Books: The Divine Conspiracy (cont.)

[continued from previous post]

I certainly won’t try to go through every point Willard makes. If you’re interested, it’s a book well worth reading, and I may consider buying it so I can read it again without the pressure of having to get it back to the library. He goes through each section of the Sermon on the Mount, showing how people living in the Kingdom, under God’s rule, give up anger and condemnation as a means of trying to get their way. They no longer care how they appear to other people, only to God. These two changes are what need to come first, Willard says, before the rest of the teaching in the passage.

They learn “asking” as a way of life, both with other people and with God. They do not demand, but they do ask with confidence, especially of God, knowing He delights to give His children what they need. They know that all of one’s life is bound together, so that I cannot be serving God in one compartment of my life, and relying on someone or something else in another area of my life. I can’t hate people and love God, or hold grudges while receiving forgiveness.

Some of Willard’s points were particularly arresting. In speaking of condemnation, he addresses a failing common in some evangelical churches, to feel that our condemnation is not only justified but required when it comes to certain types of sin. (He also makes it clear that we are required to use discernment, as to what is or is not right behavior, but he distinguishes between this and the blaming, shaming treatment of sinning people.) 

“We must beware of believing that it is okay for us to condemn as long as we are condemning the right things. It is not so simple as that. I can trust Jesus to go into the temple and drive out those who were profiting from religion, beating them with a rope. I cannot trust myself to do so.”

I found myself thinking of people on worldmagblog who need to hear that admonition – and then immediately realized how easy it is to do exactly what Willard is talking about, when the “right thing” to condemn is condemning behavior. Lord, have mercy!

I was also surprised by Willard’s interpretation of the phrase “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer. I have long heard that it should properly be translated, “deliver us from the evil one,” though I still was never sure just what I was asking to be delivered from. Willard understands this to mean asking God to deliver us from bad things happening to us, which is a kind of prayer I am accustomed to thinking of as selfish and lacking in faith.

It is a staple of teaching in churches I am familiar with to expect trials and to rejoice in them, as James advises. (Though I don’t know that the widespread teaching results in widespread practice of the principle.) We are admonished not to pray for things to be easier for us, and reminded of how our brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries have far more difficult lives than we do. Yet their faith is strong, and ours is not, so if anything we should be praying for trials in our lives.

Yet Willard says, “God expects us to pray that we will escape trials, and we should do it. The bad things that happen to us are always challenges to our faith, and we may not be able to stand up under them.” I’ve had what seems like more than enough trials in recent years, and I would welcome a break. (I was beginning to think, this year, that things were getting just a bit easier. Then my husband’s employment ended, and so far things are not looking good for him to have work anytime soon.) I have no trouble praying for a job for him (but I wonder, am I praying often and earnestly enough?), and for our financial needs to be met, but I find it much harder to pray, in a general sense, to escape trials.

Willard finishes up his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ admonitions regarding putting this teaching into practice. At this point in the book, I was getting impatient to get to the practical how-to of the whole matter. Willard had been emphatic, earlier in the book, about the importance of applying the principles taught in this Sermon in approximately the order it was taught. So the further I got in the book, the less likely it seemed I would be able to put into practice what Willard was talking about until I had mastered the earlier material.

Finally he does address the how-to. As he had said previously, he is not presenting new teaching but rather what has been largely lost to today’s evangelical churches. What we need to return to is the time-honored practice of spiritual disciplines. In most churches I have attended, the term spiritual disciplines is not used, and would probably be unwelcome as it sounds too much like a works-based Christianity to many people. But something like at least some of these disciplines are in fact taught, and emphasized very strongly. These are generally Bible reading/study, prayer, and corporate worship.

What I have never heard or read except from Willard is the purpose of the disciplines. Even Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which I think is a wonderful book, did not get this idea across as clearly as Willard does. Going back to the principle that we cannot achieve holiness by our own efforts, Willard teaches that in order to do the work that is our role in spiritual growth, we have to have practical steps that we can take by making the effort.

An athlete or a musician cannot directly achieve excellence in his field, but rather has to grow into it through exercises which are not in themselves the desired end product. By means of having practiced certain movements and sequences of movements, the mind and body learn to perform intricate maneuvers without conscious thought about every step, as easily as walking or talking (which themselves took a lot of practice when we were toddlers). No one goes to a stadium or concert hall to watch laps around the field or to hear scales, but the brilliant playing we do go for would not be possible without the years of exercises that preceded it.

That makes sense to me. These various practices are not an end in themselves, but only a means to an end, which is to be able to think and speak and act in a Christlike manner. Right now, when I encounter certain circumstances, I do not know how to react. While many people react in anger, I am more likely to feel myself “freezing.” I feel little or no emotion, I have nothing to say, and I can think of nothing useful to do except remove myself from the situation until I have figured out something better to do. (There may be situations where that is the best thing to do immediately, but withdrawal doesn’t solve anything, and having withdrawn from whatever provocation, the incentive to come up with a good response later is reduced.)

