as the methods by which that happens. Now, of course, you have to stay out of legalism, but with regard to the commands of Jesus and the Disciplines, we can do that! That’s where the teaching comes in, and I believe there is a shift under way. I am seeing the pastors of churches and parachurch groups saying we have to change, and we have to do the things that are clearly laid out in the Scripture, and this is the way to do them.

07.  If We Try to Practice the Disciplines without Understanding the Formation Process . . .

RICHARD:    Dallas, I know we are running short of time, but would you say something about what happens if a person tries to practice the Disciplines without understanding the process of formation?

DALLAS:    I think what happens is, people lose their sense of what the Disciplines are all about, and I think that as a result, they are probably not going to practice them intelligently on a solid and profitable basis.

If you just have conceptualization of the process that’s in Renovation of the Heart and no practice, it never becomes real, and it won’t take hold of your character, and you will not move through the curriculum of Christlikeness because it’ll all just be head stuff.

RICHARD:    If we only work on Renovation of the Heart—that is, a conceptualization—without moving it into a praxis—that is, a life experience—then all we have is a kind of cerebral religious sense without really learning the life. But, on the other hand, if we only work experientially on the life without an understanding of the human personality, we’ll probably turn it into either legalism or magic; we’ll turn it into little systems without seeing how it all fits together and works. That’s why they work together so well. You need the conceptualization in order for the practice to function. And you need the practice to live the life that we are meant to live.

DALLAS:    Aren’t you the one who says the longest eighteen inches is from the head to the heart?

RICHARD:    Well, at least one of the ones. But it certainly is a matter of head, heart, and action . . .

DALLAS:    And a matter of grace and action.

Footnotes

Richard J. Foster is best known as an author. He is the author of six books including Celebration of Discipline, Streams of Living Water, and Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.  He is the founder of Renovaré, an organization committed to working for the renewal of the Church of Jesus Christ in all her multifaceted expressions. Renovaré holds regional and local conferences bringing together Christians across denominational lines for renewal.

Dallas Willard is a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He has taught at USC since 1965, where he was Director of the School of Philosophy from 1982–1985. He also lectures and publishes in religion. Renovation of the Heart was published in May 2002, and he received Christianity Today’s 2003 Book Award in the category of Spirituality. The Divine Conspiracy was released in 1998 and selected Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year” for 1999. The Spirit of the Disciplines appeared in 1988, and Hearing God (1999) first appeared as In Search of Guidance in 1984 (2nd edition in 1993).