The Disciplines of Abstinence: General Introduction

Dallas Willard Part 5 of 13

A series of talks Dallas gave for African Enterprise on his first trip to South Africa in 1985. He works through some of the material that became The Spirit of the Disciplines.


Dallas:  I think that it would be wise to shift the topics around a little bit and I think that the way I will describe it, if you want to look at your program just a moment is that I am going to take the two topics which are listed as numbers 3 and 4 and try to work those in as we go along and I’m going to take the 5th and 6th topics and spread them out over the four next sessions including this session.

I have felt since coming here—it’s a little difficult to make the schedule out when you are that far away and you really don’t know who you are going to be talking to—I have felt since coming that it would be useful to give more time to the details of the particular disciplines than I had planned and I don’t want to leave out any of the essential conceptualization and the general understanding, I believe is extremely important and I think that we have suffered terribly from a lack of the right way of thinking about these disciplines and as a result, have largely lost them from our churches, but I want to try to work that in as we go along in dealing with the particular cases. [1:36]

We will have a bit more preliminary material this morning, general observations about the disciplines but today we certainly will be getting into the disciplines of solitude and silence and hopefully into fasting as well.  So, if you will just keep those things in mind and—a little mis-spelling here or I don’t know if it shouldn’t have that in there—if you will just keep those things in mind in your thoughts about what we are working on, then perhaps it will not be too confusing.

Now, this morning I want to begin by reading a couple of passages from the New Testament—the writings of Paul. First of all from 1 Corinthians 9, the 24th-27th verses—and I wonder if someone has a New International Bible I could borrow for just a moment or—yeah, got it; thanks. I want to read out of that version—a very fine translation. [2:38]

2 Corinthians, the 9th chapter—I’m sorry, 1 Corinthians, the 9th chapter and verse 24-27—“Do you not know that in a race (everyone) all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.”  (1 Corinthians 9:24-25-NIV) And when he refers to the games, he is referring to games. He’s referring to the athletic competitions with which these people were familiar and they were just about as crazy on athletics as we are today.  So, it’s a very familiar figure.  “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I strike a blow to (beat) my body and I make it my slave or my servant so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27-NIV)

And then if you would look with me at 1 Timothy, the 4th chapter and the 8th and 9th verses—[Switches back to KJV], you will see Paul continuing with this metaphor of exercise and preparation. And he says here that “ . . . bodily exercise profiteth little . . .” He refers to just what he’s been talking about again; namely, exercises for the games—training—and it has some profit. “ . . . Bodily exercise profiteth little . . . “ but now go back to the previous verse. “ . . . exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8) [5:26]

The question is: how do you exercise yourself unto godliness? And today, we are going to begin to discuss the kinds of activities, which could provide each of us with a personal program of spiritual growth—a personal program of spiritual growth and that’s my main challenge to you today now, because we are going to be becoming more specific. I do have a few preliminary remarks to make yet as I said, and that will take most of our first period but my challenge to you is, what is your personal program of spiritual growth? Is it a wise one? Is it well calculated to gain the prize? Is it well calculated to gain the prize? [6:49]

Another interesting questions to ask about your program is where did you get it?  Where did you get it? And an associated question to ask is: did you consciously choose it?  That’s a big question. Too often we just drift into things.

One of the things you know is that if you are going to be a prize athlete, you will not just drift into it. You will consult. You will take advice. You will look for the best trainer. You will consciously choose a course of action, which will put you in a position to compete well and to win the prize if at all possible.  [7:55]

I want to return now to just reiterate a point earlier made. If we want to be like Christ, what matters is what we do when we are not on the spot. That’s true of the athlete. You see a well-trained athlete—a skater or tennis player or soccer player or any of those sports that we are all familiar with—a high jumper, a pole-vaulter—what makes them what they are is what they do when they are not doing the thing which we all think about. It isn’t just when the guy is jumping in the pole vault. We don’t say, “If you want to be a great pole-vaulter, well just put the bar up there to 18 feet and sail over it.” Hmmm? We don’t say, “If you want to be a musician, just go play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D.” That isn’t the way we go about it. [8:55]

It is carefully devised training, diet—total care of the life, and that is what we need to think about here when we come to deal with our personal program of spiritual growth. Is it wise? Is it well calculated to gain the prize? Where did we get it? Did we consciously choose it?

