Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Be a Disciplined Disciple

Recently, I have been asking the question:  “Why is it that for those of us who come to faith in Jesus we still have significant areas of struggle, brokenness, or dysfunction?” 

Jesus said he came so that we can have “life to the full” (John 10) and that our “joy be complete” (John 15).  Yet, we still may not be living in a significant measure of that.  There is some sort of disconnect.

To help answer that big question, our community has searched through the scriptures and also had the help of some other resources.  The conclusion we came to was that even though Jesus had come into our life through faith, he was not yet the center of our life.  Our ‘self-life’, or the life of our ‘flesh’ as the NT calls it, still remains in the center, in the place of control.  Because our self-life remains in control, all of the corrupt fruit of the self-life is still manifest: our slavery to the flesh and physical desires, our personal and relational dysfunctions, our fears, insecurities, frustrations, anxieties, anger, etc – all these continue to operate and flourish under the control of self.  We often mistake the symptoms as our problem, but the real problem is our self-life (life of the flesh) and it’s control.

Our experience of freedom, healing, and wholeness – our experience of life to the full and joy made complete – it comes through a process of choosing to allow Jesus to become the center of our life, allowing Him to be in control.

Likely most of us know, through His Word, how God wants us to live, we know some things that God is calling us to, yet for some reason we have difficulty consistently doing it – or even starting.  What is that missing ingredient that keeps us from entering into and consistently experiencing the life God has prepared for us? In both looking at the scriptures and observing the life experience of myself and others, I believe that missing ingredient is self-discipline.  For the most part, we know what we need to do, but instead we choose resign ourselves to taking another path.

I believe that within each of us God has deposited some dreams.  These dreams are part of who He’s created us to be and part of the purpose He has for our lives. 

So, what are your dreams?

To grow a family and being a part of a loving community?  Good physical health and long life?  To produce art (music, dance, graphic art, physical art, etc) and reflect beauty to the world?  To create, invent, and build things to make life better, more beautiful?  To explore the world, engaging other cultures in an enriching exchange?
Leadership in your field?  To grow a business venture?  Seeing others come to life, healing, and mature into all they’ve been created to be?

Sometimes in our religious mindsets we forget that God is really involved in calling us forth and blessing us in these things!

So, what are your dreams?  (Think about them for a moment.) How close are you to achieving them?  How satisfied are you that you’re experiencing the life God has for you?  What’s really holding you back?  Do you ever feel guilty or angry for not succeeding or attaining your dreams?

Besides dreams, there are other actions necessary for a healthy life that God calls us toward - for example, being a good steward of our finances and resources, devoting our time to activities that are worthwhile, maintaining good health (physically, mentally, spiritually), spending time in His presence (in prayer, scripture, worship), nurturing relationships, serving other people.

Same questions.  How close are you to achieving those things?  How satisfied are you that you’re experiencing the life God has for you in those areas?  Do you ever feel guilty or angry for not succeeding or attaining those things?  When finances are a wreck?  When much needed time is wasted?  When health is poor?  When you’re distant from God?

Through my life I’ve had a number of dreams I’ve wanted to live out.  For example, since the time I was young I’ve had dreams of being a musician – playing music, writing music, producing and recording music.  With that dream I’ve seen some limited success.  I’ve had the privilege getting some really cool gigs.  I’ve even been able to earn my income from playing music, recording music, and doing audio technical work for many events.  Yet, I never reached my ‘potential.’  I knew that I was capable of far more, but for some reason I chose not to do it.  Rather, in the moment I exchanged the dream for something else temporary and of little or no value.  I have felt a sense of guilt, of failure, and anger as I can identify numerous choices that have stifled my dream and squandered my opportunities.

Also, for many years I had known that God was specifically telling me properly manage my health.  So, I had thought to myself, ‘yeah, I’ll be a little more careful and cut out some of the junk in my diet.’  It was a nice sentiment, but it saw little or no real action.  By the fall of 2010, I found myself struggling with major fatigue, I was noticeably overweight (about 30 or 40 lbs.), I occasionally had high blood pressure, and I had been suffering from some debilitating heart arrhythmias that would sometimes leave me bed-ridden or unsafe to operate a motor vehicle.  

