Dallas Willard Part 18 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.]


  1. I want to now put aside Law and I hope that what he had to say was really helpful in understanding, not just singing Psalms but the whole issue of the relationship to the Body and learning to change by indirection.


Now, I think I want to not continue on silence and solitude. There are other things in here that I hope you will read and in particular, the one about The Jogging Monk on page 54—a wonderful teaching about solitude and silence and how it is used in meditation on scripture and how it is not used. Getting one’s images and thoughts corrected about what happens when you go into a silent retreat—it’s very helpful on that—and then, noise and sleeplessness.


But I would like to go on now to page 61 and that is “Fasting.” This is the third of the disciplines of abstinence that we discussed and it is really of crucial importance. Fasting has always been a major discipline for the people of Christ as indeed for Christ Himself, but it’s not very much practiced and I think that is like prayer and some of the others, is that people have a hard time understanding what it is. Now, externally, it is not hard to understand. As I say on the top of 61, it is “to refrain in some significant degree from food and perhaps, all pleasant drink.” Extreme fasting would be all food and drink for some extensive period of time. Now, you can fast from other things and you can learn a lot and gain a lot from fasting from some things—like fasting from t.v. Actually, solitude and silence are forms of fasting themselves. They are abstaining from something but food and drink is of course so absolutely central to life that the fasting in question is more penetrating to the person and so much of our lives are organized around socially—even organized around eating and drinking and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that. But, what I am saying is that this is one of the things that help us recognize the centrality of fasting as a spiritual discipline. [4:03]


Now, what is it spiritually? Fasting is the affirmation and experience of another world. That’s why I like to say that fasting is feasting.  Fasting aligns us with the movements of God’s Kingdom and in this way, it increases the power of what we do. It does not earn anything or corner God and force His hand. Now, perhaps the single most passage in the scripture on fasting is Deuteronomy 8 so please, let’s take time to look at that. This is talking about how God dealt with the children of Israel in the wilderness to reveal who they were and what they would do and also to make them understand the provision of God. So, here we go, “All commandments that I am commanding you to day”—this is Deuteronomy 8:1—“you shall be careful to do that you may live and multiply and go in and possess the land the Lord swore to give to your forefathers.” OK, now, that’s the alignment with the commandments of God and of course, that carries over to Jesus and Jesus’ teaching that if you will make it your main business always to seek the Kingdom of God and it’s kind of righteousness, then everything else that you need will be added—the provision of God. So, that’s the promise now and the challenge is to live in harmony with the commandments. So, then their experience is designed to enable them to keep the commandments. They’re experience is supposed to keep them in touch with what is able to bring them in harmony with God’s commands, so verse 2, “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has lead you in the wilderness these forty years.” So, a 12 to 14-day trip took forty years and the problem was that it wasn’t just a matter of getting from one place to another, it was a matter of transforming of character so that when they got to the other place, they would be able to handle what was going to happen there and you know the stories about how they failed at Kadesh Barnea and had to turn around and go back into the wilderness. [7:15] So, now, why did the Lord do this—lead you in the wilderness?  Answer: verse 2: “He might humble you.” Now, that means, He might train you to depend upon God. “Humble yourself under the mighty Hand of God, Peter says, in 1 Peter 5:5-7. “Humble yourself, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” That can lead you into some deep theological reflections and they are apt to throw you off if you aren’t careful. I mean, didn’t God know what they were going to do and you are apt to run into standard doctrines about God’s sovereignty and His ability to know everything and so on.  There is a lot in the scripture that you need to think about in order to understand the type of relationship that God is building and proposing for human beings and that will lead you into questions like, “When God said to Adam, ‘Where art thou,” didn’t He know? Thinking about this issue of relationship, I hope will lead you to reflect on that and maybe consider the possibility that He chose not to know. If God chose not to know something, do you think He could not know it? Just as omnipotence doesn’t mean that God is always doing everything He can do, omniscience doesn’t mean that He is always knowing everything He can know. Right? [9:37] You have to get out of this picture, I believe as God as the great “unblinking stare.” Think about it.  So, now what kind of relationship is He in with these people? He is in a venture with them of self-knowledge and not only is He humbling them, but if you can stand the thought, God humbles Himself in relating to human beings. Now, we accept that in Philippians 2 of Jesus but you have to ask perhaps what Jesus did was actually a manifestation of the nature of God. Well, just a thought! “He humbled you and let you be hungry.” Hunger is a humbling experience and that is a part of what goes into fasting and you will see other verses that are cited here like Psalms 35:13; 69:10; 2 Chronicles 7:14. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is one that we need to pay special attention to because it gets cited and quoted over and over and over again but usually only part of it. “If my people,” and those are the ones who are “called by my name”—they self-identify—so, who would that be in the United States of America? That’s a good thing to think about. “My people”—well, I mentioned that statistics show that 73 to 75% of Americans will self identify as Christians. You know one can say, “Well, they are not really.” I think, actually that God takes seriously anyone who self-identifies as a Christian and so He says, “My people—the ones called by my name—shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways.” Now, it may be that there are four things to do there and perhaps for example; instead of a day of prayer in congress we should have a day of fasting. We are not going to have anything to eat; well, just a thought. Humble themselves, fasting, and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways! [13:32] See, that’s the full menu. Then, “I will respond.” Humbling, praying, seeking the face—to seek the face means to live before the presence of God and you will find that immensely helpful if you are going to turn from your wicked ways. But, let’s go on now. “That He might make you understand, He fed you with manna which you did not know”—see, that’s what manna means, right? “What is it?” You go collect another bucket of “what is it?” People didn’t know where it came from or what it was. They had never seen anything like it. It is interesting to watch the scholarly speculations about what it was but the content of the verse here just says they didn’t know what it was. “That He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone,”—that thought is the key here. “Man does not live by bread alone but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” The provision for human beings is a very broad sort of thing. Everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord—well, I suppose there would be some other kinds of nourishment but I think primarily what proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord is the Lord speaking, hearing from God, interacting with God and this is something that actually nourishes you. That’s a thought that we need to work into this. [16:05]


