A vision for a God-filled life
by Tamara Cissna | firstname.lastname@example.org
Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth has sold 2.5 million copies. The spiritual classic, translated into more than 20 languages, is listed by Christianity Today as one of the top 10 best religious books of the 20th century.
Author Richard Foster is still watching to see if the book — never out of print in its 30 years — will be a true success.
Are lives changing in substantial ways, he wonders? Is today’s focus on spiritual formation causing people to experience deep life with God, centered in the person of Jesus? Are people engaged in serious discipleship so that the character of Christ may be formed in them?
That’s what matters to Foster — devoted Quaker, lover of ancient sources, and 1964 George Fox graduate.
Foster was not seeking fame when he wrote the book after finishing his doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was serving on a team of pastors at Newberg Friends Church and was disheartened by the many Christians failing to overcome inner struggles and by the lack of substantive resources available to them. Popular approaches to spiritual growth seemed shallow to him.
Throughout his ministry, Richard Foster has taught practical strategies for reaching spiritual maturity. He finds ancient sources trustworthy mentors.
“I wrote the Celebration of Discipline for all of those disillusioned by the superficiality of modern culture, including the religious culture. That’s a large group of people,” Foster says, while waiting to address a congregation in Portland during a recent speaking tour.
“Now in many ways, that superficiality has not changed a great deal. Religious folk in particular still hanker after the flavor of the month. Another great problem is distraction — much-ness, many-ness, noise, hurry and crowds. And the third major problem is consumerism. And all of those three still are with us, and we have a lot of work to do.”
Foster’s aim in writing Celebration of Discipline was to teach people how to get free from ingrained habits that made misery of their lives. The disciplines are not a means to please God, he says, but a means by which people place themselves before God and allow him to transform their lives.
The language of spiritual formation — essentially the development of a person’s spiritual life and interactions with others via spiritual disciplines or practices — is much better known now than it was 30 years ago, Foster acknowledges. In fact, spiritual formation is now part of curriculum required for Association of Theological Schools accreditation. Many churches offer programs, as well.
The book divides the disciplines into three movements of the Spirit: inward disciplines — prayer, fasting, meditation and study; outward disciplines — simplicity, solitude, submission and service; and corporate disciplines — confession, worship, guidance and celebration.
“There are wonderfully encouraging signs that spiritual formation will take root,” Foster says. “Part of the reason for those signs is that the failures — a gospel that has been totally divorced from life, or the sort of a gospel of heaven when I die — the weaknesses of that have become glaringly obvious.
“Evangelism has reached the point of diminishing returns because people say, ‘What am I supposed to be converted to?’ Christians look pretty much like everybody else, and a life of love, joy, gentleness, goodness and long-suffering — all the fruits of the Spirit — they don’t really see that. However, just because the hunger and the longing are there, does not mean that people will engage with the material and do the work. But it does create a great opportunity and an open window.”
Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline during solitary retreats in the prayer chapel at George Fox’s Tilikum Retreat Center. As he wrote, he admired a farmer patiently tilling his land in a nearby field — the antithesis of noise, hurry and crowds. “I wanted to ask him for his autograph. ... We don’t ask farmers for their autographs,” he muses.
Foster uses the metaphor of a field to illustrate the purpose of disciplines in the book:
A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then natural forces of the earth take over, and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the spiritual disciplines — they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. ... They are a means of receiving God’s grace.
There’s nothing instant or easy about growing crops — nor is engaging with the devotional masters’ teachings and incorporating them into everyday life. Celebration of Discipline is no primer for attaining your best life now.
“I wrote the Celebration of Discipline for all of those disillusioned by the superficiality of modern culture, including the religious culture.”
Foster stresses that the spiritual disciplines require, well, discipline. Merely discussing the disciplines and deeper resources without engaging with the material and doing the work is unfruitful, he says. “In the early days, Christians described themselves as the athletes of God. That involves disciplined training, not just trying.”
Results will come, he says. “Over time and experience, God uses the disciplines to form the life, and this is a guarantee really. We must be patient with it, and we must learn and grow, and do it in community. But the life comes. It happens over and over again.”
Getting back to the ancients
One of the reasons Foster draws from the ancient Christian sources is because the classical disciplines, once commonly practiced, had all but been forgotten in modern times. Instruction on how to practice the disciplines is again necessary.
Foster’s eyes glisten when he elaborates about the richness in these resources. He relishes in the retelling of Brother Bernard pretending to sleep while listening to St. Francis of Assisi — “God’s troubadour” — as he knelt near a window repeating the whole night long, “My Lord and my all, my Lord and my all ...” By morning, Foster shares, Brother Bernard “gets it” and goes on to become one of the early Franciscan brothers.
“Or you take St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, or Jeremy Taylor’s’ Holy Living and Dying,” Foster continues, seemingly transported away from a contemporary church office near shopping malls, freeways and residential developments.
“Or take William Laws’ A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Julian of Norwich’s Showing of Love, Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle — all these kinds of writings that soak people into substance. That’s what the serious quest for spiritual growth leads to.”
It begins to sound intimidating.
“The key is not to have read everything, but to have read deeply,” Foster says. “And to stay with a few writers for extended periods. There’s a lot I haven’t read.”
The man himself
So one wonders, how do practicing the disciplines impact the everyday life of Richard Foster, the man often credited as the father of today’s spiritual formation movement?
“It’s important to remember that the spiritual disciplines are only the means; they are not the ends,” he answers patiently. “The disciplines have no righteousness in them — they just place us before God. And at that point, they reach the end of their tether and the grace of God steps in. We are learning to train in the spiritual life, and the specific training will move according to your own need. And now — I’m coming to me personally — the need for me right now is solitude.”
