I have been reading this book for a couple of weeks now and really getting a lot out of it. It is quite challenging. Here is a brief summary of the first couple of chapters as well as some of my thoughts. I look forward to hearing your comments.
Willard starts out by asserting that Christianity is the only answer for fallen humanity. He states that "Christianity can only succeed as a guide for current humanity if it does two things. First, it must take the need for human transformation as seriously as do modern revolutionary movements. . . . Second, it needs to clarify and exemplify realistic methods of human transformation." So, Willard adds, "My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thin - by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself." This book is to help us change the practice of our faith with respect to the spiritual disciplines. By participating in the spiritual disciplines and trying to live the way Jesus lived, we can see real change in our lives.
Chapter 1 - The Secret of the Easy Yoke
Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:29-30 that we are to take His yoke upon us because it is easy and His burden is light. Yet, most Christians do not find ourselves truly living this way. Why? Willard compares our Christian lives to the lives of young athletes. A baseball player wants to emulate a baseball star. But, he doesn't do this by just trying to be like the baseball star when he's out on the field. The young athlete tries to do everything just like the baseball star - nutrition, practice, equipment, etc. In the same way, we can't expect to live the Christian life effectively by just doing the right thing in a crisis. We need to live our entire lives the way that Jesus did. We are saved by grace, but the moment by moment victory over sin that is promised to us does not come automatically. It requires practice and discipline.
Chapter 2 - The Theology of the Disciplines
As Christians, we know that we are to be Christlike, but find ourselves falling far short of that goal. The American Church does not do a very good job of helping it's members to "grow in grace". In the last 30 years there has developed more interest in the historical spiritual disciplines: fasting, meditation, solitude, silence, giving. Why the new interest? After the "laxness" of the 1970s, many Christians have become more interested in structure. In addition, the development of Christian psychology reawakened the idea that spiritual growth requires development of habits and character. Willard also points out that the late 20th century saw the blurring of the lines between many Protestant denominations. The effect of this among conservative Christians was twofold: 1. saving faith became (to many) merely a mental assent to correct doctrine and 2. the Bible was no longer "functionally authoritative" over life. Many Christians are looking to get back to a faith that "takes our lives seriously". Willard will spend the rest of the book developing a practical theology and elaborate on the following: "Full participation in the life of God's Kingdom and in the vivid companionshipo of Christ comes to us only through appropriate exercise in the disciplines for life in the spirit."
I absolutely agree with Willard that American Christianity rarely changes lives. We read in the Bible that we are to be like Jesus and then justify why we aren't. But, what good is faith that doesn't get you through life? I am intensely interested in this topic right now. I have learned so much in my walk of faith in the last few years, but I know that there is so much more that I could be doing. I don't just want to learn the facts of theology. I want to walk with Jesus.
I am also reading a book on meditation and have started meditating on Scripture. That has been so helpful just in the last two weeks. For example, I have spent some time on Isaiah 30:15 and working out what repentance and rest looks like in my life. Our small group recently studied the story of Ananias and Saphira. My tendency so often is to kind of gloss over stories like this that I have heard since I was a kid. But, I spent some serious time meditating on that story and got some insight into lying to the Holy Spirit. God sees everything about us, but He expects us to be honest with Him. That's what got Ananias and Saphira into trouble. What does that mean for me? Well, apparently nothing bad enough for God to strike me dead! But, denial is a big defense mechanism for me. This story makes it clear that God wants us to be honest with Him. That's what gets me to repentance and then to changing my behavior.
This is going to be a really good study for me. I'm discussing this with an online group, as well. It's really good to get insights from others. So, I'm interested in your comments.