Now, go back. I’ve said fasting is the affirmation and experience of another world. It is the taking in of a kind of substance from God and His Kingdom. Then, when you look at the rest of this passage, you see verse 4: “Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years”—that you didn’t need new shoes. “Thus you are to know in your hearts that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.” Alright. Look at Nehemiah 9:20 and 21 on that. “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them, your manna you did not withhold from their mouth, and you gave them water for their thirst.” Verse 21: “Indeed, forty years, you provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want; their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell.” Now, I think what he is saying here is you actually replenished, if you wish, the molecular structure of your clothing and your shoes. That was an understanding that carries on here to Nehemiah. Nehemiah is rehearsing in this chapter how God dealt with the people of Israel and the magnificent prayer in verses 5 and following. OK? [18:15]


See, that is a picture of the upholding work of God in creation and this is something that is constantly renewed in the scripture very commonly. When you come to prayer, you see the people praying with the background of the creatorship of God. God created everything that He upholds it and sustains it and so that is the basis for confidence in prayer that He can do something about what you are praying for. Without that confidence, people find it very difficult to pray and if you have a whole system of education that is designed to take their confidence away from you, it has a profound affect upon your spiritual life. It’s when you fast, you are actually opening up to an influence that is not natural. If God created everything, then in a manner of speaking, that’s easy, because if He created it, he can certainly do something about it. If you have the idea that He didn’t created it, well, then, that gives you a different picture of the spiritual life and of prayer. Does that make sense? OK. [20:04]


