I haven’t thought much about Celebration of Discipline for a number of years, though my library contains 4 copies of it. Mine were published in 1978 (1st edition), 1988 (Revised and Expanded), 1998 (20th Anniversary Edition), and 2002 (Deluxe Edition). I also have Richard J. Foster’s Study Guide for Celebration of Discipline. While I’ve never used the Study Guide for group study, the $6.10 price tag still on the back reminds me that I bought it at the Nazarene Bible College bookstore while attending NBC back in the ’90s.
What has recently brought this work by Richard J. Foster to my mind has been criticism of it by some people who attend my church…or rather, some people who used to attend my church. Evidently, after the pastor had recommended it, someone in the family found some obscure website which claimed Foster’s book was anything but Christian and reportedly began circulating a print-out about it among some of the other members. I’m not sure why I never received a copy of this “report” but since I didn’t, I can’t really speak to it intelligently. However, beside the fact that this “complaint” was not dealt with in either a biblical or Christian manner, I also struggle with the opposition to this book so thought that I would give it another look and share with you my discoveries.
Celebration of Discipline was written by Richard J. Foster in the late 1970s. It was originally promoted with a hopeful promise:
Each of these disciplines break us free of superficial habits that distance us from God. All have traditionally played a vital part in the Christian meditative life, and Celebration of Discipline recovers them for today (Foster 1978, front flap).
Writing in the Forward, D. Elton Trueblood, former chaplain of both Harvard and Stanford universities, continues:
There are many books concerned with the inner life, but there are not many that combine real originality with intellectual integrity. Yet it is exactly this combination which Richard Foster has been able to produce (Foster 1978, vii).
Dallas Willard, professor at the University of Southern California and a Southern Baptist minister, says Celebration of Discipline is “Scripturally based, practical advice on how the flesh can be brought into a working harmony with the spirit in the context of contemporary life” (Foster 1978, back cover).
Eugene H. Peterson, author of many books in my library including Leap Over a Wall and The Message says that this book and the disciplines it explores are, “the instruments of joy, the way into mature Christian spirituality and abundant life” (Foster 2002, back cover) while Ronald J. Sider, executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action, calls it “The best modern book on Christian spirituality” (Foster 1998, back cover).
So far, I’m not finding anything offensive to orthodox Christianity. Perhaps concern is in the author? “Richard J. Foster is the author of several best-selling books, including Prayer and Streams of Living Water. He is the founder of Renovare, an intrachurch movement committed to the renewal of the Church in all her multifaceted expressions, and a general editor of The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (Foster 2002, back flap). When he originally wrote Celebration of Discipline, Foster was “Special Lecturer and Writer in Residence at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas” (Foster 1978, back flap). Celebration of Discipline earned Foster the “Writer of the Year” award (Foster 1978, back flap). Other books he has written have won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award and the Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers’ Association (Foster 1998, back flap). Evidently, the author has not been rejected by mainstream Christian publishing.
The back flap of the 1998 edition states that Foster is a “Quaker.” A relatively small group with its beginnings flowing from the English Civil War in the 17th century, Quakers (or “Friends”) is “an esteemed Protestant body” (Mead, 159). Believing that every living person has an “inner Light” (John 1:9), Quakers value the humanity of all people and work toward equality and service. Their worship services can be either “programmed or unprogrammed.” Quaker programmed worship services “more nearly resembles an ordinary Protestant service” while in their unprogrammed service “there is no choir, collection, singing, or pulpit; the service is devoted to quiet meditation, prayer, and communion with God. Any vocal contributions are prompted by the Spirit” (Mead, 163).
This inward listening to the Holy Spirit that is evident in Friends’ unprogrammed worship is also valued in day-to-day living. Followed by obedience, they seek “lives that begin to reflect the character of Jesus” (Mead, 159). Early in their history in the United States (1887) Quakers “opposed …a mysticism that seemed to disconnect the ‘inner Light’ from the cross of Christ” (Mead, 161). Additionally, this inner Light is foundational to Quakers’ life and theology. “Friends believe that grace, the power from God to help humankind pursue good and resist evil, is universal among all people. They seek not holiness but perfection–a higher, more spiritual standard of life for both society and the individual” (Mead, 162).
While there are minor differences in theology, worship and practice between Quakers and my particular denomination (as there are between most denominations within the Christian Church), they are still a Christian body probably closer to my own than many who deny the further work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life beyond salvation. I find in Foster’s denominational affiliation no cause to reject his writing.
Let me return to the book and its contents to see what may lay between the covers which could be offensive to Christianity. Without doing a word-by-word evaluation, I think taking a look at each of the 12 disciplines Foster recommends, and comparing them to Scripture, would be beneficial. I’m not going to elaborate much on each of these, but list a few of the verses that speak to them specifically. Certainly there will be many other passages that speak to them indirectly, but time and space do not permit including those.
1. Meditation. The Old Testament is replete with admonitions to meditate on God’s Word: Joshua 1:8 says, “…you shall meditate on it day and night…” Psalm 1:2, “…and on his law he meditates day and night,” Psalm 19:14 declares, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The Psalmist again says in 119:15, “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways,” then again in 104:34, “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.” A quick search of your concordance will reveal many more Old Testament passages urging God’s people to meditate.
