Getting into a self-disciplined routine can feel so difficult but seem so easy for others, so what’s the secret to success?
“I’ll never forget the feelings I experienced when two shiny new keys were pressed firmly into my trembling hands,” Gary Richmond recalled in his book A View from the Zoo. “They weren’t just any keys. These keys gave me access to all the cages at the Los Angeles Zoo.”
The senior keeper sternly warned him that millions of dollars in the shape of exotic animals were in his care. “’Consistency is your best safeguard,’ he said. ‘Do it the same way at every exhibit. Develop a good habit and don’t vary your routine.’”
With this warning ringing in his head, Gary made sure his record was spotless. He did well, until one day after four months. “I couldn’t tell you why my routine varied, but somehow it did and with the most dangerous animal at the zoo.”
A 900-pound polar bear, Ivan—nicknamed Ivan the Terrible after the bloodthirsty tsar—was a nightmare to oversee. He had mauled two prospective mates to death and never passed up the opportunity to attempt pulling zoo keepers into his cage.
Gary had just released Ivan from his night quarters for the morning when he abruptly realized that he’d left the steel exhibit door open.
Heart pounding, he watched Ivan pace in his enclosure then bolted. All he could imagine each step was rounding a corner to the sight of Ivan’s bulk filling the hallway. The hall was empty, a beam of outdoor light coming through the open door.
“As I reached out for the handle, I looked to the right. There was the bear, eight feet away. Our eyes met. His were cold and unfeeling and I’m sure mine expressed all the terror that filled the moment. I pulled the huge steel door with all my strength. It clanged shut and the clasp was secured. My knees buckled and I fell to the floor…”
When Self-Discipline Fails…Badly
Many of us may feel like we have a very dangerous bear locked up somewhere inside our lives.
For some, your bear may be an addiction or trauma in your past that you fear will color how others see you and if you will be accepted. For others, your bear may be a hot temper, fear of failure or chronic anxiety that you must constantly keep leashed.
Every time we grow complacent and forget the lock all the doors, the bear gets loose, and it always causes harm. Sometimes we can mostly hide the damage; other times it leaves an unconcealable scar across relationships and opportunities. We crack down on inspecting all the doors, double locking every latch, checking off our list. We swear it won’t happen again, ever.
Except it often does.
The work of self-discipline is also the work of self-denial from both the pleasures of sin and also from being defined by our past pain. When we’re hit with how unpleasant and tiring this process is, inspiration and resolve seem to evaporate.
On the website Desiring God, Jon Bloom states a painful fact, “Our will always obeys our wants — our real wants, not our fantasy wants. And our real wants are based on our real beliefs, not our fantasy beliefs.”
This leads to some uncomfortable questions: How serious do we take God’s commands to live holy lives in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8? Do we truly believe that God has promised us victory in Galatians 5:16-25? Do we trust him to love us when we fail (without even a twinge of disappointment) as the Bible states in Ephesians 1:4?
How do we cling to the promises? How do we last?
Bloom observes, “The power for self-discipline does not come from admiring self-discipline. It does not come from wishing we were more self-disciplined. It does not come from making new resolves, plans and schedules for self-discipline (though these help when the fundamental motivation is right). It certainly does not come from loathing our lack of self-discipline and resolving (again) to do better — and this time we mean it.”
He concludes, “The power for self-discipline comes from the prize…”
Setting Our Eyes on the Prize
Dr. Don Whitney, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made an interesting distinction in an interview about spiritual disciplines. “…the Bible prescribes both personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines. There are those spiritual disciplines that we practice alone and those that we practice with other Christians.”
For example, reading the Bible regularly is a fundamental, personal discipline. It’s not always fun, but it is necessary for us to know what God actually says to us so we’re not led astray.
On the other side, being able to accurately articulate biblical principles to others is an important interpersonal discipline because it’s how we witness to nonbelievers and how we encourage our fellow believers.
Almost every spiritual discipline has both elements, and we will need to have close relationships with other Christians in order to fully develop godly self-discipline.
What’s more, to actually accomplish this, we will need to learn how to rely on God in whole new ways. “…we are to be continually filled with the Spirit, to constantly drink from his well of living water,” points out Gary Wilkerson in a devotional on waiting for the power of God. “None of this means the Spirit leaves us, but rather that we have a part in our relationship with him.”
Like in marriage, we need to deliberately and regularly pursue our spouse in order to have a vibrant relationship. Healthy marriage doesn’t just happen.
A joyful, powerful relationship with God doesn’t just happen either.
His love and approval is the imperishable crown Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. This is the prize we set our eyes on, the thing we strain toward so when we reach heaven it’s with a gasp of relief and then delight upon finally seeing our Lord.
Having Grace, Mostly With Others
Talking about self-discipline is a lot like talking about working out. It’s easy to do while sizing up someone else and judging their moral fiber against their physical appearance.
That person may have personal history, genetics, personality quirks and a multitude of other issues that stack the deck for or against them, but we can’t see their cards.
If we’re looking at someone with great self-discipline, it may be easy to make assumptions like, “Well, they probably just have that kind of personality. God didn’t give me that gift. I’ll bet they don’t know how to really unwind and relax like I do. They probably don’t enjoy life as much.”
Often discipline is birthed out of a long history of struggle, or it is the result of healing from a deeply painful experience. Don’t presume that someone’s journey to healthy self-restraint has been easy or that they don’t have joy as a result.
Conversely, if we’re on the other side, we may fall quickly into another type of judgment. “This person’s obviously a lazy bum. I can’t believe they’ve let themselves go like this. I hope they feel a real conviction from the Holy Spirit soon; they need a swift kick in the spiritual pants.”
This person and the Spirit may be working on an entirely different area of self-control and trust in God’s provision. Just because you feel like one discipline should be a priority in someone else’s life doesn’t mean God agrees.
God knows exactly which talents and obstacles he’s put in each person’s life; the road they’re on is almost without a doubt vastly different than our own.
More than anything, we should be sobered by the work still in front of us. “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). Rather than looking around at the people beside us, let’s keep our eyes on the road ahead and train ourselves so that we can hear one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”