These are questions that I would like to ask you to think about in your time that you have free today. Spend some time going over these. Really deal with the details. It may be hard for you to get ahold of it. Ask yourself the question, “What do I do as religious activities? What are my religious activities?” That might be a place to start because you may never have thought of this in this way; and then perhaps, you could begin—that would be your initial personal program for spiritual growth—is what you are now doing. [10:02]

And it may be necessary at the start to just get that out on a piece of paper where you can look at it and then you can start to work on it. Then you can ask, “Now, is this a wise program? Is it calculated to gain the prize?” In other words, if I were to do what I am doing, would that be likely to bring me to Christlikeness in holiness and in power? Another question you can ask yourself is, “Are the other people who do the same thing as I am doing approaching Christlikeness in a noticeable way? That would be a good way of looking at it?

So, I’m asking you to think in detail about this and to just work from what you are doing and then adopt this concept of a personal program of spiritual growth and ask these questions and begin to develop a plan for your life. As a child of God, as a disciple of Jesus, what is your personal program of spiritual growth? [11:16]

Now, today as I have said, we do want to get into some possible components of a personal plan and of course, I’m going to be trying to deal with ones which have been time tested, and proven and there are many, many different kinds of activities which might count but we want to look at some of those that are most commonly employed.

But before doing it, I have three preliminaries that I want to work through. Indeed, when I talk about this to some groups, and I put these kinds of ideas before them, you can almost feel their heart sink. You can almost hear them saying, “Well, you mean I’ve got to work at this?” [Laughter] And so we need to say a few things about approaching these disciplines that may help us understand how good they are. [12:20]

I think probably the greatest thing about Richard Foster’s book, except of course a few words of mine that he has in them (Laughter) is the title, Celebration of Discipline. I think that title so shocked people—the idea that you could celebrate discipline that it has enabled them to be open, to read the rest of the book and see what he has to say. The idea of celebrating discipline touches upon the essence of the matter.

Discipline is not a bad thing and that—we really have to understand very carefully. It is the means by which we are able to do the things that are right and good. That’s what it is. It is the means by which we are able to do the things that are right and good. It’s that by which we are able to enter into—activities which are rewarding beyond description—and this is even true at the level, which we talk about with the athlete. [13:27]

I have put three New Testament words up here that have to do with discipline. The idea of discipline is one in which we take pains. We exercise ourselves. We even undergo chastisement in a certain sense in order to achieve a great good. The only time the word that is associated with asceticism occurs in the New Testament is here in Acts 24:16. There Paul says I take pains; I take pains to have always a conscious void of offense. I take pains. This word is very common in antiquity. In Homer it is used primarily to refer to the work of the artist as they carefully elaborate a vase or a piece of furniture or a painting or something of that sort. They take pains to make it beautiful—to make it good and that’s the main sense in Homer’s writings.

Later on, the term takes on a meaning, which is associated with moral development—growth—and perhaps one of the most important episodes in the history of this term—askein or asko—as it is here is in philo. Philo develops the concept of the spiritual athlete and the type of the spiritual athlete for him is Jacob. [15:04]

Jacob, you’ll remember is the one who wrestled all night with the angel in order to obtain the blessing and would not let him go until he had blessed him. And Jacob is taken by philo as the model of the spiritual athlete. This language is used for him.

