Perceptions of the Kingdom: Spiritual Disciplines

If discipleship, at the core, is really a matter of “having the mind of Christ”, then how do we actually change the way we perceive the world to see the world as the Triune God does?

The work of Dallas Willard has been a great source of understanding for me in this. Willard draws from Aristotelian ideas of virtue formation to help us do this. For Aristotle, one of the key means to become a virtuous person is to do the things that virtuous people do. As Christians, if we want to see the world as the Triune God does, then we should try to do the things that Jesus did.

Someone might object that I claimed in the previous post that it is not about our actions, so how can the key be found in our actions? We do not do the things Jesus did in order to master the specific actions, but as part of how we come to understand who Jesus is and how He sees the world. A great musician does not simply reproduce the performance of another, yet, she will study the great performances of the piece carefully. This study is in order to try to see what the other musicians saw when they performed the piece. She may even try to incorporate some of their techniques into her performance, but ultimately, the musician is at her greatest when she interprets the piece for herself and performs with her own understanding in mind. Similarly, some young athletes may try to imitate their favorite athlete, performing the idiosyncrasies of the athlete in order to be like that specific athlete who is great at his sport. Yet, while those idiosyncrasies may help the seasoned athlete, due to his body type, muscle structure, or some other reason, they may prove to be detrimental to the young athlete who is not the same person as the older athlete. Yet, there is something valuable in studying great athletes because you can learn about the kinds of things they see when they are on the field.

However, it is not enough to just look at the actions that the exemplars do in order to become great, but you need to train yourself to be like them. When put in the pressure situations, we rarely are able to make a decision to act contrary to the way we’ve trained ourselves to do things. The work we’ve done before that moment shapes what happens in that moment. This is why musicians practice scales. It is rare to actually play a scale in a performance, yet nearly every musician practices scales. Practicing the scales helps one be able to move between notes with little conscious effort, allowing one to focus on the actual performance of the music as opposed to correctly producing each note. Similarly, basketball players do lay up drills in warm ups, not because they expect to get easy, open lay ups in the game, but because if a lay up is a part of their basic muscle memory, they can then focus on making the adjustments necessary to make a shot like that in the game as opposed to doing the actions necessary to a lay up.

So what are the lay ups or scales in the Christian life? This is the heart of the spiritual disciplines as described by Willard. He breaks down the disciplines into disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement.[1] Practicing things like silence, solitude, fasting, secrecy, frugality, and others helps to train us so that in the moments in our spiritual life, we are able to better recognize our dependency on God and make our bodies servant to our spiritual desires and needs as opposed to being enslaved to our bodily needs. Solitude is not about training yourself to be away from other people for the sake of being away from other people. Rather, solitude helps you to learn to free yourself from the external distractions by removing them and then start to address the internal distractions one would never recognize in the midst of the external ones. So it is with other disciplines of abstinence. These disciplines are not saying that the things from which we abstain are bad, but are showing us that when the desires for them are not properly ordered, they can take away from our experience of the fullness of life promised in Christ. By not allowing them mastery over us, we can use them in fruitful ways to further the Kingdom.

The disciplines of engagement are things like prayer, study, worship, fellowship, submission, confession, and others are things that disciplines that require our engagement. These are good things that are unnatural to us and so we have to take the time to practice these things. They will often feel unnatural when we start doing them. Additionally, these are disciplines that develop, such that you may think you’ve mastered one aspect, only to discover that there are deeper depths that you can enter at each level. However, it is important to remember that the goal is not to master these practices for the sake of the practices, but that these practices lead us to experience the world as Christ and to develop the mind of Christ within ourselves.

The problem with many approaches to spiritual disciplines is that people do the disciplines for the sake of doing the discipline, believing that the actions themselves are the goal. Rather, these actions are like the scales for a musician or the lay ups for the basketball player. They help develop the spiritual muscles necessary for us to act in the pressure filled moments, so that we can attend to what is actually going on before us rather than be preoccupied with trying to think about WWJD. If we have the mind of Christ, that question is not a matter of trying to imagine Jesus as someone dramatically other from us, who experiences and lives in the world in a way almost incomprehensible to us, but it becomes a matter of seeing the value before us and acting in a way that upholds or enhances that value. The spiritual disciplines are an important way that we can help develop those perceptions.

Yet, the spiritual disciplines often feel like something that is more work that we have to fit into lives that are already too full. They feel like an overwhelming task to accomplish when we aren’t even finishing everything we need to do each day, feeling like we’re falling further and further behind. In the next post, I’ll address this and discuss the role of the disciplines in the life of rest we are promised in Christ.

[1] This discussion of different disciplines draws from Willard’s chapter ——- in The Spirit of the Disciplines.