Lazy dreamers will never achieve the high goal of spiritual maturity without self discipline – in appetites, emotions, moods, speech, and priorities.
The term discipline carries a variety of meanings. To the child it means being compelled to do something undesirable and being punished if he rebels. Discipline for him means compulsion, pain, authority. To the soldier discipline means conformity to regulations, instant obedience to orders, K.P. duty, reveille on cold mornings. To the student it means the course of instruction he is undertaking, with the specific requirements and rules and examinations incident to it. I heard one man describe his academic qualifications in the words, “I submitted to the discipline of 12 units in psychology.” To the Christian, discipline means discipleship – following Jesus, with one’s self denied and one’s cross resolutely carried.
The child, the soldier, the student, the disciple are all correct. But there is something more. The aim of child discipline, or military, or academic, or religious, is a disciplined character which goes beyond the minimum whole life. Imposed discipline (of which we will say more later) must lead to self-discipline. It is even possible for the Christian to be a sincere and regenerated follower of Jesus, yet remain undisciplined in many facets of his character and in many areas of life. One may be a cross-bearer – one may, in fact, be purified from the carnal mind and filled with the Spirit – yet be merely on the threshold of that larger discipline of full maturity.
In a general sense, self-discipline is the ability to regulate conduct by principle and judgment rather than impulse, desire, high pressure, or social custom. It is basically the ability to subordinate.
There are several aspects here. For one thing, there is included the ability to subordinate the body and its physical appetites to the service of the mind. Paul said, “I keep my body under.” This was exemplified by a fellow preacher who became convinced that coffee was affecting his heart. A Norwegian – mind you – who had enjoyed his coffee all his life! “But,” he said, “that moment it became a matter of conscience with me. So I stopped.” Just that simple. He hasn’t touched it since. This ability was also seen in another friend who was 50 pounds overweight. When challenged by the doctor, he resolutely embarked on a rugged diet which he maintained in all company, at all places and times, until his weight was normal – much to the improvement of his health. He explained simply, “It’s not a question of will power, but of ‘won’t’ power … No thank you, I won’t have any.” Such drastic adjustments are not always necessary, but the day-by-day discipline in many little things is. In truth we may say that the finest display of such discipline is not the spectacular achievement but the permanent adjustment of living pattern.
The subordination of the physical includes not only the appetite for food but also the sex urge. In some this has been so humored that it is abnormally excitable. To make matters worse, such persons often live by the creed of impotence, “I can’t help it,” and similar expressions of moral flabbiness. Overindulgence even within marriage may have the effect of cultivating this basic urge until it is increasingly imperious [domineering or authoritative] in its demands. Those so afflicted are in grave danger of succumbing to temptations from outside marriage when domestic stress, “frigidity” in their mates, long illness, or separations subject their enfeebled powers of self-control to an abnormal strain.
Emotions must be subordinate to the reason. God wants all of us to be warm-hearted. But the warm heart must have the wisdom of maturity, or it can become (or remain) the giddy impulsiveness of adolescence. When warmness is not disciplined, it tends to degenerate into irresponsible sentimentality, caprice [impulsiveness], frivolity [lacking seriousness] followed by depression – or even worse, flirting [showing romantic interest without serious intent] and philandering [involved in pre/extra-marital sex].
Too often the mind serves only the purpose of devising excuses for doing what the heart wants to do. The heart needs to be first cleansed, then kept on the leash of discipline. Then it can safely become the co-partner with the mind in living according to fixed principles. The disciplined man has learned this art. He distrusts his sudden impulses. Not that he is cold and calculating; he may be warm and sympathetic; but he has grown up “into Christ” and is not “tossed to and fro, and carried about” either by “every wind of doctrine” or the winds of impulse, fancy, and strange feelings.
Disciplined character also means the mastery of moods. This is yet another area of conquest in the subordination of one’s emotions. Actually, the need here is two-fold. First, we must cultivate that fixedness of purpose, that steadiness of faith, that quiet almost rhythmic performance of duty, which gradually chastens our moods, cleansing from them their fierce wildness and bringing them into keeping with our total pattern. Then our moods will fluctuate less often and certainly less radically. The pendulum, even if it still swings, will not swing so far.
