Richard Foster, A Celebration of Discipline, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)

Widely sold and well read, Richard Foster’s book has gained a kind of cult status in Christian theology. However, this is not a book review. Rather it is about me exploring some of the things that Foster wrote in his book and then me reacting, reflecting, and responding, to his words. This, then, is my meditation centred around Foster’s own thinking.

While I would never expect to agree with every little detail in every book written, it is valuable for me to explore what Foster wrote and then see what it sparked in me, and how it affected my own thinking and reflection. My exploration must be reasonably deep if it is to have real value, and other sources will be quoted along the way. Footnotes will accompany quotes that are not from Foster’s book and, quotes from Foster’s book are not footnoted, but are rather highlighted by being in “quotation text”. Read Foster’s book for yourself and then engage with me here!

David Watson wrote the foreword of the 1980 edition and set the tone for what was to come as he wrote in the foreword: “We have exchanged our knowledge of [God] for heady disputes about theological words.” I personally prefer to speak of our knowing of YHWH, since the Greek word commonly translated as ‘knowledge’ in the new covenant Scriptures is always a verb; it is never a noun. Thus, ‘knowing’ is a relationship word where ‘knowledge’ is an impersonal word. Nevertheless, Watson’s observation strikes at the heart of what is important to so many Christians, and that is being ‘right’. ‘Right’ doctrine, ‘right’ theology, ‘right’ practice, ‘right’ speaking, and so on. Christians who are ‘right’, and who insist on everyone else being ‘right’, are empire building, not kingdom building. 

Alongside being ‘right’ one of the worst diseases to strike so many Christians is that of being shallow in their faith and Foster picked up on this at the very beginning of his book. “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.” Amen to that! Martyn Lloyd-Jones was also highlighting shallowness, when he wrote: “The main trouble in the church today – and I am speaking of evangelical churches in particular at this point – is the appalling superficiality.”[1]

Having pointed out the disease, Foster then pointed out the cure: “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people; but for deep people.” Once again, amen to that! But what does a deep person look like? And what does a deep church look like?

Being deep:

  • Is not about relationships in general.
  • Is not about just being friends.
  • Is not about merely serving one another.
  • Is not about only giving to the poor.
  • Is not just about being kind.
  • Speaking unintelligible  gibberish.
  • Being high and unapproachable.
  • And so on.

Many non-Christians do all of that, and they often do it better than some Christians do! Whether for an individual or for a church, being deep is about a growing intimate relationship with YHWH the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that deepening intimate relationship leads us in doing the will of YHWH from which everything else flows.

Foster then wrote that: “Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received.” That statement is surely too general?

  • Is inner righteousness a free gift?
  • Is inner righteousness a gift that we only receive once?
  • Is inner righteousness a gift that can be lost or discarded?
  • And so on.

I do not like the word ‘gift’ in Foster’s sentence, as that one word has far too many wrong ideas associated with it. Inner righteousness is the right relationship that faces outward to the world from its own inner foundation of right relationship with YHWH the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Now, none of this is either automatic, and nor is it about one single happening. Those who would know YHWH in intimacy will experience constant change that will involve self-examination that will involve the pain of healing that will involve being misunderstood and misrepresented.

I therefore agree with Foster when he wrote: “The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.” But Foster’s statement about inner righteousness clashes with this statement as it implies that a perfect gift that YHWH has once given then needs to change. It is my observation that any book that seeks to address how live and move and have our being needs to be careful about generalities that trip up at the first hurdle.

I say this because of Foster’s general statement thus: “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds.” While we may understand what Foster is getting at here, there is a great danger in declaring ‘wrong’ that which is life, and that is neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’. Parents experience all three, and noise, hurry and crowds are simply a part of life for parents. They are only one life example; many people may experience all of these three in their daily lives. It is also true that, for many people in our world, noise, hurry and crowds are simply unavoidable and have to be coped with as well as can be.

Foster then generalises again thus: “If the enemy of our souls can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness’ he will rest satisfied.” A statement like that needs to be explored in detail for, otherwise, there is a danger that such a statement merely induces guilt instead of encouraging and building up. Furthermore, wherever did the idea come from that the enemy of our souls can keep us engaged in anything at all? Our focus is on YHWH – not on the enemy of our souls.

