There are many aspects of life where discipline is required, and even prized. The most relevant aspects in my own life are food and exercise. I am not obsessively fussy or regimented with these things, but, over the years, have learnt to place a premium on what I eat and how much I move in a day. My loved ones have acquiesced to my habits, and friends no longer raise an eyebrow when I turn down an offer of cake or suggest long walks as the best way to spend public holidays.
The Dark Side of Discipline
And yet, beneath my seemingly admirable abstinence or ‘no pain no gain’ attitude, I recognize a debilitating tendency within myself: to subject my daily joy and sense of worth to my success in achieving my food and exercise goals. A good day is one where I was able to eat clean. Dessert today must be matched with extra effort at the gym tomorrow.
As I make food and fitness choices, I catch myself exercising discipline out of fear rather than faith: fear of my health and well-being, of other people’s thoughts and comments, of an unattractive appearance. I forget to put my faith in the God who says I am “wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), who numbers my days (Ps 39:4), supplies my daily meals (Matt 6:11), and provides himself as my joy (Ps 16:11). From an external standpoint, actions done out of fear or faith look the same. But internally and emotionally, they are worlds apart.
From an external standpoint, actions done out of fear or faith look the same. But internally and emotionally, they are worlds apart.
Free in Christ
Before becoming a Christian, the only reason I would push myself to be disciplined is because I could not imagine my life and value apart from my own efforts and self-control. My identity was tethered to my daily efforts to preserve a reputation of someone who worked hard, kept fit, and made smart choices about food. It was a recipe for existential disaster, because there were many days I was not able (or willing) to make the best decisions for my body and health.
Discipline is precious, worth cultivating, and necessary to achieving any commendable goal. Discipline has enabled me to persevere through countless difficult situations to reach a reward. I am glad I have some ounce of it. But now, through Christ, I can finally sever the chain that once bound my value to my efforts: God’s view of me is irrevocably and irrefutably positive. I am loved by God the Father because of Jesus Christ the Son. I am forgiven because of his obedience on my behalf. I am justified because he took the punishment that I deserved for failing to live a disciplined and self-controlled life. Jesus’ perfect righteousness, perpetual earthly discipline (Heb 4:15), and disregard towards his own self-interest (Phil 2:6-8) are mine to claim and clothe myself in as one who now stands righteous before God. What sweet, freeing, saving grace. Though the temptation to be disciplined out of fear still remains, I can now turn to God in repentance and faith, thanking him for Jesus’ perfect obedience and death in my place.
But now, through Christ, I can finally sever the chain that once bound my value to my efforts
Free for Discipline
And yet, in full circle, I realise that I cannot toss discipline aside as though it were now of no consequence. This life, committed to glorifying Jesus, in fact requires discipline! We are called to “train” for godliness (1 Tim 4:7). We are called not merely to rest in or walk with Jesus, but to “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor 9:24). Like competitive racing, the Christian life necessitates perseverance and determination. We need fortitude if we are to obey Scriptures’ commands, such as to be consistent in doing good (1 Tim 6:18), to control our tongue (Col 4:6), and to grow in spiritual disciplines like prayer, giving and encouragement in the Word. Discipline is necessary.
So now I must commit myself to being disciplined with more than just food and exercise, but in overall Christlikeness in the way I think, speak, act and live. Moreover, the latter is far more important than the former. After all, “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:7-8).
While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come
As I pursue discipline in food, fitness and godliness, my striving can flow from the knowledge of God’s saving grace. I no longer need to work hard to maintain my identity or to win favour from others; I can look to Jesus and be confident that I have attained favour with God, a much more impressive feat.
This New Year
With a new year now upon us, we may have set goals for ourselves surrounding healthier food and fitness choices. These are commendable goals which will require, and hopefully produce, the sweet virtue of hard work and discipline. Yet we make these plans as those whose discipline has been redeemed by Christ. So my prayer for us Christians is two-fold. Firstly, that in the process of building discipline—regardless of which area of our lives—we will remember the eternal and unconditional grace Christ has won for us, even when we fail in our efforts. Secondly, as we rest secure in our Saviour Jesus, may our greatest desire and commitment be to train ourselves for godliness, seeking to live lives worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27).