Well, let’s go on to this important passage in John 4:32. Let’s take time to turn there. You know the story well, I’m sure. This is the story where the men had His helpers; His disciples had gone into the city to buy food and He is resting at the well. The conversation with the lady goes on there—one of the most profound theological teachings in the whole Bible but now then, they come back. They have got food and they are puzzled to see that He is talking to this Samaritan woman and there are all sorts of problems that would come up in their minds because a Rabbi really wasn’t supposed to speak to a woman, much less a Samaritan woman, much less alone with her. This is a loaded setup. Now, then, something interesting happens because they say, “Here is some food, Jesus; please eat.” And He makes this astonishing reply to them. He says, “I have meat to eat you don’t know anything about” and what is the meat that He has to eat? Can you help me out there? What does He say? My meat is acting with God. Don’t you find that intriguing? My meat is acting with God. Is that an acceptable way of reading that, do you think? Will that do? “I have meat to eat you don’t know anything about. My meat is to do what God is doing.” Now, the natural affect of that is to increase the power of what He is doing and I think that that’s how we want to understand the effect that comes from fasting—is to increase the power of what we are doing by drawing on His action with us. [23:05] Now, of course, we can just say that would make a beautiful praise song, right?” [He sings] I have meat to eat that you know not of, cha, cha, cha! [Laughter] I’ll give that to you. You can try that out. That’s way so many of the things that Jesus said you know, they just don’t make any sense within the framework of natural understanding and that happens over and over. The widow’s mites—I mean, did He really man that she put in more?  Come on. How would you understand that? Suppose it’s actually true for a moment and think how you are going to preach that. Or was it just a nice thought? Ok. Well, let me go with that as the general teaching here and see if you have comments and questions and then we will come back to look at some of the more particular points, especially the distinction between disciplinary fasting and functional fasting. [24:58]


So, of course fasting can be abused when it is turned into a ritual and a ritual is not an interactive relationship. It is something you have learned to do because of your social setting or whatever your theology. Fasting is in fact an almost universal practice in religion. In that regard, it’s a lot like prayer.


Q: Explain again the ritual of fasting?


Well, I am saying that if you are fasting just because that is the practice in your circles like it was—that’s what Isaiah 58 is talking about and we will come to that. Ritual is activity that is within human power to do and it is nearly always practiced as a form of righteousness but fasting is not righteousness. It is a way of interacting with God. Now then, you decide to do it, well, for heaven’s sakes, let’s go on to Isaiah 58 and do this passage because, see, this is one of those places where it is simply abused and then you have other cases where it is not necessarily abused but it’s ineffectual where God is not going to work with you and an illustration of that is David fasting and praying for his little son who was sick and was going to die anyway. [26:54] See, by the time you get to Isaiah, Isaiah’s time, fasting has been refined to a point where it often doesn’t have any effect. So, that’s what is going on here. A bunch of ritual in Isaiah 58: “Cry loudly, don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, and declare to My people their transgressions and to the house of Jacob their sins.” See, that’s the problem. Their carrying through with the rituals—verse 2: “Yet they seek Me, day by day and delight to know My ways, as a nation that has done righteousness and that has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, they delight in the nearness of God.” Well, that looks pretty good but wait a moment. Now, they say, verse 3: “Why have we fasted and You do not see?” The expectation is that fasting will have visible results. Right? And Jesus carries that over in Matthew 6: “When you fast” He gives instruction. Clearly the assumption is going to be that you will fast and again, when they come to Him and ask Him why is it that your disciples don’t fast, He says, “Well, they will but they don’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. They will fast later on.” But, here, people are fasting and going, “Now why?”—verse 3: “Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice? Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire”—that is to say, you do what you want to do so here you are fasting and that looks like maybe you are not doing what you want to do and though you are doing what you want to do after all. But, here it’s a little more incisive of what they are doing wrong. Look at this. “You drive hard all your workers.” Prophets are really very sensitive about this point. “You fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice hard on high.” [29:33] Now, again, the assumption here clearly is that fasting has a role in making your voice heard on high. But, then, if it is not done in a certain way, that won’t happen. So, you don’t want to miss this point although the assumption that fasting is actually to make a real difference in the outcome of our lives. [30:08] So, now, you are living in an angry, brutal way with people and you’re fasting. Verse 5: “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?” See, that’s the ritual side so you can see people making all sorts of external arrangements and then of course including not eating but in the context, they are still doing evil following their desires and in particular, they are crushing those around them. So, end of verse 5: “Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast that I choose?” Now, please don’t think He is suggesting you should substitute the behavior He is going to mention for fasting, and you will hear people teach that. They say,“Well, we don’t need to fast, we just need to do justice.”—“To loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the hands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke. Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own kin folks?” OK. So, now, what He is saying is that the fast should go in conjunction with doing good, doing righteousness for those around you and this is loving your neighbor as yourself—loving your neighbor as yourself, you see? He doesn’t have any clothes; then give him some clothes. Now, your neighbor is usually going to be someone closely related to you, probably your kinfolks actually. My nearest neighbor is my wife. That’s probably something true for you and if I am caught up in great social causes but I neglect my wife, then I am not loving my neighbor. Now, we have to come back to that. OK, we have to really talk at length about loving your neighbor and how you go about that because that is so central to what we are to do and it is something we have to learn how to do. “Then you will call—then your light will break out like the dawn, and your righteousness will go before you and, the glory of the Lord will watch your back,” That’s what that means—“God’s got your back.”—Verse 8. OK; wonderful blessings in the rest of that passage. I love the way it puts it in verse 12: “Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell.” That’s a beautiful picture of community. [33:47] The streets are full of people. First time I went to Paris, it was puzzling how they lived in the streets until I lived in one of their apartments and you can see that they need the streets and the “restorer of paths to dwell in.”


