Spirituality: Going Beyond the Limits

An Interview with Dallas Willard, Ph.D. Dallas Willard

Originally published in Christian Counseling Today

You’re no stranger to Christian counseling. I understand that your wife is a Christian counselor.

She is indeed. She has had a practice in Van Nuys, California for over 20 years.

In your book, Spirit of the Disciplines you talk about the danger of separating psychology and theology. What do you mean by that?

There is a very great danger. Often theology is presented as a body of abstract truths and usually it is presented with the idea that if you will consent to these truths, then your sins will be forgiven, and you will go to heaven when you die. You’re sure about what’s going to happen when you die, but as far as living is concerned, redemption doesn’t appear on the scene. You have no guidance. That’s an illustration of what happens when we take faith theologically without understanding it psychologically.

Now psychologically, faith is active in the organization of life and personality. It is the same thing as confidence. It is the same thing as trust. I trust this sofa, even though I’ve never seen it before. I sit down in a very natural way and it holds me up. That’s a psychologically active reality. My faith in Christ is also a psychologically active reality, and my understanding is not that I just believe things about something he did for me and will do in future. Rather, I trust him now. In trusting him, I rely on him like I do on this sofa. As a result of that, I am interwoven into his life and into the reality of the kingdom of God. All of my ideas and emotions interact with that faith so I am transformed. Paul’s statements about putting off the old person, putting on the new person—that process is a natural outflow of faith when you understand it as a psychologically active reality.

One of the sad things that has happened for us in the last 50 to 60 years in America is we’ve lost the sense of faith as a psychological reality. One of the effects of that, quite some time ago, was the increasing realization that we needed psychology. It is not enough to believe the right things and go to church. Not only people in the pews but people in the pulpit and pews are often pretty badly messed up, and the way faith was taught—it had no relationship to life. The source of the movement of Christian psychology was a move to meet this obvious immense need in the lives of people who had a head faith, but whose faith was not an active principle in organizing their lives around what was good and right. The idea is still very common that you can be a Christian and not be different from anyone else. You just believe the right things and you’re going to go to heaven when you die, but as far as your character, you might very well be like everyone else. The psychological movement was designed to help with that. When it first started, many preachers and theologians were very unhappy about it. There are still some people who are unhappy about it. When you go into some of these churches where the preachers are unhappy about the psychologists, you often find that they have dreadful needs that are not being met—a lot of repression and denial and damage being done to young people and to one another in that church fellowship because they don’t have a way of dealing realistically with what is going on in the soul.  So, obviously we need psychology. We need especially Christians who understand both the spiritual side and the psychological side and can bring them together in teaching, practice, and counseling.

Tell us about the spiritual disciplines.

We use the word “spiritual discipline” now very commonly. It is a term that has been developed rather recently. It goes along with terms like spiritual formation. They refer to an ancient tradition of activities which are means to grace, ways of approaching and relating richly to God. Sometimes they fall into a bad use legalistically, or they’ve even thought of as ways of earning merit. Other times when people thought punishment was a good thing and the body was bad, they’ve been used to injure the body. Basically we’re talking about things like silence and solitude, fasting, study, and worship. Prayer also has a disciplinary aspect, though there is much more to it than just a discipline.

Spiritual disciplines are activities in our power, things we can do, to meet God in such a way that we become able to do what we cannot do by direct effort. For example, consider Scripture passages like “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). Many passages talk about how the Word of God helps us live. A discipline in that regard would be the study of Scripture, memorization, and learning to apply it so that it would be there when we need it, to put it simply. Fasting is a discipline which enables us to restrain our desires for food and our other desires and guide them in a healthy way. It needs to be said quickly that there is nothing wrong with food, nothing wrong with talking, nothing wrong with company, but still these can be used in a wrong way. So we need to train ourselves in relationship to all the desires and needs of life so that we can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done—easily if possible.

Simply put, the spiritual disciplines have been a matter of following Christ into his practices. He spent a lot of spiritual time alone, he engaged in service, he prayed, he was silent, he fasted, and so on. Think of spiritual disciplines as following him into his practices—obviously we need them more than he did. Now Christ was not a monk. He did not have a perpetual vow of silence. In fact, he was thought to be a little too ready to indulge in parties and eat and that sort of thing. Celebration is a discipline of the spiritual life also.

When did the disciplines arise in Christian tradition?

Very early. Even in New Testament times you have Paul, for example, saying: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). He realized he had to train himself and tells Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:7-8, “Exercise yourself unto godliness, for bodily exercise profits little but godliness is profitable to all things in this life and the life that is to come.” If you go to the Old Testament you see passages like Joshua 1:8, “This Book of Law shall not depart from your moth, but you shall mediate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” That’s the classical pattern of disciplines. What you cannot do by direct effort, in this case, observe the law and have good success, you can do by meditating on the law constantly. That’s the disciplinary pattern, and it’s present throughout Scripture.

