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2010.01.28 09:40

The Spirit of Disciplines

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In this book, Dallas Willard, one of today's most brilliant Christian thinkers and author of The Divine Conspiracy (Christianity Today's 1999 Book of the Year), presents a way of living that enables ordinary men and women to enjoy the fruit of the Christian life. He reveals how the key to self-transformation resides in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, and how their practice affirms human life to the fullest. The Spirit of the Disciplines is for everyone who strives to be a disciple of Jesus in thought and action as well as intention.

        The Secret of the Easy Yoke
A more reasonable estate of human costs and values will lead us to think that no labor is better expended than that which explores the way to the treasure-houses of the spirit, and shows mankind where to find those goods which are increased by being shares, and which none can take from us.
Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried. The vast, grim “cost of discipleship” is something we hear constantly emphasized.  It costs a man just as much or even more to go to hell than to come to heaven. Narrow, exceedingly narrow is the way to perdition.
Proverbs 13:15 tells us that it is the way of the transgressor that is hard. We can also learn this by candid observation of life. Actually, a large part of the Old Testament book of the Proverbs merely records the results of such observation.
To depart from righteousness is to choose a life of crushing burdens, failures, and disappointments, a life caught in the toils of endless problems that are never resolved.
The words of Jesus quoted above from Matthew 11:29-30 present an alternative to the desolation of life lives apart from God. The ease, lightness, and power of his Way we rarely enjoy. So we do not have the strength we should have. So what is the result? His teachings are treated as a mere ideal.
It’s a familiar story. “We’re only human,” we say, and “to err is human.” We may think – or possibly they’re for when we are in heaven. But they cannot be for us now. Not really, Jesus could not have imposed anything that hard upon us. And besides, we’re in a period of grace – we are saved by grace, not by anything we do so obedience to Christ is actually not necessary. All of our reasonings cannot, however, remove the thought that Jesus calls us to fellow him – to follow him now, not after death.
No one denies that we would be far better off and our world an immeasurably better place, if we were to conform in deed and spirit to who he is and what he taught. And all of our lack of understanding doesn’t cancel his offer of an easy yoke and a light burden, in which our souls can find rest. That offer, like his call this life where we labor and bear impossible burdens and cry out for rest. It’s true. It’s real. We have only to grasp the secret of entering into that easy yoke.
What that is the secret? We are saved by grace. That is the basis of God’s acceptance of us. But grace does not mean that sufficient strength and insight will be automatically infused into our being in the moment of need. The secret of the easy yoke: the secret involves living as he lived in the entirety of his life – adopting his overall life-style. To live as Christ lived is to live as he did all his life.
Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the “second mile,” turning the other cheek. But this is false approach to following Christ has counterparts throughout human life.
In our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of disciplines we miss the easy yoke and light burden. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of the following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world. We’ve all seen this happen. So, we should be perfectly clear about one thing: Jesus never expected us simply to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who persecute us, give unto them that ask, and so forth.
Instead, Jesus did invite people to follow him into that sort of life from which behavior such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy thing to do. The Sermon on the Mount is not a set of principles to be obeyed apart from identification with Jesus Christ. The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the life we will when the Holy Spirit is getting his way with us. If we wish to follow Christ – and to walk in the easy yoke with him – we will have to accept his overall way of life as our way of life totally. Then, and only then, we may reasonably expect to know by experience how easy is the yoke and how light the burden.
Asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” when suddenly in the face of an important situation simply is not an adequate discipline or preparation to enable one to live as he lived. 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 have discovered how to enter into his disciplines from where we stand today.

