“Just do it:” yeah, we all know Nike’s slogan, but how many actually put it into practice? Self-discipline is an art, a science, and absolutely essential. However, it’s also a “dirty word” to the slaves of modern American culture.
What is self-discipline? One concise description my dad gave is “choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” Veracious, and convicting; it’s quite simple, and very hard, as are most worthwhile things. True to nature, our culture has reversed said principle and screams for “complicated and easy.” Honestly, if you want a reliable guide for decisions, just do the opposite of what our culture promotes. But I digress, although it’s semi-related to the topic at hand.
“What is it you want most?” asks Will Turner inPirates of the Caribbean. This is an excellent question to ask yourself every…minute, I’d say. Because that is generally the frequency at which we face choices, whether significant or seemingly inconsequential. I say “seemingly” because everything you do reveals something about who you are. We ultimately make every decision based on our most fundamental values, whether or not we admit those priorities to anyone—or even to ourselves. If you’re averse to examining your own motives, warning bells should be sounding in your head. As Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3:19-21,
The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
We cannot exercise self-discipline in select areas and forgo it in others. It is a principle, a philosophy of life (no, philosophy is not for archaic scholars in towers, but for everyone. You’d better have a guiding philosophy for your life, and it had also better adhere to God’s Word!). It will not merely influence but control your mind, emotions, body, and spirit. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:27, we are to “discipline our bodies and keep them under control;” oh, by the way, self-control is also one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23, and if you are a believer, then you will be producing fruit (see John 15)—what, do you doubt God’s power and faithfulness? Discipline causes us to abstain from transient pleasures, which promise joy but spawn only discontent and craving, and to persevere toward a lofty goal. We strive toward our goals single-mindedly, always moving forward, never aimlessly. However, we will never come to the summit of having entirely achieved our pursuit, for what direction would remain then? This is most true in our paramount pursuit, knowing Christ. His infinite nature will never be fully comprehensible to us (and wouldn’t this be a lousy world if its creator were within our mental capacity? Individuals can devote their entire life to the study of a narrow field and never approach the point of knowing it thoroughly, but God created everything—in 6 days. Wow), but we are continually learning more about Him, gaining an understanding more rich and wonderful every day. Just think—this will continue for all eternity!
Anyway, I deviated from subject again; I have a propensity to pursue rabbit trails. As far as goals are concerned, and in light of the overwhelming extent of our lifelong goals, we ought to have incremental ones as well, ones which may be mastered and upon which we build others. We should never stand idle, or wander aimlessly through life; it is a path, and paths have destinations—and boundaries. These boundaries keep the traveler focused on the destination, preventing unproductive (or even dangerous) deviances into the woods.
Discipline is also the essence of freedom. If we cannot control ourselves, then we are slaves to every whim or fancy, no matter how frivolous and futile, or even detrimental (although I would contend that anything useless is harmful). Have you ever heard someone complaining or making excuses about a lack of self-discipline? “I just can’t resist hitting the snooze button; I’m not a morning person,” “Yeah, I need to study, but I’m just addicted to that TV show,” “I’m stuffed, and that food is sooo unhealthy, but I just have to get some more…haha!” (the petty, obnoxious laugh is supposed to trivialize the gravity hiding behind the statement), “I don’t have much money right now, but I have to get that new music album—it’s so popular right now!”, “I didn’t study at all for this test; I’m just not the academic type,” etc. Such excuses are all, in essence, saying, “I’m a slave to my flesh, but rather than recognizing the truth and confronting my own shortcomings and purposefully overcoming challenges and building my character, I will instead succumb to apathy and indolence and triviality, turning this tragedy of a wasted life into mindless jest. Contrast this to harnessing one’s passions and channeling them toward a goal: forgoing purchases in order to save money for a superior reward in the future, abstaining from momentary pleasurable junk food that only leaves you feeling sick and harms you, working relentlessly rather than making excuses about lack of talent, etc. When you discipline yourself, you are free: whether to perform challenging feats of mind or body, to produce great works of art or literature, to solve difficult equations, to make a significant purchase. For example, as children grow and mature, they are granted privilege to the degree that they exhibit trustworthiness and responsibility. The more they learn to discipline themselves (rather than their parents needing to do so), the more freedom they earn. Another example is strength training; from personal experience, I see many parallels. Building muscle requires persistent habits, endurance through times of little perceived progression, commitment for a lifetime (if one wants to maintain the positive effects), pain tolerance, and incremental and ever-increasing goals. Furthermore, those who train themselves are free to do what others are unable to do. I now am free to lift more than I could several months ago, but I am not free to do bicep curls with 45-lb. dumbbells, because I have not trained to that level (I’m not sure if I’ll ever do that much, actually; I only do 20s right now). My point is that discipline empowers. Think of admirable historical figures; their accomplishments were achieved first and foremost due to self-discipline for years or even decades prior to their astounding feats. They were free to achieve greatness, able to do so, only due to hardship endured for years prior. Self-discipline frees us from time-wasting. We all know how difficult time management is; we are too often slaves to the urgent or to addictive, vain pleasures. Doing whatever you want whenever you feel like it is not freedom—it is bondage, an inability to be effective. If we refuse to train ourselves, to deny our vacillating whims, we often experience guilt. However, when we learn to adhere to meaningful values and therefore deny temporal pleasure for true benefit, the product is not guilt, but the satisfaction of victory. If you just live to have fun, you miss the fierce, passionate joy of the struggle.
