There's nothing quite like a loaded word. Whether positive or negative, these words elicit a strong response that often can't helped. Think about such things as patriotism, fundamentalism, or veganism (a lot of -isms!) and take note of your heart rate. Whether you want to rage at ignorance or misuse of definitions or celebrate a diet that lacks eggs, we all respond to loaded words with uniform passion, albeit sometimes on different ends of the spectrum.
One such word is "Discipline". Until recently, I have personally had a very strong negative response upon its hearing. It has always conjured up either imaginary pictures of gym rats and dieticians telling me I'm terrible or of a parent slapping their child a little too hard to teach them a lesson. The phrase "God disciplines those He loves" has been grossly misused to blame the Lord for situations brought about by a sinful world and, to top it off, a scene I read in a book this year featured a husband disciplining his wife and this little feminist had to try very hard not to vomit.
A theme to which I keep returning: we like freedom. We like to be able to do what we want, when we want, without consequence. If you're anything like me, then the idea of discipline can be repugnant because it seems to presume that structure is needed and structure can be stifling.
But the truth is that, whether we like it or not, we need structure.
An example from my own life comes in the form of food. If left to my own devices, I would eat cake for every meal and mozzarella sticks for every snack and Diet Coke when I get thirsty. To follow the whims of my notorious sweet tooth and deep enjoyment of saturated fats and aspartame with abandon would result in my not being long for this world. However, when I make a meal plan and partner with my husband in dragging ourselves out of bed for an early morning workout and chug some water, I am setting myself up for better things. It's not legalism, it is a helpful scaffolding.
Discipline has long held an important role in the spiritual life. Since the dawn of time, followers of God have taken steps to stay on the path that they desired to tread. The Israelites had the Mosaic Law and the early church routinely gathered together to hear letters of instruction read aloud The mothers and fathers retreated to the desert and today we have church services and small groups and Bibles and journals open next to cups of coffee. I am a huge advocate for making one's time with the Lord specific to who they are, so for you it might be a hike in the woods for prayer or an audiobook version of the Bible, but despite those differences we all, to a certain extent, need discipline in order to have a healthy walk of faith.
(Note: Disciplines should never be held up as idols. You don't HAVE to do anything for the Lord to love you, but such things can help us connect with Him. We should be careful not to hold any practice up as the single way to walk with Jesus. Again, this is not about legalism, but conditions for growth.)
Here I turn to those wiser than I. Richard Foster's book Celebration of Discipline has been and continues to be one of the most influential texts on this subject and I have begun to read it once again as my mentee, Lydia, and I study the subject of discipline. One of my favorite quotes from this work has helped me to understand discipline as never before:
"God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. the Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us." (Foster, pg. 7)
Foster makes the case that the so-called spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, fasting, simplicity, worship, etc.) are not tools for human striving, but ways by which we can place ourselves before the Lord so that He might work out His goodness in us. It is the transformation of the Spirit that takes place. They are a framework, a means, but not the meat on the skeleton or the end goal itself. Discipline is not something to be feared or resented, but rather embraced and celebrated–no wonder Foster titled his book as he did!
All of these musings on discipline come to a head as we approach New Year's Eve. Every year, people the world over resolve to do more and try harder so that they can feel worthwhile and fulfilled. There is nothing inherently wrong with resolutions, but I think that allowing this definition of discipline to serve as the lens through which we view our goals can provide us with a fresh perspective.
Discipline is not about gritting your teeth, but about showing up. It is about trusting that your efforts will be met with results at some point because they have been surrendered to the Giver of Life. On a minute level, I fully expect that eating healthy will result in better health. Having fruit instead of cookies in the house is a wise decision. I am not forcing myself into a rigorous diet, but instead setting up the conditions that will help me thrive.
The same goes for discipleship! I don't have to spend three hours a day in the Word (though, if you can and do, more power to you!), but I can hold close to the discipline of showing up and reading one chapter a day. God can work through that. I don't have to see miraculous healings to validate my faith (though, Jesus does heal, and if you witness that, more power to you!), but I can set a routine of prayer that pushes myself to pray beyond my reach. God can work through that. I don't have to be Mother Teresa (though, if you move to India and care for the suffering, more power to you!), but I can make selflessness a priority and seek small opportunities to serve others.
The point is this: discipline is about putting yourself gently in the right position for God to bless and transform you. My prayer for all of us in the New Year is that we would set the goal to introduce gentle rhythms, holy discipline, and that we would know and understand the Lord's grace through them.
Happy New Year!
Cross-Posted from "Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today"