April 13, 2024

The Problem

I hate discipline. But I love what it does for me. When I see the word, I think of how I felt each time my parents punished me for my transgressions. Yet those episodes helped me learn right from wrong. And when I heard the gospel, I knew I was a sinner in need of a Savior. Though it was painful to admit my sin, I’ve loved what repentance and seeking the forgiveness of God have done for my life.

Despite the benefits of discipline, the word itself can cause discomfort. As I talk with others about engaging in the spiritual disciplines, many say they feel an inner resistance to the concept due to the connotations of the word. There is, however, more to discipline than punishment. Here is a brief review of some concepts attached to “discipline.”1Kurian, George Thomas, Editor, “Discipline,” in Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001) 241-242. The following concepts are included in the definition of discipline: “Teaching of precepts and commandments that help Christian growth and discipleship….Punishment….Rigorous training….Rites and activities of a denomination….Practice of correction of serious faults of faith or life by the congregation or its leaders.” Also, see Lane, William L., “Discipline,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1, General Editor: Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 948-950, for a presentation of some Old and New Testament concepts of discipline including: OT— “training, instruction, and firm guidance…reproof, correction, and punishment” and NT—“Instruction.…training by act, example, and word” and the discipline of suffering for one’s faith.

Discipline as Punishment

As noted above, discipline can refer to the act of punishment “for the sake of enforcing obedience and perfecting moral character.”2“Discipline” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline There are several examples of God’s punishment in the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:1-24, Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-29, and the rebellious Levites in Numbers 16:1-50.3Nelson, William B. Jr, “Punishment,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 659.

One of the most grievous punishments fell on Israel. The Prophetic books are full of warnings about God’s impending punishment of Israel, issued with the hope of turning the people away from their sin and toward obedience to God. Unfortunately, the people resisted God’s patient and repeated efforts to mold their character. This resulted in the punishment of exile for both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-23, 24:1-25:21).

The concept of punishment in the New Testament “generally refers to chastisement associated with eternal judgement.”4Grider J. Kenneth, and Gary L. Kanpp, “Punish,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 3, General Editor: Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 1052. While believers may suffer consequences for their sins, they do not suffer punishment in the same way as unbelievers, because Jesus bore the believers’ punishment on the cross (Is. 53:4-6; Heb. 9:27-28; 1 Peter 2:24).5Morris, Leon, “Punishment,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 896. God does, however, provide correction for Christians who stray from the path of holiness.

Discipline as Correction

Scripture tells me that, just as an earthly father corrects his own children, so God corrects me. This is a good thing. Suffering God’s discipline in this way gives testimony to God’s love for me and to my place in his family (Deut. 8:5; Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11).6Edman, V. Raymond, “Discipline,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 320. Having said that, I love how the writer of Hebrews notes that correction can be painful. This tells me I don’t have to enjoy correction, I just need to endure it—and, ideally, learn and grow from it.

The New Testament indicates believers can receive correction through another believer or through the local church (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; Gal. 6:1; 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 2:24-26, 4:1-2; Titus 2:1-15).7Nelson, William B. Jr, “Punishment,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 660. See also Caswell, R. N., “Discipline,” in New Dictionary of Theology, Editors: Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 199-200. We also have the gift of God’s Word, which is supremely sufficient for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Discipline as Instruction

One way to avoid sins, which invite the painful corrective aspects of discipline, is to engage in “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.”8“Discipline” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline This type of discipline is instruction that trains me up for the spiritual life in Christ.9Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), xi, 17. See also: Edman, V. Raymond, “Discipline,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 320. It helps me choose the right paths instead of those that lead to destruction (Prov. 15:10).

Proverbs is full of encouragement to “apply the mind to discipline”10Brown, Francis, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1906), 416c. and to instruct oneself “in the school wisdom”11Brown, Francis, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1906), 416c. (Prov. 1:1-7, 2:1-15, 4:13, 8:1-36, 19:20, 23:12, 23:23).12The New Testament also speaks of the importance of wisdom. See Acts 6:3; Colossians 1:9, 3:16, 4:5; and James 1:5, 3:13-17, Hubbard, D. A., “Wisdom” in The New Bible Dictionary, Editors: I. Howard Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1244-1245. The essence of wisdom is “knowledge rightly applied.”13This definition is generally attributed to Hyrum W. Smith. Godly wisdom “takes insights gleaned from the knowledge of God’s ways and applies them in the daily walk.”14Hubbard, D. A., “Wisdom,” in The New Bible Dictionary, Editors: I. Howard Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1244. The cost of not doing so is great. Scripture is clear about the fate of those who choose to refuse to heed the instruction of wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33, 5:11-14, 10:17, 13:18, 15:32, 19:27).

