Richard Foster’s Celebration of Disciple is one of the rare books that is praised as a classic while the author is still living. Foster’s book has celebrated over 25 years of being in print and is recognized as one of the most influential books on spiritual formation to date. Christianity Today named it one of the ten most influential books of the twentieth century. Well-known authors such as Dallas Willard, Madeleine L’Engle, and Brian McLaren have all posted positive reviews and praise of Celebration of Discipline.
First, it is appropriate to explore who the author is. Richard Foster is a Christian theologian and pastor whose spiritual influence has come form the Quaker tradition. He earned his undergraduate degree from George Fox University (Oregon) and his Doctor of Pastoral Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary (California). Since Celebration of Discipline, he has written additional book on the topic of Christian spirituality and spiritual formation. Theses facts position Foster as an adequate authority on the topic of Christian spiritual formation.
The book is divided into three parts: the inward disciplines, the outward disciplines, and the corporate disciplines. The inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting and study. The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. Finally, the corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
Foster intentionally designs his book to correlate with the actual growth of a Christian. The spiritual disciplines find their genesis within the Christian (inward) and grow outward and finally are established (and celebrated) corporately. Although a Western mindset attempts to define everything in a linear manner, one should not attempt to view Foster’s work as progressive alone. Many of the disciplines work together and can only be reinforced when done within community. The ultimate goal of the process is the life of a Christian to find depth and meaning being spiritually formed in the image of their Creator. Foster himself explains, “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but deep people. The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depth.”
As this author reviews the finer points of Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, John Westerhoff’s Spiritual Life and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines will be consulted to add depth to the discussion. Although Westerhoff does not reference Foster’s book, Willard’s does on a few occasions (plus, one cannot help but notice Foster’s influence on Willard as they read his book). Thus, the remainder of this essay will address the nature, purpose, process, and product of the Spiritual Disciplines.
I. The Nature of the Spiritual Disciplines
The nature of the spiritual disciplines is based in God. In other words, the spiritual disciplines are the natural outworking of one living a spiritual life. This is different from the purpose and process. The purpose and process are finding their birth in the nature of one living deciding to live a spiritual life. John Westerhoff explains, “The spiritual life, as I understand it, is ordinary, everyday life lived in an ever-deepening and loving relationship to God and therefore to one’s true or healthy self, all people, and the whole creation.” Notice that Westerhoff explains the nature is based in an ordinary, everyday life of deciding to follow God. Therefore, they find their basis in God (the natural source of life) and their further value in our living them out (the natural response to a life in God).
Dallas Willard explains, “…we as human beings must lead our lives before God in an open, adventurous, and reflective manner.” Willard then quotes Archbishop William Temple, “We only know what matter is when the Spirit dwells in it; we only know what man is when God dwells in him.” Some may assume this is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines but when reflecting deeper, the reader must understand the very nature of the disciplines is to awaken our lives into the life of God.
Foster sheds more light on this idea, “God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns.” The nature of the disciplines is to be a natural part of the life of the person whose spirit is alive in Christ. Therefore, the nature and purpose of the disciplines although closely associated can and should be differentiated. Thus, when the Christian has a grasp of the nature, the purpose has a clearer meaning.
II. The Purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines
The purpose of the spiritual disciplines as mentioned above by Foster is a deepening of the spiritual life of a Christian. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:10 that the Spirit reveals things to Christian about God, even the “depths of God.” Foster quotes Psalm 42:7, “Deep calls to deep.” The spiritual life finds its highest meaning in exploring the deeper things of God. Understanding the deeper things of God is the beginning of spiritual growth (purpose) and leads to inner transformation (the product, which will be discussed in detail below).
In chapter three of Westerhoff’s Spiritual Life, he explains that the life of a preacher or teacher (and this writer contends that this complies to all who seek to be spiritual) should be aligned with God. The purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to align the Christian with God. Through activities like solitude, suffering, contemplation, and sacrifice, the Christian understands the purpose of these disciplines is to assist in their spiritual growth as they are formed to God’s image.
Being formed to God’s image is about placing one’s self in position for God to transform them. Foster expounds, “The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.” This comes from the realization that human will power will never transform us. The purpose is not that through human will we transform into the image of God but that through the power of God working in us through the disciplines we are transformed. Although a subtle difference, this truth must be accepted from the onset. Foster rightly explains, “When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift form God to be graciously received.”
The purpose of the disciplines is to realize the source of righteousness is not through the disciplines but through the God (the source and nature of the disciplines) who establishes these practices for our benefit. Therefore, the purpose of spiritual disciplines is for the Christian to grow deeper spiritually, to align their life in God for God, and to place their self in a position to be transformed by God. How this is done is the appropriate question to follow and to move the discussion forward.
