On Godly Discipline

The Christian life is a disciplined life:

There is no getting around it: the Christian life is meant to be a disciplined life. Like a good soldier, the believer disciplines himself to please his master and serve him effectively (see 2 Timothy 2:3-5 for example). One meme I shared online recently nicely captures how we should view the Christian life. I am not sure who first said it or wrote it, but it is a good one:

“Discipline yourself to prayer. Discipline yourself to the systematic reading of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation over and over and over again. Discipline yourself in your speech. Discipline yourself in the company you keep. Discipline yourself in when you go to bed and when you rise up. This is war. Discipline yourself!”

We most certainly are in a war, and haphazard, careless and lackadaisical living just does not cut it for the Christian. The world, the flesh and the devil are out to get us every step of the way, so discipline is the name of the game. Without it we will not survive.

In addition to the biblical authors, many Christians have spoken to these truths. A quick search of my own library list reveals these titles for example:

Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace

Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

Richard Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life

R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of Grace

R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man

Richard Taylor, The Disciplined Life

Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life

But here I want to focus on one book by one author: Elisabeth Elliot. It has appeared under several titles since first being released in 1982: Discipline; Joyful Surrender; and The Glad Surrender. I am using the second of the three editions, as I present some quotes that are worth featuring here.

Image of Joyful Surrender: 7 Disciplines for the Believer's Life
Joyful Surrender: 7 Disciplines for the Believer's Life by Elisabeth Elliot (Author) Amazon logo

We might say that discipline is the disciple’s “career.” It defines the very shape of the disciple’s life. Obedience, on the other hand refers to specific action. Discipline is the believer’s answer to God’s call. It is the recognition, not of the solution to his problems or the supply of his needs, but of mastery. God addresses us. We are responsible—that is, we must make a response. We may choose to say yes and thus fulfill the Creator’s glorious purpose for us, or we may say no and violate it. This is what is meant by moral responsibility. God calls us to freedom, fulfillment, and joy—but we can refuse them. In a deep mystery, hidden in God’s purposes for man before the foundation of the world, lies the truth of man’s free will and God’s sovereignty. This much we know: a God who is sovereign chose to create a man capable of willing his own freedom and therefore capable of answering the call. 15

Discipline is the wholehearted yes to the call of God. When I know myself called, summoned, addressed, taken possession of, known, acted upon, I have heard the Master. I put myself gladly, fully, and forever at His disposal, and to whatever He says my answer is yes. 16

Christian discipline means placing oneself under orders. It is no mere business of self-improvement, to be listed along with speed-reading, weight watching, jogging, time management, home repairs, or how to win friends. Such programs have a strong appeal that is largely self-serving: what’s in it for me? Will I improve my IQ, my looks, my build, my efficiency, my house, my bank account? Will I be better liked, courted, taken more seriously, promoted? If these are the goals, certainly it helps to pursue them with the encouragement of and in the company of others with the same ambitions. Social pressure goes a long way, but in the end a do-it-yourself program depends on willpower alone, which is not enough for most of us.

The disciple is one who has made a very simple decision. Jesus invites us to follow Him, and the disciple accepts the invitation. I do not say it is an easy decision, and I have found that it needs to be renewed daily. The conditions are not such as attract multitudes. Jesus stated them:
1. He must leave self behind
2. He must take up his cross
3. And come with me

The result of the decision is guaranteed: 
1. Whoever cares for his own safety is lost
2. But if a man will let himself be lost for my sake, he will find his true self

The disciple is not on his own, left to seek self-actualization, which is a new word for old-fashioned selfishness. He is not “doing his thing” to find his own life or liberty or happiness. He gives himself to a Master and in so doing leaves self behind. 23-24

To be a Christian in New Testament terms is to be a disciple. There are no two ways about it. We have a Savior who has forgiven and saved us from the penalty of sin. Most of us would happily settle for that. But He died to save us also from our sins, many of which we love and hate to part with. Christ could not have done this if He were not Lord over all the powers of evil. Jesus Christ is Savior because He is Lord. He is Lord because He is Savior. I cannot be saved from my sins unless I am also saved from myself, so Christ must be “commanding officer” in my life. 26

God will never disappoint us… If deep in our hearts we suspect that God does not love us and cannot manage our affairs as well as we can, we certainly will not submit to His discipline. 39

These references show how foolish it is to suppose that we can be a Christian without the trouble of discipleship or that you can “get to heaven” without bothering to be obedient. 40

To the unbeliever the fact of suffering only convinces him that God is not to be trusted, does not love us. To the believer, the opposite is true.” 40

Holiness has never been the driving force of the majority. It is, however, mandatory for anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom. “Aim at . . . a holy life, for without that no one will see the Lord.” 43

