The Vital Importance of Personal Discipline

Nothing of any significance has ever been accomplished without discipline. That’s true in both the physical and spiritual realm. Talented athletes who rely upon their natural athletic prowess and refuse to put in the work to develop their skills rarely find enduring or memorable success. Wealthy sons who take their financial status for granted instead of laboring to multiply their inherited wealth often stand as pathetic examples of privileged yet wasted lives. There have been great minds who have wasted their massive intellectual gifts because they simply would not discipline themselves to work hard. Regarding this last kind of neglect, I am reminded of the following description of William Coleridge, a 18th-century poet who, despite his literary gifts, fell far short of what many expected him to accomplish.

Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline. Never did so great a mind produce so little. He left Cambridge University to join the army; but he left the army because, in spite of all his erudition, he could not rub down a horse; he returned to Oxford and left without a degree. He began a paper called The Watchman which lived for 10 numbers than died. It has been said of him: “He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done. Coleridge had every poetic gift but one—the gift of sustained and concentrated effort.” In his head and in his mind he had all kinds of books, as he said himself, “completed save for transcription.” “I am on the eve,” he says, “of sending to the press to octavo volumes.” But the books were never composed outside Coleridge’s mind, because he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out. No one ever reached any eminence, and no one having reached it, ever maintained it, without discipline. ~ William Barclay

Instead of multiplying and growing his incredible gifts, Coleridge squandered them through a lack of discipline. And we don’t need anyone to explain to us how tragic this kind of waste is; we all know intuitively—whether we are Christians or not—that there is something deeply wrong with failing to make a return on one’s talents and resources.

Hard Work Beats Gifting
“Nine times out of ten,” a church history professor once told our class, “hard work beats gifting.” The reason why those with a strong work ethic often outpace those with superior gifts is that the latter often relies on his gifts and neglects the hard work necessary to hone his innate skill. As a result, these folks don’t make any long-term progress. Initially, those with superior talent run ahead of their colleagues with ease; but as the race continues, the one who had only marginal abilities but possessed an unrelenting work ethic eventually overtakes the naturally gifted person.

Scripture warns us often of the danger of squandering our gifts and resources through a lack of discipline. “The soul of the sluggard craves and craves, but the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Prov 13:4). We might have great plans and dreams, but we will only crave success (not taste it) if we don’t discipline ourselves. But it’s even more serious than that.

To Whom Much is Given
Jesus links the diligent use of our God-given resources (time, spiritual resources, financial resources, ministry opportunity, and so on) to saving faith. That is, it is the one who multiplies what he has been given who finally hears, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21, 23). The one who squandered his time and resources won’t be merely scolded and forgiven; he will be assigned to eternal condemnation for his laziness (Matt 25:24-30). This is not to suggest that we earn our way to heaven by our hard work: justification is by faith alone, apart from works (Rom 4:5). Rather, Jesus is teaching us that a person with true faith will diligently use the resources he has been given for the glory of God and the good of others. “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

When I ponder this last statement from Jesus, I am usually drawn to consider the massive—and I mean massive—amount of money, spiritual resources (books, video, audio, etc.), and discretionary time we have been given in America. In terms of the obligation to multiply our resources, we have been given more than any other people in this history of mankind. I shudder to think what the King will say to many of us on the Day of Judgement when he comes to take account of his investments. Much will be required.

What is Discipline and What Keeps it Alive? 
But what is discipline? Discipline is simply the consistent application of focused, unyielding effort to fulfill a particular practice (or set of practices) in order to accomplish a specific goal. Maintaining a clear vision of what one is seeking to accomplish, therefore, is essential to the life of any given discipline. That is, in order to maintain our motivation to pursue our disciplines and make the necessary sacrifices in order to prioritize them, we must keep our end goal always in view.

Your hope to clock a personal-best in your next 10k is what will be what enables you to get up early, run your 30 miles a week, stretch regularly, and push aside sweets during your training months. Similarly, our desire to enjoy deep fellowship with Christ, grow in holiness, bear spiritual fruit, maintain our joy, and sharpen our ministry skills will, along with the Holy Spirit, fuel our efforts to discipline ourselves to read and meditate on Scripture, prayer, and worship.

Over the next few posts, I will discuss the essential disciplines of Bible reading and meditation, prayer, and worship. Throughout these posts, I will mingle a few more thoughts on the importance of discipline as well as some ideas on related disciplines like writing and keeping a journal.

I will also say a few words about depression and discipline. This last topic is important because depression often robs our motivation for discipline. Some of us need help here because we are so easily derailed from maintaining our disciplines by our bouts with depression. Hopefully, these posts will be an encouragement to those who are naturally energetic and optimistic, as well as those who struggle with a bent toward depression.

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