Category Archives: Book review

Thoughts on The Spirit of the Disciplines

I finally took the time to update my personal bookshelf page. The first book I read after college was The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. This book came to me by way of a yearlong internship with a Christian tutoring and mentoring non-profit.

I have a new appreciation for this book in retrospect. I have a fuller understanding of the need for self-control as I take on more responsibilities. I see that self-control also limits exploitation, preserves relationships, and enhances experiences (as opposed to overindulgence deadening them). I understand that our habits and character are shaped by daily decisions and that our integrity is tested by stress, power, and fear. I appreciate that this book attempts to be more practical and specific than just spiritual. In the instance of solitude, it’s so eye-opening to consider the spiritual discipline in this current era of hyper and constant connection. Our solitude has been taken from us more completely than he could have ever imagined. How much more so then do we require it.

While looking back, I also have a more coherent critique of his message. I read this book already having a sense of my body as primarily an instrument of spiritual discipline. I can’t say I enjoyed it obviously, but I did sometimes feel superior because of it. So it’s possible that this book fed something in me that was already a little over developed. I wasn’t coming to this book as a hedonist, but as someone already at war with themselves and distrustful of their own heart and mind.

Willard writes that as we begin to understand ourselves as sinful (he calls the self “the old person”) we are to “disassociate ourselves with him or her.” Reading this a decade later, I thought this was an astonishing bit of advice considering the context of trauma and dissociative disorders. It reminded me of a time I was talking to my therapist about a semi-traumatic moment years ago where I sort of sat in stunned silence. He asked me if I thought I had disassociated. I said I didn’t think so, but that I couldn’t quite describe why I was so stunned. In retrospect, I had the realization that what had really happened is that I had associated rather than disassociated. I had actually been pulled into the moment in a way that was too vulnerable to bear for someone who had been trained to be divorced from it.

Thinking from the lens of power, the spiritual disciplines promise a higher level of spiritual maturity and integrity in exchange for relinquishing control of one’s own body. Behavior is modified according to external priorities rather than internal desires. One’s own thoughts and feelings are often considered a threat to the higher calling and higher purpose of our lives. You can say that the individual has chosen to relinquish this control out of free will and undeniable love, but the threats inherent to the faith such as eternal death, being publicly shamed, and excommunication mean that to some extent these decisions are also being made under duress. If you believe in the proposition, there really is no choice. At the same time, there are undeniable benefits to living a life of discipline and if this is what it takes to achieve that discipline then for many it will have been worth it. In a world that is chaotic, Willard suggests a framework that one can stand up under while they bring order to their lives.

I think that Dallas Willard would be disappointed to see how the faith has become an instrument of political power in recent years. On the other hand, coming from a Quaker background I’m surprised to see his opinion of the faith as apolitical considering the Quakers longstanding work to end slavery. It’s hard to know whether the Quakers were acting “out of their faith” vs. using their faith to pursue their own goals in the abolitionist movement. Even within ourselves, we are often clueless to our motives. Additionally, he presents the disciplines in a “battle ready” sort of way that sets the individual in opposition to our society in a way that may make them feel like they have been left out. Is it possible to love others if you are constantly defending yourself against them?

Willard hoped that this book would allow individuals to shape their lives to align with their faith through simple, daily habits. I so appreciate his wisdom and insight. He understands that we can be held back by our weaknesses and that spiritual disciplines are a way for us to ground ourselves, protect ourselves, and minimize self-destructive choices. Unfortunately, at the time, I read the book through the negative inner monologue of “never enough.” It isn’t that the ideas of discipline or restraint necessarily inspire self-condemnation, but as we consider spiritual formation, especially for younger people, we may want to also encourage people to trust themselves and listen to themselves.

That it isn’t all just a “haunted abyss” beneath the surface.


Some quotes that I underlined at the time:

“A successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being—mind and body.”

“Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.”

“Yet, I must do one of the other. Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no middle.”

“And a thoughtless or uninformed theology grips and guides our life with just as great a force as does a thoughtful and informed one.”

“And so it was, more than anything else, the religious seriousness the spiritual disciplines injected into the whole of our lives that made them attractive.”

“More than anyplace else it originates from failure to recognize the part our body plays in our spiritual life—and this is, of course, where the disciplines enter the discussion.”

“They cannot do so because we tend to think of the body and its functions as only a hindrance to our spiritual calling.”

