We often view self-discipline as a characteristic of the hyper-productive CEO and entrepreneur. However, the Bible highlights self-discipline and self-control as key components of the Christian life which are essential. Discipline is imperative for the leader and lay Christian alike. Just how important is self-discipline to the Christian? Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones says this:
I defy you to read the life of any saint that has ever adorned the life of the Church without seeing at once that the greatest characteristic in the life of that saint was discipline and order. Invariably it is the universal characteristic of all the outstanding men and women of God…. Obviously it is something that is thoroughly scriptural and absolutely essential.Jones, Spiritual Depression, 210.
According to Martyn-Lloyd Jones, all the great men and women of God seem to be marked by self-discipline and order. Yet, despite the importance of this characteristic, it seems to me that self-discipline is the forgotten fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). In fact, I distinctly remember being surprised in college when I found out that self-control was a fruit of the Spirit. Yet, once the theme of discipline and control were pointed out to me, I saw it everywhere.
The Biblical Importance of Discipline
In the Old Testament Solomon lauds the ability of one to control his emotions. He writes, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the might, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov 16:32). Similarly, later Solomon records, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov 25:28).
In the New Testament, believers are admonished all over to pursue self-control and discipline. We could make the point by zeroing in on certain passages which use the metaphors of war, being a soldier, or an athlete (e.g., 2 Tim 2:1-7), but there are plenty of concrete commands to pursue discipline. For example, Paul specifically instructs older men (Titus 2:2), older and younger women (Titus 2:5), and younger men (Titus 2:6) all to be “sensible” (“self-controlled” in the ESV). I think it is an especially pertinent observation to note that Titus 2:6 admonishes only self-control for the pursuit of young men (presumably that is to be their main struggle). Furthermore, just in case someone felt left out of Titus 2 (even though Paul covered every age group), Paul summarizes by saying the grace of God trains all of us to live self-controlled (Titus 2:11-12). Clearly this is something important enough to Paul that he instructed everyone in the church to be working at it.
Although I already mentioned self-control is a part of the fruit of the Spirit, two more passages may function to highlight the importance of discipline to the Christian life. In 1 Peter 4:7, Peter relates some rather important instructions: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” Note Peter’s descriptive phrase, “the end of all things is at hand.” One would expect whatever he is to say to be very vital—and it is! Peter adjures his readers to be self-controlled and sober-minded.
One last example, which might seem out of place, is Paul’s testimony before Felix. While bearing testimony of Christianity before Felix (a government ruler), Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). It seems odd, but apparently Paul was very open in his discussions with Felix (an unbeliever) about the need for Christians to be self-controlled. I don’t usually include self-control lectures in my evangelism encounters, but perhaps I should start!
Practical Ways to Grow in Self-Discipline
I would consider my job only half done if I have convinced you about the importance of self-discipline in the Bible, yet fail to give you guidance on how to grow in that area. What follows are 13 practical ways to grow in self-discipline. This list is largely an accumulation of principles and practices that I learned from men who have exemplified discipline and taught on it. The most significant influence is certainly Alex Strauch, but others such as John MacArthur have had a formidable impact on my life with their teaching on discipline. I pray they will be helpful.
1. Pray for Self-Discipline
This has to be the obvious starting point. Self-discipline is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the means by which God has ordained the believer to grow in righteousness. It is a great place to start by asking God for growth in self-discipline. Furthermore, these are the prayers we know are in accordance with God’s will, so God will surely grant us more discipline if we but ask Him.
2. Start With Small Things
It is important to be practical and procedural. It is easy to get carried away and set high and lofty goals for being disciplined. I know reading the Bible three hours a day sounds like a great goal, but it is just not going to happen. If a weight lifter can’t go into the gym on his first day and bench 315 LBS, what makes you think you can do the same thing with your spiritual life? It is a growing process. Start with small things like cleaning up a room, a desk, a car, or even making sure the dishes are always done. Set a goal to pray for 5 minutes a day, or to memorize one verse a month. One cannot climb a mountain without training on some hills.
