Editor's note:

In The Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines, Dal­las Willard quotes psy­chi­a­trist M. Scott Peck: There are many peo­ple I know who pos­sess a vision of [per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion] yet seem to lack the will for it. They want, and believe it is pos­si­ble, to skip over the dis­ci­pline, to find an easy short­cut to saint­hood. Often they attempt to attain it by sim­ply imi­tat­ing the super­fi­cial­i­ties of saints. …[They need to] face the painful fact that they must start at the begin­ning and go through the mid­dle.” So where do we begin? What, exact­ly, is required? In this excerpt from chap­ter 1, Dal­las dis­clos­es the secret of the easy yoke.

—Miriam Dixon

Excerpt from The Spirit of the Disciplines

We are saved by grace, of course, and by it alone, and not because we deserve it. That is the basis of God’s accep­tance of us. But grace does not mean that suf­fi­cient strength and insight will be auto­mat­i­cal­ly infused” into our being in the moment of need. Abun­dant evi­dence for this claim is avail­able pre­cise­ly in the expe­ri­ence of any Chris­t­ian. We only have to look at the facts. A base­ball play­er who expects to excel in the game with­out ade­quate exer­cise of his body is no more ridicu­lous than the Chris­t­ian who hopes to be able to act in the man­ner of Christ when put to the test with­out the appro­pri­ate exer­cise in god­ly living.

As is obvi­ous from the record of his own life, Jesus under­stood this fact well and lived accord­ing­ly. Because of the con­tem­po­rary bias with which we read the Gospels… we have great dif­fi­cul­ty see­ing the main emphases in his life. We for­get that being the unique Son of God clear­ly did not relieve him of the neces­si­ty of a life in prepa­ra­tion that was main­ly spent out of the pub­lic eye. In spite of the aus­pi­cious events sur­round­ing his birth, he grew up in the seclu­sion of a sim­ple fam­i­ly in low­ly Nazareth. At the age of twelve, as Luke 2:45 tells us, he exhib­it­ed aston­ish­ing under­stand­ing in the midst of the doc­tors” in Jerusalem. Yet he returned to his home with his par­ents and for the next eigh­teen years was sub­ject to the demands of his family. 

Then, after receiv­ing bap­tism at the hands of his cousin, John the Bap­tist, Jesus was in soli­tude and fast­ed for a month and a half. After­ward, as his min­istry pro­ceed­ed, he was alone much of the time, often spend­ing the entire night in soli­tude and prayer before serv­ing the needs of his dis­ci­ples and hear­ers the fol­low­ing day. 

Out of such prepa­ra­tion, Jesus was able to lead a pub­lic life of ser­vice through teach­ing and heal­ing. He was able to love his clos­est com­pan­ions to the end — even though they often dis­ap­point­ed him great­ly and seemed inca­pable of enter­ing into his faith and works. And then he was able to die a death unsur­passed for its intrin­sic beau­ty and his­tor­i­cal effect. 

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.”

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Excerpt­ed from Dal­las Willard’s The Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines (pp.4 – 8). Cour­tesy of Harper­One (New York, 1998). 

Originally published October 1988