Q: What types of rituals should pastors be teaching?


They would especially help people understand that coming to church and giving a little money and so on isn’t such a big deal after all in the eyes of God and certainly doesn’t put them in a position to dispense with the more important things and this of course is what Jesus said, “You tithe mint and rue and cumin and you ignore the more substantial things like mercy and justice.” See, that’s a basic teaching about ritual and anything that becomes self righteous behavior tends to then make people have a claim on others. “Since I am so”—you know, “you.” Of course, we need to step out of that entirely. So, what that does is that pushes into a larger scene and it’s important with reference to fasting because one of the things that fasting does for many people is that I makes them feel self-righteousness and that’s really poisonous no matter if it’s memorizing scripture or serving in a soup kitchen or whatever it is—anything that makes you feel self-righteous is spiritual poison and it always has the effect of enhancing your claims on other people. Often, nearly through judgments—judgmentalism—and that’s a phenomena that is completely general now, and of course, what it tells us is that we want to stay out of anything that gives us a sense of superiority and self-righteousness and that certainly happens with and so in the Isaiah 58 case or Jesus’ teachings, what you are looking at here is a ritual behavior that made people say, “Hey, you know, we are really cooking for God.” In the context of that, they are able to engage in brutal crushing of other people…lovelessness, and that’s what Isaiah is talking about here. I hope you have had a chance to read the little Andrew Murray book on humility. It’s quite a treat and he is an amazing teaching that has such profound insights into things but you know, humility is the act of faith that we learn to abandon ourselves to God and so then we don’t tend to tell Him what He needs to do when we are in that position. [37:33] OK?


Now, let’s look at this distinction between disciplinary fasting and functional fasting because disciplinary fasting has been a great part of the history of Christ’s people. I think that this won’t be quite right, I am afraid but it is close enough to use, I think Wesley refused to ordain preachers unless they fasted half day twice a week. Now, a half-day fast would be something like breakfast but no lunch or dinner or no breakfast and lunch but dinner. So, half day fast—he thought that that was the common practice of the ancient church and I think he is right about that. Fasting has been a major part of the training of people and it was understood by many of the old saints that if you are “fasted well,” then you will be in control of all of your desires. That is basically the function of disciplinary fasting. Disciplinary fasting is something you do on a regular basis to keep under control your need to have what you want and that’s why I say here in the middle of 61 that disciplinary fasting teaches us how to be strong and cheerful under circumstances of depravation. It accustoms us to not having what we want in being quite comfortable and happy with that—not grumpy and dissatisfied. [39:52]


So, now functional fasting is then to use the language of Isaiah 58 again, something we do to make your voice heard “on high concerning a specific need. Now, we need to be practiced in fasting and that’s what disciplinary fasting would do so that in functional fasting, we will not be thinking about fasting.


