Written by Joanne Beckley
We have an old song we sing that progresses from “all of self and none of Thee” to “none of self and all of Thee.” When I sing this song, I want to sing with confidence, but I become discouraged. Why can’t I achieve the last verse? I am confident that the fault does not lay with God and His holy Word. No, I am the one who is failing. Perhaps I have not totally accepted the kind of effort that is required to become like Christ.
Godliness does not happen instantly. No one can suddenly become like Christ (Phil 2:5; 1 Cor 11:1). There’s not even an easy three-step process and we can be godly by next Sunday. The Bible very plainly tells us how it will happen: “exercise yourself toward godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). Today, we hardly know what discipline (exercise) means, but there is no other way to become something we are not, whether it is the ability press weights, ride a bicycle or bake a cake – or to become like Christ.
The first thing we have to accept is that we have no other choice but to become like Christ. We are commanded to be perfect even as He is perfect. (1 John 1:8). This will take application on a daily basis to move toward the goal of perfection – being, thinking, doing, saying and feeling in all that God wants from us.
Notice the biblical phrase again “exercise yourself TOWARD godliness.” The original means “to be oriented toward godliness. Our entire lives should be disciplined (organized, arranged) toward reaching godliness. Everything we do should bring something to our goal. Not just on Sunday, but each day of the week, one step at a time further along the way.
If we have an “in our face” strong goal and desire to become godly, we will be thinking about it all the time. “Will this please Jesus?” “Should I be thinking this?” Paul referred to this when he wrote: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor 5:17). We have a new focus on all of life from this point on. But this does not mean we automatically are like Christ. Our old man of sin is still an unwelcome sidekick. Rarely is the person who is so totally determined to change his life that he no longer is tempted to practice old sinful habits.
How does one discipline one’s self?
Discipline. Self-discipline. And it means work – prolonged, daily effort. The original Greek word gumnaze meant to practice (naked) in the games. We get our English word gymnastics and gymnasium from this Greek word. Truly an athlete only becomes skilful through years of hard practice. It requires a mind, heart, and body totally focussed on this one goal. In the same way a Christian must practice with the SAME singleness (nakededness) of heart to obey the command to live a life of godliness. We are going to have to discipline ourselves.
Jesus tells us exactly what we will have to do in order to be disciplined. “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
Jesus is not talking about denying ourselves of things. He is not asking penance from us. He isn’t looking for voluntary self-punishment as an open expression of repentance. No, Jesus is telling us in no uncertain terms that Christians must deny self, that essential part of us that distinguishes us from others: the mind, body and spirit – all of our being. No longer can we place desires directed toward self ahead of God’s desires. No longer can we live by our old habit patterns that have become second nature. We have to learn to say “no” to self daily – until we die and our spirit returns to God. This battle to crucify self while facing trouble and difficulties along the road is going to take self-discipline on a daily basis for the rest of our lives.
But removing self also requires putting on Christ (Rom 13:14), walking in the Spirit (Rom 5:16), putting on the new man (Eph 4:24) “who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col.3:10). This is a positive action. Saying “yes!” to Christ every day until the old sinful habits are replaced with good habits of godliness. But saying “yes!” to Christ will also include suffering, trials, and ill treatment for the cause of Christ.
The ability to create habits is a wonderful gift from God. Whenever we do something long enough it becomes a part of us. This is called exercise. Disciplined exercise. The writer of Hebrews wrote a considerable amount on this subject. He concludes: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:14). If we practice what God has told us to do, our obedience will become a part of us.
Peter speaks of the wrong thing to exercise ourselves in. “...having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls. They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children” (2 Pet 2:14). The eyes are FULL, the hearts are TRAINED – in this case, on self. There is no simple, easy, quick way to keep our eyes FULL and our hearts TRAINED on God. Because our lives live by habit, we must take a good look at our habits. And measure them against the Word of God. When we discovered a sinful habit, we must replace it with a new godly pattern. From then on we must practice, practice, practice – exercising and training our eyes and heart toward godliness.
We don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to make decisions about what, when, where, why or how. The Holy Spirit has already given us these guidelines. God has promised us that we CAN become godly. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Guidelines – the way to go.
It is self-discipline that we have to supply. And therein lies the rub. Too often we give up too soon! We might be regularly reading the Scriptures, asking God for help, even scheduling what changes we want to make. But if we allow our feelings to dictate whether we stick to a plan or not, all will be lost. Discipline is an action we choose, not according to how we feel. If we want to create new habits and patterns in our lives, we have to accept that feelings must be ignored and that it usually takes at least three weeks of daily effort before we can become comfortable with a new practice. It will then take another three weeks for it to become a part of us. The Bible calls this endurance. The apostle James actually tells us that to endure (remember? deny self, take up cross, follow Me) is what brings us happiness (James 5:11). It is through willing, prayerful, and continued obedience to the gospel, the words of God, that we build a godly and happy life. Happy? Yes, even when faced with burdensome or disgraceful problems. The Bible describes this as a “walk” with God. Constant, continual, and with endurance, walking within “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).
There are only two ways to live. One is all about self: “My feelings & my desires dictate what I do.” The other says “I choose to obey God.” What is your choice? And if you do choose God over self, do you trust God when He says you can do it?
"Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2,3).
Truly, self-discipline comes from having a hope strong enough not to give up. Self-discipline is a form of courage that comes from hope. How strong is your hope?