This is Part 7 in a 12 Part series. The premise is this: "Two men in their in their late 20’s walk into a coffee shop around 7:00 a.m. In college they had been good friends, but over the past few years had gotten out of touch. Having lived in the same dormitory for three of their four years at City Christian College, they still had many fond—and a few not-so-fond memories—of their time together in college. Just by accident (or so Michael thought) they had run into each other in a hardware store and had set up a time to talk over breakfast. This is their seventh breakfast together.
If you want to read this series of conversations from the beginning (you don't have to start at the beginning), please see Part 1.
Michael: I’ve already ordered. What are you having for breakfast?
Michael: Are you feeling OK?
Jim: I’m feeling fine. I’m fasting.
Michael: Fasting … that sounds extremely boring.
Jim: It is. But it’s sometimes useful. Do you mind if we talk about something else?
Michael: (smiling sneakily) Would you like to talk about how yummy my breakfast will be?
Jim: Maybe something else.
Michael: (giving in) OK. I’ve been thinking …
Jim: Don’t pull a muscle.
Michael: (ignoring) I agree that it’s important to take time to meditate on the character of God—like we talked about last week—and to deal specifically with the sin in our lives. But I’m not sure it’ll be enough to get someone as stuck as I am moving again spiritually.
Jim: What do you think it will take?
Michael: I’m not sure.
Jim: Perhaps the issues are tied somehow to personal discipline?
Michael: Now, don’t start telling me that I need to fast with you today! I’m going to enjoy my double stack of pancakes covered with butter and syrup and….
Jim: Even in areas of sin, simple confession is often not enough to rid you of the habit that has been formed through patterns of sin. Sin has two main dimensions, the rebellion side and the habit side. Rebellion is dealt with through confession. Ungodly habits are usually eliminated by putting good habits in their place. And the only way to develop permanent good habits is by implementing self-discipline.
Michael: (looking frustrated) By raising the issue of discipline, you’ve really hit a sensitive nerve with me. I’ve heard countless messages on self-discipline and am extremely uncomfortable whenever I hear them. Is a disciplined person like you more spiritual than a lazy bum like me?
Jim: What do you think?
Michael: You’re certainly more spiritual than I am.
Jim: That’s not what I meant … and (Jim smiles) I didn’t mean to sound like I was agreeing with you when you said that you’re a lazy bum.
Michael: Even though I am. (Smile turns to frown.) It may be that my own failures in the area of self-discipline have caused me to stray away from Christ more than any other single issue.
Jim: But self-discipline doesn’t equal spirituality, though some people talk as if self-discipline and a spiritual life are one-and-the-same thing.
Michael: Then why is discipline important?
Jim: Self-discipline helps to eliminate hindrances to spiritual growth. That’s why I applied it to the sin issue. Sin is, among other things, a hindrance. The primary purpose of self-discipline is the elimination of the negative patterns that develop in our lives in order to give space for the Holy Spirit to cultivate good habits and patterns of holiness in our lives. It’s a mistake when people speak about self-discipline as though it were the entirety of the Christian life.
Michael: Specifically, when you talk about Christian disciplines, what are you thinking about?
Jim: I can’t be creative.
Michael: OK. Give me some uncreative specifics.
Jim: There’s nothing you don’t already know … daily prayer and meditation on the Bible, Christian community, occasional periods of fasting, sacrificial giving, periods of silent contemplation, among others. All of these help both to put good habits in place of sin habits, and help create space for the spiritual increase that God wants to work in our lives.
Michael: But is it necessary for everyone to be disciplined?
Jim: Without some discipline and structure in our lives—and not only in the “spiritual life”—it’s not possible to accomplish anything.
Michael: But do some people need to be more disciplined than others? I mean … maybe you should be more disciplined than I should.
Jim: You’re hoping, right?
Jim: Generally, discipline relates to the desire to reach a certain goal. Let’s look at some examples. If you want to be an Olympic swimmer, you’ll have to be more disciplined about swimming laps than if you merely want to swim for exercise. If you want to be a concert pianist, you’ll have to dedicate more energy and time to practice than would a person who simply wants to play for enjoyment. If you want to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for pole-sitting, you’ll have to sit a couple years longer than the previous guy did.
Michael: I was thinking of trying that one.
Jim: Don’t ask me to bring you food every day.
Michael: Awe … come’on … (pause) These people have to be more disciplined because they have a certain goal they’re trying to reach. But not all of us want to be Olympic swimmers, concert pianists, or pole-sitters.
