In Defense of Discipline (Or, Trying Not to Be a Spiritual Couch Potato)

Discipline is one of those words that often gets a bad rap these days. It brings to mind all kinds of negative images, like parents spanking their kids with belts or the crazed drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket abusing his trainees. Certainly, that kind of horrific behavior should rightly be shunned.

There is another meaning of discipline, though, one that is closer to its roots in the word disciple. The word disciple originally meant pupil, student or learner. In fact, the Greek word matheteis, translated most often in English versions of the New Testament, had precisely this meaning. A disciple was one who learned from and followed the precepts of a teacher, and a discipline was a field of learning or a method of instruction. Discipline is still used in this sense when we talk about, for instance, the discipline of economics or an interdisciplinary approach to education.

Yet another meaning of the word discipline concerns the practice of maintaining a commitment to do certain things, often in pursuit of a goal. Financial advisers talk of “a disciplined approach to investing”, politicians talk of “restoring fiscal discipline to Washington”, and sports commentators talk of the discipline of athletes with respect to a training regimen or a way of playing a given sport.

Within the field of spirituality, it is not uncommon to hear mention of spiritual disciplines. These are faith practices that people undertake in order to grow in their faith and as acts of devotion, and are also sometimes called marks (or practices) of discipleship. The phrase spiritual disciplines combines both the “method of instruction/field of study” sense of discipline and the commitment sense of discipline. These practices are things people do in order to learn and grow, and they are things that people commit to doing on a regular (often daily or weekly) basis. Some common spiritual disciplines from the Christian tradition include daily prayer and/or meditation, weekly worship, regular study of scripture, giving of one’s resources (time, labor and money), and acts of love and service for those in need.

All of these activities can help the disciple (or follower, if you will) grow in his or her relationship with God if undertaken occasionally. But there is something to be said for doing them in a regular, disciplined way, particularly when we don’t want to do them. Speaking for myself, sometimes these spiritual disciplines come easily to me. At those times, prayer is as natural as breathing, spending time in the scriptures is a joy, and giving of myself and my resources to others is something I’m eager to do. At other times, though, it is difficult to do them. Some days I just can’t seem to find the time to pray, or I do so in a hurried, rudimentary way while my mind is on other things. The same goes for devotional reading of scripture. Sometimes I just don’t want to give of myself, let alone of my money. Some days, quite frankly, I just don’t want to do the things that feed my spiritual life; some days I just want to be a spiritual couch potato.

Sometimes this spiritual malaise is the result of boredom and a sign that I need to vary my routine a bit. Sometimes it is quite simply a matter of sloth, wanting to rest on my (meager) laurels, as it were. I notice, though, that the times in which it is most difficult to maintain a spiritual discipline are times of emotional upheaval: times of stress, times when I’m over-busy, times when I’m anxious or worried or scared or angry. It’s fairly easy (though by no means effortless) to maintain a spiritual discipline when everything is A-OK hunky-dory peachy keen. It’s another kettle of fish entirely when I’m wrung out, stressed out or frazzled.

That is where the commitment sense of discipline comes to the fore. I have a number of friends who are runners and who are quite disciplined about it. If it’s beautiful out, they run. If it’s scorching hot and humid out, they run (taking proper precautions, of course). If it’s raining or snowing out, they run. And they run knowing that if they do, even if they aren’t “feeling it” and don’t want to, they will benefit from it, certainly in the long term and often in the immediate short term. One of my runner friends credited her disciplined approach to running with helping her to stay in shape even when she couldn’t run for a time due to an injury, and to helping her recover from that injury faster. It is the same way with spiritual disciplines. Making a commitment to pray, or study, or serve, or give, even when we aren’t “feeling it”, pays dividends in the long run and often in the short run. I find that doing these things grounds me and re-centers me, gets me back on an even keel, especially on the days I don’t want to do them. Being disciplined about my spiritual exercises is just like being disciplined about physical exercise: it builds the foundation that helps me stay “in shape” even when I’m under stress. And that is a very positive form of discipline, at least for me.

(As you may have guessed, I wasn’t feeling all that motivated about maintaining my discipline of writing today.)

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