My history with “discipline” and “self-control” is checkered at best.
A couple of periods of my life come to mind when I think of those terms. The first one is when I was in high school. I became very meticulous about my eating and working out – I had a notebook where I wrote down everything I ate each day, logged my workouts, and totaled my calories. I also weighed myself almost every day and tracked my weight. Despite the fact I was already small, through this period of increased “self-control,” I got down to about 95 lbs. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that my effort to become “healthier” by exercising “self-control” was little more than a poorly disguised bout of disordered eating that was my coping mechanism for dealing with my parents’ divorce.
The second period of my life that comes to mind is when I was competing in figure/fitness competitions. For months, I would follow a strict meal plan which required me to weigh and measure all of my food. I ate the same things day in and day out, usually limited to chicken breasts, egg whites, tilapia (which I hate to this day), asparagus, and peanut butter. This also included going to the gym 5-6 days/week, sometimes even doing two-a-day workouts as I got closer to the competition date. I avoided social events that involved food, brought my pre-cooked, correctly portioned food with me when I traveled, and faithfully stuck to my plan. This was a 24 hour per day commitment for 3-4 months, and it was all for the purpose of getting onstage in a skimpy swimsuit to pose for judges whom I’d never meet so they could arbitrarily critique my body against their ideal and decide how I stacked up against my fellow competitors. For anyone who has been a long-time reader of my blog, you already know how damaging that was to my mindset and self-esteem.
With perfectionistic tendencies and a history of taking “self-control” to psychologically and physically unhealthy lengths, I find in my adult life that I am somewhat averse to anything overly structured or rigid. As a new Christian, I also learned about the idea of “legalism,” where people believe their strict adherence to God’s laws will earn them favor/grace/salvation instead of accepting their status as sinners falling short of God’s standards, who can accept the unmerited grace of God as a gift through believing in Jesus Christ. The epitome of legalism was represented by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, who adhered strictly to the traditions of the Old Testament as well as other arbitrary rules they had made up themselves. They frequently gave the appearance of outward righteousness and piety even while their hearts were corrupted by greed and pride and other types of sin. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that throughout Jesus’ life as depicted in the Gospels, Jesus most frequently provoked the Pharisees and saved some of His harshest words for them (see Matthew 23 – yikes).
However, lately God has been showing me how frequently self-control appears in His word. Here is just a small sampling:
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. –Proverbs 25:28
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. –Galatians 5:22-23
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. –2 Peter 1:5-7
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. –2 Timothy 1:7
On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. –1 Timothy 4:7b-8
I tend to associate physical and mental discipline with exercise and eating, and spiritual discipline with lust, anger, and the words we speak. However, I am beginning to recognize that biblical self-control is much more than that, and that it is produced by a combination both training myself for godliness and God working within me to help me become more like Christ. Thankfully, one of the women in my small group asked me if I would be willing to read through Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life with her. This is definitely an answered prayer as I think this book will help me further understand what spiritual discipline is and how to practice it. Each chapter covers a different discipline:
- Bible Intake (this one is 2 chapters)
- Silence and Solitude
This may take a while to get through, but I’d love to share what I learn along the way! The foreword suggests reading this book a minimum of 3 times, at least one month apart, so that you can let the book fully sink in, identify things you should start doing, and then review what you have done and how you have fared in between readings. Let the journey begin!