Jim: But all of us want to please God through the way we live our lives—all of us, that is, who are truly disciples of Christ. All of us want to overcome sin in our lives. All of us want to bring others to Christ. All of us want to learn the Bible and let it influence the way we live.
Michael: All of us?
Jim: There’s not much point claiming you’re a Christian if you don’t.
Michael: You’re direct sometimes—you know that?
Jim: The point is that we do have a common goal—to live lives that please God. A certain amount of self-discipline is necessary to reach that goal. That means that every Christian requires a certain amount of discipline in the areas of Bible reading, prayer, witness, etc., or he or she won’t significantly grow spiritually. As I listen to myself say this right now, I think it all sounds so basic.
Michael: You’re right, it does. And it’s not like I haven’t heard it before. I just sometimes wonder if everything I’ve heard is right.
Jim: Probably some of what you’ve heard on this subject isn’t right. Ask someone to give a talk in a Sunday School class, preach a sermon, or share extemporaneously their ideas about some subject related to the Christian life. They’ll very likely choose to talk on prayer. That’s because prayer is an easy subject to talk about. But not many people actually pray very much because discipline is sorely lacking in their lives.
Michael: And that brings into question how much their teaching on prayer is worth.
Jim: That’s right.
Michael: But Jim, you’ve always been more disciplined than most people. I think some people, like you, are born with more self-discipline than others.
Jim: I want to tell you something and I hope I won’t offend you by it. I’ve heard this lame excuse about three hundred and fifty times during my life and it raises my blood pressure every time I hear it. It’s as though discipline comes easily to me. Let me assure you …
Michael: It doesn’t.
Michael: But don’t you think it comes easier to some people than to others?
Jim: Maybe I do have a little more natural discipline than others. But some people seem to have a little more natural joy than I do. Does this mean I should let them have their joy and not seek it myself?
Michael: Joy’s a little nicer than discipline.
Jim: But discipline—a moderate amount of it—is very helpful to our spiritual growth.
Jim: Because it eliminates hindrances to growth. Laziness is a hindrance to growth because we end up never reading the Bible. Sins of lust and pride and greed and unforgiveness are certainly hindrances to spiritual growth. And since such sins often lead to patterns of sin—that is, habits—we need to replace those bad habits with good habits. If we don’t learn to put some of the classic disciplines into our lives, we’ll never give space to the Holy Spirit who wants to empower us to overcome sin.
Michael: But … but, Jim, isn’t there sometimes too much self-discipline? You yourself just talked about a moderate amount. Isn’t there a time when enough is enough?
Jim: Definitely yes. This subject isn’t usually approached by preachers because they know that in general people have too little self-discipline rather than too much. But it’s not right for all of us to spend an hour and a half every day in prayer, particularly if we’re neglecting our families in the process, though for certain people—preachers for example—an hour and a half probably isn’t extreme. More is not always better. There is a limit that each of us will find through seeking the Lord and looking perceptively at our lives, work, and ministries.
Michael: But sometimes disciplined people are sourpusses! Are you sure that discipline itself isn’t somehow responsible for people looking like they’ve been sucking green lemons?! Doesn’t discipline somehow lead you into legalism and a somber outlook on life?
Jim: It does for some people—particularly for those who equate self-discipline with spirituality. But being disciplined does not automatically mean that you are a spiritual person. Discipline is simply one of the means God intends to be used in eliminating the hindrances to growth in our lives. We need to give God room to work in us, and stop getting in the way. In the final analysis, the Holy Spirit is the one who does the work of sanctification in us. He is the one who creates and sustains a changed life filled with sacrificial love and commitment. But we need to cooperate with him. A certain amount of self- discipline makes space for him to do his work.
Michael: I asked whether a disciplined person was more spiritual than a lazy bum like me. I guess the answer depends upon whether a person equates their spirituality with the amount of discipline they possess or whether they are simply implementing self-discipline so they won’t hinder God’s work in their lives. I know I’m not really a spiritual man because I haven’t devoted myself to live wholeheartedly as a disciple of Christ. But I don’t want to swing over and become a hard-nosed, unspiritual legalist either.
Jim: (seriously) I don’t want you to either. Let’s stay aware of the Lord’s working even as we strive to practically follow him. Let’s not forget the goal while we’re running laps.
Michael: That’s what I want to do.