The Dark Side of Discipline

I recently wrote a book the celebrates the God-given gift of discipline, largely by pointing out just how disciplined Jesus was during his time on earth. His example shows us that discipline is a virtue, and this is a theme the biblical writers carry throughout the New Testament. For example, hear the apostle Paul:

Don’t you know that when people run on the race-track everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it.

Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don’t run in an aimless fashion! I don’t box like someone punching the air! No: I give my body rough treatment, and make it my slave, in case, after announcing the message to others, I myself should end up being disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24–27, NTE)

As Christ’s followers, we don’t run through life “in an aimless fashion.” We are called to “self-discipline in everything,” what Paul also calls “self-control” in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Discipline is a byproduct of a Spirit-filled, Christlike life.

But as with any good thing, we can easily make discipline an ultimate thing and thus turn it into an idol. Discipline is a gift, but it can also be a curse. That’s my challenge—I pray it won’t be yours. So, how can you know when you’ve crossed over to the dark side of discipline and turned this good gift into an idol? Here are two signs.

1. No Grace for Others

As Tim Keller shows in The Prodigal God, many of us are like the elder brother in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal sons. Unlike younger brothers, who build their self-image on freedom and rebellion, “elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy.” That sounds like me—and probably you if you consider yourself a relatively disciplined person. But here’s the problem: being the elder brother “inevitably leads to feeling superior to those who don’t have those same qualities.”

That last line stings me to the core, because on my worst days, that’s me. If someone shares that he’s drowning in emails or struggling to be in the Word every day, my first inclination might be to help—but I’ll also likely feel a tinge of pride that I am more disciplined. If someone shows up late to a meeting or drops the ball on a project, I can seethe with self-righteous anger.

Can you relate? I don’t think I’m on an island. If this is part of what the dark side of discipline looks like for you, let me remind us that the root cause of our failure to extend grace to the less disciplined in our lives is forgetfulness of the gospel. We can’t forget that everything we have—including our ability to be disciplined as we “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16)—has been graciously given to us. James 1:17 says “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.” Our ability to be disciplined in redeeming our time is a gift of grace, just like salvation, “so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:9).

I can’t take credit for my productivity. Over the years, God has graciously brought books, mentors, software, and systems into my life to help me redeem the time for his glory. I did nothing but willfully participate—and even that I can’t take credit for, as God is the one who allows me to wake up each morning to do this work.

Of course, being hard on others isn’t the only way we can know we’ve turned discipline into an idol. There is a second sign we’ve crossed over to the dark side of discipline.

2. No Grace for Yourself

I can be hard on myself if I don’t finish my to-do list for the day, or only get six hours of sleep instead of my coveted eight. Here again, the solution is the gospel. How? Because while the gospel compels us to want to be productive, it simultaneously frees us from the need to be productive, since our status as God’s children is irrevocably secure.

While the gospel compels us to want to be productive, it simultaneously frees us from the need to be productive.

Every night as I put my three young girls to bed, I ask them, “Do you know I love you no matter how many bad things you do?” They nod their heads. “Do you know I love you no matter how many good things you do?” They nod again. Then I ask, “Who else loves you like that?” and they always reply, “Jesus.” You and I need to hear those same words applied to our efforts to redeem our time.

Read 1 Corinthians 9:25 once more: “Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one” (NTE).

Our crowns are imperishable. Our entrance into God’s kingdom—our position as princes and princesses—is secure forever. May that security lead us to be “self-disciplined in everything” as we redeem the time. May we be people who, like Jesus, are purposeful, present, and wildly productive for the glory of God.

J. Raynor

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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