The New Testament continues this encouragement. In Philippians 4:8, Paul tells us to meditate (“think”) on those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. He also admonishes Timothy to meditate “immerse” himself in those things which help him to grow as a Christian (1 Timothy 4:15). Again in his 2nd letter to Timothy, Paul tells him to meditate on (“consider”) what he says, “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
2. Prayer. Do I really need to defend prayer as a Christian practice?
3. Fasting. When Jesus speaks of fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, He says “And when you fast…” He just assumes that you will be fasting but urges you to do it in secret. In Mark 9, after his disciples couldn’t drive out a demon, Jesus said “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:10). Of course, this was after he had fasted for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry! The book of Acts also reveals that prayer and fasting was a common practice of the early Church (Acts 9:9, 13:1-3, 14:23). Paul also describes fasting in a positive light in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.
5. Study. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 are perhaps the most popular verses about studying the Bible which is preceded by the encouragement to “study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Again, the early Church is commended for studying the Bible in Acts 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” But it can’t be denied that studying other texts that expand on the Bible is also beneficial to our growth as Christians.
6. Simplicity. The Bible has a lot to say about riches and not trusting in them, this is at the foundation of simplicity. Beyond finances, however, a simple, uncluttered life is to be preferred over one so full of activity and possessions that the worship of God -and living for him daily- is hindered. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:33, this confusion is not of God, rather God is peace. Paul also speaks to a simple life in 2 Corinthians 1:12 when he proclaims, “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.” But even if a “simple” life is not mandated or clearly displayed in Scripture, it certainly isn’t forbidden or contrary to the principles of Scripture.
7. Submission. The term “submission” had gotten a bad wrap with some teachers’ view of female submission to their male spouse (Ephesians 5:22), but Scripture goes far beyond this concept to every Christian’s submission. The whole idea of being disciples of Christ is built upon submission, submitting to God and his will for our lives. Of course, James makes it clear when he tells us to “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Beyond our submission to God, there is our submission to governmental authority (Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13-14) as well as to pastoral authority (Hebrews 13:17).
8. Service. Our service to others is another biblical discipline that we would do well to follow. In Matthew 25, Jesus makes the point that it is how we serve and care for others which will determine our eternal destiny (Matthew 25:31-46). James adds to the necessity of service when he declares, “…faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Paul chimes in with his statement to the Ephesian Christians that “…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). While there are many other passages dealing with service, Jesus sums it up when he says, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:26-28).
9. Confession. Our Christian life begins with confession. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” If we don’t confess our sins, we can not enter into a relationship with God. But after that, our confession helps us to maintain that relationship and our faith. James is pretty clear when he tells us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). The early Church led the way when “many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds” (Acts 19:18).
10. Worship. Scripture is again clear that we are to be faithful to worship. Hebrews 12:28-29 tells us to “…be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…” Jesus, in speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, talks about our geography in worship but contends that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (John 4:21-24). But even beyond corporate and personal worship, the whole idea of offering ourselves to God, according to Romans 12:1-2, is our “spiritual act of worship.”
11. Guidance. Of course, the Old Testament again (as with all of the other disciplines) has many examples of godly men and woman seeking guidance both from those who we would today call “mentors” or “spiritual directors” and from God, himself. Also, again in Acts we see over and over the Church seeking and yielding to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. James goes on and urges us, “…if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
12. Celebration. In the New Testament, celebration accompanied the coming of God into the world as the baby Jesus, as the angel declared, “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people…” (Luke 2:10). The Christian life is epitomized by joy as one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). In fact, it is the joy of the Lord that is our strength! (Nehemiah 8:10). The psalmist goes on and on about rejoicing and praising -celebrating- God. And, it is in the Lord’s Supper that we celebrate the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. We could go on with the many instances in Scripture when we are told to rejoice, as a life lived for the Master exhibits that celebration every day.
All 12 of the Spiritual Disciplines that Foster writes about in Celebration of Discipline are biblical exercises that have been practiced in the Church for centuries and are beneficial for Christians today. None of them are contrary to Scripture and none of them are anti-Christian, “New Age” or un-godly. They are not exercises that should be feared, just because they may be unfamiliar to some, but rather should be practiced and formed into meaningful habits to maintain continued spiritual -Christian- growth.
While not being exhaustive, I have provided a brief overview of Richard J. Foster, Quakerism and the Spiritual Disciplines Foster writes about. Nowhere do I find reason to label Celebration of Discipline “heretical,” “un-Christian” or “un-Orthodox” (or even un-Nazarene!). While we can seldom whole-heartedly endorse everything an author writes, says or believes, this book offers precious little to disagree with. In fact, if one is seeking to grow deeper in their Christian faith and better know, understand and live God’s will on their spiritual journey, they would do well to apply the principles of the Spiritual Disciplines, as found in Celebration of Discipline, to their life.
As Foster states in the Introduction:
Our world is hungry for genuinely changed people. Leo Tolstoy observes, ‘Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.’ Let us be among those who believe that the inner transformation of our lives is a goal worthy of our best effort (Foster 2002, 11).
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. San Fransisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978.
—– Celebration of Discipline. San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 1988.
—– Celebration of Discipline. San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 1998.
—– Celebration of Discipline. San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco, 2002.
Mead, Frank S., Samuel S. Hill & Craig D. Atwood. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 12th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.
Photo Credits: 4 Books-author; Richard J. Foster-http://richardjfoster.com/; Quaker prayer service-http://www.burlingtonquakers.org/quakers101.html