3. Become Organized
Organization is really one of the best evidences of discipline. But it is also a great tangible way to grow in discipline. The more organized a believer is, the more he can handle. Easy ways to grow in organization are to get a calendar—use a notebook, your smartphone, or a computer. Write things down so that they will not be forgotten.
4. Beware of Social Media and Entertainment in General
Selfish entertainment is the hallmark of our culture. Furthermore, the culture is forcing itself into every corner of our life. The temptation during downtime is to watch the news, watch a movie, listen to music, play video games, scroll social media, or engage in many other forms of entertainment. Although these things are not bad in and of themselves, they are usually a form of mindless entertainment. It is a scary thing when anyone (especially the believer) trains himself or herself to be entertained by mindless activity. Instead, we must strive to train ourselves to find entertainment in productive things. Go for a walk, read a book, write a letter, listen to a podcast or good music, workout—these are good and productive ways we can entertain ourselves.
5. Speak Truthfully
Long gone is the day that people actually mean what they say. As a believer, what we say (whether good or bad) is representing Christ. Many a Christian has promised prayer for another brother or sister only to renege on that promise and neglect to pray. Nothing is worse than someone who says one thing but vacillates and never fulfills what he promised.
6. Be On Time
As a practical follow-up from the last point, one way in which people particularly struggle in being disciplined is showing up on time. Showing up late is telling the other people that they are not important enough to make punctuality a priority. Additionally, a habitual failure to be on time is significant evidence of a life that is spiraling out of control.
7. Seize Small Units of Time
The 5-15 minute chunks of time that are otherwise wasted can be very beneficial. The wise Christian will seize the 5 minutes of down time and perform small tasks or smaller parts of big tasks. In 5 minutes it is possible to pray for another’s encouragement or salvation, to meditate on Scripture, clean, write a thank you, memorize Scripture, send an encouraging text, and many other things. The Christian is responsible with all his or her time. Don’t let yourself think, “I only have 5 minutes, so I’ll just scroll social media.”
8. Do the Most Difficult Task First
Procrastination is the killer of many well-meaning Christians. It is good practice to do the most difficult task of the day first. That is when one has the most energy and best clarity of mind. This also ensures that it gets done. The bad habit of always doing the easy things first often leads to harder things never getting started.
9. Work Until a Task is Completed
Once a task is started, it should be completed. The Christian needs to develop the discipline of working hard through completion. There is a time for breaks, but they should be a scheduled part of the completion process.
10. Accept Correction With Meekness
The reason this point is in a list of practical ways to improve discipline is because it takes tremendous self-control to accept correction and rebuke. Although it is hard to accept correction, the wise man will realize that it is a source of wisdom (Prov 19:20).
11. Practice Self-denial throughout the Day
The Christian has just as much a right as anyone to that long-awaited apple pie or bowl of ice cream. But one way in which the flesh is trained to be subject to the Christ-controlled mind is to practice saying no to things that are desired. There is tremendous benefit to simply denying self from legitimate pleasures. Just like an athlete trains his body for the competition, Christians should practice staying in control of their bodily desires.
12. Wake Up
There are many seasons of life where tiredness dogs us. But we press on. A quote I read long ago in Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership has always stuck with me: “The Christian leader will work while others waste time, study while others snooze, pray while others daydream.”
13. Welcome Responsibility
Volunteering for things helps to inspire discipline and organization. The disciplined Christian can offer his assistance to others who need it. It is ironic that it is often only the busiest of people who have time to give to others. Everyone else thinks they are too busy. Yet it is usually too busy chasing their own dreams and desires rather than disciplined service.
These 13 steps are certainly not exhaustive, but they’ve been quite helpful in my own life as well as many others. They provide a tangible gauge by which we can evaluate how we are doing in discipline. Some of these are very ordinary actions, but the Christian life is interdisciplinary, meaning that our physical and spiritual existences are linked. When we are not disciplined in one area of life, other areas suffer. So it is to our great advantage to work on discipline in every aspect of our life.
More on Self Discipline
If you have found this brief article helpful, you may find this extended video discussion on discipline helpful. You can access the video below, or you can subscribe to the podcast.