I remember sitting in class with Dr. Don Whitney at Midwestern Seminary, as a first semester Master of Divinity student, and listening as he taught on 1 Timothy 4:7 about the importance of disciplining yourself for godliness. His teaching impacted me greatly, particularly on the heels of reading, multiple times, Jerry Bridges classic book “The Pursuit of Holiness.” This idea of discipline captured my attention, and the more I studied God’s word, the more I became convinced that discipline is among the most significant, and defining, characteristics of the maturing believer. This, however, was not entirely foreign to me. I remember hearing the importance of discipline over and over in the churches I was a part of growing up. Unfortunately, all too often, it was not in a positive light and did not at all seem like something that any intelligent person would desire. Avoid these sins, walk in this way, read this, pray that, and so on. In fact, I was well versed in the fact that discipline must be a priority for those who claim Jesus. However, the concept of discipline that was foremost in my mind was that of discipline as a goal. In other words, if I would just discipline myself, I would be a good little christian. Although I am sure this was unintentional, the message conveyed was that discipline, and not necessarily Jesus, was the answer for the christian walk. I am fairly confident that most of us do not mean to do this, but sadly, somewhere along the line, our attempt to embrace holiness has led us to a place where discipline seems to be the goal, and when discipline becomes the goal it becomes a soul-killing reality for far too many.
You see, the truth is that discipline does not have the capacity to give us joy, to fill us with satisfaction or to captivate our affections. In fact, on its own discipline does exactly the opposite. It brings restriction, frustration and inhibits our ability grow in our affection for Jesus.
As I have grown in my faith I have slowly realized that discipline is not a joy, but is in fact almost like death if it is not first preceded by delight in the person and character of God. This simple little truth has absolutely transformed the way I see Jesus and the way in which I am able to practice discipline. In fact, in all my years as a believer, I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone reference some sort of need for discipline, but all too rare were messages about the importance of being satisfied with God.
This was really driven home to me not long ago when I sat down to read all four gospels in one sitting. In doing so, I was amazed at how consistently John’s gospel refers to our relationship with God in terms of physical satisfaction. The gospel is referred to in terms of water and bread, among other things. The point that John is making is that God is soul-satisfying like nothing else is. When we come to him, we drink and we eat and we are satisfied. In addition to John, there are so many references, throughout scripture, to being satisfied with God. Psalm 22:26, Psalm 119:57, Isaiah 55:1-2, John 4:14 & John 6:53-58 are but just a few examples of the goodness and satisfaction that are found in God.
As I read through that gospel it occurred to me that this is, in fact, what makes discipline beautiful, and this is equally what has been missing so often in what I hear about discipline. Discipline is only life-giving if it comes in response to the satisfaction of the soul. In other words, our efforts to restrict things in our life should come as a response to something else, namely God, wholly and completely satisfying us. As we, like the woman at the well, receive the gift of eternal water from Jesus, we find that it so deeply and completely satisfies that eliminating other things is no problem because our apetite has already been thoroughly quenched. Taking this one step further, we need to then be reminded that this applies to the killing of sin in our life as well. The great Puritan John Owen once famously said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” However, it is important to remember that the method to killing sin in our life isn’t starving it, it is drinking deeply of something else, something wholly satisfying, that is Jesus.
So yes, discipline is a vital aspect of a maturing faith. It points us to Jesus, and walks with us in satisfaction, but it, in itself does not satisfy. If you try to walk the path of discipline without first drinking deeply of the truth of the gospel and the person of Jesus, your discipline will lead to anger, frustration and eventually abandonment of the gospel. It is only when we are first satisfied with Jesus that we are willing, and glad to abandon those things that are necessary through the act of disciple.