The Heart of Discipline

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The Motivation of Discipline

To be disciplined means to train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way. 

If I want to work out more, I must be disciplined. If I want to eat better, I must be disciplined. If I want to learn how to play the guitar, I must be disciplined. But will I achieve these things if I simply put my mind to the task? An important piece missing from the above definition is motivation. 

Our motivation must run deep enough to support our pursuit of discipline

We like to think we can simply discipline ourselves to do anything, but I’ve been trying to learn guitar for the past two years and I think all of us would agree that what I have to show for it is pretty embarrassing. Proof that my motivation to play Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin isn’t enough to master the guitar. Our motivation must run deep enough to support our pursuit of discipline. We might know intellectually that something is right, good or that it would be enjoyable to pursue, but we won’t follow through unless our hearts are there too. 

What about spiritual disciplines? 

Paul’s words to Timothy are helpful. 1 Timothy 4:7-10 says, “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

Paul strikes the balance between the act of training and the motivation behind it well. We toil in training ourselves for godliness because we have our hope set on the living God! The motivation to pursue discipline in our pursuit of God is God himself! There can be no greater motivation.

The motivation to pursue discipline in our pursuit of God is God himself

A.W. Tozer, in his book The Pursuit of God says, “The Impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him”.

Those of you who have been following along in our series in Ephesians will see the connection. As Ephesians 2:1-10 shows us, God has saved us by grace through faith and at the same time prepared good works for us to walk in as an outworking of our salvation by his grace. Why then is it so hard for us to connect spiritual discipline with the pursuit of God? Somewhere along the way, our motivation has become something other than God.

The Difficulty with Discipline

What is our motivation for spiritual discipline if not God himself? I believe there are two common misunderstandings of spiritual discipline that find their motivation in something other than God. The first causes us to view spiritual discipline as an end in and of itself. Many of us would call this legalism. Sinclair Ferguson, in his book The Whole Christ, defines legalism as, “...separating the law of God from the person of God” (Ferguson pg. 83). When we make this separation, we use spiritual disciplines to pursue our own agenda or to build up our own image rather than to pursue God. On the outside, everything seems to be in order and we’re able to check all the right boxes, but on the inside this motivation is corrupt and far from God. Ultimately, the pursuit of spiritual discipline in this case is empty because it fails to center on the true purpose behind spiritual discipline, knowing and loving God.

The second view is much the opposite. Some emphasize God’s grace given us in Christ to the extent that they reject spiritual discipline altogether, believing that God’s grace is a one-time deal rather than something that both saves and sustains us. The stated motivation seems right, to uphold God’s grace apart from our effort and works, but in reality this person fails to understand how the disciplines are themselves God’s grace in providing a way for us to pursue him. 

The God of the universe invites us into his presence through the pursuit of spiritual discipline

So on one end, the pursuit of God is usurped by the pursuit of the disciplines, on the other, the disciplines are thrown out in pursuit of a false understanding of grace. Because these are not motivated by the pursuit of God, neither of them lead to God. 

What must we do to regain spiritual discipline in the pursuit of God? The answer to both of these misunderstandings is to reorient our hearts and minds towards the God behind the disciplines. 

Experiencing God through Discipline

So, how might we rightly understand certain spiritual disciplines as they relate to the pursuit of God? The goal here is not so much to give practical advice on how to pursue these spiritual disciplines, but rather to cast a compelling vision for the God whom we are pursuing in each of these disciplines. Certainly this won’t be exhaustive, but let’s look at two specific spiritual disciplines and our pursuit of God through them.

1. Scripture

A.W. Tozer says this when it comes to Scripture, “The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their being, their spirit.”

It’s easy to make excuses. You might find certain portions of Scripture are confusing or hard to interpret. In other cases the historical context is unfamiliar to you. Or maybe you’re just disinterested in what you find to be a boring, archaic text. The reality is that the primary means by which God has revealed himself to us is through his word. As we have already established, the disciplines are a means by which we pursue God. All other concerns or roadblocks pale in comparison. 

If you struggle with reading God’s Word on a regular basis, take the time to ask why. If some of the above concerns are truly what’s keeping you, consider how this might be revealing what your true motivation is. If we come to understand that the Bible, as Tozer says, leads to intimate and satisfying knowledge of God and is a means by which we can delight in his presence, then how will we ever be able to put it down?

2. Prayer

To this point it is important to emphasize that the God we are pursuing and worshipping is indeed the living God! We don’t merely follow a collection of ideas and moral teachings found in Scripture. Instead, we worship a God who is living, active and who extends an invitation for us to communicate with him. How great a loss if we do not take advantage of this! We have been given the freedom and ability in and through Christ to communicate with God himself. If this reality has really hit home in our hearts, how could we not pursue God in this way?

In the end, my prayer is that these spiritual disciplines and others would primarily serve to stir our affections for the king in whose image we were created and in whose image we are being daily formed. The God of the universe invites us into his presence through the pursuit of spiritual discipline. Would this motivate us towards a right understanding of these practices for the purpose of knowing and loving the God who created us.

Reis Pieper