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Godliness Through Discipline
There has been some change, some growth, some blessing, but not the kind that you so earnestly would like to see. Now that is the experience of many Christian people; you are not alone in this problem. Some have given up the hope of ever becoming significantly different. Perhaps you have too. "Another booklet full of impractical platitudes," you may be thinking, as you start to put down this pamphlet. Don't do it! I promise you, there is practical help inside. Read on, and find out for yourself. After all, there are Christian people whom you meet from time to time whose lives are different. Somehow they must have found the answer. You can too. You have the
Why is it that you have failed in your attempts? Why is it that you rarely succeed even in your determination to change in small ways? There must be something wrong. You want to do the right thing; yet you so rarely achieve it. Of course, there may be many reasons for this. At the bottom of it all is sin. But here let us single out one major reason (perhaps the major reason) why the gears don't seem to mesh, as they should. What is the problem? You may have sought and tried to obtain instant godliness. There is no such thing. Today we have instant pudding, instant coffee, instant houses shipped on trucks, instant everything. And we want instant godliness as well. We want somebody to give us three easy steps to godliness, and we'll take them next Friday and be godly. The trouble is, godliness doesn't come that way.
The Bible is very plain about how godliness does come. Paul wrote about godliness to Timothy. In his first letter to that budding young minister, he said, in contrast to all of the ways that will fail (mentioned in the first part of the verse), "Timothy, you must discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (I Timothy 4:7). Discipline is the secret of godliness.
The word discipline has disappeared from our
The first thing to notice is that there is no option about being godly. Paul's words constitute a divine command by which God tells us to discipline ourselves for that purpose. God intends for His children to be godly. It is also clear that He wants them to be godly, since He orders them to discipline themselves for godliness. In other places He commands the very same thing. He says, for example, "Be holy as I am holy," and "Be perfect as I am perfect." It is certain that we will never reach perfection in this life (I John 1:8), but perfect godliness is the goal toward which every believer must discipline himself and toward which he must move every day. This means becoming more like God Himself each day. The godly man leads a life that reflects God. Godliness is the goal of the Christian life; we must please God by being, thinking, doing, saying and feeling in the ways that He wants us to.
Now notice that God says we are to discipline ourselves "for the purpose of (or, literally, toward) godliness." The original means, "to be oriented toward godliness." Your whole life ought to be disciplined (i.e., structured, set up, organized,
Let's get back to our train of thought. When your life is oriented toward (or focused upon) godliness, the goal will constantly come into your mind. You will think at work, at home, or in school, "I am to reflect Him in this project." Isn't that what you want? If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, you must want that. There are times, of course, when you are discouraged or that you get tired or become upset, when you lose sight of the goal. You may even rebel against the idea. But if you are a genuine believer in Christ, the well never runs dry; down in your heart the
When Paul writes, "You are a new creature; all things have become new," this is what he has in mind: the Holy Spirit has oriented you toward God and His holiness, putting a new focus on all of life. But that does not automatically make you godly. Because of the work of Christ you have been counted perfect in God's sight, but in actuality you are still far from the goal. Yet, your new life in Christ is oriented toward godliness; that is why at times you ache for it.
The problem is that although basically your orientation is new, many of your day-by-day practices are not yet oriented toward godliness. The "old man" (old ways of living) is still your unwelcome companion. So seldom do you see your life practically oriented as it ought to be that perhaps you have despaired. You must not. The reason why your good resolves have not been realized may be that you have never learned how to discipline yourself for godliness.
"How can I discipline myself?" you ask insistently. It is time to begin to consider the answer to that question. First you must recognize that the very word discipline makes it clear that godliness cannot be zapped. It cannot be whipped up like instant pudding. Godliness doesn't come that way. Discipline means work; it means sustained
No weight lifter, for example, says, "Here is a very heavy weight. I never lifted weights before, but that looks like the largest one. I'll try to press it. " He is likely to break his back. He can't do it that way. He must start out with a small weight the first week, then gradually over the months and years add heavier and heavier ones. He must work up to the heaviest one. Nor does he decide, "This week I'll lift weights for five hours on Friday and then I'll forget about it for the next six weeks." Athletes must practice regularly, usually every day for at least a short period of time. They work daily, day after day, until what they are doing is "natural"
That is what an athlete does. And that is exactly what is involved in the word that Paul used here. Continued daily effort is an essential element of Christian discipline.