So far, Foster’s focus seems to be on behaviour, and how to modify behaviour in order to be more godly. I see internal change as the real way to change behaviour – change the person internally and the person will change externally. However, I am wary of any teaching that says ‘do this to be loved by God…’ or ‘do this to be more holy…’

Nowhere is that more in evidence than it is when it comes to speaking about prayer. Foster declared that: “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. It is original research in unexplored territory.” Now, a statement like that needs to be unpacked so that it does not remain as just a clever saying. That means explaining exactly what prayer is, and what prayer is not. The common definition that ‘prayer is talking to God’ is wholly insufficient and even misleading. Prayer is not talking to God, though talking to God is prayer.

Prayer is far, far more than just talking to God. In fact, talking to God is the lowest form of prayer. True prayer begins with listening and receiving, not with talking. Foster draws alongside me, however, when he says that: “To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.” How does prayer change us? That too, needs to be unpacked.

Because what prayer is for us determines how that prayer changes us. Perhaps the reality is that prayer is hard – or even impossible – to actually define. My definition of prayer? In him we live and move and have our being.

Foster then went on to speak about authority with regard to what Jesus said and did:

“Jesus never taught that everyone had equal authority. But the authority of which Jesus spoke is not the authority of a pecking order. Jesus was not just reversing the pecking order, he was abolishing it. The authority of which Jesus spoke was not an authority to manipulate and control. It was an authority of function, not status.” The authority that Jesus spoke of was a delegated authority – even for Jesus himself.

  • Jesus said what his Father said, Jesus did what his Father did, Jesus compassioned as his Father compassioned.

For Jesus himself, it was the authority of self-sacrifice that walked, acted, and spoke, in the will of his Father. Therefore, for Jesus himself: “Service is not a list of things that we do; it is not a code of ethics, but a way of living.” However, Foster showed that his focus was not on the service itself, but on the identity of the one serving: “It is one thing to act like a servant; it is quite another to be a servant.”

Foster went on to speak about worship, and his meaning of the word ‘worship’ was much bigger than singing or speaking: “To experience worship is to experience reality, to touch life.” For Foster then, and for me, worship is about encounter: “Singing, praying, praising all may lead to worship, but worship is more than any of them. Our spirit must be ignited by divine fire.” And Foster and I agree totally on the consequences of true worship: “If worship does not change us, it has not been worship.” That is why I teach that:


Where this thinking about worship had taken me was very similar to Foster’s thinking:


Thus, I would make this declaration: 


Foster then explores the subject of service and he spoke of the cross as being the sign of submission, but the cross is surely the sign of death. The cross is not about living people submitting to Jesus, it is about the dead in Christ sharing in his death and, one day, sharing in his resurrection.

Foster goes on to speak of the towel being the sign of service. He speaks of the Passover and of feet needing to be washed, but that was a sign of the lowest slave in Jesus’ day where the country was hot and dusty and washing guests’ feet was a required sign of welcome. Any act of washing feet in the UK has missed the point completely, for only the lowest slaves or servants washed feet in those days – and that was precisely the point that Jesus was making by washing his disciples’ feet. What Jesus did wasn’t about the act of washing feet, it was about the reality of making ourselves nothing… Foster goes on to say: “Then Jesus took a towel and redefined greatness.” No, Jesus did not redefine greatness, he demonstrated true self-sacrificial love that expressed itself in service.

Foster then speaks about a pecking order thus: “In the Discipline of service there is also great liberty. It abolishes our need for a pecking order.” The idea of a pecking order is too small and too parochial, for true self-sacrificial love that expresses itself in service actually completely abolishes any human status that causes division between human beings. Foster continues: “This does not do away with our need for leadership or authority, but Jesus completely redefined leadership and rearranged the lines of authority. He never taught that everyone had equal authority.” We must always remember that true authority is delegated – it is not possessed, it is not seized, it is no human being’s personal property.