It’s unfortunate that I chose to allow myself to get to the point of crisis before the gravity of my choices really seized my attention.  I had little choice but to recognize that I needed to not just think about it but follow through and transform my lifestyle to God’s plan for my health and well-being.

Following through takes self-discipline, of which in some areas I had little.  At the end of last year I finally made a serious commitment to be disciplined and follow through on God’s call to get my health in order.  Most notably, I made a substantial diet change and I increased my level of exercise.  With God being present in the process, I have followed through on my commitment (without cheating) and have been seeing good success.  I’ve dropped over 30 lbs., I have more energy, and most importantly the heart problems are no longer manifesting.  In this area of my life I am coming into a fuller experience of living in God’s way for my life and am experiencing the blessing of good health.

God has both gifted us and called us forward into a blessed and transformed life.  Taking hold and seizing the transformed life available in Jesus, realizing the dreams and callings God has gifted your life, living in a way that produces health and life rather than sickness and death - all this requires self-discipline to continually choose Jesus’ ways over every other option.

What often happens when faced with the choice of doing what is hard and necessary is that we chose to follow the easier path of least resistance.  Our flesh desires the quick and easy gratification.  It’s a lot easier to indulge in junk food than it is to prepare a healthy meal.  Instead of building a lifelong healthy / functional relationship, we’re quick to hop into bed for physical and emotional high.  It’s easy to whip out the credit card and get that thing we desire whereas it takes work to make a budget, track expenses, and balance the books.

Experts note, the primary reason for financial problems is the lack of self-discipline, that inability to delay short-term gratification.  It has never been more possible to achieve financial success / independence than it is today. The book, The Millionaire Next Door, by Tom Stanely and William Danko, shows how two families living on the same street, in the same size house, working at the same job can have completely different financial situations.  By age 50, one couple is financially independent while the other is deeply in debt having trouble making payments.  The reason is not the amount of money they earn.  (That was the same.)  It’s a lack of self-discipline and the inability to delay gratification.

The desires of our flesh draw us towards short term / instant gratification at the expense of sacrificing our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  We truly want the best for all areas of our life, but perplexingly we sabotage ourselves and choose things that ultimately work against us.

Our true goals that could provide long term joy are easily sidetracked by diversions that feed what is ultimately an idolatry of self – where we worship, we serve our selfish desires at any cost.  The real problem, as we see articulated in the NT, is that we remain followers of our flesh rather than followers of the Spirit.

According to Romans 8:7-8, those who operate in the flesh are incapable of pleasing God.  Galatians 5:17 tells us that the desires of the flesh are opposed to the desires of the Spirit.  As believers, without godly self-discipline our discipleship to Jesus is jeopardized.  Lacking godly self-discipline, at best our discipleship will be immature and lacking. As well, we can often find ourselves in a place of disobedience where we don’t fulfill our master’s call and we place ourselves in the service of a master other than Jesus.  This keeps us remaining in a place of brokenness, refusing the saving work Jesus offers.  As we continue to sow to the flesh we will reap the destructive harvest of the flesh.

When talking about self-discipline, it’s tempting to associate the subject with ‘a motivational speaker or a productivity and success book.’  And there’s good reason for that.  All researchers and experts in productivity and success realize that self-discipline is vital for one to be successful in achieving their dreams.  Author M.R. Kopmeyer having spent 50 years researching productivity and success says that - “There are 999 other success principles that I have found in my reading and experience, but without self discipline, none of them work.”  We can know 'all the right answers', but without self-discipline we won’t be able to consistently put them into action where they transform our lives.

Now the temptation here for us is for the self-life rise up in the power of the flesh and try to apply raw human determination to try and discipline ourselves to achieve our goals.  People do this all the time, and for some this produces results and achieves goals.  However, rising up and striving with the self-life ultimately produces the same corrupt results of the self-life that we discussed earlier.  In Romans 7:18 the apostle Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

If we try to fight the flesh with the flesh, we will ultimately fail.  The self-life, our flesh nature, can only ultimately produce one result.  The flesh is incapable of righteousness.  We may find ‘some’ discipline in one area, but the flesh will find another way to gratify itself.