        Making Theology of the Disciplines Practical
For God has made no promises of mercy to the slothful and negligent. His mercy is only offered to our trail and imperfect, but bests endeavor, to practice all manner of righteousness.
The real meaning had to be that the one who is born of God does not sin all the time or continuously. A short moment of triumph ensued. Those thought there must be some important sense in which the child of God might be and should be free from sin were accused of perfectionism.
We believe in our hearts that we should be Christ like, closely following our Lord. However, few of us, if any, can see this as a real possibility for ourselves or others we know well. As a result we find ourselves caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can Jesus be my Lord if I don’t even plan to obey him? Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. I must plan to follow Jesus fully or not plan to fellow him.
When Christ walked the earth, the Christian method of spiritual growth, through perhaps harsher, seemed much simpler. “I am the light of the world,” he says in John 8:12. “Whoever fellows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” To Simon and Andrew fishing, to James and John, to Matthew collecting taxes, he called out; “Follow me!” They obeyed, literally leaving what they were doing to be with him.
How can ordinary human beings such as you and I follow and become like Jesus Christ? There is no question that we are called to this. And it must be possible.
A theology is only a way of thinking about and understanding God. Practical theology studies the manner in which our actions interact with God to accomplish his ends in human life. Our practical theology has the lack of answering those questions about how one goes about growing spiritually. And if it is successful, it will resolve for us the dilemma.
Practical theology’s overall task is to develop for practical implementation the methods by which woman and men interact with God to fulfill the divine intend for human existence. That intend for the church is twofold: the effective proclamation of the Christian gospel to all humanity, making “disciples” from every nation or ethnic group, and the development of those disciples’ all character into the character of Christ himself “teaching them to do all things whatsoever I have commanded you”(Matt.28:20).
But our practical theology has not always been successful. In our immediate past, worldwide evangelism has been strongly emphasized and also quite successful. Theologically and psychologically sound approach to spiritual growth, to really becoming like Christ. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley pointed out this trend; the soul and the body make a man; the spirit and discipline make a Christian: implying that none could be real Christian without the help of Christian discipline.
Today, for the first time in our history as a nation, we are being presented with a characteristic range of human behaviors such as fasting, meditation, simple living, and submission to spiritual overseer, in an attractive light. They are increasingly looked to as a reliable means of growth in spiritual substance toward maturity in Christ.  
Historically proven spiritual disciplines as precisely that they do respect and count on the bodily nature of human personality. They all deeply and essentially involve bodily conditions and activity. Thus they show us effectively how we can “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God” and how our “spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1) really is inseparable from the offering up of our bodies in specific physical ways.
Classical spiritual disciplines were also produced by the growth of psychology, and of Christian psychology in particular, as a profession and as a body of knowledge.  Many Christians were suddenly prepares to look at traditional methods of spiritual formation. They could not help but see that spiritual growth and vitality stem from what we actually do with our lives, from the habits we form, and from the character that results.
But most Christian did not really follow him and were not really like him. Christian aren’t perfect, just forgiven became a popular bumper sticker. The only absolute requirement for being a Christian was that one believes the proper things about Jesus.
Centuries ago, disciplines such as fasting, service, and giving were confused with meritorious works, as well as with a useless and destructive penance. So what resulted was a general failure to understand or accept the wonderful, positive functions of those disciplines as part of the course of the human personality’s full redemption. We’ve all heard of cheap grace. But cheap grace as a concept didn’t just come merely from our wanting to have God’s mercy and bounty at bargain basement prices. The misunderstanding of the spiritual disciplines place in life has been responsible for Protestantism’s adopting cheap grace as the dominant mode of its recent existence.
So what is needed is a theology of the disciplines for the spiritual life. We need a foundation, a practical, workable theology of them. We must understand why the disciplines are integral to meaningful life in Christ. We must be clear about the essential part they play in the full essential part they play in the full and effective presentation of the gospel and the truth about life in God’s Kingdom. Full participation in the life of God’s kingdom and in the vivid companionship of Christ comes to us only through appropriate exercise in the disciplines for life in the spirit.