The most common word for discipline or that general concept in the New Testament is associated with our word gymnasium and this is the term which is present in 1 Timothy 4:7, which we read a moment ago, “exercise thyself (rather) unto godliness.” It’s “gymnasium” yourself unto Godliness if you wish. [15:49]

And then of course, this other very famous word in the literature dealing with Greek civilization and history, paideia. It occurs in Hebrews 12 where the scripture is talking about chastisement and it has the concept of development or elaboration or growth and a very famous book by Werner Jaeger called Paideia which is a discussion of education and growth as it was understood by Greek civilization. And all of these concepts are there in the New Testament and they all refer us with one accord to this idea that whenever we are undertaking exercise or discipline, we are entering into the pathway to what is good.

Now, in order to help us to understand that a little more, I want us to think about what I gave to you yesterday in some of the verse in Romans 6 about submitting our members to righteousness and to point out that we submit our members to righteousness in two ways. One is by directly doing it. For example, I might submit my tongue and my person and my language to righteousness by telling the truth because I want to be obedient to God. I do not want to lie. So, I would tell the truth or I might do a deed of charity or I might pray or worship because these things are good in themselves, but the painful fact is that many times, the good is not accessible to us and that’s why we have to understand a second sense of submitting our members unto righteousness as it is discussed in Romans 6 and that is the sense where we do something which will indirectly help us do what is good. [17:41]

For example, suppose I have trouble with telling the truth. Now, here is a discipline that will help me tell the truth. Suppose I adopt the plan that every time I lie to someone, no matter how trivial a lie it is, I will return to them and tell them that I have lied to them. That will help me tell the truth and even if it’s a stranger, that will help me tell the truth; and if you don’t believe that, you try it. And you’ll find you have an immensely greater power to tell the truth and that’s just a simple illustration.

Meditation on the word of God, which is one of the standard Old Testament disciplines—“this book of the law shall not depart out of your (thy) mouth. It didn’t say out of your mind, did you notice? It’s Joshua 1:8. But out of your mouth, you are going to say it. You are going to repeat it. “ . . . but thou shalt mediate therein day and night.” Then “ . . . thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.” [19:04]

You see if you try to make your way prosperous; if you try to make your way successful, you very likely will fail unless you have the guiding principles of the word of God present to sustain you. “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? Psalm 119:9 says—“ . . . by giving (taking) heed to the word of God (thereto according to thy word).” Hmmm? Or Psalm 1— and the Old Testament is a book of discipline.

By the way, you must understand that because you hear many people want to say that oh, Judaism is not an ascetic religion and Christianity is not an ascetic religion. Don’t you believe a word of it! What those people are trying to say is that in Judaism and Christianity, you do not have the hatred of the body taught that you do in some other religions and they don’t believe that you should punish the body and make it suffer just for its punishment sake, but they are ascetic religions. [20:01]

Jesus was an ascetic individual. He trained Himself. He did those things, which would help Him do the will of the Father. And asceticism as preparing ourselves to do the good by doing whatever will enable us to do the good is a good thing; and almost everything that we want in our lives to realize, as persons must be approached in this way.

Then this gives us this general concept of discipline, which I’ve written on the board here now. The question of discipline including spiritual discipline is simply how to apply the acts of will at our disposal in such a way that what cannot be realized by direct and untrained effort will nevertheless be realized on the appropriate occasion. “Watch and pray,” we said last night. “Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation . . . ” (Matthew 26:41) If you don’t watch and pray, when the occasion comes, you will enter into temptation, and you’ll flunk the course. That’s what Peter did. “Watch and pray”—when the appropriate occasion comes, you stand. You are able to do the good. You do not have to say as Paul said, “ . . . the good which I would, that I do not and what I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19)  [21:25]

You see, you are no longer a torn individual because now, you have righteousness, you have submitted your members unto righteousness and as a result, your members go back to that quotation we had from Oswald Chambers, “Nature is on your side.” Nature is on the side of God. And as I concluded my talk last night, now Peter’s legs and Peter’s tongue are strong with his spirit. Not only is his spirit willing; his flesh is standing with his spirit. So, we have to understand these two fold senses—this two-fold sense of submission unto righteousness and we have to do those things, which will indeed enable us to accomplish the righteousness, which we intend. [22:04]