Every human being has equal worth before YHWH and in my own eyes – though, in truth, I constantly need the promptings of the Holy Spirit as she works inside me so that I do not fall prey to the prejudices that reside inside me, as they also reside inside every human being. When Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth belonged to him, it left none for anyone else. Foster spoke of Jesus’ authority in this way: “His authority was in terms of what one does rather than one’s status, not found in a position or a title, but in a towel.” While I take Foster’s point, Jesus’ authority was found on the completeness of his self-sacrificial life and the ensuing anointing of the Father upon Jesus. The towel was but one example of this life.

Foster also explored what service was, and what it was not: “If true service is to be understood and practised, it must be distinguished clearly from ‘self-righteous service’.” Foster stated that “self-righteous service comes from human effort”, while “true service comes from an inner relationship with God.” For Foster, “self-righteous” service is “impressed with the ‘big deal’” and “seeks gains on ecclesiastical scoreboards”, while “true service does not distinguish between the small and the large service” but “welcomes all opportunities to serve.” Yes, and self-righteous service is essentially self-centered service, along the ‘what’s in it for me?’ heart attitude.

Foster said that “self-righteous service requires external rewards” and “seeks applause (with proper religious modesty of course)”This is surely why Jesus spoke about not doing good deeds in public view in order to receive applause and credit, but rather do in secret where only YHWH sees. Foster stated that “self-righteous service” is “highly concerned about results, expects appreciation”, and is “bitter when the results fall below expectation”, while “true service delights only in the service” and “can serve enemies as freely as friends.” Self-righteous service takes the credit for good results but inevitably looks to shift blame for bad results onto someone else in order to preserve its own reputation. Yes, true service “can serve enemies as freely as friends”, but serving enemies and those who oppose us or mock us is hard to do with the right heart attitude; we need the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome our own selves in order that she may glorify Jesus through us.

For Foster, “self-righteous service picks whom to serve, according to the advantages gained or the image created”, while “true service” is “indiscriminate its ministry” and “is the servant of all.” “True service” may be “indiscriminate its ministry” and it may be “the servant of all”, but we must be led by the Holy Spirit in where, when, and how, we intervene, in order to ensure that we do not make the kind of mistakes that divert people’s attention away from Jesus and onto us. For Foster, “self-righteous service” is “affected by moods and whims” and so “serves only when there is a feeling to serve”, while “true service disciplines the feelings rather than allowing the feeling to control the service.” 

“True service disciplines the feelings rather than allowing the feeling to control the service” is easy to say, but such discipline is certainly not a one-off event! If I am honest, I would have to say that my “true service is affected by moods and whims”, and that is simply part of the baggage of being a fallen human being.

Foster said that “self-righteous service” is “temporary”, that it “functions only when the specific acts of service are being performed” and, “having served, it can rest easy”; while “true service” is “a life-style” and it “acts from ingrained patterns of living” and “springs spontaneously to meet human need.” Yes, “true service” is “a life-style” and it “acts from ingrained patterns of living” and “springs spontaneously to meet human need”, but true service also needs to rest and to recuperate, as Jesus himself demonstrated on a number of occasions.

Foster said that “self-righteous service” is “insensitive, it insists on meeting the need even when to do so is destructive”; while “true service listens with tenderness and patience before acting.” I have personally seen many occasions where “self-righteous service” was “insensitive, it insists on meeting the need even when to do so is destructive”, and this is especially true in the area of healing where respect and dignity are cast aside by the need to interfere in an ungodly way.

Foster declared that “self-righteous service fractures community” because it “centres on the glorification of the individual” and it “puts others in its debt, and thus manipulates”; while “true service builds community quietly and unpretentiously” as it “draws, binds, heals, builds.” A destructive “self-righteous service” can do real damage to relationships and therefore to community, and such interference merely highlights the need for those who call themselves Christians to be like Jesus in order to act like Jesus.

Foster went on to speak about “the grace of humility”“More than any other single way, the grace of humility is worked into our lives through the discipline of service.” I am not at all sure about that statement, as inner change is the result of the power of the Holy to transform and to renew us deep inside our beings, but perhaps true service can encourage us to seek more of the work of the Holy Spirit inside us as she works to make us like Jesus. “Humility is not gained by seeking it.” Perhaps not, but Jesus will be found by those who whole-heartedly seek him and, and finding Jesus, they will find humility. A search for humility on its own has the potential to lead us into paths that have no real or lasting value.

