I’m reading and rereading books on Christian spirituality these days. It comes with my prepping to teach on the subject. With that as context I’ll offer a brief reflection on two widely appreciated works that promote spiritual transformation.
One, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, lists disciplines under the headings of Inward, Outward, and Corporate. The second, the late Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines, endorsed Foster but added his own emphasis on the human body as the proper focus of change. Willard saw the actions of Jesus—his nights of prayer and his long fast in the wilderness—as models for we should follow in bringing about life change.
The strength of both works is their shared call for real change: both insist that change starts with reformed behaviors. In their critique and invitation they challenge habits of offering glittering doctrines and Christian principles that don’t really make a difference. Ideas that tickle ears and stir minds on a Sunday … but that don’t make a difference on Mondays … need to be replaced. Amen and amen!
Yet as much we can say a hearty amen to the goal of life-change, the means for getting there—human initiative—is more than suspect. We may cheer the old Nike slogan “Just do it” or the cute sketch by Bob Newhart, “Stop it!” But the reality of life is that pulling our bootstraps for all we’re worth will never get us airborne. And building a “discipline” to reshape our spiritual profile is always an effort in bootstrap pulling. It just doesn’t work. Not, at least, if the Bible is any measure.
The true key to spiritual transformation is the Spirit. He does any and all changing—both in the Old Testament and the New. And we change as we respond to his work in us.
This was a lesson lost on Nicodemus when he met with Jesus in John chapter three. The Pharisee leader was already “the teacher of Israel”—as Jesus labeled him—and would have been rich with the disciplines of the Pharisaical lifestyle, but he was still as dead spiritually as a forest is still when there isn’t a breeze to stir it. He needed a work “from above” and not more efforts from below. Faith is always a response and not a responsibility: with Christ’s words and work in focus rather than our duties and efforts.
Here’s why I grieve in reading the overlapped discipline lists in the books I mentioned. They promise ladders that lead to heaven—with the disciplines of abstinence and engagement as rungs along the way. So that solitude, fasting, frugality, study, service, confession, prayer—and more—promise to bring us ever closer to union with God. But the ladders never reach heaven.
The approach, in other words, ignores the guidance Jesus and his Apostles offer in the Bible. And it misses the true transforming power: “God’s love has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Ro. 5:5). Paul, for one, spoke of this love as the one effective motivation in ministry in 2 Corinthians 5:14—“For the love of Christ controls us.…”
The starting point for true spirituality is always from above, birthed in God’s paternity. Jesus made this clear to some erstwhile believers who in the end tried to kill him (in John 8:30-59): “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here.” And the first indicator of life-change is a bold appetite for Jesus and his words. Self-driven faith, on the other hand, reduces him to a sidebar. Why? “It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (8:43).
Jesus was all about spiritual transformation but he had his own way of doing it: always from the inside-out. He starts with hearts. The so-called Rich Young Man in Mark 10:17-22 was a ladder-climbing genius but when Jesus asked him to come and be with him the man balked. The real pathos in the text is in verse 21: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”
The Bible is a love story. Jesus uses the metaphor of a branch-and-vine bond (John 15) to describe the basis for true spiritual formation—Jesus calls it “fruit”—by calling for us to share his life: “Abide in me and I in you.” And with this we are to let “my words abide in you” and, collectively: “Abide in my love.”
So if we need a counter analogy to this love story, consider a loveless marriage. Where the partners have lost their first love and are now driven by duties—by the “disciplines of marriage.” I’m a lifelong bachelor and even I know the answer to this notion: “Go find a marriage counselor, quick!”
Let’s take up, instead, the pursuit of Jesus who loves us and gave up his life for us. His heart is a transforming center that brings the sort of joy and peace only a living relationship offers.