        Salvation is a life
God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that has the Son has life (1John 5:11-12).
Why is it that we look upon our salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life we receive from God? A close look at Jesus great acts of humility, faith, and compassion recorded in the Gospel narratives finds them to be moment in a life more pervasively and deeply characterized by solitude, fasting, prayer, and service. Surely, then, the lives of his followers must be just as deeply characterized by those same practices.
The pervasive practices of our Lord form the core of those very activities that through the centuries have stood as disciplines for spiritual life. Even of Jesus it is true that he learned obedience through the things which he suffered, as Hebrews 5:8 states. Obedience, even for him, was something to be learned. Certainly we cannot reasonably hope to do his deeds without adopting his form of life.
The vitality and power of Christianity is lost when we fail to integrate our bodies into its practice by intelligence, conscious choice and steadfast intent. It is with our bodies we receive the new life that comes as we enter his kingdom. If salvation is to affect our lives, it can do so only by affecting our bodies. Our life is a bodily life, even though that life is one that can be fulfilled solely in union with God.
Salvation is not just forgiveness, but a new order of life. We must do nothing less that engages in a radical rethinking of the Christian conception of salvation. Once salvation is relegated to mere forgiveness of sin, though, the discussions of salvation’s nature are limited to debates about the death of Christ, about which arrangements involving Christ’s death make forgiveness possible and actual. And yet through these theologies the connection between salvation and life becomes unintelligible.
The message of Jesus himself and of the early disciples was not just one of the forgiveness of sins, but rather was one of newness of life – which of course involved forgiveness as well as his death for our sins. And yet that newness of life also involved much more besides. To be saved was to be delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the Kingdom of his dear Son, as Colossians 1:13 says. We who are saved are to have a different order of life from that of the unsaved. We are to live in a different world.
The resurrection was a cosmic event only because it validated the reality and the indestructibility of what Jesus had preached and exemplified before his death the enduring reality and openness of God’s kingdom.

        Little less than a God
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and all reptiles that crawl upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image (Genesis1:26-27).
Who are we humans? What are we supposed to do? Surely life is for more than just surviving, or mastering nature and other human beings. Why are we here? We do in fact live in a world in ruins. Without an understanding of our nature and purpose, we cannot have a proper understanding of redemption. What salvation is depends upon what is being saved. Before something can be saved it must face the risk of being lost.
Humankind aspires to beauty and power, to purity and dignity, to knowledge and endless love. And yet we are wandering heaps of protoplasm. We are made from clay, dust, powder. Yet, as creatures go, we are different. We are made for higher things. Our aspirations hint of such a truth. The age-old distinction between the body – the physique- and the person-the soul, spirit, and mind- is rooted in the contrast between the unconscious physical facts of our lives. When God made us he made creatures capable of astonishing presumption. We humans can almost forget that we are dust.
People were, for all their physical dimensions, made to be like God, and in that likeness they were made to exercise lordship, care, and supervision over the zoological creation. So humankind’s job description is clearly stated. We were not designed just to live in mystic communion with our Maker. In the light of the immensity of the task, God also gave humankind another very important ability-the ability to live in right relationships to God and to other human beings. But we know that paradise was lost. The disruption of the harmony between God and humankind, and then between humans, were in fact earth-shattering, cosmic events that made impossible the exercise of that rule to which humankind was appointed.
We are different than the rest of creation. Our earthly form seems from this wording to have come alive only in conjunction with the giving of God’s breath or spirit to it. In creating human beings in his likeness so that we could govern in his manner, God gave us a measure of independent power.

        The nature of life
For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it (Luke 9:24).
Life is inner power to reach and live beyond. Human life cannot flourish as God intended it to, in a divinely inspired and upheld corporate rule over this grand globe. When we are in isolation from God and not in the proper social bonds with others we cannot rule the earth for good. Men and women have the option of living under God and among other human beings in a cooperative relationship that fulfills their nature and makes the corporate rule of the earth the natural expression of who they are. This possibility is rooted in the amazing nature of life itself and of human life particular.
The missing element in the present human order is that of the spirit. Spirit is unembodied personal power. Ultimately it is Gog, who is spirit (John 4:24). The biblical worldview also regards the spiritual as a realm fundamental to the existence and behavior of all natural or physical reality.
A spiritual life consists in that range of activities in which people cooperatively interact with God and with the spiritual order deriving from God’s personality and action. A person is a spiritual person to the degree that his or her life is correctly integrated into and dominated by God’s spiritual Kingdom.

