Discipline & the Disciplines

This entry is also posted at the Cor Deo site: Cordeo.org.uk

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!



  1. Thomas

    As always, great words Ron! My experience is consistent with the fact that trying to discipline myself in my own strength to Christ likeness is a vain pursuit. However, how do you understand Paul’s teaching where he talks about buffeting his body and making it his slave? Would you say that this is Holy Spirit empowered discipline or self-control? He also seems to teach in Ephesians and Colossians in particular that we do actively participate in our sanctification by “putting our sin to death” and “walking in the Spirit” etc.

    Would you say that the “spiritual disciplines” often times are futile because they are not motivated by love for God but rather a means to better oneself for other reasons?

    Might we also say that some who seek to practice these disciplines do in fact have as their primary motive for doing so the love of God in Christ? If so, can they be an effective means to draw closer to God for them?

  2. R N Frost

    Yes, Thomas, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 includes self-control. Luther’s response, in the words of Melanchthon, point to the problem we have with self-control: affections battle affections. So, for instance, my desire to stay in my comfortable bed in the morning (my “body” speaking!) fights with my greater desire to get up and go to work (I love my job!). Paul, then, is calling us to remain responsive to the Spirit whose transforming love is present to us if we simply pause to listen (cp. Romans 5:5 & ch. 8).

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