In Romans 8:6-8, 13 Paul writes – “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  (ESV)

We will gain the ability to put to death the works of the flesh and find peace and life when we live by the Spirit.  It’s not something that we can do on our own by our own will or power.  It’s something that God empowers within us by His will and His power.  When we yield ourselves to the Spirit of Christ and allow Him to live in and through us it produces a harvest of righteousness.  Our union with Christ becomes both our direction and our strength to do what pleases God and what leads to life and peace.  We become more and more able to restrain the destructive impulses of the flesh.  It is our union with Christ that produces within us the self-discipline that we need to be faithful.

In Galatians 5:16-25 we read – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control..”  Notice that the fruit of the Spirit – in other words a byproduct of living by the Spirit – is self-control or self-discipline.  The discipline we need to follow through on our discipleship to Jesus, our dreams, goals, and needs for healthy, productive living is all found in Him.
We begin to lay hold of this work by abiding in Him.  Jesus says in John 15:4-5 – “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Abiding in him, we become more like him; his ways become our ways – including being disciplined to do the things that bring life.  The more we abide, the easier and more natural it becomes to continue to choose Jesus way.  We form new habit, a Jesus habit, replacing the old habits of the self-life.

The truth is, God is for us.  He is for our success.  He longs to see us blossom to the fullness of all that He has created us to be.  He delights in it.  It gives him pleasure.  I believe 2nd century church father Irenaeus had it right when he said – “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  Gain His heart and his mind for you.  Share the delight in his plans for you. 

The good news is God has made you able. The Spirit of God that is in you is completely capable.  God has gifted us with the tools needed to follow Jesus and achieve all the dreams, goals, and plans that He has given us.  2 Timothy 1:7 – “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”

Even though we have everything we need in Jesus to be disciplined disciples, we still have to choose to engage Him in this.  We need to step past the hearing and the ‘knowing the answers’ and walk into the doing.  Jesus says - “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and [obey/do] it.” (Luke 11:28)  Without actually putting God’s word into action we’re just deceiving ourselves.  (James 1)

What is it that you have some clarity that God is calling you to do right now?  Taking good care of your health? Approach your relationships with more intentional actions / reactions of love and care?  To be wise and diligent with how you manage money?  To be prudent and conscientious with how you manage your time?  To spend more time in His presence, in scripture, in prayer, in worship, in community?  To reach out and to serve other people (church/community)?

My examples just reflect some popular needs.  The key is to get clarity about what direction you are being led to go.  Proverbs 29:18 – “Without a vision the people perish.”  If we’re going to grow and to move forward, it’s vitally important to be able to define what we’re called to.

Once we have a definable goal or vision, then we come to the place of choice.  This Irwin McManus quote has stuck in my mind for years – “The most spiritual activity we can do is choose.”  What are you going to do about that God given vision or goal?

To be clear – all this talk about “doing” is not about sliding back into some sort of self-powered legalism.  Rather we are taking steps to facilitate and making space for what God wants to do in our lives.  This all has a very practical side to it.  Sometimes we need to use some practical tools to help us form new healthy habits of self-discipline.

In Habakkuk 2:2 we read some ancient Biblical wisdom that we also happen to see in every modern-day book on productivity and success.  “Record the vision and write it down.”  Once you have a clear goal, write it down.  Researchers tell us that people who write down their goals are over 1000% more likely to actually do them. One valuable tool we learned is to make yourself accountable and tell several people your plan of action.

After you set a specific goal and write it down, set deadlines.  Organize and discipline your implementation.  Of course the most important part is to take action – today!  Start today!  Don’t delay.  Be mindful to take some sort of action (no matter how big or small) towards your goal every day.

As we consistently walk towards our God given vision we will see it produce results (even if slowly) and it will bring joy.  Imagine what that would look like if all of us were pursuing our God given goals and dreams and taking consistent significant steps towards them.  What kind of families would we have?  What kind of art would we produce?  What kind of inventions would we create?  What kind of businesses would we grow?  What kind of leaders would we be?  It excites me to think of the possibilities!

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