If I understand Willard correctly, by practicing these spiritual disciplines, certain attitudes and ways of thinking and acting will become second nature to me, so that when the situation arises I will not be immobilized by fear or lack of wisdom. It’s much harder for me to see how this will work out in practice, since I have done, in some form, though hardly consistently, most if not all of the spiritual disciplines, at some times in my Christian life.

Usually I have concluded that my lack of consistency was the big problem. I know that when I played violin (from fourth grade through high school), I practiced sporadically at best. A long practice session sometimes hardly made up for the lack of daily practice. But at least with the violin, even with the amount of practice I did, I improved over the years and I could tell I was improving. I find it much harder to link my practice of Bible reading or prayer or church attendance to spiritual growth on my part. At least not as leading to it – the growth, on the other hand, may make me want to read my Bible more or pray more or worship more, as I sense more of a real connection to God.

Willard points up a different problem that is prevalent, and certainly evident in my life: lack of intensity. One can be very consistent in reading a daily devotional booklet, which includes a brief passage of Scripture and a brief prayer. But that, Willard says, is simply not intense enough to yield the needed benefits. I don’t remember what analogies he uses to make this point, but I know that jogging around the block, no matter how regularly I do it (and I don’t jog anymore because my joints don’t handle it well; I stick to fast walking), is never going to prepare me for a marathon.

Back when I did go running regularly, I knew to work up to longer distances. (Every time I got sick or injured I’d have to go back to a shorter time and distance and gradually extend it.) As with the violin, I could tell I made progress, and when I had companions to go running with I did make considerable progress because I had to be both consistent and increase in intensity to keep up with them. For whatever reasons, I’ve never been able to see the same kind of measurable progress in my spiritual life, at least not in any clear connection to Bible reading or prayer or worship, to be motivated to not only maintain consistency but increase intensity.

Another thing Willard emphasizes that is largely absent in the teaching of most churches I have attended is the importance of “abstinence” disciplines. In order to add something to your life, unless you have been doing very little at all – and I mean this in a general sense, not about spiritual activities – you have to abstain from doing something else. If you’re as busy as most of us are these days, you can’t spend more time reading the Bible or praying unless you spend less time doing something else. For some people it is watching TV. For others it is a favorite hobby. Some people make themselves get up earlier, which means either getting less sleep, or going to bed earlier – which means eliminating some kinds of evening activities.

But more than just making time, the disciplines Willard particularly talks about are solitude and silence. I love solitude, it hardly feels like a discipline to me. I also welcome silence, and I feel none of the urge some people do to fill silence with music or radio or TV programs. Actually making arrangements to get myself some time in some place where I can have solitude and silence is another matter, however. I used to be able to get up before the rest of the family to have time alone with God. But as my children have grown, they get up earlier, and I want to stay in bed later.

Willard is talking about even more than just physical solitude and silence, however. Those are necessary, but not all of it. He is talking about no longer having our attitudes shaped largely by the opinions of other people. I can be very much alone, physically, but still “hear” in my head the way other people expect me to act or what they think (or I think they think) of how I do act. To be freed from that, I first need to make space, physically and emotionally/mentally, to stop listening to those voices. Then I’ll be able to better hear God’s voice and learn the attitude of Jesus.

I have to admit, now, that Willard’s teaching on the spiritual disciplines is not exactly new to me. Several years ago, sometimes after studying Foster’s book, I purchased Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. I remember having the same excitement when I started that book, thinking I would finally find practical answers to my spiritual malaise. I’m not sure exactly how I failed to put it into practice then.

Maybe I couldn’t decide which of the disciplines to start with, and didn’t feel I could start with all of them at once, and ended up doing none. Maybe some other crisis in my life intervened. (Was that the year we learned that Al had autism? Or the year he had the abscess in his neck and then surgery to remove the branchial cyst?) It doesn’t really matter now. I do know that in The Divine Conspiracy, he focuses on only four disciplines: solitude, silence, Scripture, and prayer. Not that the others are unimportant, but these are the foundation.

I learned from the Walk to Emmaus several years ago the importance of meeting regularly with a few others for mutual accountability. Unfortunately even then our Fourth Day group (so named because it is an ongoing followup to the three days of the Walk) gradually sputtered out, as busy schedules took priority over a gathering that too often devolved into mere chit-chat. Since then I have prayed (with little consistency and less intensity) for someone to get together with regularly for this purpose – and perhaps to walk at the same time, as I love walking and also find that it seems to focus my mind.

Perhaps I need to do more than just wish for and pray for such a prayer/walking partner. Or perhaps I need to work first on the solitude and silence. What I don’t want to do is gradually let all this drift out of my mind and heart and go on as though I never read this book.

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