I wanted to give you a little quotation from a man by the name of William Law and this book that I believe is in your bibliography that Jim has so kindly provided to all of us—A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. And William Law says, “ . . . although the goodness of God and his rich mercies in Christ Jesus are a sufficient assurance to us, that He will be merciful to our unavoidable weaknesses and infirmities; that is, to such failings as are the effects of ignorance or surprise, yet we have no reason to expect the same mercy towards those sins which we have lived in through a want of intention to avoid them.” It’s hard to say it any better than that.  It’s hard to say it. And if we are dealing with God seriously about obeying Him, we are also dealing with Him seriously about planning our life so that we will be able to obey Him.

Question: Dallas?

Dallas: Yes?

Question: Can you repeat that?

Dallas: The quotation? Indeed! “ . . .  although the goodness of God and His rich mercies in Christ Jesus are a sufficient assurance to us that He will be merciful to our unavoidable weaknesses and infirmities; that is to such failings; as are the effects . . .” Okay, I’ll slow down. (Laughter) I’m worrying about running out of time here, but this is such a good statement that I think if we can just get it, it will help.  [24:01]

Statement: (Inaudible)

Dallas: OK, and actually—I’ll go ahead and finish reading it and then I will leave it here for people to copy.  “ . . .  although the goodness of God and His rich mercies in Christ Jesus are a sufficient assurance to us that He will be merciful to our unavoidable weaknesses and infirmities; that is to such failings; as are the effects of ignorance and surprise, yet we have no reason to expect the same mercy towards those sins which we have lived in through a want of intention (or a lack of intention) to avoid them.” And I’ll leave this here so if you didn’t get it, you can get it later. [25:50]

Now, we have only to add to that excellent statement; something that some of you may know that John Wesley was greatly influenced by William Law but he did feel that Law brought—no pun intended—people far to much under bondage to law and I don’t believe that actually is true if you study his writings as a whole but there is a problem here and so we have to add that in this intention to avoid them, grace meets us.

God does not just leave us to work it out and sweat it out. That marvelous combination that Paul gives us—“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12) because it is God who is working in you. That’s so important for us to understand that when we take the move to indirect efforts to come to the point to where we can deal with our, the evil that is in our members and supplant it with the right habits, God will meet us in His grace.

Now, I need also secondly. My first point is that there is a two fold submission of righteousness and that we must understand this as a good arrangement—a wonderful thing which we can, as Richard Foster has said, “celebrate” the fact that there is this route is available. [27:12]

The second thing I need to make sure that we understand—this is a little briefer point—the difference between a discipline and a spiritual discipline—the difference between a discipline and a spiritual discipline. Now, when I wrote this on the board up here, I put spiritual in parenthesis because I wanted you to understand that this is a general concept of discipline—a quite general concept of discipline, okay? It does cover spiritual disciplines but it covers all disciplines. (27:49)

For example, if I want to remember a telephone number—until I get it dialed, I have learned to say it out loud. Do you do that? It helps. So, I say it out loud; maybe I say it out loud twice. Maybe I keep saying it out loud until I get it dialed. [Laughter] That helps. That’s a very small illustration of a discipline. I am doing something indirectly; namely, remembering the telephone number, which I couldn’t do directly.

I remember as a child; I must have been in second grade or third grade—making the startling discovery that I could remember how to spell a word if I would just repeat it. I can still remember sitting in the middle of my bed with this dreadful assignment. I must have been all of 6 or 7 years old and I had to memorize this list of 25 words by tomorrow. What was I going to do? You know? And I made this wonderful discovery that if I would just repeat it, I could remember it but if I just looked at it, I couldn’t’ remember it. Right? (Laughter) Well, what can you expect of a kid? But it was a wonderful discovery. You think, my, I’ve got these tremendous resources. [29:09]

Discipline works in all areas. The great Greek orator, Demosthenes is well known—had something of a difficulty with his speech and he wanted to be a great political leader and that meant he had to be able to speak well in a day when they did not have the benefit of Edison and speakers and things of that sort—so he had to be able to speak well. And as you know, he put stones in his mouth and went to the seashore and tried to speak clearly over the roar of the waves so people could hear him clearly. He would run up hills declaiming as we ran up the hill to strengthen his lungs. It works.

