Disciplines and Human Nature

Dallas Willard Part 17 of 34

In 1993 Dallas began teaching an intensive two-week residential course for Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. His task was to teach about spiritual life in a systematic way so that its full connection to the work of the minister was clear. These sessions from 2012 are from Dallas’s last year of teaching the course before he died. Though a bulk of the course was usually centered on the nature and practice of disciplines, the beginning of the course dealt with more theological themes like the nature of spiritual reality and the end of the course dealt with topics in spirituality like vocational issues. [Editor’s Note: We know that the class was taped on other occasions and would be glad to find these recordings.]


Let’s ask first of all for help – Oh, mighty Lord, won’t you please come and be with us today? And, each one of us right where we are, and give us instruction that will help us to live your life in this world, richly and with bountiful provision for ourselves and our loved ones, and also for the work we are attempting to do as your ministers in this world. So now we come to you for your instruction and ask that your Holy Spirit would gather around us and move in our minds, in our relationships to one another, in our vision of your kingdom and our life in it. Each one now, we ask this in the name and honor of Jesus, so please let it be done. Amen.


Now, just a brief review of the simple points in our study and this is a little messy, but I think I’ll just put it up here and we can work from there.



  • Spirit & Spirituality
  • The Gospel – A spiritual reality itself about a spiritual reality
  • Ministry of and with the “Kingdom”
  • Disciples, From Ministry
  • Disciplines – Means of and to grace
    • The “VIM Structure” – Place how you have thought of “Spirituality and Ministry” over against this”




The basic ideas of the course are first of all Spirit and Spirituality. And, of course that is God, and his nature, and our nature. So, we are approaching our task in terms of what I have called the dual landscape—we are living in a material world and in a spiritual world and by nature we belong in that intersection. So, we are challenged to decide where we will live and what we will work from. Spirit and Spirituality: Spirit, you may recall is personal, it is what you find when you think of what makes up your life. Where you are, your life consists of your experiences. That’s who you are and that is why, for example, you can continue right on through what we, from the physical point of view call death, with continuity. And so, you – we come to know spirit first of all in ourselves and then we find ourselves in a larger world, which includes God. And, the instrumentalities of his kingdom.


So, that was our first topic and then our second topic was: What is the Gospel? It is through the Gospel as a spiritual power in itself that we find out what we need to know and can then can make a choice to live by confidence in Jesus and his kingdom. Because, the first stage has been messed up, and we are living in a world where, when we arrived, it is already turned against God and you can call that “original sin” if you wish to, but it simply means that as we come into our being – our existence – that is already turned in the wrong way. And, we are blessed, indeed, if we are born into a family where the parents – the father and the mother – are turned towards God, and can help us find that direction easily because they are simply living it. [5:22]


The Gospel is a spiritual reality itself, about a spiritual reality, so the theme of spirituality and ministry – which is the overarching title of what we’re doing – then leads naturally to ministry as ministry of the Gospel – and that is of and with the kingdom of God, and out of that comes disciples.  So, we’ve talked about who the disciple is and making disciples – how you would make a disciple, what the disciple would be like, and then naturally coming out of discipleship are disciplines. [6:13]

That’s where we are. We had gotten to solitude and silence, which are among the first and most important part of disciplines and most of the rest of time together this week, now, is precisely talking about disciplines. So, you might put how you have thought about spiritualty and ministry over against this, if you have thought about it very much. Actually, the way many of us come into ministry – we don’t think about it very much, and we may have been introduced to revivals, for example, or charismatic gifts, or education because some of the standard denominations through the years have put the weight there. So, one of those or more of those ways, we might have thought about ministry, or preaching the word – just preaching the word might be how we think about ministry.


But, I’ve suggested that we might enlarge our understanding so that we think in terms of bringing the kingdom of God into human life through living in it fully ourselves, and embodying what was in Christ and carrying that out. The formula I like to use is: “teaching what He taught in the manner that He taught it.” Now, that comes up against traditions of all kinds. All of us have to identify, learn how to live in our tradition, and if there’s more to the kingdom in ministry and discipleship and all that than we have in our tradition, then we need to think about how that is going to be done.


