Note: This got a bit long. Please take your time with it. It’s broken up, so you don’t have to read it all at once.
“What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do,” Aristotle wrote over 2300 years ago. Surely, procrastination has been around a long time. Some say they work better under pressure, while others claim they just can’t force themselves to do certain tasks. But the excuses won’t suffice when it comes to the Christian life, which is robbed of purpose and impact when we fail to exercise discipline. J. Oswald Sanders, the famous Christian leader and thinker, wrote that “Before we can conquer the world, we must first conquer the self.” But how can a long-time slacker become a disciplined worker?
Distractions abound in our culture: all around us, the media buzzes with news and entertainment. Even when we don’t have access to television, movies, or radio, we often have ipods pouring diversion into our ears. Then there’s the Internet, almost always at our fingertips, with limitless material to absorb our time. And our cell phones allow us contact with others any time of the day. While none of these technologies are inherently bad, and can be quite useful, they create an environment that requires an extra measure of discipline in anyone who wants to have victory over the self.
In the Bible, the word discipline often refers to correction, instruction, or chastisement designed to teach and improve one who is in error. Sometimes, the word refers to restraint, self-control, or mastery, which more closely approximates our concept of self-discipline. When I refer to verses that use the word discipline, it is translated from words that take the latter meaning, unless otherwise noted.
The undisciplined life
Most people admit that they procrastinate regularly, but it doesn’t seem like a big problem as long as they get by in life. But Proverbs offers sobering warnings for slackers, while listing all sorts of benefits the diligent will experience: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty” (21:5); “The hand of the diligent will rule, but the slack hand will be put to forced labor” (12:24); “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (10:4). Poverty and slavery (or minimum wage jobs, today) contrast with the riches, power, and accomplishment of the disciplined.
But couldn’t this discipline become rather self-seeking? Surely secular people use their discipline for their own ends, but godly diligence is different. The promises of Proverbs describe a healthy adult life, including the ability to provide for a family, exert spiritual leadership, and have impact in relationships. And the Bible also exhorts us to diligently seek and love God (Prov. 8:17, Josh. 23:11). When we lack discipline, we cannot fulfill our design to love God and others, to move into people’s lives with purpose and godly influence.
One of the signs of an undisciplined life is saying one thing and doing another or nothing at all. James warns us to “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (Jas. 1:22-24). How absurd it would be to forget what you look like right after looking in a mirror! It’s just as preposterous to know what is right and not do it—James 4:17 says this is sin. The problem with the undisciplined life isn’t ignorance, but apathy. The slacker doesn’t care enough to actually do what they know they should. James continues with a picture of the disciplined person: “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (Jas. 1:25). Such a victorious life is possible if we want it.
Love, not legalism
But is it even worth the effort it would take to become disciplined? After all, a disciplined life can sound like a regimented, duty-driven, mundane existence. It’s important to understand that discipline isn’t an end in itself; rather “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). We should want to learn discipline because it enhances our ability and opportunities to love. Being consistent about our time in prayer and the Word allows us to get equipped to serve others. Planning our schedules wisely can free up hours each day, so that we are more available to invest in relationships. If it’s true that “We love because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19), discipline becomes a matter not of legalistic duty, but of desire to share Christ’s love with others.
Paul is a good example of one who was disciplined before he came to Christ, as a Pharisee and a student of the most prestigious teacher of his day. He must have loved looking good to those around him. But when he started following Christ, his goal of his discipline was redirected to God’s purposes, “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace…” (2 Tim. 1:9). It wasn’t doing good works, but following God’s call to love that motivated him.
Paul pairs discipline and love when he encourages Timothy to persevere: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). While both Paul and Timothy faced formidable persecution, it was worth having the self-control to continue serving because they were bringing God’s love to lost people. God didn’t give us the Holy Spirit because He wanted us to give up or run away when life gets tough. Rather, His Spirit empowers us to exercise the self-control that love requires.
The disciplined life truly is a victorious and rewarding one. Paul tells the Colossians he is “rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5). Here, discipline means “an arranging” or “a good order,” and is connected with stable faith. Discipline is orderly and purposeful; it doesn’t happen by accident, but requires careful thought and effort. When practiced over time, it creates a stable foundation of faith that is not easily shaken.
Many Christians struggle with discipline in the area of learning the Word. The “LTC 2007 Study Helps” points out “an interesting phenomena: the majority of students who take LTC (and Basic Doctrine) claim to have handicaps which prevents them from memorizing scriptures….it’s doubtful that Christianity attracts such high percentages of handicapped people.” The recent lack of completion for the James inductive study also indicates a problem of discipline in this area.
We cannot ignore the imperative to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). If the Bible is our sword in a spiritual battle over people’s souls (Eph. 6:17), we’d better know how to use it. And since it is “profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17), no one who hopes to have spiritual impact can neglect regular study of God’s Word.
Prayer, too, requires discipline. We all probably throw our thoughts and wishes up to God throughout the day, but do we set aside time to come before Him, undistracted, and offer thanks and praise, seek discernment, and pray according to His will? Do we acknowledge the prayers that He has answered in addition to offering new petitions? It is useful to keep a prayer journal as a reminder of what God has answered and what we need to persist in prayer for. It’s almost as easy to forget certain prayer requests as it is to forget answered prayers, but God wants us to show persistence in this, too: “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Hear the refrain? All prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, for all the saints….that sounds like it’ll take some serious discipline. And it has the power to transform our relationship with God and our impact in ministry.
