What is the Secret of Jesus’ Easy Yoke?: insights from Dallas Willard

This past weekend I preached from one of my favorite teachings by Jesus, where we hear His stunning invitation:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

One of the most powerful insights into understanding what Jesus means by the easy yoke comes from Dallas Willard in his profound book The Spirit of the Disciplines. In the opening chapter, entitled “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Willard writes the following:

And in this truth lies the secret of the easy yoke: the secret involves living as he lived in the entirety of his life — adopting his overall life-style. Following ​“in his steps” cannot be equated with behaving as he did when he was ​“on the spot.” To live as Christ lives is to live as he did all his life. 

Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the ​“second mile,” turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully — while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does. This is like the aspiring young baseball players mentioned earlier. It’s a strategy bound to fail and to make the way of Christ ​“difficult and left untried.” In truth it is not the way of Christ any more than striving to act in a certain manner in the heat of a game is the way of the champion athlete. 

Whatever may have guided us into this false approach, it is simply a mistake. And it will certainly cause us to find Jesus’ commands about our actions during specific situations impossibly burdensome — ​“grievous” as the King James Version of the New Testament puts it. Instead of an easy yoke, all we’ll experience is frustration. 

But this false approach to following Christ has counterparts throughout human life. It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of-action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality. 

…So, ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide…. 

So, those who say we cannot truly follow Christ turn out to be correct in a sense. We cannot behave ​“on the spot” as he did and taught if in the rest of our time we live as everybody else does. The ​“on the spot” episodes are not the place where we can, even by the grace of God, redirect unchristlike but ingrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikeness. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world. We’ve all seen this happen. 

So, we should be perfectly clear about one thing: Jesus never expected us simply to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who persecute us, give unto them that ask, and so forth. These responses, generally and rightly understood to be characteristics of Christlikeness, were set forth by him as illustrative of what might be expected of a new kind of person — one who intelligently and steadfastly seeks, above all else, to live within the rule of God and be possessed by the kind of righteousness that God himself has, as Matthew 6:33 portrays. 

Instead, Jesus did invite people to follow him into that sort of life from which behavior such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy thing to do. …Oswald Chambers observes: ​“The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the life we will live when the Holy Spirit is getting his way with us.”

[Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 4-8.]

All Real Faith Involves Discipline: Albert E. Day on cooperation with God

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I encountered these provocative words from Albert Edward Day in Discipline and Discovery. While perhaps in some ways using exaggeration to make his point, Day strikes home the importance of cooperating with God in the process of spiritual growth.

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the worlding pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe ‘turning it all over to Jesus.’ Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for god is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.’ People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperations, is a heartbreak spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not life his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

In all Christian literature there is no writer who had a clearer conviction concerning the salvation provided only in Christ than has Paul. His self-despair ended in that marvelous, ageless insight, ‘I thank God, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’ ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he cried in an ecstasy of gladness, ‘and am persuaded that he is able.’ Paul was a salvationist, in the noblest sense.

But Paul was also a disciplinarian. ‘I beat my body to keep it in subjection.’ ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.’ ‘So fight I, not as one who beateth the air.’ ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon earth.’ ‘Laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily beset us.’ ‘No man that warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.’ These are not he words of a man who scorned discipline!

On might multiply such statements as these from Paul—all of them the almost spontaneous evidence of the disciplines which he, trusting in Christ, imposed upon himself in his eager effort to give Christ that co-operation without which not even Christ can save a soul and make a saint.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

Running the Race: Spiritual Practices for Persevering

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Yesterday our staff at Eastbrook Church took a day away on retreat in order to grow with God and one another. We do this every year around this time, and our speakers, Paul and Lisa Sinclair, helped us engage with Hebrews 12:1-3.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

They talked about the the discipline required to persevere, including throwing off hindrances and encumbrances in our lives.

One of the classic ways to do that is to engage with spiritual practices – or spiritual disciplines – in our lives. Just like someone learning a language, trade, or skill must step forward with tangible means to progressively develop that ability, the same is true in our life with God. In his masterful work The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard introduces us to such spiritual practices by categorizing them into two groups: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. While clearly not exhaustive, he lists them in this way.

Disciplines of Abstinence

  • solitude
  • silence
  • fasting
  • frugality
  • chastity
  • secrecy
  • sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement

  • study
  • worship
  • celebration
  • service
  • prayer
  • fellowship
  • confession
  • submission

Disciplines of Abstinence are those in which, as you might expect, we abstain from certain things, namely, “the satisfaction of what we generally regard as normal and legitimate desires” (159). St. Peter is thinking of these sorts of activities when he writes: “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Disciplines of abstinence are helpful in that they help us bring our normal human desires into right order, when often they grow inordinately important in our lives.

