Discipline is not a word I particularly love, at least not when I’m the one it’s being applied to. There are several definitions for discipline, but for our purposes I would like to look at two. The first is to “train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” This is the type of discipline we think of in terms of authority, such as parents or teachers with children. It’s the method used to rebuke or correct. When I think about my faith upbringing, this would be the definition I would lean towards to describe my early experiences.
Before I go any further, I want to be sure to say that I am very grateful for the spiritual foundation that I was given and I only wish to speak to MY experience and MY perception of what I walked away with being raised as a “church girl.” Everyone’s faith journey is different and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my personality as a pleaser and my desire to “be good” served as the perfect foundation for buying in to legalism in my faith at a very young age. It’s not necessarily all that I was taught, but it is certainly what I held on to the most. I sang “Jesus loves Me”, but I spent most of my young life in a place of shame and guilt, believing that I would never be enough or could never do enough to earn God’s love. I tried over and over again to obey the rules to earn His favor. Every time I fell short, I wanted to hide in shame knowing that I’d only disappointed Him again.
My teenage and college years were a continuous cycle of what I would describe as periods of “bad behavior” followed by guilt and repentance that led to a short time of “holy living” only to then return to “bad behavior”. I knew Jesus as my Savior, but I felt like the biggest fraud because I knew that He knew I wasn’t living a life that would bring honor to Him and if I wasn’t honoring Him then He couldn’t possibly love me. I was in a season of “training to obey the rules” and certainly believed that punishment would soon follow if I didn’t hit the mark. I had convinced myself that if I lived right (whatever that meant) that God would bless me more, but that if I sinned more, he would remove His blessings from me because as a professing believer I was embarrassing Him. I could not have been more off track and am so thankful that as a young adult I began to learn about grace and mercy and unconditional love. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
As an older adult, I now believe that I am completely free in Christ, but also know that I must fall under the authority of God. Scripture tells us that “the LORD disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6) and that ”God's discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). In Proverbs we are told “the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:12). Discipline is necessary, but it is impossible to earn one’s way in to the favor of God through training to obey a list of rules. If we could do it that way, then Christ’s death on the cross would have been unnecessary.
So that brings me to a second definition, and one I want to spend more time on. Discipline is also defined as “to train or develop by instruction and exercise especially in self-control.” According to Merriam-Webster, “Discipline comes from discipulus, the Latin word for pupil, which also provided the source of the word disciple. Isn’t that interesting?? As I think about the early disciples, they learned to behave like Christ, by being with Christ. They developed His characteristics by watching Him live His life. He spoke, they listened. He loved, they watched. He lead, they followed.
I am sure that it will not come as a shock to you if you’ve been reading my blogs for long, that I want to use a sports analogy to help illustrate how I perceive this kind of discipline. Part of the thing I admire most about athletes at the highest level, is their dedication to developing a skill. Again, no surprise to anyone, let’s use the Tennessee Volunteers basketball team as an example. Those guys do not just show up on game day with no preparation, no plan, or no training. They have spent years learning the game. They have spent countless hours in the film room studying the opponent, then additional hours running plays as a team. They prepare off the court in the weight room or with a nutrition coach, and then, the best players, stay hours after practice or come hours before to do things like shooting drills or monotonous free throws so that when they are faced with the shot in the game it’s so automatic they don’t even have to think about it. They know the value of a routine for eating and sleeping. They rarely veer from the game day routine that has proven to be successful for them in the past. They know that to defeat a skilled opponent, there must be a great deal of discipline. They aren’t following a set of rules, they are developing by “instruction and exercising self-control.”
When I think about preparation in faith, for me it starts with what is often called a “quiet time.” This is simply a time set aside each morning for me to read the Word of God, meditate on it for a few minutes and journal my thoughts and prayers for the day. Although it has taken me years to get here, my 30 minutes each morning is as much a habit for me as brushing my teeth or showering each day. I long for this time with the Lord and my spirit grieves when I miss it. I particularly love days when I have all the time I want and can really dig in deeper and spend more time in prayer. Most recently, in lieu of the morning news I have started listening to faith-based podcasts as I get ready for the day and I love to worship through music on my way to work. I can certainly say that my relationship with Jesus has grown so much stronger because of the new habits I’ve formed, much in the same way one’s body gets stronger when exercise and healthy eating become routine. I do not share that to suggest I’ve got it all together, I definitely do not, but I share to encourage you and maybe provide some ideas for your own time with God.
I chuckled to myself this morning as I looked at the ever-growing stack of materials that I have accumulated for my “quiet time". I love devotionals and faith inspired books. Amazon Prime has made it far too easy for me to succumb to overindulgence in these materials. But almost simultaneously with me admiring the tools I’ve acquired I sensed God asking, “Are you just doing lots of preparing with no intention of ever playing a minute in the game?” That was an “ouch” moment. (That’s what I call those moments of discipline from definition number one).
I think many of us, myself included, love to study God’s Word with fellow believers, sing songs of worship, attend uplifting church services, follow faith leaders on social media, share prayer requests with one another and talk about prayer and fasting, and sincerely believe we are being faithful Christians when we do those things (and those are all noble and needed). It feels good to fellowship among those who are like-minded and share our enthusiasm for practice, but I wonder how many of us are really standing on the sidelines, anxiously awaiting our call to contribute to the big game?
Can you imagine a player going through the rigorous discipline of studying the game, enduring long practices, and pushing his body to the limit to only be content sitting on the bench and shaking his head “no” when the coach calls his name?
Spiritual discipline to live a Godly life is absolutely necessary, but it’s not only necessary because it leads to us living more abundantly. It’s also necessary because there is a real, ugly spiritual battle raging for our souls and the souls of others. We have a very real enemy. There is a good chance that we could come away beaten and battered from the fight. We could be asked to do things for the sake of the Gospel that terrify us or to go to places we’ve stayed away from all of our lives. We could be asked to let go of some of our religious ideas in order to trust Jesus completely. We could be asked to evangelize to those who could not be more different than us. We could be sifted like wheat or tested beyond what we think we can bear.
The Bible is clear. God will fulfill His purpose in us…and when our name is called, all of the discipline and preparation and spiritual armor will matter greatly. But praise God we are on the winning team and “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
I don’t know what God has in store for tomorrow, so for today I’ll show up to practice and continue to prepare and I hope to see you there too. But I also hope that I anxiously anticipate game day…..and I want to be more than ready.