Suppertime wasn’t always an enjoyable experience for my older brothers. (Mom’s discovery of the microwave casserole might have had something to do with it.) They would routinely try to use a certain combination of luck and wizardry to get their casseroles to disappear from their plates — without raising their forks to their mouths.
After a while, my dad would grab the kitchen timer from on top of the stove, set it for 20 minutes, and then leave the kitchen. If the timer went off and there was still food on my brothers’ plates, they would be in big trouble.
I often think of discipline being like Dad’s timer. It’s the kind of negative reinforcement that gets us to do something because it’s “good for us.” And self-discipline? That’s even worse. Because there’s no one telling us what to do besides ourselves. There’s no buzzer, only the sound of our own internal dialogue.
Whether we like it or not, being a disciple or a follower of Jesus requires self-discipline. In fact, as James Eldred writes in A Depth of Insight: One Man’s Discipleship with Christ, discipleship and discipline are intricately related: “You can’t have one without the other.”
Being a disciple in Jesus’ day meant not only agreeing with the views of a teacher, but also imitating the teacher in every way imaginable. So it follows that this is what Jesus was talking about when He says in Luke 6:40, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”
The first step in becoming Jesus’ disciple is believing that He is the Son of God and that He died for us. But it’s not the only step. After we believe, certain things are required: namely, to become like Christ. We need to pursue Him with our whole lives.
Paul writes this in Galatians 5:22-25:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
Have we really “crucified the flesh”?
The good news is that it’s not completely up to us to become like Christ. Once we step out in faith, the Holy Spirit promises to transform our hearts to make us more like Jesus. But we’re not completely off the hook either. We need to challenge ourselves to reject our selfish passions and desires, to strive to “keep in step with the Spirit.”
A key way to do this is to form healthy spiritual habits that will bring us closer to God. Once we integrate these disciplines into our lives, the Holy Spirit will start to change us: we will become more like Christ in the way we behave as well as in our character.
Some examples of spiritual disciplines include: prayer, or talking to God (Daniel 6:10, Colossians 4:2); meditation, or contemplation on God’s Word (Psalm 1:1-2, Philippians 4:8); fasting, or abstaining from food or something else (Nehemiah 1:4, Acts 13:2-3); worship, or praising God (Psalm 71:23, Acts 16:25), giving our time, money, or talents to others (Hebrews 13:16, Acts 20:35); gathering with other believers (Psalm 122:1, Hebrews 10:24-25); hospitality, or showing kindness to strangers (Hebrews 13:2); and teaching (Hebrews 5:12-14).
When we see a long list like this, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by guilt that we’re not doing enough for God, or that we’re not spiritual enough. But as John Ortberg says in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, “Too often people think of their ‘spiritual lives’ as just one more aspect of their existence..... The truth is that the term spiritual life is simply a way of referring to one’s life — every moment and facet of it — from God’s perspective.”
The truth is, there’s no easy way to muster up motivation to be disciplined. There’s nothing that will suddenly inspire us to be more self-controlled; it’s just something that we need to do out of obedience. James 4:8 says, “Come near to God and He will come near to you.” The beautiful thing that happens when we deny ourselves and seek God, is that He will come near to us. So though it might be hard to get started initially, after a while, engaging in spiritual disciplines will be something we actually want to do, because that’s when we feel closest to God.
“Training ourselves in godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7) will affect our whole lives, and ultimately, how God uses us for His kingdom. So let’s set that timer, and see what happens.