Self-discipline is a progression towards goals that always remain in the future; we are always striving for greater excellence, never smugly complacent with our attained level. As current challenges become natural or easy, we must set new goals. Nearly everything (if not everything) worth having requires work; the effort is justified by the inherent value of the reward. This is especially true in our relationship with God. Yes, we receive salvation through faith alone, as Ephesians 2:8-10 states:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
However, look at the last sentence. We are not saved by works, but we are saved to do good works. They are not the cause, but rather the product of our regenerated state. A commitment to Christ entails utter surrender of your life to a higher purpose—it’s true fulfillment. You cannot live as the world does anymore. Why would you ever want to?! (Go read Romans 6.) Here’s a concrete example: imagine that Harriet Tubman, after escaping north, rather than going back to free others (or even just enjoying her freedom alone, which she could have done), chose to go back to being a slave. It’s ludicrous! Think about what made her great. She risked her life to grant others the opportunity of freedom that she herself now possessed. She was not complacent in her new state, but passionate heart-broken for the ones in bondage. Now compare this to your life: are you trying to regress to the ways of the world? Are you complacent in your “christianity,” refusing to risk your life (or even just your precious little reputation) for the dying people to whom you have been commissioned? Scripture repeatedly says that our conduct reveals our identity; see John 15, Matthew 7:16, and James 2, to name a few references.
When tested by fire, what of all that you have done will stand the test? What will last into eternity? What will prove to be of true worth? Any act done without a purpose is in vain; don’t waste your life! If we acquiesce to impulse, doing whatever we feel like, lacking a certain goal for each and every step or choice, we are defeated. What use is a vacuous life—can it even be called a true life? Certainly not one worth living! Decaying, imploding, erratic—will you audaciously call this “fun”?
All too often, “fun” is a tragic waste of precious time. When did enjoyment and pleasure come to be defined as taking the path of least resistance, conforming to a dying system, caving to transient urges? Think of the way that people talk about “cheating” on a diet, being lazy, procrastinating on projects or homework, or any other failure to adhere to personal standards that is said to be enjoyable. A breach of integrity is touted as the ultimate pleasure by our senseless culture—but this pleasure is evanescent and inferior. “I’ve worked so hard today; I’ve earned this,” we often hear. Wait—“earned”?! How could anyone see the petty, the inferior, the meaningless, as something which ought to be earned? An industrious accomplishment does not justify a waste of time; rather, it is negated by such. There is a world of difference between wasting time and resting after hard work. Resting is an absolutely biblical concept. We are commanded to rest—for our own good. God Himself rested! But the complicated life of ease hollowly embraced by modern culture leaves no room for rest.
Will you truly be glad when remembering in hindsight this manifestation of crumbling resolve? I compare it to cotton candy: bright obnoxious messages circumvent, finally convincing the subject that this inflated mass of who-knows-what really is good and desirable. So one pays hard-earned value to obtain the prize, but it is a bitter reward: for a brief moment sweet, but fleeing so soon and causing regret. They advertised such wonder, and the façade confirmed the illusion so desperately believed…but inside, mere empty air. Why relinquish the substantial for the frivolous?
Another example is the prevalent use of credit cards these days, namely the ponderous burden of debt that has fallen on so many shoulders. This is such an apt picture of picking what you want now over what you want most. If the desired object is truly valuable, then it is a reward worth time and work and waiting. To buy things certainly beyond your means is to delude yourself. Contrary the fraudulent, insolent assertions of advertising, no, you cannot “have it all,” and you cannot “have it now.”
So why do the masses flock to every empty promise of profit without work, of reward for weakness of character? Well, consider this cogent quote from John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism:
“It may be objected, that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good.
“It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change, voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many, in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.”
How chilling to think that so many now refuse to develop the capacity to pursue the worthwhile! Don’t they realize that exercising self-discipline frees us to know superlative pleasure—a far cry from denying pleasure! God created us for joy, to live! How could anyone repudiate such gift? Those who never brave opposition, refusing to capitulate—they have settled for a diluted existence. How could one feel anything but despair if succumbing is all they know? How tragic that so few know the fierce joy of the struggle! To withstand the poisonous attempts to nullify your life, to deem the pain irrelevant, to overcome the challenge with volition, to lock your gaze onto the paramount goal, to rest in the knowledge that you gave all within you—this is living, this is joy, this is fulfilling, this is meaningful, this is abiding.
