An Interview with Dallas Willard Dallas Willard

Originally published in World Christian/U

WC/U: Why should we practice the disciplines?

DW: The short answer and the absolute truth is that without discipline nothing of any value can be accomplished. This remains true in the spiritual life with Christ. And the real question is not whether we should practice disciplines. We will, and everyone agrees we should. But we need to think carefully about which disciplines we practice and how they should be undertaken.

Much of what we learn in human life is imposed—learning to walk, learning to talk . . . social interactions. Beyond these elemental things, everything that we develop from our lives that is of any value is the result of discipline, of voluntarily chosen and planned activities. Normally, the real making of a person comes from disciplines that only they can choose and impose on themselves. The child who is able to accept the disciplines of training may become a great musician. If he doesn’t accept them, he won’t; you can’t impose that, no matter what parents and teachers may wish for.

So, the short answer for “Why discipline?” is that there is no sense of fulfillment, dignity, and quality to life that we can have without discipline. We will grow up with a sense of worthlessness, failure, and become a pest and burden to others. For instance, in nearly every church all the grief that you find basically comes from undisciplined people. If you don’t have discipline, there’s nothing really to make up for it. The disciplines, with grace, will produce the ideals in our lives that we want: to be able effectively to pray, to love, and so forth.

WC/U: Frequently, in the evangelical church, we’ve been taught that to be a disciple only requires us to read a portion of scripture daily and to pray. But hose two activities easily become meaningless.

DW: Well, you see, in the evangelical churches, the big secret is that few people actually read their Bibles and pray. The reason they don’t is because it isn’t presented as an essential part of an overall life that is highly desirable and that we must approach in a certain way.

Christians who do read their bibles often don’t know their Bibles. The reason why they don’t know their Bibles is because they don’t really read their Bible as a treatise on reality, as something that brings change and transformation to our lives. For instance, many people read their Bibles on a schedule. You really only have to look at them to know what their aim is: to read the whole Bible in a year. What that plan is good for is that at the end of the year you can say you read your Bible. It’s a legalism. (Of course, some people are significantly benefited by it.)

Back of this lies the idea of portioning out little pieces of something—as if “this is going to be unpleasant,” so if you take it in little pieces it will be all right. You would never suggest this for War and Peace or any other piece of literature. There is absolutely no suggestion in the New Testament that being a disciple consists of reading your Bible and praying regularly. This really does bring us to the heart of he problem for the student today. There is a totally wrong conception of what discipleship is. It’s been presented to them basically as attending a church, reading your Bible, praying, and maybe some witnessing, and that’s it. Then they come to the university, they look at how they will spend their time, and they think, “I will make discipleship these ‘devotional’ times.” They would be opposed to saying, “My being at the university is my discipleship now. My life is my discipleship.” Or, rather, they just wouldn’t know what that meant.

WC/U: If I can fit discipleship in between my reading sixteen chapters of history . . .

DW: Yes. Many campus ministers try to be very helpful by suggesting something like this, but actually they are perpetuating this idea that if we do certain things at certain times, that will be discipleship. That never has the effect intended—never. Of course, it may be of some help.

WC/U: Or we tend to ask a person who’s having trouble, “How is your devotional life?”

DW: Yes . . . which has another interesting idea: namely, that your devotional life will keep you out of trouble.

WC/U: My life will be trouble free . . .

DW: Fascinating idea! The student is in a very special situation; they will never again have this much disposable time. They often think they don’t have time for discipleship. The problem is that they do not have their values in order, nor do they know how to order their lives around discipleship. They have these “serious” activities that they’ve been taught have to do with discipleship, and they cannot muster the energy to pull their lives together in any serious attempt to follow Christ in all they do. So, the student thinks that their study of the Republic, or of their accounting or chemistry courses, has no intrinsic connection to discipleship at all.

Really, the question is of motivation becomes the chief one in reference to practicing the disciplines. Motivation comes from vision, and vision should come from the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom as an all-encompassing invitation to live life under the rule of God. That means accounting, that means the Republic, that even means Mein Kampf, or whatever it is you’re working on; all serves as an experience of the grace of God daily in all that you do. That then provides the motivation for the disciplines in the same way that involvement in music or sports must provide its own motivation. You begin to enjoy the values of that domain. If you can play a little bit of Beethoven, it’s a wonderful gift. It’s nourishing; it’s sustaining.

When a person begins to step into Kingdom living, she begins to experience the joy of that life, begins to show. “Solitude isn’t a deprivation. Fasting is an opportunity to learn about how God nourishes us through his Word.” Study, service, and church fellowship become different things because they are parts of a whole, and within that whole it’s possible to make decisions that would fit in things like Bible study, prayer, and all the things that are indeed valuable. The question is “How can we have a life in which they make sense?”

WC/U: How can I start? What are the steps to entering into the disciplined life?

DW: Again, by planning to have a lengthy time alone; you really have to begin there. You never “find” time. You choose to make time.

WC/U: What do you mean by “lengthy”? A weekend?

DW: Yes, a weekend is ideal. But you may have to work up to it with an afternoon, or twenty-four hours. Don’t be a hero. You have to be sure not to get into something you can’t handle. A beginner spending a week alone would probably be nuts by the week’s end. But not necessarily. A retreat, or a setting where there can be some alternating between fellowship and solitude, is an excellent place to start. The other part of the advice is: begin thinking of why you really want to do this. It’s not necessary to become completely clear about this, but you must have some clarity. You will have some disappointments. People go on a first retreat and they think they will come back walking on water. Think about what you are wanting and why you are going about this. A good answer is “I’m hoping to learn more about the experience of Christ.”