Tradition proves to be a problem because by the time you’ve gone through several generations of a tradition, usually the initial impulse of that tradition has more or less died down and it is likely that we find ourselves just doing what we’re doing in the way of ministry, and perhaps life, because you name it – it’s whatever it is, I mean, I’ve found at a certain point that it was more important for me to be a good Baptist than a good Christian and anything that got in the way of being a good Baptist immediately became suspicious, something to be looked at in a guarded way.  [9:31]


Now, that’s not all bad, I don’t mean to say that. But, it has a way of generating traditions and then why do we do what we do? Well, that’s because that’s the way our tradition does it and we have to be able to look at that to see whether or not that might be what God has in mind for us.


Now, we will be working on disciplines for two days and more and then we will, at the end, be picking up a number of different kinds of issues that have to do with ministry and spirituality. That have to do, for example, with the minister’s private life, in so far as there is such a thing, but I’m talking about taking care of you, you taking care of you. So, we talk about that, then we talk about some other things like spirituality and evangelism, spirituality and healing, and we won’t be able to get all that done, but I do hope you will sort of thumb through the rest of the notebook and see the topics that are there.  And, then there are a number of special little readings, and things of that sort. [11:01]


Ok, I should ask if there are any questions about this because I really don’t want you to lose the overall simple order of what we’re doing. Well, I would like to go immediately to page 42, and work through the main points in this reading from William Law. This is about the role of the body, in developing the spiritual life. He is addressing the topic of “Why should we sing songs?” and I think that that’s the sort of issue we need to address as teachers, “Why do we do what we do?” “Why do we have church services like we do, and what is the point of recommending study of the Bible and prayer? What is that all about?” Because, frankly, many of our people that we talk to in our churches don’t make any sense of it, and so it just degenerates into something that they feel guilty about not doing; that may be as far as it goes. The open secret of Bible believing churches is how little of the Bible is ingested and taken in and made a part of life, or for that matter, in many cases, how little of it is actually read. We need to be able to say, “What does that do?” So, we will be concentrating on that at this point. [13:17]


This is a general teaching about the body and its role in the spiritual life. Here on page 42, starting out that page is certain thoughts and sentiments in the soul, produce such and such motions or actions, in the body. And, on the other hand, certain motions and actions of the body have the same power of raising such and such thoughts and sentiments in the soul. So, that as singing is the natural affect of joy in the mind, so it is as truly a natural cause of raising joy in the mind. So, that’s the basic thought here that I want us to pay attention to. Engaging in actions involving our body. Modifies our soul, as he calls it, actually, the whole spiritual side of human personality. And, it isn’t like we might think, for example, of praise songs, as we now call them, that make us feel better.  Well, they do make us feel better, but that’s only a tiny dimension of what we need to understand when we’re thinking about disciplines in the spiritual life, because all of the disciplines, with almost no exceptions, and I really think with no exception, are bodily behaviors. And, this arrangement that God has made is one where we can direct our bodies in such a way that our spirit and our mind, including our feelings and our thoughts, and our social relations, and so on, are totally transformed, or progressively, I should say, progressively transformed.


So, we want to think later about how to love our neighbors as our self, and how to love our enemy and so on. What are the things that we can live through that enable us to do the things that we can do, just by trying? And, that’s our basic concept of a discipline. So, it’s the body being at the disposal of the will. Now, you also have to add in some measure, you have to acknowledge that some people don’t even have that, so they need ministry in different ways, and we need to – as leaders, and teachers, and pastors, we need to be able to identify that need that goes beyond disciplines and minister to people in that way. Of course, the primary part of that would be teaching and preaching. But sometimes, just for example, drawing an individual into a fellowship and allowing the people there to care for them, and listen to them, and minister to them, or perhaps a mode of deliverance also, may be necessary before people can come to the place where they can actually direct their body in spiritual disciplines.  [16:45]


Okay, so, that’s the basic idea, is that – as I said earlier, God has set up human life so that it is capable of discipline so that we can have a part in determining what kind of persons we’ve become. And, then a major factor to understand within that is the role of directing the body, as you, for example, all directed your bodies to come here last week. That is, you put it on – many of you, you put your body on a complicated piece of plastic and metal and it flew through the air with your body on it, right? And, then you got a shuttle or something and you came up the hill, and that’s all bodily. And, we learned that all of the disciplines are like that in some measure.


Ok, that’s the basic idea. Now, do you have comments or questions about that?


Q: Could you talk more about the concept of reigning?


