Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. -Hebrews 12:11, NRSV
I decided a few weeks ago that I wanted to run a 10k. It has been a few years since I entered any kind of road race, and I could use the motivation to get in better shape. I picked a race and even enlisted a friend to run it with me. Two weeks ago my friend started training. Until Monday, my training consisted of taking my dog for a half-mile walk. With six weeks until race day, I decided to download a training plan and get started. It has been three days. So far, so good.
Discipline has never been one of my strengths. I know that the words from Hebrews speak truth for my physical, spiritual, and emotional health. On the other hand, I also believe that life is short and meant to be enjoyed, a la Ecclesiastes:
So, I’m all for just going ahead and having a good time—the best possible. The only earthly good men and women can look forward to is to eat and drink well and have a good time—compensation for the struggle for survival these few years God gives us on earth. -Ecclesiastes 8:15, The Message
Ok, let’s be honest. I do not really struggle for survival. I work pretty hard as a pastor and tour leader, but I enjoy a good amount of flexibility in my daily schedule. I have a spouse who is an equal partner both in terms of income and household responsibilities. We get to enjoy life even when we are doing the things necessary for survival. It seems to me that Ecclesiastes assumes a disciplined life not by choice but by necessity. The subsistence farmer must wake early to tend his crops or herd. The single mother must find a way feed her children, get them to school, work all day (or all night), help with homework, bathe everyone, and somehow rest. When life is hard, perhaps that is discipline enough.
I choose to pursue discipline as a virtue because I hope that discipline will help me live more deeply and enjoy life more, not less. My 10k training plan is marked out on my calendar – a disciplined step toward better physical health. I have organized a group of friends to read and study together the work of Brene Brown this summer – a disciplined step toward better emotional health. I am researching continuing education opportunities in leadership – a small step toward professional growth.
Spiritual discipline is no easier for me than the discipline of exercise or work, yet it seems to have something of a different quality to it. When it comes to spiritual growth, I have a deeper sense of reliance on grace than practice. The practice of spiritual discipline is less a means to change myself and more an allowing God to change me, to make me more and more into the image of Christ. The shift in focus from my efforts to God’s is key; however, it does not allow me to shirk my responsibility to pray, study Scripture, meditate, confess, worship, or share. Richard Foster calls it “the path of disciplined grace.” Perhaps that is the right attitude for all the disciplines: not a tool to control others or even myself but a net for catching the grace of God and enjoying life – the best life possible.