“Once we forsake or cloud this meaning of “salvation” (or “redemption” or “regeneration”) and substitute for it mere atonement or mere forgiveness of sins, we’ll never be able to achieve a coherent return to concrete human existence.”

“The sober truth is that we are made of dust, even if we do aspire to the heavens.”

“The locus or depository of this necessary power is the is the human body. This explains, in theological terms, why we have a body at all. That body is our primary area of power, freedom and—therefore—responsibility.”

“The small reservoir of independent powers that was resident in their bodies continued to function as it does in “living beings” generally, but the connection to God through which those powers would have been properly ordered and fulfilled was broken.”

“But the essence and aim of spirituality is not to correct social and political injustices. That will be its effect—though never exactly in ways we imagine as we come to it with our preexisting political concerns. That is not its use, and all thought of using it violates its nature.”

“The fact that a long course of experience is needed for the transformation is not set aside when we are touched by the new life from above.”

“All his most sincere and good intentions, even though specifically alerted by Jesus’ prediction and warning of a few hours earlier, were not able to withstand the automatic tendencies ingrained in his flesh and activated by his circumstances.”

“In an important sense to be explained, a person is his or her body.”

“‘Spiritual people do not play.’ That is the usual view. For one thing, they are too serious ever to play. It is a test of their spirituality that they never let up from their special spiritual activities…And while spiritual people can have joy, they probably should stay away from just plain pleasure. While it is not in itself bad, it might ensnare them. Or so we seem to think.”

“The true effect of the Fall was to lead us to trust in the flesh alone, to “not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (Rom. 1:28) because we now suppose (like mother Eve) that, since there is now God to be counted on in our lives, we must take things into our own hands.”

“But such thinking is far from the truth. It’s an illusion created in part by our own conviction that our unrestrained natural impulse is in itself a good thing and that we have an unquestionable right to fulfill our natural impulses so long as “no one gets hurt.”

“But his words are really guideposts to direct us in our personal struggle to over come the evil that reigns in our world.”

“So we bring the “old person” before our minds and, with resolute consciousness, we disassociate ourselves from him or her.”

“If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made out nature our ally.”

“If for any reason we are not fully exercising and enjoying the right to “freedom” and “happiness” as popularly conceived, then we automatically assume that something is somewhere wrong.”

“Somehow, the fact that ‘mortification’self-denial, the disciplining of one’s natural impulseshappens to be central teaching of the New Testament is conveniently ignored.”

“In the Reformed branches of Protestantism, with John Calvin as the chief inspiration, discipline became identified with something that the church exerts over its members to keep them in line.”

“The Greek philosophers from the Sophists through Philo and Epictetus included ascetic practices in their views of all proper human education or development.”

“Asceticism rightly understood is so far from the “mystical” as to be just good sense about life and, ultimately, about spiritual life.”

“One of the greatest deceptions in the practice of the Christian religion is the idea that all that really matters is our internal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and intentions.”

“Solitude frees us, actually. This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines.”

“[Solitude] opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.”

“How rarely are we ever truly listened to, and how deep is our need to be heard.”

“Roughly speaking, the disciplines of abstinence counteract tendencies to sins of commission, and the disciplines of engagement counteract tendencies to sins of omission.”

“Condemnation and guilt over mere possession has no part in scriptural faith and is, in the end, only a barrier to the right use of the riches of the earth.”

“He even suggests that ‘true, scriptural Christianity has a tendency, in the process of time, to undermine and destroy itself.’ It begets diligence and frugality, which in turn make one rich.”

“We do not have to own things to love them, trust them, even serve them.”

“So to assume the responsibility for the right use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself.”

“One way to gain such understanding is to experience the life of the poor in some further measurethough we must never give in to the temptation to act as if we are poor when we are not.”

“Fear and wrath mingle to form the automatic, overt response of the ‘normal, decent human being’ to any person or event that threatens his or her security, status, or satisfaction.”

“Almost all evil deeds and intents are begun with the thought that they can be hidden by deceit.”

“The highest education, as well as the strictest doctrinal views and religious practice, often leave untouched the heart of darkness from which the demons come to perch upon the lacerated back of humankind.:

“It will not be by force, but by the power of truth presented in overwhelming love. Our inability to conceive of it other than by force merely testifies to our obsession with human means for controlling other people.”

“The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live.”

“Faith grows from the experience of acting on plans and discovering God to be acting with us.”