When the monastic orders began to arise in the third and fourth centuries after Christ, these practices were often carried to great excess and turned into legalism of various kinds. Then over the centuries they became more and more legalistic and expression of body hatred. The Reformation was in large part a reaction to this. Fasting and making yourself miserable by wearing hair shirts and chain and sleeping on a cold floor were regarded as earning merit. This is foolishness. Luther, after engaging excessively in the disciplines discovered that we are justified by faith. He himself continued to observe quite a number of spiritual disciplines, as did many Protestant groups. They were not thought of as earning merit or as punishment.  They were thought of as “means to grace,” to use a Wesleyan phrase.

You access the presence of God in, say solitude, in a way you cannot do if you’re out in the middle of noise and racket and people jabbering at you. Silence is a very powerful discipline, and solitude is too. They really transform the soul. God comes into them and meets us in a way he otherwise wouldn’t, because generally speaking, God will not compete for our attention. When we turn aside and make ourselves available, that’s a way of seeking him, and we are commanded to seek him. He says if we seek him we will find him.

Are different disciplines more valuable in some cultures than in others?

Yes, and some of the disciplines are more valuable to some people than are others. Some cultures have posed special problems for spiritual development, and therefore, they need special use of disciplines to deal with them. For example, solitude and silence is something that most of the people in the United States or the world once had plenty of at one time because of their living circumstances. They didn’t have telephones, electric lights, or automobiles. The need for solitude was met without any special attention. That certainly is not true of the United States now.

You talk in your book about the role of Christian psychology in arousing renewed interest in the disciplines. How did that happen?

Christian psychology has said, “No matter how right we are in our beliefs, we still have problems.” But psychology reaches its limit at a certain point too. You could be fairly sound mentally and emotionally and still not have begun to reach the heights of Christian maturity.

Spiritual disciplines are not the cure for everything. Sometimes we need prayer. Sometimes we need repentance. Sometimes we need teaching. Sometimes we need psychotherapy. But at some point, we are able to begin to direct our activities consciously and rationally toward Christlikeness by arranging our lives and engaging in activities such as careful study of Scripture, the right kind of fellowship, confession, celebration, solitude, silence, the use of the services of the church, and others. That is the stage of character formation that reaches toward Christlikeness. Rarely do you have a psychological theory that can adequately deal with that process. You need something more than psychology; just as when you have a person who is really dysfunctional you need to offer something more than spiritual disciplines.

Should character formation be the work of Christian counselors?

Whatever Christian counselors can do would be good, but they will be limited in what they can do by techniques alone.  Character formation falls to the individual. It is something that individuals develop and, of course, for Christians they develop that in interaction with grace and in their relationship with God. Character formation may be defeated by psychological mechanisms which the counselor can and should deal with, but beyond that, character formation or spiritual formation is to be taken over by the individual who has a sufficient degree of hope to plan and develop a life in relationship to God.

Many counselors today are learning that for their own work, deep immersion in the disciplines is necessary, both for developing their own character, and beyond that, accessing special powers of grace for their work in counseling people. Many psychologists are learning how to use techniques of prayer and various kinds of ministry to have a much greater effect than they could have if all they had to go on were just the things they learned in their clinical training programs. Graduate psychological training programs often are quite good, but they don’t do very well in teaching counselors how to use prayer in healing people, or how to use Scripture, or help people make wise decisions of various kinds about fellowship, worship, and so on, all of which might really bring a greater power into the healing process.

How can Christian counselors integrate the spiritual disciplines in their work with people to bring about that kind of healing?

One can go to the end of theory and say that you might start with the understanding of the nature of God and the nature of the soul and how they work together. In the current intellectual climate, the secular world view really does not have a place for God or the spiritual side of people. This is more likely going to have to be the work of philosophers, and apologetics people, and people who have a more general scientific and philosophical interest. I think the most important and the most solid way is to begin to try to integrate prayer and spiritual teaching into the therapy process as it seems to be appropriate. Experiment with where we should integrate our faith in our practice as therapists. Then we can track those results as we go along. We can observe what the effects of prayer and spiritual understanding are, and advise clients as to how they can use the Scripture, how they can worship, and s forth in a way most helpful to them.

Where do you think that Christian counseling is heading in the next 25 to 50 years?

I think the problems affecting religion and psychology are the ones that affect life all across the board. My feeling is that we must come to a place where we comfortably think of God as a reality that is a part of our world. Until the church develops an understanding of the gospel that relates it more to this life than the next life, it will cause difficulties on both sides. Those on the outside of religion will look at it and regard it as having nothing to do with real life. Those on the inside of religion will experience their life outside of special religious activities as if it were a Godless world. I think the key issue here lies deeper even than matters of integration as we commonly discuss it. It is a matter of our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ as one which breaks through the natural world and brings it into the spiritual world and invites us as individuals to learn to live an eternal kind of life now.

Dallas Willard. “Spirituality: Going Beyond the Limits.” Christian Counseling Today, no. 1 (1996): 16-20.