“When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.” “Deep change” is the result of the deep work of the Holy Spirit inside us, inner change does not occur simply because we embark on a course of action, however good that course of action may be. “Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness.” “Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like” the power of the holy Spirit as she effects inner transformation and renewal, “and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh” like that flesh being crucified. There is an essential difference between real inner transformation and mere external behavioural modification, and we must never mistake one for the other.

“The flesh seeks honour and recognition.” And, in some ways, that is the definition of “self-righteous service”“Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify our pride and arrogance.” “Every time” our “flesh” is crucified, YHWH crucifies “our pride and arrogance.” We are incapable of crucifying our own flesh. Rather, we surrender to Jesus and the Holy Spirit works deep inside us to crucify that which is fallen within us. “If we daily discipline the flesh, there will be a rise of the grace of humility.” An external “daily discipline” of “the flesh” will never cause any lasting change, for external behavioural modification is utterly incapable of effecting inner change. I will say it again – only the Holy Spirit can effect inner transformation and renewal inside us, and external behaviour is then modified because she has done her work in us. Now I must be honest and say that there is inside me a natural and understandable hesitancy that in serving others, some people will take advantage of me and walk right over me.

“There is a difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant.” Yes, and there is a difference between following the teachings of Jesus and following Jesus himself. It is worth noting how often Jesus said to people “Follow me”, but he never told anyone to “Follow my teachings” separate from him. “When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge, to decide who and when we will serve.” When we daily surrender to Jesus and take up our cross, we have the blessing of being led by the same Holy Spirit who led Jesus. “We become vulnerable.” I have always been vulnerable, and I suspect that I am not alone in that. But I would far rather be vulnerable because I am in Christ and Christ is in me than I would because I am inwardly alone.

“Service is not a list of things to do, or a code of ethics; it is a way of living.” “Service is not a list of things to do, or a code of ethics; it is a way of living” in Christ as Christ lives in us. If service is depersonalised from Jesus, it becomes no different to any other form of “self-righteous service.” 

Foster goes on to speak about hiddenness: “Even public leaders can cultivate tasks of service that remain generally unknown.” Yes, they can, but public leaders need to be very wise about what is kept hidden and what is done out in the open. Most important, is that public leaders do not take exclusive credit for what is achieved, and so serve in true humility that recognises and acknowledges the contributions and effort of others.

Then, says Foster, “there is the service of small things”We must never forget nor despise the ministry of little acts of kindness. “The ministry of small things is a daily service.” It is true but perhaps surprising that, when it comes to acts of kindness that people have received, they often remember and are grateful for the little acts of kindness more than they are for the big things. “Large tasks require great sacrifice for a moment; small things require constant sacrifice.” Many small acts pf kindness can be done in a day, and perhaps the cumulative effects of those little acts of kindness may be greater than the effect of the one big thing. “We will come to see small things as the central issue.”

I have found great personal benefit in the daily little acts of kindness that I have done out of the public eye, and I am very grateful that the mistakes that I have made were not made in the public eye! Little acts of kindness are the proving ground that prepares us for the bigger things. In this we must always seek to protect and care for those to whom we minister in our acts of kindness – whether small or great:

“There is the service of guarding the reputation of others.” Is the reputation and integrity of the person for whom we perform and act of kindness more important than our own reputation? In this regard, our acts of kindness must surely build up and strengthen the other person and not knock them down? We must always guard our own hearts and ensure that our acts of kindness are not self-righteous acts. Guarding our own hearts also means guarding our own tongues, as Foster highlighted: “There is a discipline in holding our tongue that works wonders within us.”

Foster also spoke of the need of those who minister to others needing to be ministered to themselves: “There is the service of being served.” There is a danger here for leaders, and that is about allowing others to minister to them and being accountable to other leaders. “It is an act of submission and service to allow others to serve us.” True accountability is not first of all about what we say or do; rather, it is about who we are in our inner beings and how that inner being is in terms of health or struggle. “Those who, out of pride, refuse to be served are failing to submit to the divinely appointed leadership in the kingdom of God.” 

