Learning Righteousness

“…for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”  (1 Timothy 4:8, 12, 15 ESV, emphasis mine)

When we think about righteousness, it’s unusual to think in terms of practice or learning. Instead we tend to think of it as something we are or are not. This thinking is simply not helpful.

With the Covid 19 crisis in full swing and the accompanying quarantine restricting access to “normal life,” I’ve found myself with extra time to think about the integration of my faith life with my “real” life. I’ve had time to look back over my notes on some of the books I have read. One such book, The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, gave me much cause for thought with regard to learning righteousness.

The “practice” that prepares us for righteous living includes not only putting our body through the motions of actions directly commanded by our Lord. It also involves engaging in whatever other activities may prepare us to carry out his commands—and not just carry them out, but carry them out with strength, effectiveness, and joy. And this is where the standard well-recognized spiritual disciplines become involved. (p. 119)

I found Willard’s statement, “It also involves engaging in whatever other activities may prepare us to carry out his commands,” particularly intriguing. If we “practice” not sinning by replacing a given sin with a positive response to the sin trigger, are we bypassing grace and becoming Pharisees? Or are we positioning ourselves to move closer to godliness?

Willard elaborates on his statement thusly: “Discipline, strictly speaking, is activity carried on to prepare us indirectly for some activity other than itself. We do not practice the piano to practice the piano well, but to play it well. The activities just discussed above as illustrations of submission to righteousness are the performance, not the practice—though performance also has the effect of practice.” (p. 120)

So, if I choose for instance, to sing (out loud or silently) a particular hymn or worship song whenever I am tempted to lie, the singing is an “activity that prepares me” to carry out God’s commandment not to lie. Singing, in this case, is the “practice” that prepares me for truthfulness.

I recognize a certain beauty in Willard’s logic. If we cannot be truthful for truthfulness’ sake, we have a workaround. If the practice of the primary spiritual disciplines, “solitude, silence, fasting, study, or sacrifice” (p. 120), have not yielded the intended result in our quest for liberation from sinful behaviors, “other activities” may themselves become spiritual disciplines that move us forward toward our goal of Christlikeness.

Ultimately, our desire to be free from sin’s bondage is our motivating factor regardless of our methodology; otherwise we would have no desire to change our behavior in the first place. I believe that it is unhelpful, at best, to designate substitutionary practices as any less spiritual than prayer or fasting.

I realize, of course, that some substitutionary practices may be sinful in themselves, such as Transcendental Meditation or other occult practices. Sin is never a healthy way to avoid sin!

I suspect by the fact that you are reading this, that you, like me want to be more like Jesus. We accomplish this by faith and discipline. Faith saves, discipline matures. As we go about our lives, quarantined or not, may we take whatever steps enable us to achieve that goal.

Please let me know in the comments if a substitutionary practice has helped you grow in your faith and move nearer your goal of Christlikeness. Do you agree with Dallas Willard? Why or why not?

As always, these are the musings of a mindful disciple. Blessings on your week!

Willard, Dallas. “Spirit of the Disciplines.” Spirit of the Disciplines, HarperSanFrancisco., 1988, pp. 118–120.

Image by Bryan Geraldo on Pexels.

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