        Spiritual life: The body’s fulfillment
The body as well as the spirit now yearns to tread the way of redemption that leads to Calvary. It too wants to expose itself to the scorching sun of God’s holiness. Formerly spiritualization was the goal, now it is rather the moldings of the whole human life. The meaning of Christ’s incarnation for the Christian life on earth is being understood in a new light.
Given our history and cultural context, it is all too easy to believe that the spiritual life may be a life opposed to the body or even, at its best, a totally disembodied mode of existence. So the idea is widespread that you can only be really spiritual after you are dead.  
The spiritual and the bodily are by no means opposed in human life-they are complementary. We here explicitly disown and condemn any suggestion to the contrary, because it is the spiritual life alone that makes possible fulfillment of bodily existence-and hence human existence. It comes through interaction of our powers as bodily beings with God and his Kingdom an interaction for which our bodies were specifically designed. Such bodies have the health and wholeness appropriate to them when we through thought, worship, and action drew upon the spiritual realm that encompasses and underlies them along with the rest of creation.
But While the human being is to be identified with his or her body, within the embodied self-there are diverse and powerful forces that the individual personality into a battlefield. Sometimes it often appears as if the body has a life of its own capable of action to some degree independent of, or in conflict with, our conscious thoughts and intentions.
We were made able to serve God in freedom, but we rebelled and in rebellion we used our independent power against God. Upon conversion, however, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). After conversion our will and conscious intent are for God or the spiritual. But the layer upon layer of life experience that is embedded in our bodies, as living organisms born and bred in a world set against or without God. The conflict between flesh and spirit is the experience of all who begin the spiritual life by the influx of God’s life-giving world.  

        History and the Meaning of the Disciplines
In the theological discourse of our time, the word “asceticism” has become one that collects everything we want to reject in ourselves and in historical Christian tradition. Theologies of embodiment, of play and of sexual identity celebrate the demise of asceticism. We lump together all historical asceticism and indicate our evaluation of it by labeling it masochism. This method distorts and foreshortens historical phenomena and constructs a past that is nothing but caricature. But an even more unfortunate result of the cavalier treatment of historical asceticism is the loss of ascetic practices as tools for the present care of our own bodies and souls.
We must begin by clearing up a mistake that says Judaism is a no ascetic religion. And the gospel of Christ arises within Judaism. What a meant is that the branding of the body as evil and the infliction of pain upon it as its just deserts, as punishment, or to gain merit-all the negative ideas attached to ascetic behavior we’ve been taught-are no part of the Hebrew tradition. And that is largely true. But when we look at the exemplars of Hebrew religion such as Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, John the Baptist, Jesus, and St. Paul, we are looking at people who fast, pray, seek solitude, and give themselves up to humankind and God in ways that are readily recognizable as ascetic. They all serve as models for these practices.
But more than anything– and most important for our goal of understanding the disciplines for the spiritual life-we must recognize that Jesus was a master of life in the spirit. He showed us that spiritual strength is not manifested by grate and extensive practice of the spiritual disciplines, but by little need to practice them and still maintain full spiritual life. To have misunderstood this point was the fundamental and devastating error of Christian asceticism in the Western church from the desert fathers up to the time of the Reformation. The aim and substance of spiritual life is not fasting, prayer, hymn singing, frugal living, and so forth. Rather, it is the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed.

        Some Main Disciplines for the Spiritual Life
When we understand that grace is gift, we then see that to grow in grace is to grow in what is given to us of God and by God. The disciplines are then, in the clearest sense, a means to that grace and also to those gifts. Spiritual disciplines, exercises unto godliness, are only activities undertaken to make us capable of receiving more of his life and power without harm to ourselves or others.
The same thing happens with disciplines for our spiritual life. When through spiritual disciplines I become able heartily to bless those who curse me, pray without ceasing, to be at peace when not given credit for good deed.

What then are the particular activities that can serve as disciplines for the spiritual life? Reminding us that the word asceticism is the correlate of a Greek word for training, as in athletes training fir a race, disciplines of abstinence should be practices by everyone, leading to a sober and moderate use of all God’s gifts. Those who deny themselves will be sure to fine their strength increased, their affections raised, and their inward peace continually augmented.

We have already seen what a large role solitude played in the life our Lord and the great ones in His Way.