He shut himself up and copied out Thucydides eight times and in order to make himself stay with it, he shaved half of his head so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out in company. (Laughter) He did! See, this man wanted to attain this end. He shaved half his head off. Now, today in California, that would be a—wouldn’t nobody pay any attention to that; just dye the other half green and you are in business.  But then, it was shocking. He wouldn’t do that. And so, you see, that man knew that there was a way to get things done indirectly, which you could not do directly. [30:34]

So, of course, that when I enter into a spiritual discipline, I enter into that discipline in the faith that I will be met there by a power beyond myself. I enter into that discipline in the faith that I will be met there by a power beyond myself. When I go into solitude or silence or service or prayer as a discipline; of course, some of these activities we do, such as prayer are not just disciplines though they may also be used as disciplines. Then I expect to meet God there. Since it is He who is working in me—both to will and do His good pleasure—then I meet Him with my will and our wills come together and I find wonderful blessing and help.

This brings me beyond the stage where we are just talking about grinding labor—grinding labor. Not only is it not earning anything by the merits of our own works. It’s not accomplishing anything just by the efforts, which are in us. It is an accomplishment that comes because of a cooperative relation. And we enter into the disciplines to meet God there and that is the most important sense in which the disciplines are a means to grace. They are the place where we meet grace. They aren’t just graceless things, which we use as steeping stones to grace—they are a meeting with grace. The stepping-stones are themselves grace. We step on them. We have to do the stepping; and then they also lead us on to greater grace. [32:26]

So, we must understand that there is this important difference and please understand that when we speak of discipline in the spiritual life, we are not just speaking of things which we can do by natural means. There has been a big fuss recently in the United States about imagery and using imagery. And Dave Hunt and some others have gotten themselves all worked up about this because they feel that when—you know, there is a lot of teaching about using your imagination in prayer and in various exercises you might do in religion and I think that by in large, these have been well done but it is possible to find people who treat the imagination as if it were “a piece of technique” (to use Jim’s term)—“a piece of technique” where you just grind out the result. You get your imagination right. You hold your mouth right and behold, a new Buick is on your front yard. Right? (Laughter) You know, I have actually read that? Yes; I’ve actually read that. [33:32]

Well, you see, this is what I want to avoid by all means suggesting when we use our imagination to enter into a graceful relationship with God, we are still within a personal relationship which is not a “technique” and God can still say, “No” or God can say, “You have to correct this.” But, it is a way of acting and I think imagination is tremendously important in prayer, especially and perhaps I will come to where I can talk about that later. But I hope my point is clear—when I enter into solitude and fasting and service and so forth, I enter in faith—in faith in God; not faith in myself.

Though I know that my study of the scripture, for example will have good effects, I know that it is only because in the study of the scripture, I meet the Lord and the Lord meets me and then we go accordingly.  [34:28]

Now, associated with that is the final preliminary point that I have to make and that is—the disciplines are not to make us miserable. We must forsake the idea that we are going to be miserable if we undertake the disciplines. This is awfully important for our faith.  If we approach the disciplines as if they were going to be dreadful, painful, miserable things, we will not do it. That’s just it or we will do it in the false spirit of that consuming asceticism which characterized so much of the period before the reformation—that kind of asceticism, which is destructive of life and painful.

