In our walks with Christ our devotion to Him often ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s like the nice stroll along the beach at sunset with gentle waves rolling in. Other times it’s like walking through quicksand in a hurricane. The Cambridge Dictionary defines devotion as “loyalty and love or care for someone or something.” For those truly redeemed by Christ, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, not to have some level of devotion to Him. This love for God manifests itself in many ways including prayer, Bible study, a thirst for knowledge about Him, service to His Kingdom, and worship. If we have a vibrant prayer and Bible study life, discipline is more of a backseat driver. When those ways stop feeling exciting and we struggle to show devotion, that’s where discipline needs to step into the driver’s seat. This article is no “thou shalt”; it is primarily an “I should”. Perhaps you can empathize with my frustration with myself as I agree with the Apostle Paul’s words: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Is Discipline Biblical?
It can be too easy to link discipline to legalism. If under the banner of discipline we mandate our prayer will be in the morning covering adoration, confession and petition without room to adjust, we are likely going to fall into legalism. It’s fair to set up a guideline, but we need to be sensitive and ready to react to the Spirit’s leading. Perhaps that routine is great most of the time, but sometimes we need to bypass the tidy setup at the table with our hot coffee, highlighters, and journal to fall on our face and go straight to confession. Maybe the Spirit puts someone on our hearts, and we go straight to petition until the point of sobbing. Structure and routines are not inherently evil or legalistic. We see Daniel’s routine described: “He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10b). The big difference is where our heart is. If the focus is on accomplishing some objective, we are probably in legalistic territory.
So we know not to fall into legalism, but discipline, at least on the surface, sounds more like legalism than something to strive for. For me this goes back to the heart and strikes at some of the major areas I am personally working through right now. This goes back to the Romans 7:15 passage in that my heart desperately longs for that abiding relationship with God, but too often my actions do not match. Take for example dieting. You desperately want to get healthier by eating better, which is a good goal. Is it wrong or an indication of an eating disorder if by week two the desire is gone, but you persevere through some emotional strife to stay on track? Barring fringe examples, this is probably the only way to achieve your health goals. The same could be said for exercise; it usually takes a lot of work to achieve the most worthy things. So my heart desires God, but my flesh puts up barriers. Discipline, driven by what I know is right, is the bulldozer against those barriers.
The Apostle Paul was not shy about discipline. In 1 Timothy 4:7b-8 he says: “rather train yourself for godliness; for 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.” He is making the point that physical discipline has value, but much more so does spiritual discipline. How we act relative to God’s kingdom reverberates through eternity. In Romans 12:1-2 Paul implores us to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice” and not to look like the world. In the New American Standard Bible (NASB1995) translation, the verse in 1 Corinthians 9:27 reads “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” Paul uses strong, unequivocal language with “living sacrifice” and “slave” when referring to how we deal with our flesh. There are other passages we can point to, such as Hebrews 12:1-2, but I think Paul’s stance is clear. Even though he was truly devoted to Christ, discipline was still an indispensable quality for him. In the book Disciplines of a Godly Man, R. Kent Hughes describes this work as our “spiritual sweat”.
It seems clear to me that we won’t just fall further into relationship with God without some work. If you did, you should probably be studied. We need to be deliberate in our approach to cultivating a deep and meaningful relationship with Him. For the rest of the article, we will focus on the down and dirty ways of enhancing our spiritual discipline. First, I recommend taking an inventory of your time. It’s probably best doing this over a week’s time to capture what each day looks like. Make sure you write things down as immediately as you can throughout the day. Don’t be optimistic; be realistic. This is just for you, and it’s best to know how good or ugly the results may be. There are plenty of smartphone apps that can help you do this as well. When I’ve done this for what I’ve eaten, it’s always surprising just how many calories I actually take in. Likewise, you may be surprised at how much time less important activities are taking. Having spiritual discipline will mean more time devoted to God, but if you’re like me, you don’t just have “extra time” lying around. Instead we have to reallocate time based on this being a priority. Another overarching concept is remembering to give God the best of yourself. This may look like getting enough sleep the night prior so your prayer and Bible reading time is better. With better sleep you are more apt to focus on the church service. In secular things we prepare ahead of time for important things. It is all the more important to do so for spiritual matters.
