Healthy Habits

Spiritual Discipline

"To grow in Christ will require our best energy." by Major Barry Corbitt

Most things in life worth accomplishing will require a bit of sacrifice and hard work. Let’s look at writing for example. It can best be described as one part inspiration mingled with three parts sweat. Many an aspiring writer has been lured to the keyboard only to be teased and taunted by a blinking cursor on a blank white page. Ask anyone who writes for a living, even the most famous, and they will speak of days when the words won’t come, when there is no muse to arouse their creative flair. The task of writing often feels like drudgery, at this very moment in fact, when lesser, lazier pursuits call out for attention. The temptation to walk away and leave it for another day is enticing. And yet, something greater remains to keep the writer in his chair; one more elusive word, another subtle thought that if kneaded carefully could lead to a breakthrough moment of inspiration. Occasionally, such enlightenment arises, but not often. Most of the time, putting one word after another in proper sequence comes down to simple discipline.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the very mention of the word “discipline” reeks of negative connotation. The word just feels punitive, probably because we associate it with memories of corrective action imposed upon us from an external source. We don’t, however, naturally think of discipline as a rule of order and control. This is properly described as self-discipline: the determination and will to carry through on the necessity of hard things. That about sums up the whole of life, I think: moments of joy and elation interspersed with the natural difficulties of existence. Life is tough. It’s even tougher for those who lack self-discipline. The undisciplined life is often chaotic and disorderly. It’s the unrealistic expectation that life will bend to our will despite our lack of effort. The absence of discipline indicates a lack of maturity — maturity in this case being best described as one’s ability to govern self, despite the temptation to do the lesser thing. 

When it comes to spiritual matters, self-discipline is essential. Growth in Christ is a collaborative venture. Yes, it would be convenient after having given our lives to God, that growth and knowledge of heavenly things would naturally occur, but such thinking is fallacy. We will never mature by process of one-sided divine osmosis. We must do our part to advance the cause. In that salvation’s first intent is to rescue us from the bondage of our lower nature, is it not reasonable that we should actively seek that outcome? The very premise of pursuing a life pleasing to God is contingent upon effort, both on the part of the Holy Spirit and on the soul being transformed. The Apostle Paul told us the aim is transformation, that our minds would be made anew in order that we might gain knowledge of what is pleasing to God, moving us into the center of His perfect will. The verbiage Paul used in the scriptures indicates our personal determination, as well as the Spirit’s. While the phrase “let go and let God” is an appealing little cliché, it will produce very little fruit for the long term. To grow in Christ will require our best energy. In a letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul compares himself to an athlete who rigorously trains his body to the point of punishment, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Paul understood the work involved to stay ahead in the race, ahead of a sinful world that constantly tried to pull him back into its grasp. The child of God cannot let down his guard. We must remain vigilant lest we revert to our old, pre-salvation habits.

In Richard J. Foster’s classic work, “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth,” he lists 12 disciplines he deems essential to spiritual growth. Divided into three categories, the author leads us to consider the inward, outward and corporate disciplines that not only apply to us personally, but to our greater circle of influence. It is logical that our own spiritual formation impacts those around us as well. If we are to be the salt of the earth as Jesus said, our spiritual development is mandated. It is important to note that spiritual growth is intended to incite total reformation in the believer; otherwise, what’s the point? If we have given ourselves over to the Re-Creator, why settle for less than re-creation? 

John Wesley, the father of Methodism, once commented on the futility of being “half a Christian.” He knew the true intent of salvation was to be made complete in spirit, body and soul. Wesley understood the aim was holiness, for the totality of one’s being to be set apart and reserved for use by God. Such a state of sanctification is impossible without disciplined action by the believer. We must stay connected with our Redeemer. We accomplish this by prayer and study, constant consumption of the scriptures, submission to God, confession … the list goes on. The Christian intent on knowing God in His fullness will never surrender to lesser ideals. 

It should be noted that the disciplined life is meant to be lived out in joy. While it seems that discipline and joy are contradictory terms, they are not. The believer’s contentment and happiness are found in true fellowship with God. This fellowship, again, collaborative in nature, will grow and mature in flowering fashion for the child of God willing to pay the cost.