Alright, now, there are some other passages on the next page, 62 just to make us see how common this is as well as to alert us to things such as pointless fasting and when not to fast. The Esther case is a case of functional fasting. Here you have a desperate situation for the Jews and so, Esther agrees with her Uncle that she will fast and asked him and the Jews to fast with her as she prepares to make a request to the King for deliverance from annihilation for the Jewish people. Joel also; that’s functional fasting to deal with the desperate circumstances in which Israel found itself. We’ve already looked at Isaiah and the Jeremiah 14 passage makes the same point about pointless fasting. Also, when not to fast and that is Jesus’ teaching that there is a time to fast and a time not to fast and in particular, He is looking at times of celebration and we have to talk bout celebration later on because that is also a primary discipline for the spiritual life. Then you have a life devoted to that; “Anna, served the Lord with fastings and prayers night and day.” I am sure that was some kind of limited fasting that she did but it was practiced on a continuous basis and then Paul’s ordination in Acts 13 where he and Barnabas are going to go out and then the people there serving the Lord with fasting and prayers and they fast and they hands on them to commission them and that comes up in other passages as well. Finally, in Mary’s restraining conjunctional relations interrupted for the sake of concentration on prayer so that’s another kind of discipline of abstinence and keep that passage in mind when we come to talk about the discipline of chastity this afternoon. We have to think deeply about that one. [43:21]


Then I have a little discussion here about gluttony at the bottom of 62. Gluttony is eating for the sensual pleasure of ingestion. Now, that alone is not a sin to eat for the sensual pleasure of ingestion. You can enjoy your food and have some food that is mainly just for pleasure so it’s not talking about that; it’s talking about not being able to refrain from that. Gluttony is basically eating for comfort only. So, that’s a huge issue for us and the issue of overweight, which gets discussed continuously now and is a serious issue for what we call euphemistically the heath care system which is actually the sickness care system and now, we live in a society where almost no one prepares food for themselves and their family. Or they prepare it in a way that depends upon other preparations so there is a huge economical investment in selling food.  That is something we need to think about. There is a huge economic investment in selling food. If people were to start to eat in a way that was healthy, probably it would be a blow to the economy. So, food is used to manage people, to manage life and it is in fact always through this drive to get sensual satisfaction. The opposite of that is food is sanctified by the word of God in prayer so it is subjected to what is good and what is right and is not taken as an aim in life. Gluttony is associated with other forms of lack of restraint and we need to recognize that because the glutton is out of control to his or her sensual desires. That goes with fasting now. See, we need to talk about those things together and gluttony is associated with lack of restraint and lack of restraint is a basic fundamental problem in the spiritual life. So, it’s not a small thing or a funny thing but a primary form of spiritual bondage. Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying food. It is recognizing that enjoying food together is a primary form of fellowship with others in the family context. A major form of loving people is to provide food for them and that’s all fine. It’s when one is living for that that the problem arises. OK, any comments or questions about that? It is a very simply discipline and it is very powerful–both disciplinary and functional. [47:33]


Q:  How do you keep functional fasting from becoming ritual fasting?


