The Disciplined Life
The elite-level athlete. The business entrepreneur. The high-class politician. The single parent of five. The PhD student.
Everyone knows that each of these positions requires incredible discipline. In fact, not only is it understood that it takes discipline to succeed in these different positions, but it is also expected that discipline be a normal part of life for people in these positions.
Everyone knows someone doesn’t just wake up one day and become great at his or her chosen profession or position. Jordan, Mozart, Tubman, Edison, King, Teresa, Jackson, Ali. Names synonymous with greatness. But, everyone knows his or her greatness didn’t just happen over night.
In the world we live in today, we have no shortage of positions or arenas where discipline is the way of life. As discipline is understood and expected, it is also celebrated. People are praised for their hard work, dedication, perseverance, and commitment when things are easy, and especially when they are under difficult circumstances and odds.
Working with some of the best amateur athletes in the country at Virginia Tech, it is clear to see they have a motivation behind their discipline. They don’t always enjoy the discipline, the hard training workouts, the lack of social time, eating right, rehab, etc. But they do it because they are seeking a greater reward.
For some it’s earning or maintaining a scholarship. For others, its winning the approval of parents. The joy of working towards and meeting a goal. Breaking a school or league record. Winning a championship. Being esteemed in the eyes of their peers or opponents.
Whatever the motivation or end goal might be, to them, it’s worth the hard work, endless hours, and seemingly mundane discipline they put in on a day-to-day basis.
No one doubts or questions it. To excel and succeed, discipline is the norm.
Why is it not the same in the Christian life?
Has the word “discipline” become a curse word in the Christian vocabulary?
Why do we expect, and even praise the elite-level athlete or PhD student, for his or her discipline, yet when we see a Christian who is disciplined, we might call them “legalistic” or perhaps think that they need to better understand God’s “grace” and relax a little?
1 Timothy 4:7 says, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.”
Another version says, “But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”
Is it any wonder that Jesus calls us to train or discipline ourselves for the sake of godliness?
Just like what we understand as normal in many positions in life, God is communicating to us that godliness doesn’t just happen overnight for the believer. It takes intentionality. It takes discipline. It takes a life-long process of learning and growing.
We live in a world system that is set up against God and His purposes. We have an enemy who prowls around like a lion, seeking man-meat. We have a flesh that longs to return to the pleasures of Egypt. How else is a Christian to survive, let alone thrive in godliness, without discipline?
Most people, even Christians, understand discipline when it comes to athletics, school, or work. Admittedly, it’s harder to make the transition to our spiritual lives. If you’re anything like me, you are liable to just tighten your bootstraps and just try harder. Plain and simple; more blood sweat, and tears.
In his helpful article, Solitude, Community, Ministry, theologian Henri Nouwen refers to discipline as, “The effort to create some space in which God can act.”
For the Christian then, discipline is not simply trying harder or trying smarter, but its making intentional decisions and changes in our lives, in order to make room for God to reveal Himself and bring about our transformation, as we trust in the gospel, and yield to the Holy Spirit.
(Let us not be like the foolish Galatians in chapter 3 who think holiness simply comes from working harder. We must yield to the Spirit and trust the gospel in our discipline).
As we can see from 1 Timothy, discipline is not an option for the true disciple.
In my own journey as a disciple I’ve learned the value of discipline but am also learning the holistic nature of discipline. As I have been serving in campus ministry God has been working in my life to transform me and make me more holy in a number of areas.
I’ve also found as I minister to student-athletes at Virginia Tech, that similar areas have come to the forefront as areas that need to be tackled head-on with intentional discipline.
From my experience, when Christian guys think about discipline, it’s usually in the context of sexual purity. “I’m still strugglin’! I need to be more disciplined!” Women are in the mix as well. In August 2006, a survey by Covenant Eyes reported 50% of all Christian men and 20% of all Christian women are addicted to pornography. Certainly more discipline needs to be had in this important area.
What I have found, however, is that many of the guys I work with (and myself in my not too distant past), attempt to be disciplined and holy in this area of life, while completely neglecting discipline or holiness in other areas of life.
This, plain and simple, is a lack of integrity. It is not being a whole and undivided person. What God has recently and graciously revealed to me is that it is impossible, for example, to be sexually disciplined and yet neglect discipline in other areas of life. I cannot make room for God to move me towards purity and keep Him cut off from other areas of life. My life is a whole life, not a segmented and disconnected life.
Thus, the movement towards a holistic discipline. A whole and undivided life before God.