Foster is in the midst of a speaking tour, promoting his most recent book, Life with God, published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Celebration of Discipline. His stop in Portland was one of his last stops along a months-long tour. He is road weary.
Solitude is essential for right engagement with people, he says. “Solitude teaches us to live in the presence of God so that we can be with people in a way that helps them and does not manipulate them. As Thomas à Kempis says, ‘The only person who’s safe to travel is the person who’s free to stay at home.’”
When he is home in Colorado, Foster enjoys walking and praying in a canyon near his home. In nature, you learn to set aside noise and hurry and crowds, says Foster, who loves hiking and snowshoeing in the Rockies.
Richard Foster graduated from George Fox with a degree in philosophy and religion in 1964.
“You give up the need to control and manage. You give your family and your work to God. You learn that none of us is the CEO of the universe. And you learn, as one of the old writers put it, to ‘hear God’s voice in his wondrous, terrible, loving, all-embracing silence.’”
Some years back Foster discovered he had a Native American background — of the Ojibwa nation. He chose to honor this heritage by growing his hair long. “Over the years, it’s been kind of a reminder — an icon, if you will — to remind me to pray for First Nation peoples that they may know the fullness of life that is in Jesus,” he says.
Dark night of the soul
In 1978, no one would have guessed Celebration of Discipline’s impact would be so strong, including its publisher, Harper & Row. After the book was printed, the marketing staff explained to Foster they simply were unable to advertise all their books, including his. But book sales took off, and Foster’s life changed beyond his imagination.
“So in all these different places — liberal, conservative, high church, low church, 25 or so different countries — this movement was going on, and that opened up a whole world. And, of course, I was out speaking and traveling.”
And then he hit a low point that grounded him for a time.
“After a decade, I wasn’t quite sure Celebration of Discipline was helping anybody because I saw people trying but not training,” he says. “I saw that people were scattered rather than gathered. And I saw that people had a narrow, myopic vision rather than a synoptic vision. And that led me to a period where I stopped all writing, I stopped all speaking, and at that time, I didn’t know if I would ever write or speak again.”
This period — Foster’s “dark night of the soul” — lasted about 18 months. When he emerged, he created Renovaré in 1988, a Christian church renewal organization that provides training and support to people earnest about spiritual growth. Renovaré, which means “to make new” in Latin, holds conferences and retreats, and creates small groups that study spiritual life together.
“Celebration of Discipline has been part of that story,” Foster says, “because the hunger and longing for a substantive life will lead automatically to the spiritual disciplines.”
This year, as Renovaré marks its 20th anniversary, Foster is retiring to focus on writing. Replacing him is Christopher Webb, previously an Anglican vicar in several churches in Wales.
The true end goal
In recent years the emerging church movement has embraced Foster as one of its mentors, reflective perhaps of a burgeoning dissatisfaction with “formulaic religiosity sometimes found in the established church,” as George Barna research reveals in Revolution.
“This phenomenon people are talking about right now of the emerging church, that’s part of that hunger for deeper resources, and often that’s tied to going back to some of the ancient sources and interest in a higher liturgical form,” Foster says. “But most of those things are just shuffling the ecclesiastical furniture around. Whether you’re Pentecostal low-church or whether you’re Anglican high-church, that doesn’t make much difference at all. The real issue is, do you have the substance of a life that is like Jesus?”
“The spiritual disciplines are only the means; they are not the ends. The disciplines have no righteousness in them — they just place us before God. And at that point, they reach the end of their tether and the grace of God steps in.”
Foster cringes when asked if his teachings encourage people to turn to Eastern religions, as some critics claim. “The goal of the Christian experience and life is to be filled with God, not to merge with the cosmic consciousness, not to lose your identity, not to lose desire,” he says. “We must have desire even to live. And we become more fully alive. The Christian witness is to a filling of the life with the radiant vision of God. So it is not an emptying, but a filling.”
One of the common failings in today’s spiritual growth programs is focusing on the wrong ends — fulfillment or self-gratification. That gets it entirely wrong, Foster says.
“It’s a consumer mentality that expects ‘coming to Jesus’ means I’m going to be just so enraptured,” he says. “What it means is that we’re going to learn to be like Jesus, to be faithful. We must not think of a life with God as this sort of enraptured state. We see it as transforming, and there are enrapturing experiences, but that’s not the key. The real issue is, do you have a life that is like Jesus?”
Practicing the disciplines will not ensure happiness then? “Exactly not,” Foster says. “We are seeking after God, and sometimes that feels very bad. Of course, what we find is that God is seeking us, the hound of heaven is after us to do us good always.”
Shifting the ground
Celebration of Discipline has had a tremendous impact, says Dallas Willard, noted spiritual formation author and philosophy professor at University of Southern California. “Richard’s book simply shifted the ground under many people’s feet so they could think about spirituality in a different way — spiritual life as something you lived, discipleship. We were in desperate need of this.”
The book also influenced the decline of denominationalism, Willard says. “People understand today that the spiritual life is not about being Quaker or Baptist, but about being a disciple, and that’s where Richard’s book has been very helpful. And it opened people up to the Christian past. Suddenly those teachers became relevant, interesting and powerful.”
Foster prays that in this generation the church will move beyond knowledge of those resources and into active engagement and training so their lives will be transformed. His goal for Celebration of Discipline is unchanged from 30 years ago — that it may be used by God as an instrument to draw people to Christ.
“The spiritual life is all about life with God. Immanuel — God with us,” he says. “We should in every aspect be a dwelling place of God.”
Learn more about Renovaré, the Christian church renewal organization founded by Richard Foster, at www.renovare.org.
For information on George Fox Evangelical Seminary’s 42-credit master’s degree in spiritual formation, visit www.georgefox.edu/seminary.