If leaders can go off the rails and fall into all sorts of issues and problems without other leaders knowing, then there is no accountability in that organisation that cares first and foremost about how the leaders are doing in their inner beings. Leaders need to ensure that they themselves and other leaders are not abusing their positions of trust. Such abuse can do terrible damage, not only to the abused, but also to the church or organisation that has that abuse in their midst. 

Foster goes on to highlight what he sees as a serious lack in church and Christian organisation: “There is the service of hospitality.” Looking back at the vents and context of Acts 2 can make us wish that we today in the UK could live in such a charitable way, but the reality is that the culture then was utterly different to the culture that we live in today. “There is a desperate need today for Christians who will open their homes to one another.” How does Foster’s concern from 1980 translate into life in the UK in 2022 post-Covid? “Being together and sharing is the stuff of hospitality.” Perhaps hospitality itself needs to change and adapt according to culture, context, and everything that puts pressure on that culture and context.

Foster then goes on to speak of a discipline that is very important and, if I am honest, it is a discipline that I took a long time to properly learn, and I still make mistakes in that regard: “There is the service of listening.” Listening involves not just hearing the words that people speak but, and perhaps of greater importance, hearing the heart of a person speak. A person may be unable to find words that truly describe what they are like inside and what they are suffering from internally. “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship is to listen to them.” This is not about complaints, it is not about suggestions of better ways to do things, it is not about a sharing of opinions, it is not about theological correction. “The most important requirements are compassion and patience.” It is about journeying with people and sharing in their joys and their sadness. “To listen to others quietens and disciplines the mind to listen to God.” Having listened to YHWH, we need the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we know what to share and when to share it.

“There is the service of bearing the burdens of each other.” That is where listening to others can often lead us to. “Love is most perfectly fulfilled when we bear the hurts and sufferings of each other and care for them.” Such openness to the Spirit of YHWH can lead us into intercession but, most commonly, it will lead us into truly caring deeply for other people. At an individual level, most of us can only care deeply for a limited number of other people, and that is why leadership and ministry teams are so important.

Foster then moves on to what he speaks of as ‘the Word of Life’: “There is the service of sharing the Word of Life with each other.” Foster does mean merely sharing Scripture with someone, but rather he is referring to the whole counsel of the word of God as received from the Word of God by the Holy Spirit of God. “We are dependent upon one another to receive the full counsel of God.” Scripture is the word of God; Jesus is the Word of God. We all need the whole counsel of YHWH and we need to be open to however that may come to us: “The smallest member can bring us a word.” Churches tend not to have donkeys in their congregations… Or do they?

“Service cannot be done in absentia; it requires our personal involvement.” True service is hard work. Those who minster can be drained and exhausted by such true service. “We are finite, so saying yes to one task means saying no to another.” Alongside finding our own times to rest, recuperate, and relax, all leaders need to apportion their energy and life in appropriate measure and not get sucked into the system of working ourselves to either death or a nervous breakdown: “The Discipline of Service asks us to serve irrespective of class or social distinctions, but it also recognises our human limitations.” As Foster stated plainly: “It is not an easy balance to maintain.” You can say that again!

As our roles and positions change, we need to be constantly asking ourselves what service is for us“The whole of Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are not to serve human beings – we are to serve God himself…” Of course, that works through to people – but at his direction… 

“The whole of Scripture also makes it clear that our service is always to spring out of worship…”

Worship is a personal, unique encounter with the living God YHWH in three persons. Is service primarily about doing or about being? Jesus was not need driven… The sanatorium incident shows us that… 

Jesus often said that he only did what he saw his Father doing, and he only said what he heard his Father saying… Leaders need to live in that same way.

“Washing each other’s feet…” 

We need to be constantly reminding ourselves that we are not called to serve; rather, we are called to be servants.

Remember Philippians 2 and the emptying…

When we are nothing, YHWH will lift us up at the proper time.

[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones quoted by Murray, I H, D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – The Fight Of Faith, Edinburgh, Banner Of Truth Trust, 1990 page 473