A:  The first order is to get reigning in our body, and that is very much

a kind of natural process for a child, if things go normally. And, if things don’t go normally, well then, we have a kind of tragedy. For example, the so-called epidemic of autism now that we seem to be under – see that’s bodily – its source may not be bodily, but what you have is a child that is locked into something with their body. And, so they are not able to take direction and learn in certain ways. Of course, they often have fantastic abilities of various kinds. And then of course, there are more serious forms of malfunction that I’m sure parents with an autistic child often wonder if there can be anything worse, but there can be. And, so now then, our task is, if we’re developing normally, to find out about our kingdom and God’s kingdom, and then to take our kingdom into God’s kingdom and that is basically bodily behavior. It is a matter of putting our actions forth in trust and expectation that God will act. [19:41]


So, alright, then let me – I want to work through quickly this law selection. It is so very well stated. So, anger produces angry words, and angry words increase anger. So that James says. “the tongue is a fire – set on fire of hell.” And there in the third chapter of James, we briefly looked at that last time and I hope you had time to look more into those scriptures that are cited and quoted in your notebook on this. Then he mentions, further on down on that page: Therefore if you would know the reason and necessity of singing songs, you must consider the reason and necessity of praising, and rejoicing in God because singing of songs is as much the true exercise and support of the spirit of thanksgiving as prayer is the true exercise and support of the spirit of devotion.


And you may as well think you can be devout as you ought without the use of prayer as that you can rejoice in God as you ought without the practice of singing songs. All right, so, the next little paragraph talks about the union of soul and body. And, Law is actually a very sophisticated and well informed philosopher and so he goes into a discussion here that “the union of soul and body is not a mixture of their substances, as you can see bodies united and mixed together, but consists solely in the mutual power they have of acting upon one another.”  [21:30]


So, he’s quite careful because he doesn’t want to get in the position where you have a mixture, where soul and body are inseparable, but he wants also not to have such a separation, as they do not influence one another closely in both directions. So, now, what is the connection on the next half of the page there on 42, the paragraph opening there: “The soul will of God that is the reason and cause of all the power and affect which you see in the world.” Now, he’s broadened the discussion out, he wants to say that all of the lawful will arrangements, the lawful arrangements in the world – he’s talking here about the sun giving light and heat – as being mediated through the will of God. And, we don’t need to go there unless you want to, but his idea is that all of the connections you see in reality exist there because God has willed them. Very last line in that paragraph, “So in like manner, it is soul will of God, and not the nature of a human soul or body that is the cause of this union between the soul and the body.”


So, now it is God who has set this up. And, in the case of disciplines, he’s speaking of singing songs here, we can – right towards the bottom of that page – “We can command our outward activities upon which – and oblige ourselves to such habits of life as naturally produced habits in the soul. As we can modify our bodies and remove ourselves from objects that inflame our passions, so we have a great power over the – next page – inward state of our souls.” That’s the point. You cannot directly command the inward state of your souls to any significant degree. So, to speak the language of Romans 12, if you want to renew your body, your mind, you do that by surrendering your body a living sacrifice. [24:24]


Now, of course it may be that you can, in some measure, direct your thoughts. That is perhaps the first freedom that a normal human being has, is where they put their thoughts. But, you cannot do that to your emotions or your desires, you have to go indirectly at them, through how you use your body. And, so for example, solitude is a way you use your body and that has a considerable affect then, on your feelings. Under the heading of emotions – this is a messy business of really thinking about feelings, desires, and what we ordinarily call emotions, such as anger. You have feelings, and then you have desires, and then you have emotions. And they all have in common that they can exercise a powerful influence over your actions, and we have to find a way of reigning them in and leading them to obey what is good and what is right and that’s where disciplines come in.


So, if we’re going to submit our bodies as living sacrifices, as Paul says in Romans, well how do you do that? How do you submit your body a living sacrifice? The simple and important answer to that question is that you do that by directing your body in various ways, some of which are identifiable as disciplines for the spiritual life – so, silence, and solitude, and we’ll go to fasting now in a short while; that’s a bodily behavior.  Secrecy, service, study, worship—all of these are ways that we submit our bodies and then submitting our bodies to God in that way opens, depends upon grace, but also opens up more grace. Remember what grace is: God acting in our lives to accomplish what we can’t accomplish on our own.  [26:54]


So, we can command our outward actions and oblige ourselves to such habits of life as naturally produced habits in the soul. That’s right at the bottom there, that last half of page 42. Are you able to make sense of that? Do you want to talk about it?—Because that’s the key idea here. [27:24]


Now, here: Ephesians 2:1 – “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Dead to what? You’re dead to God. And you see someone who is asleep on the couch and you say, “He’s dead to this world,” what does that mean? Don’t move? Well, I mean he might thrash about a bit with a dream and still be dead to the world, but basically it means that the world isn’t  – he’s not responding. No interaction, that’s right. Now, that’s what happened at the fall, or better, the jump – people became, they were not interacting with God and they were cut off from the source of life that enabled them to take care of the Earth.  And, so they couldn’t do that anymore.