Secondly, we must learn to transcend the moods which we cannot entirely elude. Some ebb and flow of feeling is inevitable. Some slight shifting of interest or attitude is apt to occur in the steadiest personality. A failure in our work combined with physical weariness may bring a cloud of depression and discouragement. A windy day, a letter from home, a personal misunderstanding are some of the many little things which play on our spirits and produce some variations in our feelings – possibly a touch of nostalgia or loneliness.
With the changed mood may come strange impulses which we dare not heed – maybe to take a trip, or make an unwise purchase, or neglect some duty – impulses which will not pass one’s common sense in sober moments. With the changed mood also may come the temptation to let our mood show. There is danger of appearing suddenly altered in our relationships with the people around us. According to the mood we may be abnormally happy and open or morose [gloomy] and closed, generous to the point of profligacy [wild extravagance; wastefulness] or prudent [frugal] to the point of stinginess. One day we may be optimistic, the next day pessimistic. Because our personalities cannot be relied upon for consistency, our friends do not know what to expect next. At first people are puzzled. Then they learn to say, “Just one of his moods” – with a hint of scorn. And they learn to be wary and apprehensive in all relationships with us, for they never quite know what mood they will find us in, or how soon our mood will change.
A mature, disciplined Christian has learned “to feel just as good when he feels bad as he does when he feels good” – in the Lord; and in the quiet, steady application of his energies to life.
Disciplined character never dissipates [wastes] time and energy by catering to moodiness. “I don’t feel like it” may at times express the plain truth, but the habitual use of this phrase is the trait of the weakling, not the strong man. When a college student explained that he had not attended the last class session because he “didn’t feel like it,” the professor said: “Young man, has it ever occurred to you that most of the world’s work is done by people who don’t feel like it?”
Regardless of how carefully controlled a person is at all other points, none can qualify for the high rating of a truly disciplined character whose tongue is not restrained by the bridle of prudence and directed by the reins of love. And this is scriptural. “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (Jas. 1:26). One may have a disciplined body, a disciplined mind, a disciplined will, even disciplined emotions, appetites and habits, but a loose tongue betrays a fatal fault in the armor. The character is defective.
Some people pride themselves on their frankness. “I say what I think,” they boast. So does the fool, according to the Bible: “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind” (Prov. 18:2). Frankness is indeed a virtue when coupled with intelligent, loving tact and discretion. But it becomes a sadistic [cruel or vicious] vice when it is merely the unbridled eruptings of opinions without regard to times and places or human feelings. “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18). It often takes a far higher display of discipline to refrain from speaking than it does to speak. Holding back is a Christian virtue, even as is frankness.
Furthermore, a truly disciplined character has the ability to subordinate the lesser to the greater. Here is the problem of priorities – probably the most crucial problem of life. On its solution hangs success or failure, improvement or degeneration, and in the larger sense, heaven or hell.
The battle here is not primarily to achieve a clear perception of what is more important, for all Christians acknowledge that God and His will should hold first place in our lives. Without hesitation we would concede that heaven is an infinitely richer goal than earthly position, that persons come before profits, that the culture [cultivation or refinement] of the soul and the mind is more to be desired than entertainment, that character is of far greater value than pleasure, that usefulness is better than idleness, that soul winning is life’s crowning achievement, that righteousness is infinitely more satisfying than popularity. When confronted bluntly with these simple alternatives we know instantly which to approve. We would say, “Yes, these are the supreme values, and to realize them is my supreme goal.” The problem therefore is not knowledge. The problem is actually giving first place to these values in practical daily living and that is a problem primarily of character.
This involves ability to reject day by day that great army of possible activities which clamor for our precious energy but which would hamper the doing of more important things. All of us are confronted by a bewildering multiplicity [quantity and diversity] of claims upon our time, talent, money, and loyalties. The claims are not only legion, but loud and insistent. To attempt to satisfy even half of them would result in frittering [wasting] life away to nothingness. If life with us is to be fruitful and purposeful, we must heroically and decisively put the knife to most of the possible activities which could clutter every single day.
Selection – selection – selection! This is the law of life. We cannot join everything; therefore, we must select. We cannot participate in every good cause; therefore, we must select. We cannot give to everything; therefore, we must select.
- “The Feelings Fallacy”
- “Just Say ‘No'”
- “Priorities: Who or What Comes First?”
- “Putting Off Procrastination”
- “The Mouth That Roars”