A constant discussion taking place within Christian circles is built upon what the role of discipline is in spiritual growth. Does God do all of the work in growing the Christian? Does the Christian participate in stimulating growth? Is all of the Christian’s activity merely a result of God’s grace at work? There are two competing truths that we must keep in tension.
1. God empowers the Christian to progress spiritually, even in the Christian’s effort.
2. As humans, what we experience as reality resembles disciplined effort leading to results.
With that said, Dallas Willard takes a very unique perspective to spiritual discipline. His central argument revolves around the bodily nature of all humans. We are not merely souls floating clumsily about needing some sort of gracious pixie dust to eliminate our sin and waft us into righteousness. We are bodily creatures, engaging in many bodily experiences, one of them being the pursuit of holiness. I’ll just quote Willard, as he is far more eloquent than I.
The vitality and power of Christianity is lost when we fail to integrate our bodies into its practice by intelligent, conscious choice and steadfast intent.
If salvation is to affect our lives, it can do so only by affecting our bodies. If we are to participate in the reign of God, it can only be by our actions. And our actions are physical – we live only in the processes of our bodies. To withhold our bodies from religion is to exclude religion from our lives. Our life is a bodily life, even though that life is one that can be fulfilled solely in union with God.
Spirituality in human beings is not an extra or “superior” mode of existence. It’s not a hidden stream of separate reality, a separate life running parallel to our bodily existence. It does not consist of special “inward” acts even though it has an inner aspect. It is, rather, a relationship of our embodied selves to God that has the natural and irrepressible effect of making us alive to the Kingdom of God – here and now in the material world.
When our presentation of the gospel fails to do justice to this basic truth about the nature of human personality, Christianity inevitably becomes alienated from our actual everyday existence.
All quotes from The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard.