When it comes to the work of living, Proverbs tells us the most indispensable tool available to all of us is discipline. Without it we cannot live productive, satisfying lives. Proverbs 13:18 says,
He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame.
While poverty and shame may manifest themselves in many forms, ignoring discipline always manifests itself in life sliding toward mediocrity.
I think discipline is, not only an indispensable tool for making life work, but also our greatest asset when it comes to achieving our goals. But in order to use this tool we must understand it in order to apply it effectively to our lives.
When I talk of making life work, I’m talking about more than just surviving. When we’re just surviving, we resign ourselves to our situation. It’s the this-is-just-the-way-it-is-and-there’s-mothing-I-can-do-about-it attitude. Now what kind of a life is that?!?
When I’m talking about making life work, I’m talking about having a meaningful, purposeful life that faces life’s challenges, overcomes life’s obstacles, and maintains focus in the midst of life’s uncertainties. I’m talking about a life of discipline and excellence and choice in spite of the message of everything else around.
The first component of discipline is having a worthy goal. No surprise there! Why develop discipline if we don’t have a goal challenging enough to require the discipline it’s going to take to achieve it? Why put in the effort if it’s not necessary? If we’re aiming for nothing more than a minimally challenging job, a few casual relationships, or a passible spiritual life, there is little reason to develop or sharpen the tools of discipline. There’s no reason to bother with discipline if we can meander through life without.
But if our goals are loftier than that, then discipline becomes a necessity. It we dream of fulfilling our highest potential educationally and vocationally, we need discipline. If we dream of being a spouse or partner, a parent or friend that breathes life into other people, we need discipline. If we dream of honoring God with our finances and serving others with our money, if we dream of using our spiritual gifts in a meaningful way, we need discipline. If we dream of maintaining physical health through good nutrition and regular exercise, we need discipline.
Every accomplished musician, actor, writer, athlete, salesperson, business leader, teacher, craftsperson, astronaut, student, race-car driver – in short, every accomplished worker in any field – has tapped into the power of discipline for the simple reason that they had to. They could not get where they were going without it.
There are all sorts of definitions for discipline, but the concept I like the most is staying the course. If there is a goal worthy of our pursuit, discipline is the tool that allows us to stay the course until we achieve it. There will be all sorts of distractions and diversions to lure us away from our goal, but if we stay the course, we will arrive at our destination.
I know there are some who get squeamish about dreaming big dreams. They’re afraid that setting lofty goals is presumptuous or arrogant. But what is presumptuous or arrogant about desiring to learn and grow and achieve? Part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that we aspire to make a significant difference with our lives and actualize all of the potential entrusted to us. We should never apologize for that.
An aspect of staying the course promoted throughout Proverbs is the cost-benefit analysis approach, or what I like to call advance decision making. This is where we weigh the alternatives or compare the choices, and then make the right decision…now. Deciding what we will do in the midst of powerful distractions and temptations, helps us be more likely to make the choice to stay the course.
I believe this principle of advance decision making is imperative in parenting practices. By engaging them in age-appropriate decision making processes early on, gradually teaching them how to do cost-benefit analyses of increasingly complex issues, equips them in making decisions and choices as they grow.
If we intend to lead disciplined lives over the long haul, we need to incorporate little celebrations into the pattern of our lives. One of the dangers of becoming a highly disciplined person is that it’s possible to plan and structure joy right out of life! One proverb says, A cheerful heart is good medicine (17:22). Another says, The cheerful heart has a continual feast (15:15).
God knows what will contribute to our well-being. We cannot lead a chaotic, scattered, unstructured, undisciplined, life and still experience fulfillment. That disorder and lack of focus will eventually lead to anxiety, frustration, and depression…lives that do not work well, and are destined to explode or implode in a tragedy of destruction. So, God invites us to well-ordered patterns of discipline that can put us on a path toward meaning, productivity, and fulfillment.
Jesus modeled a well-ordered life that was liberally sprinkled with mountain walks, seaside campfires, boat trips, wedding celebrations, slow-paced dinner parties, and overnight visits with close friends. He knew he needed to be disciplined about the important issues of his life, but he also knew he needed plenty of room for activities and encounters that would contribute to his experience of freedom, pleasure, light-heartedness, and joy. We’re invited to a similar life of diligence and discipline punctuated regularly with mini-clelbrations that lift our spirits and make life sweet.
So here we have it – this remarkable tool called discipline, with its components of having worthy goals, advance decision making, and mini-clelbrations that help us stay the course. We can leave it rusting in the bottom of our toolboxes if we want to, but why do that? If we grab hold of it and put it to use, it has the power to transform the structure of our lives. And then there is no telling where we can go, what we can achieve, and who we can become.
The choice is ours.