I’ve been intrigued by words since I was pretty young. (“Who decided that was a bad word?”) I wrote frequent letters to friends and family, had pen pals in French class, and have kept a journal since fifth grade. I choose words carefully and seek out clarification when there’s a risk of a misunderstanding. Another curiosity has been how meanings of words change over time. I’ve realized that almost without exception, when a word gains a negative connotation, it’s because we’ve used it inappropriately, with increased frequency, until the word itself becomes “offensive.”
Somewhere along the years, the word “discipline” has joined ranks of these words. If you look up the definition online, it’s now associated with punishment, controlling others, and even abuse. But discipline has been around since the beginning of time and is listed throughout the Bible as something that benefits us and helps us to grow.
It’s no coincidence that the word sounds a lot like “disciple.” Both words come from the Latin root discere, which means “to learn”. While the latin word for discipline (“disciplina”) means instruction and training, the word disciple (“discipulus”) means student.
Jesus called many to follow Him and learn from Him. Not everyone did. John 6 tells the story of how He preached to thousands, telling them all that it would mean to follow Him and what this growth would produce in them (including power, love and self-discipline). He offered this to all, but many thought it was too much, (too disciplined, one might say) so they walked away. We were created with the free-will to decide for ourselves whether we want to learn and grow.
Discipline = instruction and training
Disciple = student
The majority of the people I work with and hang out with would say they love learning. Who doesn’t? And yet, society today shies away from the concept, and shames parents for “disciplining” their children…not realizing that teaching our children how to learn and be responsible for their thoughts, feelings and actions is a life necessity that helps us succeed.
Most of the things in this life that grow us take discipline. Learning a new instrument, habit, losing weight, gaining strength, writing a novel, running a marathon…. You name it, you need discipline to get it! Psalm 12:1 says whoever loves discipline, loves knowledge. It also says something a bit harsh…whoever hates discipline is “brutish.” (That means unintelligent-like an animal.) We were made for so much more.
So, what does it take to have discipline?
Consistency & Repetition
Expect & Plan for Resistance
Consistency & Repetition
When we learn something new, the brain fights against it. This is because the brain is focused on doing things with as little effort as possible. Once we’ve done something repeatedly and consistently for some time, the brain delegates the activity to the subconscious, and we begin to do it on “autopilot.”
If we’re learning an instrument, we first have to focus on the placement of each finger and think through idioms to help us remember the notes. (“Every Good Boy Does Fine!”) With time, those aspects are done without our focus, so we can concentrate elsewhere (like singing along as we play!).
We have the ability to choose every day what we will do. As silly as it may sound, reminding your brain of your decision and dedication to follow through will strengthen your will to do so. When your actions don’t align with your values (what you think is important), you’ll feel internal friction and will be faced with a decision…change your behavior or change your mind! So re-mind yourself of why you’re committed to following through.
Instead of thinking about the discipline of doing devotions in the morning, remind yourself that you’re doing this to improve your relationship with God, to improve your ability to recognize His voice, and to feel His presence in your life, so you can show His love to others as well.
Not only does our brain want to stay on “autopilot,” it also naturally seeks pleasure/comfort and avoids pain/discomfort. So, if it takes more energy to focus your mind and stay on task, it will offer you all sorts of “alternatives” and distractions. But here’s the good news. God promises that He’ll always offer a choice and the ability to control our thoughts and behavior.
If you’ve set out to write one chapter of a book each week, silence your phone and put it in another room! Turn off your notifications on your computer and clear your desk of any distractions. If you’re trying to get healthy, stock the kitchen with healthy food rather than your favorite snacks.
Expect & Plan for Resistance
Creating a new habit isn’t easy work. If it were, you’d already be doing it! But just because it’s not “easy” doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks. Be “onto” your brain. Expect it to offer you all sorts of silly thoughts about what you deserve, how deprived you are in the moment, and all the reasons why you can do this tomorrow (or why it was a dumb idea in the first place!). I like to think of this part of my brain as a toddler version of myself whining in order to get what she wants. I lovingly think to myself, “Yep. I hear you. But I’ve already made my decision.”
When my daughter was little, I realized quickly that there were times that I needed her to do what I asked of her without questioning me. Not because her questions were valid. Not because I didn’t want to answer them, but because of two things:
1-My thought process when making decisions ahead of time was more rational than her thought process during an impulse or urge.
2-I knew there’d be a time when her obedience (another “dirty” word in today’s society) was imperative for what was best for her for the long-term.
Imagine you saw someone dangerous approaching your child and you say, “I need you to come here, please.” You don’t want her to provide excuses or resist you. Rather, you’d want her to do what you ask now, knowing you’d be open to discussion about her thoughts & feelings later.
This, to me, is the heart of discipline. It was never intended to be abusive or manipulative. It was created for love. For growth and learning. And the biggest bonus of discipline? It’s almost impossible to be disciplined in only one aspect of your life. When we learn how to regulate our thoughts, feelings and behavior, we’re better able to apply it throughout our life, affecting our body, soul and mind.
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