I’m back with part three in our exploration of the Spiritual Disciplines. Believe me when I say I’m just as eager to dig into specific practices as you are, but before we do there I need to lay out a final point in favour of carrying out these practices in the first place. So please hang tight!
The phrase “to follow Jesus” is overused in contemporary Evangelical church circles to the point that it’s almost rendered meaningless. I use the phrase all the time too, so I feel like I can throw down my opinion here. It is a serious problem though. Many people say they are following Jesus when all they have done is give a verbal confession of faith. They may believe in who Jesus is, but they don’t follow Him. His example doesn’t inform how they live their lives. This is a problem I hope we as the Church can begin overcoming with the help of spiritual disciplines.
In my last post I wanted to give some motivation for the Spiritual Disciplines, in part because I suspect fellow Protestants would be suspicious of these practices given their history of misuse throughout church history. I didn’t expect that post to settle all concerns, and thus that is my focus here. I seek to make the case that spiritual disciplines flow naturally from a relationship with Christ that is based on grace through faith.
It is only after we have been granted salvation through our faith in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross that we can begin to act in any way that is pleasing to God. In other words, we cannot do the “good works” God desires from us until we have been washed and cleansed by Jesus’ sacrifice. Let’s go a step further: those “good works” will in fact happen, as they naturally follow once God begins working in us and through us now that we are in an unending relationship with Him. These “good works” are what I would call “following Jesus.” It’s the classic “What Would Jesus Do?” mentality. What I find surprising though, is just how hard it is for us to do what Jesus would do on a regular basis, even though we are filled by the Holy Spirit. Where is the victory? I often see Christians either trying and failing or failing to try. It’s a sad and confusing reality. It is this disheartening situation that Dallas Willard plants his insightful work The Spirit of the Disciplines. His premise is that there is a deep disconnect between how people find Jesus’ ways to be so difficult to follow and how Jesus Himself claimed that His ways were “easy.” Matthew 11:29-30 reads: “Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Willard strives to help us better understand Jesus’ “easy yoke.”
In our churches I think we’ve tended to focus on teaching people the right things about Jesus and hoping that head knowledge will result in changed behaviour, but that only gets us so far. We lack a practical approach that actively trains believers to adopt Jesus teachings in their lives, and in the absence of this, other behavioural patterns take root. Willard explains: “We cannot behave “on the spot” as he [Jesus] did and taught if the rest of our time we live as everybody else does. The “on the spot” episodes are not the place where we can, even by the grace of God, redirect unchristlikeness but ingrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikness.”[i] Does this not ring familiar? In all areas of our lives our behaviours are patterned off of what we see in the world, and then in a particular moment where we hope to emulate Jesus, we find ourselves doing the exact opposite. We don’t possess Christlikness in these moments because we don’t practice Christlikness.
Simply change the picture in view to see how common sense this idea is. Would you expect an athlete to perform at their best on game day without training beforehand? What about a musician at a recital? An actor in a play? Of course not. We understand the absolute necessity of practice to acquire and hone skills. If we walk into a situation where we need to show Christlike love, or forgiveness, or patience, or wisdom, but we’ve never spent anytime emulating Jesus as a part of our lifestyle, then we will fail like the track athlete that sits at home all day eating snack food.
Willard continues: “The secret of the easy yoke, then, is to learn from Christ how to live our total lives, how to invest all our time and our energies of mind and body as he did. We must learn how to follow his preparations, the disciplines for life in God’s rule that enabled him to receive his Father’s constant and effective support while doing his will.”[ii] Not only does this mean that we need to truly make our faith something that we live out all the time, but we need to change our view about what following Jesus looks like. Instead of focusing on the big moments where we hope to shine like Christ out in the world, we need to start following Jesus in the quiet, mundane moments where no one is watching. It is in the many little moments in our day where we need to be following Jesus, communing with the Father in the power of His Holy Spirit.
Following Jesus is a lifestyle, and rightly administered should affect every area of your life. Spiritual Disciplines are the practices that guide us in this pursuit. When we journey through the Gospels our attention is often grabbed by the astounding miracles, insightful teachings, gripping confrontations. We often miss however the fortifying prayer, the solitary rest, the selfless service. Perhaps we as Christians can become more like Jesus when we begin to practice living like Jesus did in the quiet and mundane moments of our lives.
[i] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, (1988), pg 7.
[ii] Ibid, pg 9.
Img: Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross sketch. (Credit: Museum Bredius)