(This is the third of three posts on Rom 12:2.) “Discipline” can be a rather off-putting word. For me, the negative association is homework. I’ve always hated homework.
I was a smart enough kid to be able to skate by on minimum effort, always procrastinating, conveniently forgetting even the largest assignments until the very last minute. (Wait…the science fair project is due tomorrow???) For the most part, it worked…until I failed two courses in college by assuming I could just pass the exams by studying the night before. You’d think I would have learned my lesson the first time it happened. Nope. Big mistake.
When God saw fit to draw me as a clueless college freshman into his kingdom, I began to feel like even being a Christian meant a lot of homework. The parachurch ministry through which I heard the gospel had me filling out workbooks, reading and studying, and going about the campus with surveys and tracts, evangelizing. There were lots of things to do; not doing them meant carrying around an extra measure of shame and guilt. What, do you mean you’re not having a regular “quiet time”? Good grief, man, get with the program.
In the face of that perceived pressure, it’s easy to justify running in the other direction, in which the Christian life isn’t about what you do, it’s about who you are. It’s not about law, it’s about grace. This quickly becomes, Yeah, I know–I should read my Bible. I should pray more. I should go to church. But I don’t really have to. Those are just religious works. So I don’t have to feel guilty; after all, God loves and accepts me for who I am.
And when we get really good at all of this, we can just ping-pong back and forth between a Christianity of doing and a Christianity of being, between days or even seasons of intense religious activity on the one hand and spiritual lassitude on the other. What fun.
Doing vs. being. It’s a false dichotomy. The real problem is that we don’t know who we are.
Again, here’s Paul:
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Rom 12:2, NLT)
How much do I let the world tell me who I am, or who I should be? How much physical and emotional energy do I invest in molding and maintaining myself according to the culture’s ideals–including the idea that I am both the sculptor and the sculpted, that I can make myself into whomever I wish?
This is the paradox of spiritual discipline. At first, it may feel like homework, as something alien to us, something that we are “supposed” to do but is not a spontaneous and therefore authentic expression of our “true” selves. But if we feel that way, I suspect the major reason is that we don’t really know who we are, at least not the truth of who we are in the sight of God.
The worldly way of thinking is that I am supposed to be a religious person–homo religiousus–trying to do the right thing, to be a good person, to do my homework and get the grade. The truth of the matter is that I am a beloved child of a merciful Father, being transformed by him, bit by bit, into the very likeness of Jesus. Transformation is his work, not mine.
But I can’t be passive in the process, for that would simply mean allowing myself to be clay in the world’s hands instead of the Spirit’s. Spiritual discipline is how I learn and remember who I am, the truth of who God is making to be. It’s how I learn to think rightly about the world and my place in it.
Thus, I read the Bible to learn the story of how the world really is, what God is doing about it, and what it might mean to get in on the action. I study and memorize to get more of the story inside me, where it can do some good and change me from the inside out. I pray to rehearse the truth: both to practice speaking truth to God, and to have him speak truth to me. I gather with others to worship, to be among people who are also seeking to know and live the truth, even though we so often get it wrong.
I confess that the term “spiritual discipline” sometimes still makes me think of homework assigned for a required class that I never wanted to take. I know better, of course. The word “discipline,” after all, is from the same root as “disciple.” It’s all about learning in the company of Jesus, stretching toward the goal of being more like the Master. Paul’s metaphor (so appropriate for an Olympic year!) would be that discipline is the training needed for a race I want to run and win.
The irony is that I might not even have the desire to enter or win the race if I don’t submit to the training first, in faith. It’s discipline itself that builds the desire and the passion. It’s discipline that helps me know, little by little, that everything good, pleasing, and perfect lies on the other side of the finish line.
Father, thanks for being so patient with me, the kid who’s allergic to homework. Build in me the passion to run; make me more and more fit for the race. Amen.