That Unpopular Word—Discipline

That Unpopular Word—Discipline

William MacDonald

Mr. William MacDonald of San Leandro, CA, is a gifted Bible teacher and author. He is also an instructor at the Discipleship Intern Training Program at Fairhaven Bible Chapel in San Leandro.

Mr. MacDonald’s article on the vital theme of discipline is reprinted from a past issue of “Help & Food” magazine which is no longer published.

Discipleship is discipline. No one will ever make progress in Christian discipleship until he has learned to train and control himself. The life that is unstructured and haphazard will never win. As a famous coach told his team, “You can’t live soft all week and play tough on Saturday.”

The trouble with our decadent society is that it is producing people who are soft. We don’t want to hear about discipline, let alone to practice it. Freedom and permissiveness are our watchwords and consequently flabbiness is our character.

Discipline should begin in childhood. Parents who care will discipline their children to keep an orderly room, to keep themselves neat and clean, to work around the house, and to manage their own affairs. Those who learn discipline while they’re young will find the rest of life much easier. Those who are allowed to do their own thing will be a burden to themselves and a pest to society.

We Christians ought to blush when we see how men and women of the world discipline themselves in order to achieve excellence. Athlete’s don’t gain distinction by drifting through life; they drive themselves, they train tirelessly and endlessly, they observe the rules. When Babe Didrikson Zaharias was asked, “How can I learn to hit a golf ball the way you do?” she replied, laughing:

“It’s simple. First you hit a thousand golf balls. You hit them until your hands bleed and you can’t hit any more. The next day you start all over again, and the next day, and the next. And, maybe a year later, you might be ready to go eighteen holes. After that you play every day until the time finally arrives when you know what you are doing when you hit the ball.”

If a woman will discipline herself like that to hit a small, white ball across the landscape, how much more should Christians discipline themselves to be of maximum effectiveness in the service of Christ.

Think of how musicians train themselves. Someone asked Pederewski, the famous pianist, what the secret of his success was. He replied, “Practicing scales hour after hour, day after day, till these poor fingers were worn to the bone.”

No author has ever produced a best seller without knowing something about discipline. Ernest Hemingway said that writing was an arduous ordeal for him, exhilarating, but demanding all of what he called his “juices.” When he was writing a book, he was “totally consumed by it, and at the end of each day he would count the number of words he had written and enter them carefully in a log.” He said:

“I’ve seen every sunrise of my life. I rise at first light, and I start by reading everything I have written to the point where I left off. That way I go through a book several hundred times, honing it until it gets an edge like the bullfighter’s sword. I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times in manuscript and worked it over 30 times in proof, trying to get it right.”

The discipline of militant communism is proverbial. Nechayev, a Marxist of the last century, wrote:

“The revolutionary man is a consecrated man. He has neither his own interests nor concerns not feelings, no attachments not property, not even a name. All for him is absorbed in the single exclusive interest, in the one thought, in the one passion — revolution.”

Shame on us! Here we ate, holding up men and women of the world as examples to believers. It should be the reverse. Christians should be exhibit A of what disciplined lives should and can be. The world should be looking to believers to learn lessons of rugged, sinewy discipleship.

We need men and women like the Apostle Paul, who said.

“I run the race … with determination. I am no shadowboxer; I really fight! I am my body’s sternest master, for fear that when I have preached to others I should myself be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27, Phillips).

We need men like Hudson Taylor and C. T. Studd who inured themselves to the rigors of the mission field by developing spiritual, moral, and physical muscle before they even left home.

But unfortunately what we find today is what Tozer called a soft breed of Christians who must be fed on a diet of harmless fun — delicate and brittle saints produced in religious hothouses. And what we find today is Christians who are satisfied with mediocrity in their lives and service for God, as if unaware of God’s decree, “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently” (Jeremiah 48:10 RV).