When you get ready to enter the disciplines, understand you are not to be a hero. You are not to prove you are tough. You are not to hate your body. You are not to make it hard. You are not to torture yourself. [35:34]

You know, that marvelous and wonderful book, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonheoffer has had one bad affect—I wish it had been titled, The Cost of Discipleship and the Higher Cost of Non-Discipleship. I wish it had been titled that. The way it is, it gives something of an impression that it is going to be dreadfully expensive and I want to tell you that’s false accounting if that’s the end of the story. The real expense is on the other side and we must not give the impression that when we take up the way of Christ seriously and we enter into the disciplines, we must not, by all means, we must not give the impression that here we have to do with something which is tortuous and difficult and bad news.

We must remember that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance and I think that that should be take to mean as it is stated in Romans 2:4 that we never fully repent until we have been turned by the wonderful gift and goodness and kindness—and indeed some of the versions translate the kindness of God leads us to repentance. It’s the kindness that breaks our heart to the bottom. [37:02]

The heart is never broken by hardness. Oh, it may be cracked and fractured and it may turn, but it will still be rebellious and hard. A heart is broken by love, kindness, goodness—there is no special merit in suffering. We will suffer but even there, remember that we are to “ . . . count it all joy when we fall into diverse trials.” (James 1:2)

Suffering does not exclude joy for the Christian and we must not seek to punish ourselves. And when we set out to practice the disciplines, I want to say this to you very strongly because I think it is not said or not said enough. Don’t try to make it hard on yourself. Don’t try to make it hard on yourself. Ask God to lead you into those disciplines, as they would be meaningful and helpful. If you set out to try to make it hard on yourself, you will almost universally fail. Let God bring the hard things He wants on you. Don’t torture yourself and put them on yourself. [38:15]

You know, St. Francis of Assisi, when he was first entering into the way made it very hard on his body. And later on in his years when he had realized that he had broken his body, he apologized to it. He called it, “Brother Ass” and he said, “Brother Ass, I was so unkind to you. You, poor beast of burden that you are and I so mistreated you and now you are about to die. You are broken down.” We need to have compassion on ourselves. I know it’s so hard to say that and have it heard because there is so much to the contrary—we should be hard on ourselves; we should jerk ourselves around and mistreat ourselves because we are so mean.

That isn’t the way Jesus treated people and you want to ask yourself what your authorization is for treating yourself that way and probably if you do that, it will just help you feel sorry for yourself in the end and that is not a very productive emotion—self pity. I know you are in the best position to do it but it still will be of very little aid to you. (39:38)

We have to understand that in our weakness indeed and in our suffering, there is joy and that as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12:9 and perhaps we should just take a moment to read that in concluding our first session this morning—2 Corinthians 12:9. It is our weakness that provides the opportunity for God to perfect His power.  “ . . . My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . . . I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” But let me say to you, these are not things you seek. They are things, which God gives to you and you bear them by His grace but you do not seek them.

Now, the consuming asceticism that has given us so much trouble is a dreadful thing to contemplate. Jim may be going to talk about that more so I’ll not say much about it, but the torture that people laid upon themselves in times when they thought that they were pleasing God really lead to very harmful effects. Let me just give you a few cases. [41:10]

Macarius of Alexandria, Saraphon of Pachomius—here are the sorts of things they did—eating no cooked food for seven years, exposing the naked body to poisonous flies while sleeping in a marsh for six months, not lying down to sleep for 40-50 years; not speaking a word for many years, proudly keeping a records of the years since they had seen a woman—seen a woman—including their mothers and their sisters, carrying heavy weights everywhere they went, living in iron bracelets and chains and explicitly vying with one another for the championship in austerities.

This was a part of our past as a church and we think of those “muscle shops” that we have in California where all these people, they just go in and they are producing muscles. You say, “What are those muscles for?” That is muscle for muscle sake—muscle for muscle sake—ego sake. And we have to be careful that we understand that we are not being heroes and when we think of being a spiritual athlete, we want to remember that we are training for a prize other than our own suffering and our expertise in suffering. [42:33]

So let’s remember these things. Keep them in mind now. Then when we come back, we are going to have some discussion of the particular disciplines.

Listen to all parts in this Spirituality and Mission series