Discipline and the Disciplines

In a talk at Saturday’s Delighted by God conference I mentioned my dismay with the “spiritual disciplines”.  Later someone asked about it.  It’s worth talking about.

In the Gospels—in Christ’s ministry—we just don’t find a promotion of the disciplines.  By disciplines I mean a systematic elevation of spiritual exercises such as enforced silence; extended prayers; repeated prayers; meditations; fasting; denial of basic comforts; reduced sleep; and more.  Jesus did, of course, have extended prayer times and experienced physically harsh settings, yet he didn’t promote such things.

His own devotion was, of course, robust: he once spent more than a month in the wilderness being tempted by Satan; he also spent full nights in prayer; and he often hiked long distances and slept in rough settings.  Yet asceticism wasn’t a take-home lesson for his disciples.  Even the followers of John the Baptist asked why Jesus didn’t insist on some fasting.

What Jesus did call for was love in response to his own love.  For a love of both God and neighbors.  And to love as he loved, with an other-centered devotion, even to death.  Love, then, is more radical than a discipline scheme.  Jesus reforms the heart and its desires by sending his Spirit.  Behaviors then change as a fruit of his presence.  Disciplines, on the other hand, seek to reshape behaviors by overcoming unchanged desires.

So love is greater than Stoic self-improvement in that it naturally produces what the disciplines seek to imitate.  Love is spontaneous and heartfelt while duty is an artifice.  Where the new desires of a new love quickly see needs and build bonds, duties remain blind and require spiritual directors.

But what about Hebrews 12:5-7?  “‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son he receives.’  It is for discipline that you have to endure [suffering].

What’s in view here?  It’s a lesson that God works even when we suffer—whether we suffer for our faith or in our folly.  And with that assurance we can handle hard times.  The key insight is to notice the place of love here—God’s love is his motivation: “the one he loves” should grow in that love.  And the order of events is also important: God initiates the discipline and we receive it.  It’s not something we initiate and God rewards.

On this last point more must be said.  If we initiate our own hard times to be self-disciplined we shift our focus from God to self.  Paul warned against this in Colossians 2.

“Let no one disqualify you [from a life of faith], insisting on asceticism . . . not holding fast to the Head . . .”  He went on, “why, as if your were still alive to the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ . . . according to wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

In other words, we need to be disciplined by what Paul wrote, and then dismiss the disciplines because they indulge in our “self-rightness” rather than in holding to Christ.

Jesus, as we noticed, went into the wilderness to be tempted, but why?  Because the Spirit led him; and there he responded to the Father’s words in contrast to Adam’s failure.  He also prayed all night at times because the burden of his love for the world called for long conversations with his Father.  And he lived a hard life because it best supported his compassionate ministry to those who lived in hard places.

Isn’t it time, then, to take up Christ’s life?  We can be sure God will discipline all who have the life of his Spirit within.  He has the firmness and care of a loving Father.  And he wants us to grow ever closer to his Son.  He’ll do a better job of it than we ever will!

4 Responses to Discipline and the Disciplines

  1. Eve May 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    This is really helpful. It’s a fundamental issue, I think, and when I read it my heart leaps up and I agree. But I have a problem: although I do experience heartfelt devotion in my own life, too often I don’t feel drawn by love in this way, and I don’t know how to make myself feel it. And I’ve always thought of discipline as important in these times, when I don’t feel like I love God or want to read the bible (etc), but know that I actually do want/need to do these things. I guess that’s how I’ve defined the ‘self control’ fruit of the spirit. I’d really love to know your view on this. Thanks!

  2. Ron May 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Thanks for the honest, reality-based, response, Eve. I agree that an approach that waits “to feel drawn by love” leaves a person in a subjective loop. With that approach we’re back to the trap of a self-focus that features “my feelings.”

    It’s important to remember that I’m not writing about how to switch the way we operate in life. Instead it’s a call to quit acting as if we’re “self-moved” rather than “response-based” people — the former is a distortion that keeps us asking what really does move us.

    Any focus on “feelings” themselves is to miss that our call is to respond to Christ. Once we see him clearly he elicits our response of devotion, not duty. So the focus needs to be on him, not on our emotional state. Jesus, for instance, didn’t treat feelings-in-themselves as his motive, as in, “I’m feeling very good right now about getting crucified, so let me follow that feeling to the cross!” Instead he endured the cross because he loves us, knowing that our only hope of joining him in eternity was for him to swallow death on our behalf. So the point is that love is inherently relational; and the quality of our love is defined by who we love.

    To say it another way: if we treat free-standing-emotions as our guide we’ve simply repackaged, slightly, the classical Greek premise that we are ‘self-moved’ in what we do. Let’s toss that in the trash. Instead faith works through love, and that love starts with Christ. So, too, our appetite for Bible reading is always defined by our vision of Christ. If that vision is so foggy that other things are distracting us, we need to say that to Christ: “Whoops, Lord, you’ve lost your luster . . . I hope you become a bit more attractive soon!” Or we need to say, “Lord, I’m missing your beauty! Open my eyes, please!”

    Hope that makes sense!

  3. Eve May 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    Yes, that’s really clarifying, thank you!

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