In solitude, we purposefully abstain from interaction with other human beings, denying ourselves companionship and all that comes from our conscious interaction with others. This is not just rest or refreshment from nature, though that too can contribute to our spiritual well-being. Solitude is choosing to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings. Solitude frees us actually.
In silence we close off our souls from sounds, whether those sounds are noise, music, or words. Total silence is rare, and what we today call quite usually only amounts to a little less noise. Many other people have never experienced silence and do not even know that they do not know what it is.
Silence is the way to make solitude a reality. But silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It remains us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God. Think what it says about the inward emptiness of our lives if we must always turn on the tape player or radio to make sure something is happening around us.
This disciplines teachings us a lot about ourselves very quickly. It will certainly prove humiliating to us, as it reveals to us how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating. Daniel and his friends would not eat the king’s meat or drink his wine; they had vegetables and water only (Dan 1:12). Jesus in the time of his preparation for temptation and ministry seems to have forgone all food for more than a month (Matt. 4).
Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a free substance, that it is not food alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed meat to eat the words that proceed from the mouth of God(Matt. 4:4). Actually fasting is one of the more important ways of practicing that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matt. 16:24). In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.


In frugality we abstain from using money or goods at our disposal in ways that merely gratify our desires or our hunger for within the bounds of what general good judgment would designate as necessary for the king of life to which God has led us.
While frugality is a service to God and humankind, our concern here is with it as a disciplines. In our current world, a large part of the freedom that comes from frugality is freedom from the spiritual bondage caused by financial debt.
In exercising the spiritual discipline of chastity, we purposefully turn away from dwelling upon or engaging in the sexual dimension of our relationships to others-even our husbands or wives.
Sexuality is one of the most powerful and subtle forces in human nature, and the percentage of human suffering tied directly to it is horrifying. Chastity thus has an important part to play within marriage. We are sexual beings; male and female created he them (Gen. 1:27). Our sexuality reaches into the essence of our being. Therefore chastity does not mean non sexuality, and any pose to that effect will certainly di great harm.  
Chastity rightly practiced as a part of an overall rich walk with God can draw the poison from sexual abstinence.
In the practice of secrecy, we experience a continuing relationship with God independent of the opinions of others. Secrecy at its best teaches love and humility before God and others. And that love and humility encourages us to see our associates in the best possible light.
Secret has yet another important dimension as a spiritual discipline. The needs that arise in our efforts to serve God can often be handled by looking to God only, not telling others that there is a need.


In the discipline of sacrifice, we abstain from the possession or enjoyment of what is necessary for our living- not, as in frugality from what is really to some degree superfluous anyway. The discipline of sacrifice is one in which we forsake the security of meeting our needs with what is in our hands. It is total abandonment to God, a stepping into the darkened abyss in the faith and hope that God will bear us up.


In the spiritual discipline of study we engage ourselves, above all, with the written and spoken Word of God. In study we also strive to see the Word of God at work in the lives of others, in the church, in history, and in nature.

The study of God in his Word and works opens the way for the disciplines of worship and celebration. In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols. We do this alone as well as in union with God’s people. To worship is to see God as worthy, to ascribe great worth to him.

In service we engage our goods and strength in the active promotion of the good of others and the caught of God in Our world. Such discipline is very useful for those Christians who find themselves-as most of us by necessity must- in the lower positions in society, at work, and in the church. Service is the high road to freedom from bondage to other people. The discipline of service is even more important for Christians who find themselves in positions of influence, power, and leadership.

Prayer is conversing, communicating with God. Praying with frequency gives us the readiness to pray again as needed from moment to moment. The more we pray, the more we think to pray, and as we see the results of prayer-the responses of our Father to our requests-our confidence in God’s power spills over into other areas of our life. However, prayer as a discipline has its greatest force in strengthenging the spiritual life only as we learn to pray without ceasing.

The highest level of fellowship-involving humility, complete honesty, transparency, and times confession and restitution-is sustained by the discipline of submission.
Submission is a call for help to those recognized as able to give it because of their depth of experience and Christlikeness because they truly are elder in the way. In submission we engage the experience of those in our fellowship who are qualified to direct our efforts in growth and who then add the weight of their wise authority on the side of our willing spirit to help us do the things we would like to do and refrain from the things we don’t want to do. They oversee the godly order in our souls as well as in our fellowship and in the surrounding body Christ.
The word disciple occurs 269 times in the New Testament. Christian is found three times and was first introduced to refer precisely to the disciples-in a situation where it was no longer possible to regard them as a sect of Jews. The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus gave the church the Great Commission. The first goal he set for the early church was to use all-encompassing power and authority to make disciples without regard to ethnic distinctions from all nations (Matt 28:19).


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