We desperately need a new breed of Christians who will exercise discipline in every area of their lives — such as:

· Prayer. Discipleship calls for a disciplined prayer life — not for bits and pieces of pious verbiage addressed to God intermittently when we feel like it, but for systematic, earnest supplication that knows where it’s going and proceeds without distraction or mind-wandering. We need the discipline that meets with God at regular times, that knows how to agonize, to wrestle, to weep and to persevere. We need the discipline of a daily quiet time when our souls are fed from above and when we listen for God’s direction for that day.

· Bible Study. Bible study takes plenty of discipline. There is no royal road, no easy way. In an age of instant foods, instant medicines, and instant dollars, it conies as a disappointment to learn that there is no such thing as instant Bible study. It requires time, application, reading, checking — in short, a lot of hard work. There is no use whining that we can’t do it; the truth is that we don’t want to do it. We can always do what we want to do — like watching TV or keeping up on the baseball scores.

· Time. The serious Christian learns to discipline himself in the use of his time. Every moment of life is precious. Every opportunity for God should be seized. Whether it means purchasing an alarm clock or a seven-star diary, he will budget his time and fill his days with activities that will glorify God and bring blessing to others.

· Food. We need discipline in the matter of food consumption. Overeating is a form of drunkenness, and drunkenness is sin. How can a Christian pick a speck of cholesterol out of his brother’s diet when he has tons of it in his own? The same discipline that can fast, and if necessary shed pounds of fat, can solve other problem areas in life. It is not unspiritual to go on a weight-watcher’s diet; in fact, there may be times when it is the most spiritual thing to do.

· Sex. Self-control in the sex life is basic to a life of effective service. Without doubt the sex drive is one of the strongest in life. No one can master it in his own strength. But the tough-minded discipline learns to sublimate this drive, that is, to redirect the energy into fruitful service for the Lord. By avoiding the perils of oversleeping and overeating, by engaging in physical exercise, and by keeping busy for Christ, he exchanges guilt and defeat for confidence and victory.

· The Mind. Of course, to know victory in the area of sex, he will have to have his thought life under control. The mind is the fountain from which actions flow. The more we indulge a thought, the more we are likely to translate it into action. It is futile to pray for outward purity if we are enjoying a filthy thought-life. No Christian can feed on movies, TV, or Playboy magazine and make progress in divine things.

· Speech. One of the most difficult forms of discipline is that of our speech. In fact, James reminds us that no man can tame the tongue (James 3:8). But God can, and He will. But not without our cooperation. We must forever resist the temptation to run off at the mouth, to have part in every conversation, to engage in idle, empty chatter. We should be more ready to hear than to speak. If we must speak, it should be worthwhile conversation, edifying, positive, constructive.

· Sleep. Discipline in the time devoted to sleep is needed. Frankly I am tired of young people who stay hinged to their beds till late in the morning, then loll around the rest of the day sipping Seven-Ups and laying plans for the evangelization of the world. These people are going nowhere fast. How long we sleep is as sure a gauge of our dedication as what we do with our spare time.

· Foreign Language Study. It is really sad that so few Christian young people have enough discipline to learn a foreign language well. This has had disastrous results on the mission field, and it makes the future outlook rather bleak.

· Letter Writing. Dare I mention letter writing? If you are average, you would rather take a beating than write a letter. Yet letter writing has always played and will always play a vital role in the Christian ministry. Suppose Paul and Peter had never disciplined themselves to write.

· Other areas. And that isn’t all. Discipline is needed in the management of our finances, in the stewardship of our possessions, in our expenditures, in physical exercise, and in controlling the claims of our secular employment. These things will not work themselves out automatically in our lives. They require our deliberate effort, under the control of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was right when he said:

“I defy you to read the life of any saint that has ever adorned the life of the Church without seeing at once that the greatest characteristic in the life of that saint was discipline and order. Invariably it is the universal characteristic of all the outstanding men and women of God. Read about Henry Martyn, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, the brothers Wesley and Whitfield — read their journals. It does not matter what branch of the Church they belonged to, they have all disciplined their lives and have insisted upon the need for this; and obviously it is something that is Scriptural and absolutely essential.”