Many of us think we know what these words mean — discipline and disciple — but do we? It’s can be surprising how much our own experiences and our societal worldview can alter our perspective of these things.
First let’s look at disciple, because discipline doesn’t mean as much without it. Simply put, a disciple is a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher. Follower? An adherent or devotee of a particular person, cause, or activity. Adherent? Someone who supports a particular party, person, or set of ideas. Support? We could keep unpacking this for days… But the bottom line is that when Jesus talks about us being His disciples, He means that we follow His teachings. If you haven’t noticed by now, not all of them are easy!
For many people the word discipline has very negative connotations. So, before we go further, we need to address what this word is truly about because it is crucial in the context of spiritual growth. Discipline means different things to each of us. For some it triggers thoughts of punishment or abusive parents; for others it might be athleticism or healthy eating. Think about what it means to you. Maybe your first response was “I don’t have that!” or you thought of self-denial such as banning sweets, caffeine, television, etc. Maybe your mind even went to a form of self-punishment – pushing harder at the gym, working those extra hours to climb the next ladder rung at work.
When we explore the ideas of spiritual discipline, it is important to understand the meaning of the word. One definition found in Miriam-Webster defines discipline as “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character” and it defines self-discipline as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement.” So, the first part of spiritual discipline is about controlling yourself. That means choosing to do something whether you “feel like it” or not (e.g. reading your Bible). Or, in some cases, choosing not to do something you know you shouldn’t (e.g. cheating on your spouse). Spiritual discipline is NOT about punishment, pleasing God by following legalistic rules, or proving to anyone (including yourself) that you are good enough. True spiritual discipline is about growth. At the end of it, we want to say that we are closer to Jesus and we know our Father better. Discipline makes us better disciples.
At the heart of any discipline is obedience. Whether you are following a program, a coach, or your own goals, you have to choose each day – each moment, really – to be obedient. Obedience is a word, like discipline, that many of us don’t like. But let’s unpack that for a moment. What is it that causes people to resist the idea? Is it fear of not being in control, or of someone else being in authority? If this is you, be careful. It is very easy to slip into rebellion on the little things. A couple of loose pebbles can start a landslide that ultimately pulls you away from your faith. Maybe the idea of being obedient appeals to you. Some people are very black and white in how they view the world and their place in it. They prefer knowing exactly what is expected. If this is you, be careful. It is very easy to slip from heartfelt obedience to legalism when you view the world as a list of rules to be followed.
- In what ways is it easy for you to follow the teachings of Jesus? Which ones are hard? Why?
- What words or images come to mind when you think of the word discipline? When we say “self-discipline” does it conjure different imagery?
- Is there anything about the word “obedience” that makes you cringe a little? Why?
- Take a few moments to reflect on your perceptions of discipleship, discipline, and obedience. Take those thoughts to God in prayer and allow Him to speak to you on these things.