How many child prodigies have shot and burst into beauty like a firework and just as rapidly faded into the night? Ultimately, self-discipline overcomes talent, or lack thereof. As George Washington once said, “Nothing is more harmful to the service, than the neglect of discipline; for that discipline, more than numbers, gives one army superiority over another.” Think of the Marines. (By the way, if I were ever to join the military, which is highly unlikely, I would become a Marine.) They have to undergo arduous training. Many are weeded out. The faithful few who remain are entrusted with a mission. Hmm…sounds like life, or more specifically, the Kingdom of God.
Whom do we admire and venerate? Are our heroes not the ones who exceeded the common man in self-discipline? I dare you to dredge up a veritably great person who holds any worthy achievement gained without discipline. Many say “I want to be like_____,” but do they? To crave the reward without the grueling effort is a futile wish; how intensely do you really want what you “want”? To what lengths will you endure? Professional musicians (I mean real ones, who underwent years of formal training, not the unskilled popular “musicians” of inflated and ephemeral acclaim) practice playing their instrument for hours every day. They are free to play intricate, astounding compositions only as the reward of prior grueling work. Great athletes spend exorbitant amounts of time disciplining their bodies, training past the point of exhaustion, striving to improve. They are free to perform powerfully and gracefully, astounding the masses who will never know the arduous climb to that pinnacle. Famous authors were once the “starving authors,” pursuing their passions against the advice of the comfortable, timid, realistic voices urging them to settle for a secure, insipid existence. There was no guarantee of glory during their lifetime; temporal recognition was not their goal. Think of the many artists (whether manipulating the raw materials of words, tones, pigments, or anything else) whom history venerates; so many were undervalued by their generation, yet they created beauty and complexity that endure for centuries. Compare that to current popular musicians or writers, who quickly fade out of remembrance. The great scientists and mathematicians who laid the foundation for our world today are an even more apt example; earning a living by making astonishing discoveries isn’t likely. In fact, many of these great minds were persecuted or ridiculed by the establishment, the “experts,” the lie-believers. They held to a vision that extended beyond their own lifespan, and therefore achieved greatness. When one’s goal is to merely make money and be idolized, the product is conformed to the fickle whims of the crowd. Truly valuable creation is not appreciated by those who cannot understand it, who have the audacity to call it “boring.” Those who leave a legacy worthy of emulation or admiration poured themselves, mind and heart and body and soul, into excellence in their field, regardless of petty esteem. To do what you know is superlative and worthwhile and honorable, in the face of rampant pressure to conform, to assume the shackles of mediocrity and compromise your principles—that is self-discipline. We don’t compare ourselves to the masses; God sets our standards, and they are absolute, steady even as humanity descends further into depravity. In Revelation 2-3, seven churches are commended and/or rebuked. The church of Laodicea sounds chillingly like America:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” —Revelation 3:15-20
Notice that it doesn’t say, “well, if you’re not as sinful as those people in your youth group, or if you don’t say ‘bad words,’ or if you give money so as to avoid physically crossing the boundaries of your comfort zone, or if you have such intensely emotional (“me-centered”) “worship experiences,” or if you wear Christian t-shirts (since when does a garment possess an eternal soul?) with clever slogans, or if you have a good excuse for not spending time on reading the Word and praying and witnessing (such as your favorite TV show, video games, Facebook, sleeping in, or even working or studying); if you proffer such overwhelmingly compelling defenses, then you’re excused from radically following Christ, although that is your holy and glorious calling and mission.” (Also notice the context (usually ignored) of that ever popular “salvation verse” at the end.)
So what will you do? Will you degrade yourself to a complacent, nice, purposeless existence? Will you settle for the minimum requirement? Will retrospection spawn despair and regret? Or will you make a conscious choice now that the objective dictates the means, that temporary discomfort produces worthy fruit and reward, that the behavior of the majority is irrelevant to the way you live your life? Will you allocate well-spent time to developing intelligent, meaningful, upright priorities and life principles? Will you deem these supreme over capricious daily whims that would seek to undermine your integrity?
Self-discipline is arduous and painful, and it comes naturally to no one. Possessing greater discipline is no cause for pride, and in others it ought never to spark envy within us. The question is this: are you willing to change? Those who do practice self-control masterfully have spent a lifetime learning to do so. The goal is progression, rooted in your heart attitude; don’t expect overnight results. There is no “quick and easy.” Seek to steadily grow and improve; velocity (which includes speed and direction, remember? Yes, I’m still a scientist at heart) matters more than location. Where you’re pointed ultimately overcomes where you are. Think of a hot-air balloon just rising from the ground in contrast with a rock just thrown from a towering cliff: the rock may be higher, but not for long. Don’t compare yourself to the achievements of others. God sees the heart (see 1 Samuel 16:7), and through His power alone are we able to deepen in character and strengthen in resolve. Our personal responsibility is to follow Him.