January 18, 2006

How to Live Whole-life Discipleship

1502 page12 capdventist Review interviewed Richard Foster, theologian and author of several books: Celebration of Discipline, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, Freedom of Simplicity, Prayer: Finding the Heart?s True Home, and Streams of Living Water. Foster currently spends most of his time leading Renovaré regional conferences, which focus on integrating the spiritual disciplines into the Christian?s life.

BJS: Richard, what is discipleship?
RF: Discipleship means that a person is a student or a learner. I like to use the word ?apprentice,? because it has the implication of practice.

Many years ago I was an apprentice electrician. I would follow the journeyman and watch what he did, listen to what he said, and try to do my work the way he did it. That?s the idea. Jesus is the master teacher, the journeyman. The goal is to learn a particular skill--and that skill is living. How do I live? Am I living a ?with God? life? Discipleship leads us into that life.

In your interview with Dallas Willard,* you talked about the difference between discipleship and spiritual formation. Could you elaborate on that?
The problem today is that the word ?discipleship? has been watered down. In many contexts it tends to be co-opted for supporting the institution. In other words, you attend church and you tithe, so that?s discipleship. It leaves off that great dimension of formation of the soul. If we rightly understand what discipleship means, then it really is spiritual formation. I hope we can redeem the word.

1502 page12Many times discipleship is thought of as optional, much like a tape deck that we add to a car. But it?s not optional. It?s the engine of the car. It?s what keeps the whole enterprise running.

Accountability is another word that has acquired negative connotations. How would you respond to someone with this negative view?
We need to understand that we give accountability to anything of real importance. We just need to add some qualifiers: ?loving? and ?nurturing? accountability. Because we love someone, we want them to succeed. Take an athlete, for example. The coach wants the athlete to succeed. Well, in order for the athlete to succeed, they must come under authority, and be held accountable, in a loving and nurturing way. We should think of accountability as a way by which ?we watch over one another in love? (see 1 John 3:16-18).

The negative connotations come from the fact that accountability is sometimes done in very bad ways. Our business is not to control, nor to ?straighten out.? Neither does accountability have anything to do with imposing my views on somebody else. It has everything to do with the caring of the soul, and the life of another person.

I remember dear Dallas Willard years ago. I had returned from a conference all excited, and I said to him, ?Dallas, one of the things that happened in that conference was that I made a decision that I know you?ve wanted me to do for a long time.? He stopped me right there. He wouldn?t even let me tell him what the decision was. He said, ?That isn?t my business. My only business is to bring to you the word of God as best I know, and then to love you no matter what you do.? That?s loving, nurturing accountability. No manipulation, no striking out. Those behaviors have nothing to do with accountability.

How do you respond to the person who believes that spiritual disciplines propagate a ?works theology??
Works have to do with merit. There?s nothing that we can do to merit or earn God?s grace. The opposite of grace is works--not effort. It takes effort to live the Christian life. Remember Jesus? words that we must enter in at the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13).

When most people hear the term spiritual disciplines, they also think rigidity. Rigidity is not spiritual discipline. Rigidity is the first sign that the disciplines have gone to seed. The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It?s the ability to live life appropriately. Jean-Pierre de Caussade in his book The Sacrament of the Present Moment gives a description of spiritual discipline. He says, ?The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.? At the heart of all spiritual disciplines is grace. The disciple is learning to operate in the grace of God. We need grace not just for salvation but for living.

A student once asked me, ?What comes after grace?? And I said, ?There is no after grace.? The saint needs grace more than the sinner. The saint consumes grace like a 747 consumes fuel. The disciplines are designed to bring this individualized power pack called the human body and place it before God as a living sacrifice. So by bringing the body and placing it before God, we learn to grow in grace.

Spiritual disciplines have no righ-teousness in and of themselves. They merely place the body, the mind, and the spirit before God. And then the grace of God steps into that, and produces all kinds of wonderful things that we couldn?t accomplish on our own; things such as loving our enemies, love, joy, peace, gentleness, long-suffering. All of these things begin to emerge as the by-product of the work of spiritual discipline.

How would you respond to the person who believes that grace and discipleship are opposites?
There?s something wrong with this notion of perpetual infancy. We love people who are brand-new in the faith. We feed them, and nurture them with the milk of the Word. But sooner or later they?ve got to chomp on a real steak if they want to grow. The disciplines are part of that whole-life discipleship. The disciple comes under the tutelage of Jesus 24/7. God is calling His children to grow up.

There is no way to grow as Christians without grace. When we speak of the good news of the free grace of God, we must also remember that we don?t usually experience it as merely a credit to our account, but as an interactive relationship with God. Heaven is a very important thing. But the salvation in Jesus is for life now as well as for life into eternity.

What does a disciple look like?
A disciple is someone who has made a clear intention to follow Jesus. You will see that person over a period of time being formed into a person happy in God, easy with people, who laughs a lot, and who doesn?t worry too much about themselves. We?re all at different stages. We all have to deal with different issues related to backgrounds, genetics, etc. But God is forming us so that more and more love, joy, peace, gentleness, and goodness will begin to characterize our lives. We should really look for the building of the saints. When people have made some progress, we should hold that person up and say, ?Look at this. Here?s a person that?s really full of joy!?

In Revelation we?re told that we are going to reign with Him. Well, we?d better get some training if we?re going to be reigning! That?s what this business is all about.

*See ?The Making of a Christian,? an interview between Richard J. Foster and Dallas Willard on the difference between discipleship and spiritual formation, on www.christianitytoday.com.

Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.