Well, by looking at what is accomplished by it and if basically what you get out of it is a sense of “well, I did what I was supposed to do,” then I would say, “drop it” and work at some different level about the Kingdom of God and life in the Kingdom of God. If you see that you, by disciplinary fasting actually move into a different way of living; see that’s good and then of course, when you come to functional fasting, the issue is “Is it doing any good?” We’ve had quite a lot of testimonies over the years about fasting from preachers who have gone back and practiced it and for the moment I cannot remember the name of one guy who wrote to us after—I’m talking about someone who took this course who went back and practiced fasting before they preached and how after a few weeks, his lady who ran the tape ministry said, “I don’t know what you are doing but keep it up because the orders for the tapes have doubled.” Now, see that’s typical of something that, “Wait a minute—something is happening and I am not making it happen.” [49:26] Watching for that sort of thing—I don’t make a big deal out of it but functional fasting should make a difference and I think you will see that. You need however, I repeat, to be so disciplined with fasting that you don’t spend lot of time thinking about fasting when you are functional fasting. That would defeat you. It’s like people who when they pray they are not actually thinking about what they are praying for; they are wondering whether or not they are going to get an answer. That’s not a good way to spend time in prayer.  So, look for the effects.


Q: What would you say to fasting from technology rather than fasting from food?


Well, I would say try it on food for awhile and see if it doesn’t help you with the others because it’s harder. Just because it’s harder but then you know, you have a world where young people—they’ve got a lot of messes with food—and food becomes a power game for them and it can lead to serious sickness. What I would say, “Let’s try it on food for two weeks and see how it goes and then let’s move on to texting or something like that.” But, a good point here is to recognize that our bondage is very much to stuff other than eating and that’s a deep spiritual—I would almost say, demonic issue for many young people and they tie it into their self righteousness and self righteousness often moves into bulimia and things of that sort. So, I think you really have to handle this one carefully. But that’s a good point.  What are you addicted to? Well, maybe there are some things that are more important than food to you and we will talk about some of these things later, for example, human approval. Preachers tend to get addicted to human approval. [51:49]


I had a friend who liked to take vacations in the Canadian lake area, you know, up there where there isn’t anything and I remember he said to me, “You know, I have to get back to get my praise quota.” He was addicted to praise. Again, this sort of thing is not righteousness. You look at what will work and what will help. Many pastors wind up leaving the ministry because they are in bondage to preaching and they just can’t take it anymore and you really need to be free of bondage to preaching.  So, of course, for many of these folks, they can’t fast from it because they are set up in a situation where they have to do it every Sunday whether they want to do it or not. That is one of the differences between preaching as we know it and news programs is the time comes and you have to talk whether or not you have anything to say. So, you get all the dribble on the news; here is some dog that is nourishing some baby tigers. So, you see that over and over. [Lots of laughter] Honestly, honestly, folks. So, fasting from preaching, I think we do need to work on that and a part of that would be working with our congregations so that others preach. Nearly always, we have some people that if we will cultivate and work with them—men and women—they can really preach or teach in a way that is good for the congregation. You know, one of the things that is nearly always good for them partly because they don’t have to do it next week so they can benefit from it and the congregation will listen better. The old practice of first sermons—it is very interesting to reflect on this because years ago, and I think it is still true—first sermons are much more impactful partly because the people are more committed to being there and listening and all of that but the person who gets up there really has something to say and they are not just sort of filling the time until next Sunday. We need to think about this.


They asked me to give the little commencement address Friday to the DMIN graduate thing over at Fuller and I happened to wind up standing in the wrong place after it was over and people were coming by shaking my hand, you know. Finally, I managed to move but see, that’s a part of the, and well meaning people say good things and generally, they are basically truthful but it is still you know, something—standing at the door was not normally thought of as the way of getting approval but of being with the people and blessing them and so forth. I think we can do that and we have to educate our people on that. We have to educate them on that. We don’t do that very well I think—how things should go and they could go so it’s a situation like that. But, I am really very much in favor of not doing that or at least, what you can do is to teach them where you stand and that they don’t have to come by you to get out. Right?  So, then if they wish to say something, then they can take that door or if they don’t, they can take the other one or “slip out the back, jack,” as the song says.


OK, well, having talked about fasting, we can go to lunch now.

Listen to all parts in this Spirituality and Ministry 2012 series