It is so easy to make a Christian feel guilty. Most Ministers are masters of the art. We so often go into a church service happy and come out unhappy, thinking along these lines: "I should pray more. I should read my Bible more. I should evangelise more. Above all, I should be more disciplined in my spiritual life."
Let us say this right at the beginning: discipline can be very helpful. But all too often it acts as a substitute, and replaces the relationship it is supposed to strengthen. It is a tool, and like all tools, its value lies in how it is used. To use discipline rightly requires a great degree of wisdom and maturity.
When you ride a bicycle, what do you concentrate on? You think about where you are going, perhaps about the route to take; you think about the other road users, and about keeping a safe distance from the cars; you think about what you will find when you arrive, and what you intend to do there. You do not think about balancing on the bicycle, or about pushing the pedals around in a circle: they are simply things you have to do in order to get anywhere on the bicycle. If you think about balancing, you will probably fall off. Discipline is like that: it is a by-product of your need to get somewhere, not something to concentrate upon.
Very often, people object to this view. "The Bible tells me to be disciplined," they say. Oh yes? Where in the Bible are we told to be disciplined? When Paul said 'I pummel my body' he was not saying Christians should pretend to be Spartans, nor that we should regard bodily discomfort or punishment as desirable. He was telling us to keep things in perspective: the body is a good servant but a bad master, and it needs to do what I want, whether that is enjoyable or not. He was not talking about physical discipline any more than he was talking about early Christian aerobics.
When David said 'early in the morning I will praise you,' he was not talking about the discipline of early morning Quiet Times; he was talking about love, and about a relationship that continued to enthral and entrance him.
Discipline is not an end, but a means to an end. If you want to win a race, you need sufficient discipline to practice for it. If you want to know God, you need sufficient discipline to pray, read the Bible, have fellowship, pursue justice, and do all the other things that help us to know Him. The important thing is not the discipline but the desire to know Him better. If you have the desire, the discipline will always be there; without the desire, the discipline will always be empty and legalistic.
What of the Christian who says,"I want to love God more"? Surely we can say to them: read your Bible and pray more. No! Legalism cannot produce love, any more than writing romantic fiction can provide you with the perfect partner. If you want to love God more, you already love Him and know He loves you: enjoy that love. Only love can produce love. Enjoy the relationship. Delight in His love as He delights in yours.
Because I love Him, I want to know Him better, to know what He likes, to understand how He wants me to live. This desire drives me back to the Bible, to study it, to understand the message more and more deeply. I want to understand how people in the past related to God and what they discovered of Him, so I am forced to go back and examine the context and culture in which their relationship was based, and the language and grammar in which it was expressed. All these things bring death if pursued as academic studies, but bring life if the desire and intention is to know and love the Author more.
'Self Discipline' so often means little more than Christian legalism, a form of sin that we approve of in the Church because it produces behaviour we like, even if the fruit is deadly. Highly disciplined Christians are predictable and safe. The God we worship is neither 'safe' nor 'predictable', and those who worship and follow Him will soon be neither.
We like to think how wonderful it would have been to be a disciple, to walk with Jesus. We forget how horribly embarrassing it was to be around Him, how often He ignored people's conventional expectations and avoided normal behaviour. He was spontaneous and unpredictable, and almost totally unlike the highly disciplined Christians who flock to our Churches today and claim to follow Him.