On the Disciplined Life

Another classic work on the vital importance of discipline:

I recently wrote a piece that mentioned eight important books about the Christian and the need for discipline. While each one of them is worth being aware of, in that article I highlighted just one of the volumes – by Elisabeth Elliot. It was Joyful Surrender: 7 Disciplines for the Believer’s Life. That article is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/08/03/on-godly-discipline/

As I say, any of the other books I listed could also have been more fully examined. Here I will look at the 1962 volume by Richard Taylor, The Disciplined Life. It is a short but powerful look at the urgent need for discipline in the life of the believer.

His first line is this: “Discipline is what moderns need the most and want the least.” He discusses how many of our problems today stem from this lack, and how Christians are just as guilty of it as anyone else. They are “undisciplined, and the fatal weakness is unmasked in the day of trial and adversity. A lifelong pattern of running away from difficulties, of avoiding incompatible people, of seeking the easy way, of quitting when the going gets rough finally shows up in neurotic semi-invalidism and incapacity.”

Early on in the book he says this:

Communist Lenin once said: “With a handful of dedicated people who will give me their lives, I will control the world.” Let us compare this with the warning of Theodore Roosevelt: “The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, the love of soft living, and the get rich theory of life.” Will our aversion to discipline be the Achilles’ heel which will turn Roosevelt’s warning into prophecy and Lenin’s boast into fact?

He looks at various areas that we need to learn to bring under discipline, including such things as appetites, emotions, moods, speech and priorities. He says this in part about that last one:

Selection – selection, selection! This is the law of life. We cannot join every­thing; therefore, we must select. We cannot participate in every good cause; therefore, we must select. We cannot give to everything; therefore, we must select. We cannot go to every interesting concert or lecture or meeting; therefore we must select. We cannot read everything; therefore we must select. To become well read is vastly more than reading; it is a matter of exclusion as well as inclusion. . . . Whatever one’s goal may be, it can be achieved only by the sacrifice of the lesser. This requires discipline of a high order.

Image of The Disciplined Life: The Mark of Christian Maturity
The Disciplined Life: The Mark of Christian Maturity by Richard S. Taylor (Author) Amazon logo

In Chapter 3 Taylor goes on to speak about the perils of discipline. What he says here is certainly most helpful. He reminds us that the ultimate end or supreme value is not discipline, but a right relationship with God. And he reminds us how we must not let discipline become an end in itself, instead of a means to an end.

It is too easy to become proud and self-righteous about one’s disciplined life, as was the case with the Pharisees. He writes: “Discipline unquestionably makes a man superior. If not watched, it will also make him feel superior. There is a legitimate sense of satisfaction in self-mastery. But it is wrong when the sense of satisfaction becomes self-satisfaction. Such a disciplined man gives himself glory, not God.”

And extremes need to be avoided, such as becoming too severe in discipline. And there can develop an unchristian asceticism as well if we are not careful. There are also the dangers of legalism, and undisciplined discipline. “A growing soul is ever changing. The kind of discipline desired is not that which embeds the life in a concrete block of fixed routine…” And we must also scorn the “tyranny of petty rule.”

He offers more helpful and wise remarks in Chapter 4 where he discusses discipline and holiness. The two are not the same. There are many highly disciplined persons (pagan athletes for example) who may not at all be holy. Moreover, discipline can become a substitute for holiness, with things like smug self-assurance and self-righteousness arising.

Nor is discipline the means to holiness. “No amount of discipline of itself will make the sinful heart holy. It may shackle specific sins; it may apparently imprison the disease and limit its activity. But it cannot create a clean heart.” It is the work of the Spirit within to cleanse the heart and change our motivations. What really ails us cannot be cured by “externally imposed law or self-imposed discipline.”

Even suffering in itself does not sanctify. Some might point to Hebrews 12:10-11 here. But, says Taylor: “Suffering is intended, not to be the purifying agent, but to drive the soul to Him who is. Suffering prior to holiness serves one great purpose: it shows us our helplessness, our littleness, our insecurity, our need of God. . . . No, holiness is inwrought by the Holy Spirit, not because we have suffered, but because we have surrendered.”

But as God by the Spirit produces a changed heart and increased holiness in our lives, that will be evidenced by the desire to want to live a disciplined life. Even purified motivations in seeking a disciplined life will come about: “Without Christian motives the discipline cannot be Christian.”

And while it is God who brings about the real and wanted change, Taylor says that there is nonetheless a place for some imposed discipline, especially in young children:

Children’s natures are not placidly neutral; they are born with a bias. There is already a twist toward self-centeredness and lawlessness which will not right itself under the benign rays of Christian environment, but will feed on kindness, turn liberty into license, and grow alarmingly over the years, if not rigorously curbed by firm rule from the cradle onwards. Such curbing, while not able to extirpate the twist, will at least bring it clearly to light; it will also make adjustments to the restraints of an adult society much easier, to say nothing of the greater ease in submitting to the rule of God, at first partially, and then with that full submission which enables God to correct the nature at its base. A large measure of self-control can be inculcated, which while it admittedly falls short of holiness, is nevertheless better than nothing.

He concludes his book by listing some practical steps we can take as we seek to become more disciplined in our lives. This includes being aware that there are no short cuts; training the body; cultivating punctuality; girding up the mind; listening to criticism; dealing with gluttony; and cultivating godly habits.

But he again reminds us of this vital truth: “We desire to become disciplined persons, not for the glory of self, but for the glory of God.” That is to be the purpose and aim of all Christian life and practice.

Given that the West today is characterised by self-indulgence, self-gratification, and an overemphasis on self and self-satisfaction – including in the lives of perhaps most Christians – the importance of a book like this in stressing the utterly vital need for godly discipline cannot be overstated. You will all benefit from reading this – or for some of you, reading it again.

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2 Replies to “On the Disciplined Life”

  1. Marvellous. The pendulum swings….I was raised Roman Catholic with stories of Suffering Saints and Trappists. An Aunt and Uncle were “Religious” (Carmelites). I’ve swung into prosperity gospel and happy clappers… with the advent of new Catholic hero’s…Matt Walsh, Jonathan Roumie, Jim Caviziel…and more…..I’m swinging back into discipline….sitting at His feet and learning from Him. It’s beautiful.

  2. Bill my condolences for the passing of your lovely wife. Sorry about my late post but I have been struggling with my own health problems.

    Matthew 5:4
    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

    Revelation 21:4

    He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

    God Bless you brother in Christ

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