Discipline is one of those fine-sounding Christian words we tend to throw around a lot, particularly in a season like Lent. But what is discipline? And what does it look like in practice?
I think there is a wrong and a right way to think about discipline.
The wrong way, to quote an example dear to my heart, is to think of discipline in terms of piano lessons. There are various spiritual grades of prayer and Bible study we need to take and our growth as a Christian is progress through these grades. So while grade one might be a simple prayer to bless your family, grade eight might be, say, an all-night vigil on the mysteries of Christ’s passion.
There are two problems with this approach to discipline. The first is that many people will find they get stuck at a particular grade, and end up seeing themselves somehow as a second-class Christian or even a failure. “I’ll never to be able to pray like that person”…”I’m just a baby Christian”…”All that spiritual stuff is too complicated for me”. Let’s be clear – our prayer life needs to be constantly rooted in the very basic stuff of the gospel. The only distinction God makes among people is whether they trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and believe that He died in their place for their sins. If all you can pray is “Thank you, Jesus” that’s perfectly fine by God. He doesn’t award extra points for greater spirituality.
The second danger is that those think they have achieved the higher spiritual grades is that they start to take pride in their achievements. That was the problem with the church in Corinth. They thought they were spiritual and wise and rich, when in fact they were worldly and arrogant (see 1 Cor 3-4). Taking pride in your own spiritual progress is a great danger, and it is the sworn enemy of grace.
So how should we think about discipline? Perhaps an analogy from the world of chicken keeping will help. You go out and tend to your flock day in, day out. Not because you always feel like it, but because it’s necessary. It’s part of the deal when you decide to keep chickens. But as you spend more time each day with your chickens you start to notice things – like the difference in eggs, or the warning signs that a chicken is sick, or the difference a change in the weather makes. You are learning, but not in a formal sense – simply being, observing and remembering.
I love the fact that when Jesus appointed twelve apostles His purpose in doing so was that they might be with Him (Mark 3:14). The apostles grew in their understanding of Jesus, not by progressing through spiritual grades, but simply by being with Jesus day by day, observing what Jesus said and did, and remembering what they had learnt (eventually writing down their observations in what we now call the four gospels).
That’s what I believe real Christian discipline is all about – learning by being with Jesus day by day. And that’s something we can all do for whatever long or short time we have been a believer.