At the time of this writing, we’ve just entered the season of Lent. Many Believers engage with God in new and different ways during these forty days leading up to Easter. Some practice behaviors of doing (e.g., fasting from sugar or waking early to spend time reading the Bible) while others practice ways of receiving (e.g., spending time in solitude, contemplative prayer.) Regardless, if you’re “giving up” something for Lent, or “taking up” something, the discipline of this season ultimately leads to experiencing God, and that is a means of grace.
In this article, which was an excerpt from a recording session for a curriculum project based on the book Celebration of DisciplineThe entirety of this conversation can be viewed via the Celebration of Discipline DVD kit available through LifeSprings Resources. Renovare also has clips and other resources available here., Richard Foster and Dallas Willard teach us about how the spiritual disciplines serve as a means of grace. Their knowledge and personal experience with this topic are well-known. In fact, two of their books serve as companion texts for a primer on the spiritual life. In this conversation, they teach us that engaging the disciplines, or living as Jesus lived, invites us to experience grace for all of life, not just the ‘moment’ of salvation.
Dallas and Richard begin their talk sharing about their early days of ministry together at a small church in California—Richard, the pastor, and Dallas, the Sunday school teacher/professor. As they learned about the ways of Jesus and taught others about how he was changing their lives, they began to approach Christian maturity in a different way. “I think it 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.” (RF). In response to that Dallas shares, “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. 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.”
Richard expands on the idea of what a participatory relationship with God looks like in his book, Celebration of Discipline. But I love the summary he provides on page 68 of the article: “The [Spiritual] 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 transforms us.]” It’s through this interactive relationship with the Spirit that our faith grows, where the muscle of our prayer life/communicating with God is strengthened, and the “yoke” becomes lighter as we allow him to carry our burdens. The disciplines teach us how to experience the grace that’s been there all along.
There are pitfalls and dangers to consider as one uses the disciplines to grow in Christlikeness. Dallas lists a few; treating the disciplines as if they earned you something, falling into guilt if you don’t “succeed” with one. “The Disciplines will not do you more good if you suffer,” he notes (page 69). Just as many folks enter the season of Lent with high hopes and expectations, treating it much like a resolution at the start of the year, be careful to avoid this perspective when engaging any of the spiritual disciplines.
Richard reminds us why the Gospels are so valuable, 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.” Their conversation leads to important advice for the local church—that pastors and leaders need to shepherd their congregants through the process, so that people don’t fall into the pitfall of giving up on engaging with the spiritual disciplines. Richard and Dallas keep good company with the Apostle Paul on using the analogy of sports and the spiritual life. Practice, endurance, and encouragement from those who’ve gone before are crucial ingredients for a robust relationship with the Trinity.
Use the questions below to “continue the conversation” with a friend or spiritual director.
1. How have the spiritual disciplines influenced your life, if at all? (Some include solitude, meditation, simplicity, fasting, etc.)
2. Consider a time when you approached the disciplines like a New Year’s resolution. Which disciplines help move you from legalism to grace?
3. How do you understand Foster and Willard’s definition of grace: that it is “God acting in our lives”?
4. What makes Jesus’s yoke easier than “trying really hard to be good”?
An excellent companion on your journey with the spiritual disciplines is Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s book. In it you’ll find helpful definitions and guides toward a holistic practice. For our purposes of spiritual disciplines as a means of Grace, and references to solitude and slowing down in this article, let’s explore the discipline of “Slowing.”(Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, page 79)
Definition: Slowing is one way to overcome inner hurriedness and addiction to busyness. Through slowing, the sacrament of the present moment is tasted to the full.
Scripture: Mark 6:31, Psalm 46:10, Psalm 90:12
Select one of the exercises below to practice the discipline of Slowing this week.
1. People who are rushed often feel anxious about their lives. So, when you wake up, before your head leaves the pillow, offer God three central concerns of the day. Ask him to care for these things as you go about your daily tasks. When your worries creep in, return to the moment when you handed God your concerns.
2. Insert margins of rest and relaxation into your day. Remembering that it is better to be unavailable than inattentive, build some buffer times into your life:
• Shorter appointments
• No back-to-back meetings without a break.
• Take some deep breaths before you make a call or text or send an email.
Ask God to make you present to the moment. When people ask, “So how are you?” Refrain from a litany of how busy you are. This simply reinforces that a revved-up existence is what matters.