Discipline as Action

Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, study, memorization, and meditation is a wonderful way to way to train one’s mind in the school of godly wisdom. These disciplines enable us to renew our minds so that we become tuned-in to God’s will and ways (Ps. 119:1-3; Rom. 12:2; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Though the term “spiritual discipline” is not found in Scripture, the concept is there.15For the record, neither is the term “Trinity,” though we also surely see the reality of the Trinity in God’s Word. See: Bromiley, Geoffrey W., “Trinity,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 1112. We see it in Acts 2:42, which tells us about the spiritual disciplines in which the first-century church engaged. The passage says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”16Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Revised Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015). See Calhoun’s book for a list of other possible spiritual disciplines along with definitions, pertinent Scripture passages, and ideas on how to practice the disciplines. These four spiritual disciplines are generally referred to as traditional “means of grace.”17Hughes, Philip E., “Means of Grace,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Editor: Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 482. Of the spiritual disciplines, David Teague says, “In Protestant thinking, spiritual disciplines are considered to be means of grace. That is, God works through them to strengthen our spiritual lives.” Teague, David, Godly Servants: Discipleship and Spiritual Formation for Missionaries (n. c.: Mission Imprints, 2012), 74.

The fact that they devoted themselves indicates they regularly, actively, and enthusiastically pursued the practice of these activities. They took action in order to help themselves grow in Christ. And while it’s true that God is the one who works spiritual transformation in us, it is also true that transformation is often a result of our active participation in the disciplines.18Foster, Richard, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 7). Foster states, “By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace,” they are tools that “allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.” See also, Tan, Siang-Yan, and Douglas H. Gregg, Disciplines of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 8-9. See also Smith, Gordon T., “Grace and Spiritual Disciplines,” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, General Editor: Glen G. Scorgie (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). 222-227.

Discipline as Benefit

Scripture says many things about the benefits of engaging in various spiritual disciplines, though perhaps there is none more important than God’s Word. David Teague says, “The main spiritual discipline in the Protestant tradition has always been the reading of Scripture.”19Teague, David, Godly Servants: Discipleship and Spiritual Formation for Missionaries (n.c.: Mission Imprints, 2012), 75. Here is a short list of what Scripture says about engaging in God’s Word, which can:

  • Help me attain “wisdom and discipline” (Prov. 1:2)
  • Help me acquire a “disciplined and prudent life” (Prov. 1:3)
  • Shine a light on my path (Ps. 119:105)
  • Help me discern the “thoughts and attitudes” of my heart (Heb. 4:12)
  • Help me grow spiritually (1 Pet. 2:2)
  • Help me choose to not sin (Ps. 119:9-11, 127-128)
  • Help me grow in faith (Rom. 10:17)
  • Make me wise (Pss. 19:7, 119:98; 2 Tim. 3:14-15)
  • Give me understanding (Ps. 119:100, 130)
  • Bring me joy (Pss. 19:8; 119:111)
  • Prepare me to bear fruit (Ps. 1:3)
  • Provide me with comfort (Ps. 119:52)
  • Give me more insight than my teachers (Ps. 119:99)
  • Prepare me for the work God has called me to do (1 Tim. 3:16-17)

When I review this list of the benefits of God’s Word, I begin to understand how the Psalmist could write such a beautiful tribute to it in Psalm 119. It causes a hunger in my soul and makes me long to spend more time in Scripture.

The Solution

If I recoil from practicing the spiritual disciplines because of the connotation of punishment attached to the word, I run the risk of stunting my spiritual growth and starving my relationship with God. One solution to the dilemma is to choose a different phrase to refer to the disciplines like “means of grace,”20Harper, Steve, “Spiritual Disciplines from Legalism to Liberty,” in Spiritual Disciplines 101 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2005), 8. “spiritual practices,”21Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Revised Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015) 11. See also Smith, Gordon T., “Grace and Spiritual Disciplines,” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, General Editor: Glen G. Scorgie (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). 225. “spiritual activities,” or “spiritual exercises.”

However, regardless of what phrase we choose to describe what we’re doing, it still requires effort on our part—and retains the possibility of pain. Paul never said it would be easy. He demonstrates this fact by using the example of an athlete running a race to describe the Christian life (Acts 20:24; Heb. 12:1; 2 Tim. 4:7; Gal. 2:2, 5:7; Phil. 2:16). In 1 Timothy 4:7 he says “train yourself to be godly.” And, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, he says,

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a  way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

I know a lot of runners. They all seem to have a love-hate relationship with running—and yet are committed to it. When they prepare for a marathon, they are slaves to their running schedule. They discipline their minds and their bodies. They bear the various pains of training, often submitting to the instructions of a trainer, in order to compete in and finish the race. This is behavior we would do well to emulate in the realm of spiritual growth.

Though I may still hate the pain of discipline, I will be wise if I submit myself to it and continue to love what it does for my life. If I keep my eye on the prize—a Christlike character—I will be more apt to put in the necessary work. So, like Jesus, who endured the cross for the joy set before him, and Paul, who enslaved his body in order to win the race, I too can endure the hardships inherent in practicing the spiritual disciplines for the sake of my soul.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.
Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace
for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:11

NOTE: Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

Picture Credit: Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

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