Principles in Practice
Self-Discipline; The Path to Freedom


Self-discipline is not a popular subject. It has all the appeal of doing budgets or schedules or anything else we've procrastinated on. We just cannot think about these things without experiencing anxiety. Self-discipline is not a fun topic. And yet, it is the path to freedom. We can never be the person God wants us to be without it.
Now there are areas in each of our lives in which we do exercise self-discipline. We get up in the morning--even when we may not feel like it. We may not bounce out of bed at the time we know we should get up, but we do get up. Some of us do some of the things we know we should do around the house on weekends. These disciplines we exercise based on habits, often begun in childhood. Perhaps we feel we have no choice.

But we can move beyond just doing those things that others require or which are mandated by ingrained habit. We can decide in advance what we will do, and then design a learning process to develop the necessary discipline. And it will not be nearly as painful as we might think.

First we need to examine what self-discipline is. Let's define it as having control of one's own actions or emotions.

Gaining Control

That means our objective is to gain control of what we do and how we feel. Can we just decide to gain control and do it? I think not. It is true that some people seem naturally disciplined. Perhaps early conditioning makes it easier for them. Nevertheless, everyone begins with a decision. Putting that decision into practice builds the habit or routine of being disciplined.

So the first step toward self-discipline is a decision. Once the decision is made, there is still plenty to be done. But until it is made, there's very little else that can be done. Making that decision is really the most difficult part.

Finding God's Direction
It is impossible for a Christian to look at the matter of self-discipline without realizing that the word "self" is really a contradiction. Ideally there should not be any such thing as "self"-discipline. God, through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, provides us with first the insight, and then the ability to do the things He wants us to do.

Of course, it is up to us to recognize and then accept that direction. But it is there for the asking. In fact, often we need not consciously ask for it. God graciously provides it, if we are listening. So let's begin to think in terms of "God-directed discipline."

We must first desire God-directed discipline. We must want to do the things God wants us to do. Sometimes this desire just seems to come naturally to Christians. In other cases we struggle. If you are struggling, be sure that you have specifically asked God to give you the desire to be obedient to Him.

Next, we must position ourselves so that God can provide us ongoing direction. That means spending sufficient time with Him on a regular basis. The reason for this is two-fold. We need to be available to hear Him when He has something to say. And we need the assurance that if we have not heard from Him, He has not had anything to say. We need the ongoing motivation and encouragement to continue to walk with Him even when we do not feel His presence in the process. And sometimes we just cannot sense God's presence. But if we know that we have spent time with God, seeking His direction, it is a lot easier to keep on keeping on even when we do not yet have the answers we are seeking.

Beginning To Exercise Discipline

We want God-directed discipline. However, as important as it is to ensure that we are in line with God's will, it is also important to get started somewhere. How many Christians do you know who never seem to get far enough to give God anything to direct at all?

If you have sought God's direction and you are still unsure where He wants you to begin to exercise self-discipline, you may need to simply begin in the most obvious place. There is more than one way to determine what God wants you to do.

For example, what about your physical well-being? Have you made it a practice to get a physical exam periodically? If so, have you followed your doctor's advice regarding weight, diet and exercise? What about your relationships? Have you exercised the discipline to uphold your family responsibilities? What about your job? Are you well enough organized to please your employer and the Lord? What about your responsibilities within your church? Any room for improvement there?

If you are still at a loss for where to begin, ask your spouse or your children. If you are not married, you might ask close friends or even people at work. Your pastor or your employer might also offer guidance.

Usually the problem is not identifying the one area which requires discipline. It is getting started on just one of any number of areas. If you are having trouble choosing a starting point, try this: make a list of several areas that you know you need to work on. Then pick the one that will relieve you of the most pressure. Carve out some time to decide just what the best approach might be. For instance, if you need more physical exercise, you might sign up for a weightlifting course. You could choose swimming or golf. The idea is to begin somewhere, anywhere, but start.

Honoring God

Self-discipline can be seen from at least three perspectives: God's, ours and others. The way we conduct ourselves is very, very important. When we project an image inconsistent with the image God wants us to project, we run the risk of damaging God's reputation. Of course, God is perfectly capable of taking care of his own reputation. However, when He has to overcome our poor witness in the process, we may suffer some consequences.

For example, I find it difficult to discipline myself to see only movies that are totally pleasing to the Lord. I just love action movies. The problem is that there are very few action movies that would be acceptable. Most have offensive language or excessive violence or sex. However, if I do not exercise discipline, I am being disobedient. Worse yet, weaker Christians who see me attending a particular movie may believe that it is acceptable. It is one thing for me to be disobedient, and quite another to be responsible for leading others where God does not want them to go.
Another difficult area for me is my diet. I am blessed with a high metabolism, and I do not have a serious weight problem. But that is a blessing and a curse. Since it does not show, I do not have much natural incentive to eat the things I should and avoid the things I should not. I know there are natural as well as spiritual consequences to my disobedience, but so far I have made precious little progress. When I am in the company of others who may struggle even harder to discipline their eating, I know I tempt them to sin through my bad example.

It is bad enough to set a poor example for Christians. And yet how much worse it is to have unbelievers who know us as Christians observe our lack of discipline. I have to struggle to keep my mouth shut when a stranger does something stupid like blocking me in the parking lot. And for me it really is just a matter of discipline. I do not lose my temper or have an irresistible urge to kill. I just like to correct stupid people. Well, I did that the other day, and a member of my church was standing there watching me give such a wonderful witness. To top it off, one of the people I was correcting was not even guilty of the error I was accusing them of.

Putting Discipline Into Practice

There are some practical steps we can take to overcome lack of self-discipline. The most effective thing we can do to improve self-discipline is to pray regularly and consistently for God's help in this area. We can ask God to show us how.
We must also establish habits and routines which support the discipline we are seeking. We must root out procrastination, overcommitment and lack of punctuality which can hinder self-discipline.

You might want to approach self-discipline from the positive side. If your problem is watching too much television, plan other activities for some of that TV time. Maybe you can catch up on household projects you have been putting off. List the projects, prioritize them, then do them. You will soon wonder how you ever found time to watch TV. In fact, you may find that you are completely weaned from TV--even the 11:00 o'clock news!

Rather than giving something up that you want to do, you might concentrate on doing something that you know is a better use of your time. This approach can apply to all areas of your life. You need not consciously decide that you will never again watch TV; you just decide that for the next little while you will set it aside in favor or something you know you should do. After a while, you may discover that it was not as much fun as you thought. Of course, you always have the option of returning to the original routine.

Another effective technique for establishing discipline in an area is to work with someone else. This adds the element of accountability. If you can build self-discipline with someone you enjoy being with, so much the better.

Start today as God directs you to gain control of your life by exercising self-discipline. It is a step toward freedom which can bless you and honor the Lord.
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