Next let’s dive into specific activities, starting with prayer. I’m not trying to stipulate an order, but prayer wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Prayer is an excellent way to seek God’s help in changing your heart and mind to more naturally desire Him. This is a very frequent prayer of mine for my family and myself. It is important to determine at least one consistent time and place that makes sense for you. For me it’s right after I’ve eaten breakfast in the living room before work. For others maybe it’s in the car in the driveway, in the evening next to the bed, or hiding from your children in a closet. If you don’t have a good routine, at least start there, but we shouldn’t leave it there. The Bible tells us we should frequently be going to God in prayer. I have prayed driving (eyes open though), walking down hallways at work (also eyes open) or a number of other random places. Prayer doesn’t always need to look like hands folded and eyes closed. We have a number of resources available to remind us to pray, as well. Set alarms on your phone, use an app, put up reminder sticky notes, carry something in your pocket that would remind you or, even better, have someone hold you accountable. If you’re not succeeding, at least shoot for five minutes everyday; start somewhere, and grow it as you’re able. Journals and prayer lists can also help focus your mind on what or whom to pray for.
Bible reading and study is another absolutely critical area to tackle. The goal is not to become a scholar in ancient Greek and Hebrew(not to say that is a bad thing). The goal is to grow your relationship with your Creator and allow His word to conform you to what He designed you to be. Like with a prayer schedule, find a time and a place. Before, during, and after reading are also great times to incorporate prayer! Find a good study to help guide you. I have frequently used the YouVersion Bible app on my phone and computer. You can pick from seemingly endless plans that cover the whole Bible, single books, or single topics. I have also used longer RightNow media studies to take me through books. Supplementing with audio versions of the Bible and devotions provides another avenue to approach Scripture. Also, as mentioned with prayer, finding another person to hold you accountable is excellent. Maybe it’s a trusted friend, spouse, or community group. My Saturday morning men’s group helps me with that.
Perhaps not the most popular topic is giving back to the church. However, giving of our money is not absent from Scripture. If you are not consistently financially giving back to the church, why not? I don’t have the space to dive into the topic here, but you could use some of your Bible reading time described above to investigate it yourself. The way I stay consistent is automated checks from my bank. The downside is I’m not as connected to the actual giving as I would be if I physically put a check in the box. The upside is that I know it will happen. If you would rather be more connected to the giving, perhaps write out the checks in advance and set a calendar reminder for whatever cadence works for you.
Jesus made it clear in His Earthly ministry that serving others was not optional. Being ready to serve does not mean you will be sent to wander through the Amazon rainforest. There are plenty of opportunities inside the church to help. If you follow the sound of children you will probably find someone that would love your help. You could help park cars. As long as your name isn’t Carl, people don’t actually aim for you. There are also numerous excellent ministries outside the church serving the homeless, kids in jail, and many others. Some of these opportunities will take you out of your comfort zone. In those times I remind myself of two things. The first is that it has been very personally rewarding in the past, and second, it’s not about me. If you’re not yet involved, are you perhaps a little apprehensive about getting started? To quote the infamous Anna from Frozen 2, “Just do the next right thing.” Don’t make assumptions about what you think it might be like, but take it one step at a time. For instance you can start by submitting the online card saying you’re interested (link).
Hopefully this doesn’t leave you feeling defeated. I’m right there with you in my desire, striving, and failures in these areas. However, we pick ourselves up and keep trying. We keep trying simply because He is worth every ounce of our effort. This is no works-based salvation; He gave us that completely in spite of anything we could do. No, this is something we are compelled to do because we love Him. Also don’t think you have to do every piece of practical advice I’ve gone through here or what you can glean from the thousands of other sources. Start somewhere and through prayer let God guide you according to the way he designed you. Don’t be afraid of a little spiritual perspiration!