Keeping in mind that I work mostly with young men, I believe the following areas are realities for both men and women. Besides sexual purity, I believe there are four other “watershed” areas that a Christian disciple must be intentional towards in order to be on pace to experience the holistic discipline in which God calls us to walk. If we are able to make provision for God to work in these five areas, I think other, perhaps less visible, areas of life will follow. With each of the five areas I provide some vision for how discipline allows the gospel room to transform us. I also provide some questions to consider for your own journey as a disciple and in your discipleship of others.
Any research of statistics about sexual purity and addiction from notable sources such as Covenant Eyes, Barna Group, etc. will reveal alarming statistics, such as the one above. We are a sex-saturated and yet love-starved culture.
By being intentional about the choices I make concerning what I think about, look upon, and touch, I make provision for God to move my heart away from lust, selfishness, idolatry, sexual addiction, and hedonism. At the same time, I can now increase my capacity for being captured by God’s beauty revealed in the gospel, proper enjoyment and celebration of physical beauty and sex within marriage, and honoring of men and women and the unique ways we each bear the image of God.
Questions to consider: Am I taking my sexual queues from the Bible or my culture? Do I define beauty Biblically? Am I accountable to other men or women? Am I serving and loving my wife? Am I serving and respecting my husband? Am I enjoying both quality and quantity sex with my spouse? Am I finding ultimate joy in God?
In his book Money, Possessions, and Eternity, Randy Alcorn reveals that 15% of the entire Bible is about money and possessions. In fact Jesus talks more about wealth than heaven, hell, prayer, and faith. Say what!?
To Jesus, there is a direct correlation between our stewardship of money and resources, and our eternal destiny. Clearly, we aren’t listening. Consider these stats from Alcorn’s book:
-The average American family has over $6,500 in credit card debt.
-43% of families spend more than they make in a given year.
-The average professing Christian gives just 2% of their income per year.
Scary isn’t it?
By being intentional about the choices I make concerning money and possessions, I make provision for God to move my heart away from materialism, selfishness, greed, and discontentment, and to increase my capacity for generosity, thankfulness, contentment, and increased joy in Jesus.
Questions to consider: Do I know what God says about wealth? Do I know where my money is being spent? How much is being spent? Am I giving, saving, and spending Biblically? Am I teaching my children about Biblical stewardship? Are my spouse and I aligned in this area? Am I enjoying the good gifts God provides?
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 teaches us, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The context is clearly in regards to sexual conduct.
But could we also read this as a general truth that is to be honored? Our body belongs to God and we must honor Him with it as a faithful steward. There’s no question that eating healthily and exercising regularly is beneficial to our overall health and life. But do we also understand the care of our physical bodies to be spiritual worship to God?
Honoring God in this area would also include how we dress and present ourselves.
In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
By being intentional about the choices I make concerning my body and how I steward it, I make provision for God to move my heart away from sloth, gluttony, idolatry, and narcissism, and to increase my capacity for honor, wholeness, respect, and the worship of God.
Questions to consider: If I were the Spirit of God would I be proud of the body or image in which I dwell? Or would I be embarrassed? Do I exercise regularly? Do I eat healthily and also enjoy the food God has deemed clean? Do I honor the Sabbath and rest from my work? Do I make time to play and enjoy family? Do I take care to get regular doctor’s checkups when possible? Does my dress and how I carry myself make God smile?
If God were to view your computer history, how excited would He be? And I’m not simply talking about sexually explicit websites to which many are addicted. I’m talking of the hours of godless web-browsing that serve no purpose other than masking the pain and deadness of the soul.
Consider these alarming statistics from the A.C. Nielsen Company:
-The average American watches more than 5 hours of TV each day. In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 13.5 years glued to the tube.
-Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 3.5
-Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680 (Get the hint: Television is forming the moral, spiritual, and emotional capacities of our children).
-The average person spends 41 hours per week using technology such as TV, cell phones, Internet, and video games.
People would rather stare at a screen than contemplate the mysteries of God and deal with the pain of their lives in the context of real relationship and the healing gospel.
In Mark 4:24: Jesus says, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides.” Basically, what you value as beautiful (through your consumption of it), will become beautiful to you.
Don’t be deceived my friends. Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33).
By being intentional about the choices I make concerning what I watch and listen to, I make provision for God to move my heart away from ungodly entertainment and images, desensitization towards sin, and deadening of the mind and heart, and to increase my capacity for joy in godly entertainment, critical thinking, experiencing joy in God’s truth, and understanding and embracing what is good, true, and beautiful.
Questions to consider: Is what I’m eating via my mind and eyes making Jesus look more valuable? Or is it promoting the things of this world as beautiful? Is my media consumption helping me embrace the gospel and godliness or the lifestyle and mindset of the world? Am I using media as a medication for an issue I don’t want to deal with? Am I enjoying godly forms of entertainment in godly ways?