Discipline, for a Christian, begins with the body. We have only one. It is this body that is the primary material given to us for sacrifice. If we didn’t have this, we wouldn’t have anything. We are meant to present it, offer it up, give it unconditionally to God for His purposes. This, we are told, is an “act of spiritual worship.” The giving of this physical body, comprising blood, bone, and tissue, worth a few dollars in chemicals, becomes a spiritual act, “for such is the worship which you, as rational creatures, should offer.” 44

If I am to love the Lord my God with all my mind, there will not be room in it for carnality, for pride, for anxiety, for the love of myself. How can the mind be filled with the love of the Lord and have space left over for things like that? 75

There will be time, depend on it, for everything that God wants us to do. 94

For the Christian, time is transfigured as we see it held in the love of God, created by and for Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the primacy over all created things and who existed before everything and holds everything together. 96

“My times are in thy hand” has become a part of life. 98

There is always enough time to do the will of God. For that we can never say, “I don’t have time.” When we find ourselves frantic and frustrated, harried and harassed and “hassled,” it is a sign that we are running on our own schedule and not God’s. 100

Frustration is not the will of God. Of that we can be quite certain. There is time to do anything and everything that God wants us to do. Obedience fits smoothly into His given framework. One thing that most certainly not fit into it is worry. 101

Feelings, like thoughts, must be brought into captivity. No one whose first concerns is feeling good can be a disciple. We are called to carry a cross and glorify God. 133

We will know Him by obedience, not by emotions. Our love will be shown by obedience, not by how good we feel about God at a given moment. 143

Do not debunk feelings as such. Remember they are given to us as part of our humanity. Do not try to fortify yourself against emotions. Recognize them; name them, if that helps; and then lay them open before the Lord for His training of your responses. The discipline of emotions is the training of responses. No argument for discipline will furnish the power to discipline. He who summons is He who empowers. He is Master. As we give ourselves to His rule He gives us grace to rule. Saint Francis de Sales put it this way: “We are not masters of our own feeling but we are by God’s grace masters of our consent.” Try it. When, in the face of powerful temptation to do wrong, there is the swift, hard renunciation—I will not—it will be followed by the sudden loosing of the bonds of self, the yes to God that lets in sunlight, sets us singing and all freedom’s bells clanging for joy. 145


Two final thoughts. Can such attempts at godly discipline turn into cold, hard legalism? Yes they can. All sorts of good things can be done for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way. But that is no reason to jettison them. Discipline IS fully required of all believers, and there may be a time and place where we simply do what we know is right, even if we do not feel like it.

As I heard Elliot say in a talk back in the late 70s: This is not so much legalism and a normal part of life. When your alarm goes off at 6am, you may not feel like getting out of your warm comfortable bed, but you do it regardless of how you feel, because you have your job to go to which provides an income with which to feed your family. You just do it, whether you really want to or not. So even if we do things somewhat out of a sense of duty or what have you, that is not always wrong.

And, does the disciplined life save us? No, we are saved by grace through faith. But the disciplined life is evidence of saving faith. So if you are lacking in discipline, you might need to ask yourself some hard questions, including this one: ‘Am I really His disciple?’

[1819 words]

4 Replies to “On Godly Discipline”

  1. Another inspiring and encouraging read. Thank you Bill.
    Yes, discipline the days activities, like time to eat, wash dishes and clothes, time to walk, read and rest. Time to write, talk with Jesus and sleep.
    We all need discipline in our daily life.

  2. Not to dispute your piece, especially the points about discipline, discipleship, and obedience, but how does one apply it when one is fundamentally challenged?

    For instance how are those who are ADHD or easily distracted, those who are disorganised, those whose health is poor so regularly find their brain foggy or their mind fatigued etc, or especially a combination thereof, to be disciplined?

    Is it worth reading Scripture (yes this doubtless sounds anathema!) if you parse the verses, chapters, pages etc, then can’t recall what you’ve just read? Or should such a person continue to read, but forego the Genesis to Revelation approach, limit their reading of passages which are more metaphorical or obscure e.g. Ezekiel, and focus instead on more literal\historical books such as the New Testament and the Pentateuch which are simpler and easier to grasp?

    It probably sounds like an easy question but …

  3. Thanks Andrew. Of course exceptions do not make the rule, and I was obviously referring to the great majority of believers here, not to the “fundamentally challenged.” In those much rarer cases, eg., for folks with rather hardcore physical or mental disabilities, things will be a bit different, not just in terms of discipline, but in all sorts of other areas. But then one would consult books such as the newly released Mental Health and Your Church by Thorne and Midgley.

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