Friday, February 26, 2010

The Balance of Self-Discipline

As I find myself sitting down here in Leesburg, FL, at the Methodist retreat center, waiting for my turn to go before the Board of Ordained Ministry, I am pondering a single word: Discipline. Not the kind of discipline where you put your kid in a corner if they are bad. I'm talking about self-discipline.

I imagine many of you have made Lenten commitments or New Year's resolutions recently, to make positive changes in your life. And while we often start out with rather fabulous intentions to loose weight, give up sugar, spend more time with our kids (my own personal New Year's resolution), etc, it takes self-discipline to carry the thing out. Self-discipline means to create an intentional effort, often in repetitive ways, to do or not do something which you hope to achieve/eliminate. You choose to work out three times a week, set a weekly date with your son or daughter, put a reminder on your calendar to call your sister, make a promise to yourself to read your bible daily.

But self-discipline is a tricky thing to maintain at times. It is a balance between extremes. You are choosing this thing of your own free will. OK, maybe your wife wants you to quit smoking more than you do, but if you're doing something about it, you are exercising your free will. At the same time, you often have to put some structures in place, we call them "boundaries", to make sure these things happen. The alcoholic avoids bars, the Bible Reader sets the alarm clock a little earlier, or turns off the TV after dinner, the jogger meets up with a friend to have accountability. Each of these help us to move in the direction of self-discipline.

Now, as with any balance, there are two ways to fall off this particular bicycle (especially if your commitment is to ride your bicycle every Saturday). Take a look at this line below:

Legalism Rote Habit Discipline Excuses Rebellion Chaos
Harder Softer

Let me explain this little diagram, Which side you run risk of falling off of probably depends as much on your personality and circumstances as anything else. But essentially, it boils down to either become hardened, or softened.

Here's how you get hardened. You set a discipline. You maintain it for a while, push yourself intentionally to start (or stop) this thing. And it's hard work. But after a while, you start to be able to coast. You don't have to be as intentional about it. It has become habit. You wake up to read your Bible at 6am, even if the alarm doesn't go off. You're in the groove now. And you're not in trouble yet. But now that you don't have to be as intentional, as driving about the thing, here's where the danger lies. Habit is discipline without intention. You don't have to think about the's just like breathing. But then it becomes Rote. Rote is Discipline without intention or purpose. You started jogging to get in better shape. Now you do it because you're supposed to. You started going to church to get in touch with Jesus. Now you do it because that's what a Christian is supposed to do. Now you're treading tentative ground...because the last phase is legalism. You do it, you insist others do it, and to do anything else feels downright sinful. You've lost the purpose of why (church attendance again comes to mind), but by gosh, you're going to do it, because you're supposed to. The Pharisees frequently fell into this trap. They forgot the purpose of the Law, and it became a burden to them, and they passed that burden on to others as well. The thing you started out trying to do is still a good thing, but it has turned a very dark corner.

How about the other direction? It starts out with excuses. You get sick one week, and can't make prayer meeting. You have a lot to do at work, and don't feel you have time to go jogging. You have a major deadline, and it takes precedence over time with your kids. Circumstances will happen. There will be mornings you get a cold and simply can't drag out of bed. But like bad pennies and dirty dishes, excuses can pile up if left unchecked. Suddenly, a month has gone by, and you've not been to church. It's been weeks since you called your old roommate. You can't remember the last time that you prayed.

Then rebellion kicks in. Maybe this is a different fork of the same problem, but it's worse by far. Because it raises a note of doubt as to the merits of the discipline in the first place. In 6th grade, I had a teacher that made us read 18 fiction books every 9 weeks. That's a minimum of 200 pages a week, on top of other homework. In 6th grade. I was always a voracious reader as a kid. But when I was *required* to do it, that note of resentment crept into my heart. I started counting books I had read last year. I finished only just in time to meet the requirement. And all along is in my head...if I can get through this grade, I may never read again. Rebellion. When we see the thing that we wanted, that we loved, that we were intentional about, as an intolerable burden, and we drop it like a hot rock in August.

Which brings us to the end of that side of things: Chaos. We loose the voice of our original purpose in doing the thing. Things fall apart. Our discipline doesn't hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon our lives. (Thank you Yeats!) We give up...we surrender. "It's too bad...I really wanted to loose was just too hard."

Grim pictures both. But here's the rub. Remember what made self-discipline doable? Intention and boundaries. The excuses erode our boundaries, lead to self-justifications and such. The loss of intention brings codification, "it has always been that way," and becomes a burden. But if we keep both...we have what we need. And that takes a lot of work on our part.

So what can we do? (1) Revisit the point of the thing in the first place. Why were we going to quit smoking? Why'd we start reading the Bible? Get back to the point, to revitalize your passion for it. (2) Hold your boundaries. Ruthlessly refuse to accept excuses from yourself. "I've been doing so good," is not a reason to let your guard down. Neither is "It's too hard."

You might need some help along the way. And that's why we have each other. The point of things like Church, like Small Groups and Sunday School classes, is that we were never meant to walk this line alone. We need others around us, who can see through the rationalizations and justifications, and who can remind us of our purpose along the way. That's why we gather together on a regular basis, by the way. Which is itself a kind of discipline.

So if you're not already meeting together with other believers, I cannot recommend it highly enough. You will draw encouragement, strength, and purpose from those around you. And in the process, you'll find yourself moving forward in life, in faith, in ministry, and in your relationships. It's a Discipline worth practicing. No time? That's an excuse. If you really want to grow, you'll make the time. So why not try it? Not because it's what you're supposed to do...but because deep down, you know you want it.

Blessings on your journey, as we walk this road side by side.