Relationships take discipline too. For the diffuse, friends are easy come, easy go. The tribal person, however, will tend to persist only in a few relationships that are important to their sense of comfort and control. Whatever your tendency, it takes diligent sacrifice to lay your life down for other people. It’s why the Bible reminds us to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as it the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 11:24,25). Relationships aren’t easy, especially in Christian fellowship where people seek intimacy and vulnerability that is so uncommon in the world.
A crucial relationship area for the Body of Christ is unity: “be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Relationships in our fallen world naturally tend to either fall apart, or slide into indifference. Conflicts inevitably arise and require concerted effort to be resolved. If we don’t actively work to preserve unity, “being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Php. 2:2), the Body of Christ will become like cliquey social clubs where people smile at each other but don’t really care. And our effective witness to the world will be lost, since “by this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34).
When the Bible lists character qualities, it includes discipline, or self-control, and it is always tied to love. “The fruit of the Spirit is love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). It makes sense that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, since it is the Spirit who motivates spiritual discipline. It is important to understand that these fruit of the spirit are not ends in themselves, but ultimately are descriptions of love. Such love enables us to serve effectively, in a way that produces measurable fruit, like salvations and discipleships. Jesus taught that “the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). Just as we are called fishers of men, likewise the fruit of our harvest is souls.
The connection between love and discipline is repeated in 2 Peter 1:5-7: “applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.” Without discipline, the other qualities cannot continue to grow and lead to end goal of love. The same is true of spiritual gifts. Sanders says that, “Without this essential quality, all other gifts remain as dwarfs; they cannot grow.” Our gifts must be exercised both in love and discipline.
Do you want to lead others for Christ? Do you want to have eternal spiritual impact? If so, discipline is critical. “Lazy and disorganized people never rise to true leadership,” Sanders states. “The young [person] of leadership caliber will work while others waste time, study while others snooze, pray while others daydream.” Indeed, the examples of leaders in the Bible indicate their diligence. Paul taught in the temple all day, every day, for two months, because he so wanted people to understand the gospel. Paul describes leaders as “those who diligently labor among you” (1 Thes. 5:12) and writes that “you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thes. 3:7-8). The hard work and diligence of leaders can be a powerful example to those they serve.
The rewards of discipline abound in this life, but God also promises eternal reward: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7,8). Not only will we experience eternal life, we’ll also be rewarded by God Himself! Hebrews 6:10-12 says that “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name… And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” God wants to reward us, so we should be diligent, not slothful, with His work.
The Christian life is often described as a race, with the Christian likened to an athlete, running toward heaven as the finish line: “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Since we all run, why not “Run in such a way that you may win” Paul reasons (1 Cor. 9:24). What does that look like? The Christian should be like an athlete, who “exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). A serious athlete doesn’t waste their days in front of the television or computer, but works tirelessly each day. The Christian, whose course means so much, should be just as diligent and hard-working. That’s why Romans 12:11 says to be “not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.”
But what do we win? “An imperishable wreath,” is Paul’s answer in 1 Corinthians 9 as he contrasts our eternal reward with the leafy crown awarded at the ancient Olympics. At the end of his life, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7,8). James also uses the illustration of a crown for our reward: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” We don’t know exactly what our reward in heaven will look like, but we know it’ll be good, more valuable than an Olympic prize or a king’s crown.
Some practical ideas
If you struggle with discipline, the first step is to repent by prayerfully agreeing with God about your sin. Ask God, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). Talk to friends, admitting your struggle in the area, and pray with them, “so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16). Like any issue of spiritual growth, God will change us when we are willing and take steps of faith. Here are some practical suggestions to implement discipline in your life:
1. Make a to-do list before you go to bed, or first thing in the morning. This will help you make the best possible use of your time. Prioritize and complete the important tasks first. Sanders wrote that the leader “will not procrastinate, but will prefer to dispatch with the hardest tasks first.”
2. Set aside specific, regular time for prayer and Bible study. Keep a prayer journal, and write down what you learn each time you study the Word. Writing is a way of disciplining your thinking.
3. Set spiritual goals for yourself. Pray before you do this, asking God for convictions. There are many possibilities, but here are a few examples: reading a spiritual book this month, completing an inductive study, initiating with a specific non-Christian every week, or encouraging your spouse every day.
4. Be disciplined in school or work, as well. Spiritual discipline can flow into every area of our lives, especially where it affects our witness and credibility with people. Plan out when to complete school work and don’t procrastinate. Such planning allows you to be more available for serving others, in addition to helping you finish school.
5. Make a budget and stick to it, especially if you tend to be undisciplined in your spending. Your money may be going to waste when it could be used to reach goals like finishing school, moving into a ministry house, or furthering God’s work in the local church or throughout the world.
6. Ask close friends to hold you accountable about your struggle with discipline. Talk about your failures and rejoice together over your victories as the Lord transforms you.
Congratulations–if you made it through this post, you’re already on your way to being more disciplined!