WC/U: Why is solitude a good place to start?

DW: With solitude, you begin to unhook yourself from the automatic responses that dominate life around us. Church services don’t allow that. You go to church with your family and friends. If you are seeking change there, people don’t want to allow that; they want to lock you into who they think you are. You need to go it along for awhile. In that aloneness, you find meaningful, experiential inaction with God. That’s a part of what the scripture means when it say, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” That means: seek meaningful, experiential interaction with God. The pity is that we don’t find very many clear indications of what that interaction consists of in our usual teaching. Meaningful, experiential interaction with God doesn’t necessarily happen when we stand and sing, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”

WC/U: It is difficult to understand the connection between motivation and vision. We see Mother Teresa and think, “Yes, I want to be that, but how do I get from where I am now to where she is?”

DW: I heard a well-known southern California minister asked a similar question, and he replied that Mother Teresa became like that because she prayed and read her Bible. Just like that. Of course, she did pray and read her Bible, but she did so in a context of a life that included, most important, incredible amounts of solitude, silence, service, confession, etc. Most people don’t understand the effects of solitude, so they don’t understand the reason why we have to have it. What you have got to get to—and this today is regarded as almost sinful—is the point where you don’t have anything to do.

WC/U: Well, do I just sit there?

DW: Simply stated, yes. Of course, you can still breathe or walk about. But this is an application of the law of Sabbath—to make us stop labor, to make us stop doing anything in the way of work. The reason for that, you see, is that the Kingdom of God is so gentle that as long as we’re acting, it usually just lets us go on. We can’t turn loose of the world and the place we think we have in it. Isn’t it interesting that the Kingdom of God is something that you would have to seek? Solitude is the primary way and then, of course, silence within that solitude. It’s a harrowing discipline, in the literal sense.

WC/U: When a person begins practicing silence—such as unplugging the phone, turning off the television and radio, just being quiet for an hour—it can be unnerving after a while. Can silence become enjoyable?

DW: Yes, it is joyous and strengthening. You have to be weaned away from those stimuli and responses that are normal to you, that have made up your life. Then we are able to receive out of silence. Then you will find joy.

WC/U: How did you start investigating the disciplines?

DW: Primarily by reading John Wesley and Charles Finney. Then I began to read very widely in those going before them. I was impressed by their power, which through my reading, I saw was connected to their behavior, and not just to God’s acts upon them. I also learned, long ago, that there is a rigorous positive correlation between fasting and the power and effect of preaching and teaching—or just being with people.

WC/U: In what sense is it more powerful?

DW: In the result for good. The difference in the power and effect of the Word spoken is hard to imagine unless you have experienced it. So I will rarely have a regular preaching or teaching appointment where I don’t fast for at least half a day. But I fast systematically as well.

WC/U: What is systematically—once a week, every two weeks?

DW: More often than that, but it need not be too long, depending on the discomfort you feel. The general rule for any discipline is: if it’s hard to do, you probably need to do it longer and more often.

WC/U: Like lifting weights . . .

DW: Exactly, or learning the piano. You need practice. The disciplines aren’t good in and of themselves. The mark of a healthy-minded person is that they take medicine only when it’s needed. “Spiritual” reading has also been important to me. One significant reading was Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying . . . he just made overwhelming good sense. You see, there is a kind of cycle of entering into a meaningful interaction with God: read your bible, read good books, experience in practice what you have been reading about, go back to your Bible and so on. Our experience involves practicing the disciplines to enable us to act in greater faith. The disciplines are a simple way in which to seek the Kingdom of God. Not to earn it, but to know it. And, of course, finding the Kingdom of God is living the rule and reign of God in our lives.

WC/U: Did you have a support group?

DW: No, I didn’t. There were none in my reach. That’s where the books helped, and a few individuals. But I can imagine that it would be helpful to have a group. There have been cases of very famous groups, for instance, around St. Francis, Ignatius, St. Philip Neri, Wesley’s Holy Club, George Fox’s early friends, and today the lifelong group around Billy Graham. But we do need to be careful with groups and not allow them to preempt any part of our soul. We need to avoid thinking about how to describe what happens when you report back to the group. Which brings me to another discipline: secrecy. The Kingdom of God is in secret . . . in the presence of God’s secret seeing. All the disciplines are, where possible, to be done in secret, so that no one knows what’s going on, such as the praying, fasting, and giving alms (see Matthew 6).

WC/U: How can we keep from slipping into legalism, while practicing the disciplines?

DW: That is a great danger, and the first thing is to recognize it as such. Legalism is almost like the air that we breathe in human society. It can be, and often is, secular as well as religious. It comes out of our need to appear right in the eyes of other people or even—should we be so foolish—before God. If we practice confession or “accountability” with particular people, it, along with the other disciplines, will help to keep us straight. Matthew 6 addresses our need for others to think well of us. The disciplines teach us how to live without depending on the opinion of others. Do well, and then pray that it will be unknown, and arrange for it to be unknown unless that involves deceit. The disciplines are training for enduring mistakes others may make about us, training for being misunderstood. George Fox said we need to “take people off of men and put them onto Christ.” There is nothing more important than that.

Finding the Kingdom of God is seeing and working with His activities in our lives in and around us. The Kingdom of God is God-governing, God-acting. To know God–acting we have to put ourselves into everything we do expecting to interact with God there. The student at the university or college can see the hand of God in everything they do. And so can anyone else.

Dallas Willard. “Why?” World Christian/U, January 1989.