Discipline, so conceived, is something that the Christian church lacks in our time. It is high time that we all recognize that God requires us to discipline ourselves by constant practice in obeying His revealed will and thus exercise (train) ourselves toward godliness.
Practically speaking, what does this involve? In Luke 9:23, Jesus commands His disciples: "Take up your cross daily," denying the self. He does not mean denying yourself something. There is no idea of doing penance in this. "For Lent I'll stop chewing gum," says the penitent. That is exactly not what is in view. Rather, Jesus insisted that Christians must deny the self within them. By the self, He meant the old desires, the old ways, the old practices, the old habit patterns that were acquired before conversion. They became so much a part of day-by-day practice that they became second nature. We were born sinners, but it took practice to develop our particular styles of sinning, the old life was disciplined toward ungodliness. That is why Paul says that the believer must daily deny (literally say "no" to) the self.
Daily denial of the self indicates the presence of a day-by-day battle inside of the Christian. He
But that is not enough. Whenever God says "put off" He also says "put on." On the positive side, each day one also must seek to "follow" Jesus Christ. That is what it means to discipline oneself for godliness. It means to continue to say "no" to self and to say "yes" to Christ every day until one by one all of the old habitual ways are replaced by new ones. It means that by daily endeavor to follow God's Son, one finds at length that doing so is more "natural" than not doing so. The Holy Spirit thus enables a believer to put off the old man and put on the new man.
The new ways reflect the true righteousness and holiness that is in Jesus Christ. The image of God was ruined by the fall, but by this process of sanctification it begins to show up in the Christian's life as it originally did in Adam's life. That is what discipline toward godliness is all about. Godliness in the final analysis is becoming, by grace, like God once again.
When a Christian daily orients his life toward
God gave man a marvelous capacity that we call habit. Whenever we do something long enough it becomes a part of us. For example, did you button your shirt up or down today? Ah, it took you a minute to answer that, didn't it? Maybe you don't even know yet. You don't think about where to begin any more; you just do it. You don't consciously say to yourself, "Now, I'm going to button my shirt this morning, I shall begin at the top." You don't think about that at all. You just do it without thinking about it. That is the capacity that God gave us. Take another example: think of the first time that you sat behind an automobile wheel. What a frightening experience that was. There you sat, thinking, "Here is a wheel [it looked about ten times bigger than it was], and here is a gear shift, and here is a complex instrument panel, and foot pedals down below. I have to learn how to
The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:13 ff.) speaks dearly enough about this matter. There he is upbraiding the Hebrew Christians because, although they had received so much teaching of God's Word, yet they had not profited from it. The reason was that they had not used it. Consequently, when they ought to have been teachers,
"But," you protest, "I can't seem to be able to do it." You already have. You have practiced something; you have developed some unconscious patterns. As a sinful human being bent toward sin, you have practiced sinful practices so that they have become a part of you, just as they have become a part of all of us. There is no question that the habit capacity is there. The problem is that it has been used for the wrong purposes. The capacity of habit works both ways. It operates in either direction. You can't avoid habitual living, because this is the way God made you. He gave you the ability to live a life that does not demand conscious thought about every action or response. It is a great blessing that God made you this way. It would be unbearable if every time you did anything you found it necessary to think consciously about it. Imagine yourself each morning saying,
But practice itself is indifferent; it can work either as a blessing or as a curse, depending upon what you have practiced. It is what you feed into your life that matters-just like the data fed into a computer. A computer is no better than the data with which it operates. The end product is good or bad according to the raw material provided for it. That is just like habit capability. In II Peter 2:14, Peter speaks about people whose hearts are "trained in greed." Trained is the same word that Paul used (gymnazo), the word from which gymnastics comes. A heart that has been exercised in greed is one that has faithfully practiced greed so that greediness has become natural. Without consciously thinking about it, such a person "automatically" behaves greedily in various situations where the temptation is present.