Disciplines of Engagement are the healthy counterbalance to and partner of the disciplines of abstinence. When we take something out of our lives, we must put something new and healthy in its place. We must not only stop doing some things, but choose to do the right sorts of things in their place. We abstain from our wrong engagements, and then move forward with new disciplines so that our souls are properly engaged with God.

Take a moment and consider whether you have ever experienced these sort of spiritual practices in your life. How have they helped you? How have you struggled with them?

 

Two Basic Disciplines of Abstinence
Let’s take a more in-depth look at two basic disciplines of abstinence that I believe are of vital importance in our life with God.

Solitude
Solitude is our intentional choice to step away from interaction with others, whether in person or in other forms of communication. Solitude is abstaining from companionship. Jesus did this throughout his life, as the gospels attest. We read about his practice most pointedly in Luke 4-5, where, after a jam-packed days of ministry to others, he draws away.

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place (4:42).
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayer (5:16).

In The Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard says: “Of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops” (161).

Solitude is a place to explore our isolation from others, to cling to Christ, and to be strengthened for His service.

Silence
As you might expect, silence is the discipline whereby we step away from sound. In a culture that is sound-saturated, from iPods to noisy traffic, it is important for us to set aside time apart from the external clutter of sounds.

It is amazing how infrequently we experience quiet. Even the places and times that we describe as quiet, we are often saturated with ambient noise.

This discipline clearly connects with the discipline of solitude. We choose to not only be alone, but to be alone without speaking and in a place of quiet.

Silence is a place where we return to God for our reassurance and approval.

What is your experience of solitude and silence as means for connecting more deeply with God?

 

Two Basic Disciplines of Engagement
Along with the disciplines of engagement, I believer there are two disciplines of engagement, study and worship, which are foundational to developing our deeper life with God.

Study
In study, we are chiefly engaging with the Word of God. This goes hand in hand with solitude. As we draw away from others in solitude, we draw near to God through the study of the Scriptures. We feast on the riches of God revealed there and are strengthened.

David Watson captures this well:

If we feed our souls regularly on God’s word, several times each day, we should become robust spiritually just as we feed on ordinary food several times each day, and become robust physically. Nothing is more important than hearing and obeying the word of God.

Although study has the whiff of academic scholarly pursuit, it really isn’t like that. That said, it does involve much time and effort. It entails giving time and effort to meditation on key Scripture passages and reading the Bible as a whole. But the time spent there should keep us firmly rooted in the everyday realities of life with God.

As Calvin Miller says:

Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.

Worship
“In worship we engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols” (D. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 177).

It is worth worshiping God because He only is worthy of worship. And we do so by fixing ourselves within His goodness and greatness.

Take a Scripture passage like Isaiah 6:3:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory”

As we speak the words, we consider their meaning and speak them back through our own mouths in worship to God.

Worship is the place where we kneel down in humility before a great and good God, recognizing Him for who He is and gaining proper perspective on our lives.

What is your experience of study and worship, whether alone or in community, as means for connecting more deeply with God?

Study and Worship

This post continues my reflections on Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on disciplines of abstinence, here I look at two basic disciplines of engagement. These two spiritual practices, study and worship, are foundational to the active participation in the life with God.

Study
In study, we are chiefly engaging with the Word of God. This goes hand in hand with solitude. As we draw away from others in solitude, we draw near to God through the study of the Scriptures. We feast on the riches of God revealed there and are strengthened.

David Watson captures this well:

If we feed our souls regularly on God’s wordRead More »

Solitude and Silence

This post continues my reflections on Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Here, I look at two disciplines of abstinence that are critical to our entry into the deeper life with God are solitude and silence.

Solitude
Solitude is our intentional choice to step away from interaction with others, whether in person or in other forms of communication. Solitude is abstaining from companionship. Jesus did this throughout his life, as the gospels attest. We read about his practice most pointedly in Luke 4-5, where, after a jam-packed days of ministry to others, he draws away.

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place (4:42).
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayer (5:16).

In The Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard says: “Of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops” (161).

Solitude is a place to explore our isolation from others, to cling to Christ, and to be strengthened for His service.

Silence
As you might expect, silence is the discipline whereby we step away from sound. In a culture that is sound-saturated, from iPods to noisy traffic, it is important for us to set aside time apart from the external clutter of sounds.

It is amazing how infrequently we experience quiet. Even the places and times that we describe as quiet, we are often saturated with ambient noise.

This discipline clearly connects with the discipline of solitude. We choose to not only be alone, but to be alone without speaking and in a place of quiet.

Silence is a place where we return to God for our reassurance and approval.

What is your experience of solitude and silence as means for connecting more deeply with God?