American Christians have an idolatry problem with work, efficiency, production, and time. We are defined by doing for God, not being a child of God.
I’m guilty of this idolatry. Very regularly, I like to think that because I’m in full-time vocational ministry, God is somehow pleased with me. Or I fall into the godless idea that its okay to break God’s command to rest in order to “do the work of the Kingdom.” How foolish of me. Thankfully, through some faithful mentors, God has provided repentance and grace in this area, and I’ve been able to make some healthy progress in working less, resting more, enjoying the fruit of my labor, and trusting God to make up for my deficiencies. By God’s empowering grace, I continue on the journey towards wholeness in this area.
Of the five areas I’ve addressed in this article, I’m convinced that discipline in all of them comes down to this fifth area. Most of us are so busy that we don’t have time to think about, let alone make intentional decisions and changes, about these areas of life. We are so anxious that any moment of silence or inactivity causes us to freak out. We cannot make disciplined choices because we can’t slow down enough to address our lives through a God-centered lens.
We fill all of our free hours with senseless activity that has no eternal purpose. Out of the 168 hours they have in each week, most of the student-athletes I work with have about 20-30 hours that go unaccounted for each week. They have no idea what they do with the time. They just “chill” it away, usually through social media.
More than this, we are often not proactive with our time, but reactive. We let other people, people who often do not have our (or God’s) best interest in mind, run our lives for us. This was certainly the case until I learned how to set and keep a schedule. Not only have I become more efficient in things I need to do, I’ve had more time and freedom to do that which I want to do.
Most of us need to stop doing so much. We need to say “No” to many of the things that clutter our lives and make intentional space to get with God and some trusted friends, and process through these issues and areas of life discussed here. Until we make time to do so, we will continue to be un-disciplined disciples, which is an unbiblical contradiction.
By being intentional about the choices I make concerning my stewardship of time, I make provision for God to move my heart away from busyness, idolatry of work and activity, comparing myself with the Jones’, and inability to hear God, and to increase my capacity for true Sabbath rest, ability to slow down and hear God’s voice, deal with heart issues, enjoy the presence of God, and find joy in healthy work, rest, and play.
Questions to consider: What am I using busyness to run from? Why can’t I slow down? What commands of God am I breaking or avoiding in my pursuit to “do His work”? What healing might God want to bring in my life if I’d take time to listen and obey?
Motivation for Discipline
Before I conclude and we all go out and try harder to change without the Holy Spirit’s leadership, help, and encouragement, let me say a few closing comments about the nature of our journey and our motivation.
The Scripture Narrative is clear from cover to cover that the Christian’s journey towards holiness lasts a lifetime. Paul affirms in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
And Hebrews 10:14, “For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Both individually and corporately as the body of Christ, those who are justified by faith in Christ will be made holy and prepared for God during our time on earth. We are His reward and He expects to find us, as He would have us.
Just like the student-athletes I serve at Virginia Tech have motivations behind their discipline, so the believer has a motivation. In fact, I’d say we have two motivations that are greater than any motivation the world can provide.
First, we have been given peace with God in the gospel. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the bedrock of Christian hope. God’s wrath has been appeased and we have unity and fellowship with our Maker. God no longer has anger, frustration, or annoyance towards the believer. His posture is one of Fatherly love, care, comfort, and joy.
Second, because we understand that it was for worship that God saves us, we know our greatest joy and God’s greatest glory is found in our treasuring Jesus and being changed to image Him more clearly.
Romans 8:28-29 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
The “good” God has in store for us is not some generic ideal that He will hopefully teach us in the midst of life’s joy and sorrow. It is specifically identified in verse 29 as God’s promise to conform us to the image of Christ, reinstating the image of God that was tarnished by sin.
Our goal, our prize, our motivation is to be holy in God’s sight so that we might see Him more clearly, resemble Him more purely, and worship Him more completely. This is our motivation for discipline.
God has completed the work in the cross and resurrection. He’s given us His Spirit, the Helper, to bring about change in us, as we trust in the gospel and yield to His leading in making disciplined changes in our lives.
I’d like to end with a quote on this topic from Gary Thomas and his book Thirsting for God:
With the best of intentions, some pastors uphold the finished, completed work of Christ for our justification, to which we can add nothing. Bravo for that. But the notion that subsequent effort, on its own, discounts this or somehow even undercuts it, is a modern one. It is diabolically clever, and it has kept many believers in a state of immaturity and ineffectiveness. We fear the very thing that would usher in a greater maturity.
For the sake of disciplined disciples and God’s glory among the nations,