Discipline: Even When We Don’t Feel Like It

The more I consider the Spiritual Disciplines (prayer, Scripture reading and memory), the more certain I am that they are not so dissimilar to working out and other “physical” disciplines. For example, I hated working out when I was in high school, but because I played sports, it was mandatory. What I have come to realize is that my distaste for working out was really a distaste for discipline.  I wanted to excel in sports, but in order to excel in sports, one needs discipline, and I didn’t want discipline.  I wanted to be good without the work, which really means I didn’t truly have the desire to be good. (For the record I might have barely reached mediocre at the pinnacle of my “sports” career).

I had many friends who absolutely loved to work out, which only shamed me more in light of my half-hearted attempts. My friend (and later college roommate), Chad, could work out for hours on end.  It appeared that he loved it all the time, which fueled his drive to work out more and more. This seemed so unattainable to me. I didn’t possess that same desire.  I remember him trying to encourage me to work out one day and me simply responding that I didn’t feel like working out.  What he said next has stayed with me ever since. He said, “You know, Graham, it is on the days that I don’t feel like working out, but choose to work out anyway, that I get stronger.”

It came as a surprise to me that Chad didn’t love working out all the time. It turns out his motivation wasn’t the act itself, but what it would eventually produce.  I now believe the more he worked out, the more it became part of his pattern of life. His pattern of life produced results. The discipline led to delight, and, conversely, his delight led to more discipline.

There is a correlation between this story and my pursuit of Godliness. According to Scripture, bodily discipline is of some value, but Godliness is valuable in every way (1 Timothy 4:8).   There are many days that I don’t feel like reading Scripture.  I don’t feel like praying.  I don’t feel like doing the right thing. But the whole idea of discipline is submitting our feelings to doing what is right in order that we may grow. It is a cultivation process, a pruning, that doesn’t necessarily feel good, but that produces something much more valuable than mere sentiment.  Matt Chandler says that no one stumbles into Godliness.  Godliness will never happen by accident–we must train ourselves.  We must discipline ourselves in spite of our feelings.  Our affections are fickle and we must cultivate them to love the right things.

This includes consistent time in the Word and in prayer. I have met a lot of guys who push back at the idea of a daily devotion or quiet time because they don’t want to be “legalistic” about their time with the LORD. I have two responses to this mentality:

  • First, no one takes that mentality into any other sphere of life.  We practice basketball, writing, or the guitar in order to get better at that activity, even when we don’t feel like it. It is the antithesis of discipline to wait until we feel like doing something before doing it. If we served our wives, went to work, or did the right thing only when we felt like it, then what kind of person would we be? Selfish? Lazy? Therefore, we must cultivate the necessary affections, and the cultivation must happen through discipline.
  • Second, it is legalistic to find yourself to be righteous because of your daily devotion with the LORD. If you ever find yourself patting yourself on the back because you haven’t missed a quiet time in two years, believing that your righteousness is derived from your ability to do so, then I suspect your attitude resembles hell more than heaven. All our works, whether it be time in the Word, feeding the hungry, or loving the unlovable, must flow out of the righteousness given to us by Christ. We aren’t righteous because we do good things. Christ has made us righteous; therefore, we do good things.

I have found many times that my affections are slow and need to catch up with my actions. But if we wait until we feel ready, then we will never get anything done. Discipline and habit-forming are important in becoming a man of God. As the old adage goes, “At first the man makes the habit, but in the end the habit makes the man.”

Our disciplines will lead to delight, and our delights will lead to more discipline. Let us not be so foolish as to believe that Godliness will happen by accident. Let us not be so naive as to argue that our feelings must be right in order to practice the Spiritual disciplines.

Men are disciples of Christ who are marked by their disciplines and their delights.