Since God has made you this way, with the capacity for living according to habit, you must consciously take a hard look at your life. You must make conscious and carefully examine your unconscious-responses. You must become aware of your life patterns and evaluate them by the Word of God. What you learned to do as a
A counselee wondered-as perhaps you are wondering-whether this sort of change were possible. He asked, "Can a fifty-year-old man change his ways?" He was deadly serious. There I sat, a forty-two-year-old counselor thinking, "Will it be only eight more years before they can and refrigerate me?!" So I told him about yo-yos. Recently the yo-yo craze resumed. As a forty two-year-old I vividly remember the original glorious age of the yo-yo from my boyhood. Back in those days the Duncan Yo-Yo Company had a much better advertising campaign and, incidentally, a much better yo-yo. Today, they offer a plastic model with a metal rod in the center. The
I had forgotten all about yo-yos until about a year ago, when one day my children came home with yo-yos. But they didn't know what to do with them! Here was my son operating a yo-yo like a girl! "Horrors!" I thought. "He doesn't know what to do with a yo-yo. There are no factory representatives any more; there is nobody to teach him. I can't have him doing that to a yo-yo; I guess I'll have to show him myself." Now, I hadn't touched a yo-yo for a hundred and fifty years at least. So I picked up the thing and showed him how to tie a slip knot that would stay on the finger. (He didn't even know what finger to put it on.) So I put it on, and after hefting it a time or two spun it downward with force . . . and it slept. Well, his eyes grew as large as dinner plates. He didn't even know it could sleep. I practiced several times to get the feel of this new
How can a fifty-year-old man change? Can this really be for you? Can you really be different? Can you at this late date in life make a change and start to live a life that really will be godly? Positively! That is what I told my counselee. I continued, "When I was ten years old I learned how to yo-yo, and now many years later I was able to pick up a yo-yo and find that the old skills were still with me. The question is not whether a fifty year-old man can change; the real question is can anybody change once he has reamed something? When I was only ten years old, I reamed a skill that I haven't forgotten, even though I haven't used a yo-yo since." Perhaps you haven't ridden a bike for years, yet you know you could do so. It probably wouldn't take you five minutes to "get the feel of it" again. It would come right back to you. The question, then, is not whether a fifty year-old man can learn; the question is can anyone- even a ten-year-old-once he has learned a wrong practice? When a practice has become so much a part of a child that it lasts without reinforcement for over thirty years, can even he change? The
When you discipline yourself for righteousness, you don't have to do it alone. "It is God who works in you" (Philippians 2:13). All holiness, all righteousness, all godliness is the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22, 23). It takes nothing less than the power of the Spirit to replace sinful habits with righteous ones, for a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old. God never said that once a person reaches fifty or forty or eighty he is incapable of change. Look at what Abraham did as an old man. Look at the tremendous changes that God demanded of him in old age. The Holy Spirit can change any Christian, and does.
As Christians we should never fear change. We must believe in change so long as it is change oriented toward godliness. The Christian life is a life of continual change. In the Scriptures it is called a "walk," not a rest. We can never say (in this life), "I have finally made it." We cannot say, "There is nothing more to learn from God's Word, nothing more to put into practice tomorrow, no more skills to develop, no more sins to be dealt with." When Christ said, "Take up your cross daily and follow me," He put an end to all such thinking. He represented the Christian life as a daily struggle to change. You can change if the Spirit of God dwells within you. Of course, if He does not, there is no such hope.
Too many Christians give up. They want the
Think about this problem for a moment. Remember when you learned how to ice skate? What happened the first time you went out on the ice? You know what happened. Zip bang! You got a wet bottom. That's what happened every time you got up and tried again. Nobody ever learns to skate without falling at first. You had a decision to make as you sat there freezing: "Am I going to continue this, or should I give up the whole idea of learning to ice skate?" Perhaps you did quit after the first or second failure and have never learned since. A lot of people make that decision right then and there. They do not consider learning to skate worth the embarrassment, awkwardness, trouble and fear that it usually entails. But others go on in spite of it all. They get up, brush off and start out again; zip bang! zip bang! zip bang! then, . . . zzzzzzip bang. Something has
Perhaps you have been afraid to talk to someone about Christ. Maybe you tried it once or twice, and as far as you are concerned you went zip bang! Let's suppose you did get a wet bottom. What of it? Is that so bad? Was that a good reason to give up? Certainly not; that is simply part of learning to skate (or witness, or love). Suppose you have found it difficult to read the Scriptures and pray daily; was that a good reason for quitting? No! Probably you did not have short-term goals in view-like, today I shall do this, then this week, that, and then in three weeks, the other. But if you had skated every day for three weeks in a row, you would probably be a skater by now. If you really want to be godly, you are going to have to stay out on the ice. Don't let the wet bottoms discourage you. If you are willing to get wet enough, the first thing you know you're going to get a lot of zzzzzzzzzips and a lot less bangs! sooner than you may think.