III. The Process of the Spiritual Disciplines
The process of the disciplines is a life-long journey. From the beginning, Foster explains that the process must not be made into law. The purpose is spiritual freedom. The purpose is to delight in a God who is transformed the Christian by his grace. Thus, in the process of the disciplines, the Christian must be cautious. Foster explains, “The Spiritual Disciplines are intended for our good . . . It is possible, however, to turn them into another set of soul-killing laws. Law bound Disciplines breathe death.” What is the answer? Foster explains that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is the Christian’s teacher and guide.
The process, as mentioned in the summary, starts with the inward disciplines, moves to the outward disciplines, and is reinforced by the corporate disciplines. Foster lists them in three categories not to focus on the importance of one over the other but to give them a workable and understandable process.
Within the inward disciplines, Foster focuses on mediation, fasting, prayer, and study. These disciplines aim at quieting and refocusing the inner life of the Christian. All of these are counter-cultural in a society that is programmed to be fasted-paced and self-indulgence. Meditation quiets and fills the mind. Fasting empties the stomach refocusing the appetites. Prayer adds depth to meditation and fasting, as well as being the “central avenue God uses to transform us.” Finally, study is vital to being counter-culturally transformed also. Foster explains that the renewal of the mind comes through the study and application of God’s Word (cf. Romans 12:2).
Foster describes the outward disciplines as simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. These disciplines are also counter-cultural, but manifest more readably in the natural world. Simplicity has an inward dimension but results in an outward lifestyle. This discipline provides perspective on our things so we are free to share them and steward them. Solitude is inner fulfillment (i.e. silence) and freedom to be alone, not to avoid people, but to be comfortable in the presence of God. Submission and service are about laying down one’s own will for the purpose of God and others. Again, these disciplines have an inward dimension, but have manifested their reality in outward manners that should be the defining characteristics of a Christian.
Finally, Foster explains the process of the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. As corporate disciplines, these are often spoken of and promoted more frequently from the pulpit or the lectern. Confession, although done first to God, should be practiced among the Christian community. Worship is the, “human response to the divine initiative.” The basis of worship is founded in God but celebrated in community. Although Foster explains that guidance was not a popular practice when he wrote the book, today, spiritual guidance finds prominence in the growth of the mentor and coaching movements. Foster highly recommends the Christian to find a spiritual director to help them process through the spiritual disciplined life. Finally, he ends with celebration, which is “at the heart of the way of Christ.” The Christian should not gloss over the discipline of celebration because it is central to all of the disciplines. The end goal of all of them is to celebrate the growth, depth, and connection the Christian gains. This provides an excellent transition to the product of the disciplines.
IV. The Product of the Spiritual Disciplines
As just mentioned Foster teaches that the end product of the disciplines is the celebration they create. “Joy is the keynote of all the Disciplines,” Foster explains. The Christian can celebrate their newfound freedom when living out the results from their practice of the disciplines. For example, when the Christian practices study, they are freed from the destructive patterns of the world and renewed to the counter-cultural ways of Christ. This is reason to celebrate! This is the product that results when one of the disciplines is practiced.
Westerhoff agrees with Foster when discussing the product of a spiritually informed life. His understanding is founded in the fruits of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23. One of the fruits is joy. Westerhoff later explains that another product is being in proper rhythm with life. These are much needed changes in a society that lives in fear and worry, instead of joy, and out of balance, instead of a God-ordained rhythm.
Also adding to the discussion, Dallas Willard explains that one major product is life transformation. This he believes is one of the major reasons why spiritual disciplines are being discussed more in today’s society. Willard expounds, “True character transformation begins, we are taught to believe, in the pure grace of God and is continually assisted by it. Very well. But action is also indispensable in making the Christian truly a different person–one having a new life which, as 2 Corinthians 5:17 states, :Old things have passed away and, behold, all things become new.” Failure to act in certain definite ways will guarantee that this transformation does not come to pass.”
The product is intertwined with the process, just as the nature and purpose of the spiritual disciplines have major correlations.
In conclusion, the reader can identify through Foster’s work the necessity of the spiritual disciplines for living a truly well rounded and defined spiritual life. Finding their genesis in the grace and work of God, the disciplines when practiced by the Christian will produce spiritual maturity. This maturity is not based on works, but based on the heart, mind, and life that is being transformed through the very practice of the disciplines. Before the Christian, especially the Christian minster, can help others change, they must be willing to change. Therefore, it is fitting to end with Foster’s quoting of theologian Leo Tolstoy, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. New York: HarperSanFransico, 1988.
Westerhoff, John. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching.
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives.
New York: HarperCollins, 1988.