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.]

Running the Race: Spiritual Practices for Persevering

run-the-race.jpg

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?

Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines

As I continue to reflect on the influence of Dallas Willard, I am turning back to some previous posts on his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Here is one post from two years ago:

I re-read Dallas Willard‘s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. It’s a great book on entering into the deep life with God. Willard is never an easy read, but this book is well worth sustained attention.

Willard challenges the typical approach to the spiritual life for most evangelical Christians. Before I jump into some reflections about individual disciplines in the days to come, I thought I’d offer a few key ideas from the book.Read More »

Remembering Dallas Willard: 1935-2013

Photography by Dieter Zander
Photography by Dieter Zander

I heard the news yesterday that Dallas Willard, a great writer on life with God and spiritual formation, passed away after battling pancreatic cancer. Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California while also writing and speaking as a Christian on issues of cultivating life with God. He is perhaps best known for his work, The Divine Conspiracy, and his influence on many well-known evangelical Christians, such as John Ortberg (who sometimes refers to himself as “Dallas for Dummies”). You can read John Ortberg’s fine reflections on Dallas Willard’s life and legacy, “Dallas Willard, a man from another ‘Time Zone'”, here.

I first encountered Dallas Willard’s work through a professor of mine, Jim Wilhoit, who introduced me to Willard’s seminal work, The Spirit of the Disciplines. In that work, Willard opens up the concept of discipleship in a way that is much larger than many normally think. Discipleship is not just about imitating Jesus at certain moments (like WWJD) but is rather approaching all of life in the way that Jesus approached life. This is what Willard calls “the secret of the easy yoke,” referencing Matthew 11:29-30. He writes: “the secret of the easy yoke…involves living as Jesus lived in the entirety of his life – adopting his overall life-style” (5). That book is a profound – and dense! – exploration of spiritual practices that enable us to live like Jesus in “his overall lifestyle.”Read More »

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 »