In counseling, week after week, I continually
All of the stress that the Bible puts upon human effort must not be misunderstood; we are talking about grace-motivated effort, not the work of the flesh. It is not effort apart from the Holy Spirit that produces godliness, as I said. Rather, it is through the power of the Holy Spirit alone that one can so endure. Of his own effort, a man may persist in learning to skate, but he will not persist in the pursuit of godliness. A Christian does good works because the Spirit first works in him. Now the work of the Spirit is not mystical. The Holy Spirit's activity often has been viewed in a confused and confusing manner. There is no reason for such confusion. The Holy Spirit Himself has plainly told us how He works. He says in the Scriptures that He ordinarily works through the
The Spirit took pains to raise up men and mold those men to fitly write His Book. Under His good providence they developed the vocabularies and styles in the kinds of life situations that He required. Thus they could write a Book of exactly the sort that He wanted to meet our needs. He was careful to assure that not one word was penned falsely; in His Book there are no errors. It is wholly true and inerrant; it is the dependable Word of God. That is what the Holy Spirit did. Do you think that after going to all of that trouble He now zaps instant holiness into us apart from the Bible? He doesn't work that way. The Spirit ordinarily works through His Word; that is how He works. So if we want to discipline ourselves toward godliness, a most essential factor is the regular study of God's Word in order to make application of its principles to our problems.
It is by willing, prayerful and persistent obedi-
In II Timothy 3:17, Paul mentions four things that the Scriptures do for the believer. First, they teach what God requires. Secondly, they convict of sin by revealing how we have fallen short of those requirements. Thirdly, they "set us up straight again. " Lastly, they train or discipline in righteousness. This fourth benefit of the Bible means a structured training in doing righteousness. If you use the Bible every day, the Book will discipline you. Disciplined, structured living is what you need.
Structure alone brings freedom. Discipline brings liberty. Our whole age has been brainwashed into thinking the opposite. Today we are told that we can get freedom and liberty only by throwing over structure and discipline. But sup-
Liberty comes through law, not apart from it. When is a train most free? Is it when it goes bouncing across the field off the track? No. It is free only when it is confined (if you will) to the track. Then it runs smoothly and efficiently, because that was the way that its maker intended for
Here, then, is your answer: regularly read the Scriptures, prayerfully do as they say, according to schedule, regardless of how you feel. That last point perhaps points to the biggest problem of all. We give up because we don't feel like doing something again. You probably didn't feel like getting up this morning. But you had to do so in spite of how you felt. After you were up and around awhile you began to feel different, and you were glad that you acted against your feelings. From that first decision on, the rest of the day is filled with similar decisions that must be made on the basis of obedience to God rather than capitulation to contrary feelings.
There is much that we don't feel like doing. There are only two ways to live. They reflect two kinds of religion and two kinds of morality. One religion and life and morality says, "I will live according to feeling." The other says, "I will live as God says." It all goes back to the garden. God gave a commandment and required obedience.
Are you godly? If not, what are you going to do about it? There is only one possible way to become godly: you must be disciplined toward godliness until you do in fact become godly. But no one can be disciplined by the Word toward godliness until first he recognizes his sin against a holy God. If you are truly sorry that you have ignored Him and lived in your-own ungodly way up until now, then turn to His Son in faith and be saved. Jesus Christ is the only really godly man. But your sin will be reckoned His, and His godliness will be reckoned yours if you trust in His death and resurrection for your salvation. If the Spirit of God has convicted you of your sin and of your need for a Savior, turn to Christ now. Believe on Him as He is offered in the good news: as the One who took all of the punishment for His people. Will you believe
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