Now notice, (Ephesians 2:2), “In which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 2:3) “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lust of our flesh” – that is to say that the natural desires as shaped by our cultures, we would say, simply determine what we do. And of the mind, the mind also has lusts and these are among the most dangerous ones. And we’re, by nature, children of wrath, in other words, the outcome of all that was – you’re an angry person, and when you get punched in the right way, wrath is what comes out, you’re children of wrath, wrath is your nature. Even is the rest.


(Ephesians 2:4-5) “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead- made us alive” Now, see that’s where the will now comes back alive to him. And, as it is alive to Him, then it can do things like correcting its mind, and working with its feelings, and directing its body, and reworking its social relations. Now, that’s the process that we go through as disciples and that’s what I have called here spiritual formation. Remember, spiritual formation is the process you go through as a disciple. Disciple is a status; formation is a process. And, if you haven’t heard that yet, then please bear down on it because it will help you understand.  [30:22]


Now, you’ve got this whole person. Discipleship is a status; you have now enrolled in the class with Jesus. You’re probably still pretty green, ignorant, and unformed. That’s – disciple is not an advanced spiritual status—it’s one of the hardest things to get over to people, and if you want to see how green they can be, just read the gospels. So, then when you are in that status, you are being taught, you have access to things, and you’re choosing – often stupidly, but still you’re choosing, and you’re growing, and that’s the process of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is the process of transforming all of the elements of personalities so they increasingly become like Christ.


Q: When rejoicing to the Lord, does it have to be with singing?


A: For example, in the place where I was primarily raised with my family, you almost never had a time where people were not singing a hymn. Now, that’s different, see. And I want to teach you and old Methodist hymn before we’re done here called “How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours” and its in your book. But, you look at the words, almost any of the old John Newton hymns, the words are powerful and you have to think about, well what is the song, and are you just singing it to feel better, or is it a larger picture? So the aim actually is to restructure the mind and the feelings along with that, because the feelings are a part of it, right? You cannot directly change your feelings, but you can indirectly change your feelings through changing your ideas.


Let me just finish up a line or two here and we need to take a break. Look at page 43 and at Law’s selection, the left hand side.  Notice the little sentence, the first little sentence there: “And thus, it is owing to this union that we have so much power over ourselves.” See, that’s the way God has set it up. We have much power over ourselves because we can command our actions and these affect our mind and our feelings and all the rest of us. He goes on to say “you may see the necessity and benefit of singing songs, and of all the outward acts of religion, for if the body has so much power over the soul, it is certain that all such bodily actions has affect the soul are a great weight in religion. Not as if there was any true worship, or piety in the actions themselves. ”


See, he’s very careful about that. But because they are proper to raise and support that spirit, which is the true worship of God, “though therefore the seed of religion is in the heart yet since our bodies have power over our heart, since our outward actions both proceed from and enter into the heart, it is plain that outward actions have a great power over that religion which is seated in the heart.”  Now, he goes on to enlarge on how important the role of thanksgiving has in the life of the believer. The bottom of the next page there on that same side, he says, “There is no state of mind so holy, so excellent, and so perfect as that of thanksgiving.”


So, then the singing of songs feeds into being thankful. Skip over the next page, please, 44, left hand column, left hand side, right a little above the middle he’s continuing to expand on this attitude of thankfulness. He says, “Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world?  It is not he who prays most or fast most. It is not he who gives most alms or is most imminent for temperance, chastity, or justice, it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.”


And then he goes on to talk about how all prayer and so forth are designed to do that. And what is the shortest way to happiness, bottom of that same page, “If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and all perfection, he must tell you must make it a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you, for it is certain that whatever seeming calamity that happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing.” And so he continues on that theme of thanksgiving and that’s tied into, well how can you do that? Well, singing songs is one way of doing that and there are, of course, other things that enter into that.


Okay, shall we take a little break? Come back in 15 minutes, please.

Listen to all parts in this Spirituality and Ministry 2012 series