After having read both Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, one ought to be confident in the fact that he has truly developed a better understanding of not only discipline in the Christian life, but also of practicing specific disciplines in his own Christian life. The difference between understanding Christian discipline and practicing Christian disciplines can be evidenced by Foster’s remarks on the subject when he states that “the Spiritual Disciplines are things that we do,” they are “actions, not merely states of mind” (Foster, 105). This focus on actions is the central theme of both books on discipline. A reader may initially think that, in suggesting this emphasis on actions, the authors are promoting works-based salvation or something of the like. They do not, however, promote a works-based salvation, for the authors’ intended audiences are believers, those who have already attained salvation, but who are still living as though enslaved by the flesh and therefore undisciplined. These authors’ intent in writing on this topic of Spiritual Disciplines is to show the believer that he truly can do as Paul commanded the Philippians, to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The following paper will discuss the Spiritual Disciplines as relayed specifically by Richard Foster. It will focus on four particular sections: the nature of the disciplines, the purpose of the disciplines, the process of the disciplines, and the product of the disciplines.
The first section of this paper deals with the nature of the disciplines. Richard Foster selected four particular disciplines of the twelve in his book as key players in and considerably more special within the overall collection of disciplines. These four disciplines hold the other disciplines together in one way or another, and they are listed as joy, simplicity, prayer and celebration.
Foster opens his book by stating that “joy is the keynote of all the disciplines” (Foster, 2). He then goes on to describe joy as the “liberation from stifling self-interest and fear” (Foster, 2). It is fitting that Foster begins his book by discussing joy, for it is also how he chooses to end his book, as will be seen shortly, in a chapter on the corporate discipline of celebration. The method of a believer experiencing the most joy in life comes as a result of one thing: obedience (Foster 192). Just as in the lines of the children’s song state, “Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe…action is the key…the joy you will receive.” The nature of the disciplines is joy, for the end result of the disciplines is joy. It is that to which the believer looks as he begins the disciplines, as he forges through the disciplines, as he struggles through the disciplines and, at times, wants to give up. Just as Christ, who “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2), so we believers can also follow in His steps and push through our own struggles and troubles for the joy that has been set before us.
Elsewhere in his book, Foster also pulls out the discipline of simplicity as standing above the other disciplines due to the sheer nature of it. Of simplicity he says that it is the most visible of all the disciplines, making it also the most open to corruption (Foster, 85). This description comes from Foster’s definition that simplicity is “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle” (Forster, 79). Simplicity is the release of covetousness and greed; it is the exchange of materialism for the pleasure of contentment. It allows for genuine joy in possessions, but only as they relate to the first priority of the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).
Foster continues in his book to describe two of the twelve disciplines as “most central” (Foster, 33) and as “central to all the disciplines” (Foster, 191). These two disciplines are prayer and celebration. Celebration has been discussed above (and will be referred to throughout, for it is not only part of the nature of the disciplines, it is also a purpose and the product). Prayer, on the other hand, must be discussed a bit further. Foster calls prayer “most central because it ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father” (Foster, 33). Prayer is the basis and even product of several other disciplines, specifically meditation, fasting, study, solitude, confession and worship. Without prayer, these disciplines would become meaningless rituals, devoid of all spiritual benefit. It is for this reason that Foster considers both celebration and prayer to be most central to the other disciplines.
The second section of this paper deals with the purpose of the disciplines. Foster specifically refers to six purposes that come out of the disciplines as a whole, and then discusses the individual purposes of several specific disciplines.
Four of the six general purposes that Foster names comes in the first chapter of his book. He mentions first of all that the disciplines will lead to experiential Christianity, stating that they are in fact central to it (Foster, 1 footnote). Then he implies that, since a man’s will alone is incapable of transforming his inner spirit, the disciplines are not incapable of accomplishing this seemingly impossible task (Foster, 6). Third, he states on the next page that “the Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us” (Foster, 7). And finally in Chapter 1, Foster states explicitly, “Spiritual growth is the purpose of the Disciplines” (Foster, 8). Foster backs up this statement throughout the book, as his format always focuses first on how the discipline can help the believer, and then on how the believer can practice the discipline. Foster later opens his chapter on study by writing, “The purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines is the total transformation of the person” (Foster, 62). This explicit statement is obvious, but to what degree that change is made is not. He develops this idea, then, in the final purpose he states explicitly when he says in his chapter on submission, “The purpose of the Disciplines is freedom” (Foster, 110).
There are also several discipline-specific purposes that Foster brings to light throughout his book. For example, he states that the purpose of meditation is to see the perpetual presence of the Lord move into a radiant reality (Foster, 19). In another chapter, he writes that the specific purpose of fasting is “to glorify our Father which is in Heaven” (Foster, 55). Later in his chapter on solitude, Foster writes quite enigmatically that “the purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear” (Foster, 98).
The third section of this paper deals with the process of the disciplines. Some things involved in this process are some difficulties that people face when they begin to pursue the spiritual disciplines, and the effects of God’s grace as it relates to man’s habits.
Foster begins his book by bringing to light two difficulties that a person faces when he decides to pursue these spiritual disciplines. One of these difficulties is philosophical in nature, for it causes the person to doubt his own abilities to experience anything in the spiritual world, anything beyond the physical. And the second difficulty is more practical in nature. This difficulty comes when the person simply does not know how to begin practicing these disciplines in his life (Foster, 2-3). Like the disciples asked Jesus as they walked with Him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” so many believers today are convinced that they still need more education before they can begin their spiritual journey through the implementation of these disciplines. If only people could grasp how easy these disciplines really can be (Foster, 21)!
After discussing these two difficulties that a person needs to overcome, Foster then discusses what part God’s grace plays in these spiritual disciplines. He states, “Virtue is easy…to the extent that God’s gracious work has taken over our inner spirit and transformed the ingrained habit patterns of our lives. Until that is accomplished, virtue is hard” (Foster, 8). Such an insight ought to make every believer recognize that without God, a believer truly can do nothing (John 15:5), and that a person needs God’s grace every day and in every way.
The final section of this paper deals with the product of the disciplines. Foster also chose to artistically bookend his material with explicit descriptions of what these spiritual disciplines would produce in the life of a believer. This final section will focus on three main products that come from the faithful living out of these spiritual disciplines: inner righteousness, a transformed life, and, of course, joy.
Foster shares the first two products in his introductory chapter titled “Door to Liberation” (Foster, 1). He states in this chapter that “Spiritual Disciplines Open the Door,” describing the discovery beyond that open door to be inner righteousness, the “gift from God to be graciously received” (Foster, 6). He counters throughout his book this inner righteousness with that righteousness displayed by the Pharisees, those “whited sepulchers filled with dean men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27).
Foster then continues by describing this inner righteousness as a full transformation of the believer (Foster, 7). This transformation has already been considered one of the main purposes of celebrating these disciplines, and it is this transformation upon which Foster focuses as he concludes each chapter with words of encouragement for his readers.
Finally, as discussed in the very beginning of this paper, Foster writes toward the end of his book that “joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives” (Foster, 193). It was this joy in discipline that drove Richard Foster to seek to set these disciplines down into a book format (Foster, Introduction), and it is his own joy that fills the pages with heart-felt encouragements, Scriptural promises and practical advice. Richard Foster has encouraged countless of believers to pursue the spiritual disciplines and to do so with great joy.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
© 2010 E.T.