May 14, 2024 18:00pm
Discipline Yourself

“The best time to buy used dumbbells is in the spring because people have given up on their New Year’s resolution by then,” said the salesperson at my local used sports-equipment store.

I chuckled a bit. Even though I am a “fitness for life” type of person, I knew his statement to be amusing but true. Many people start with grand intentions and fizzle out like a bottle rocket. Getting physically fit is hard work, and when you don’t always see immediate results, it’s easy to get discouraged. Whether you’re a New Year’s resolution gym-goer or a lifelong fitness junkie, getting the results you want takes discipline, effort, and consistency.

If you’ve never exercised before, you don’t just magically pop out of bed at 5 a.m. each day to go for a run or lift weights. Your body is not used to that type of routine. It takes discipline to start. Even if you’re a seasoned fitness pro, there are days when you just don’t want to exercise. It takes discipline on those hard days to get up and put in the work.

And yes, it’s going to be work—that means it will be hard. There are days when my brain starts bawling because it remembers the strain from yesterday. This is where we must choose discipline; we tell our brains we’re going to do it anyway because, yes, it’s hard, but the benefits outweigh the momentary discomfort. If we don’t put in the effort, we’re not going to see progress.

Developing muscle doesn’t just take effort; it requires repeated, consistent effort. Doing sit-ups once a week is not going to get you the six-pack you desire. Similarly, doing two sit-ups, even if you do them every day, is not going to produce the results you want. To grow muscle and shed fat, you must put muscle under repeated, consistent pressure. Fitness trainers call it time under tension. Time under tension makes your muscle grow; it trains your muscle to do what you want it to do.

The same is true with our spiritual lives.

The apostle Paul 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” (1 Timothy 4:7b–8). The word train could also be translated discipline. That is why Christians call the tools we use to train ourselves for godliness the spiritual disciplines. Think of them like you would crunches, planks, and sit-ups for your ab muscles—they’re the things that help trim away the spiritual fat of sin and worldliness and begin to shape you into what you want to look like—Christ. These are things like Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, fasting, and service to others, to name a few.

They are disciplines because doing these things doesn’t come easily or naturally. They are things we must train ourselves to do until they become a habit—a regular, normal part of our day. We want to love God more and our sin less; we want to become more like Christ. But when we do not discipline ourselves to grow in godliness, we’re not going to see the results we desire. Just like exercise, it helps to set a time and place we are going to read our Bible and pray, and then stick to it. Even then, there will be days when we just don’t feel like it. It’s on these days we must remind ourselves that the benefits of godliness far outweigh the strain or difficulty we may feel in doing the work. Paul says that godliness holds promise not only for this life but also for the life to come.

We must put in the work. Paul exhorts us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12b). Doing the work of training ourselves for godliness (or sanctification) is what he is talking about. The spiritual disciplines require work. Listening to a sermon requires mental effort. So does prayer—Jesus was so focused on doing God’s will (knowing the pain and suffering that was to come) that he shed drops of blood as he prayed (Luke 22:44). Meditating—or dwelling on how we need to apply God’s Word to our lives—also requires mental effort and focus. We may not be lifting heavy dumbbells, but applying ourselves to consider God’s Word requires exertion.

Disciplining yourself for godliness also requires consistency. When our training consists of once-a-week church attendance but is lacking in prayer, Bible reading, and deeply pondering the things of God the rest of the week, we will not really grow in our relationship with God. Yet many will complain that they don’t feel very close to God or see how he is working in their lives. This is like doing a few crunches on Sunday morning and then bemoaning our bellies the rest of the week, saying we don’t understand why we feel lethargic and out of shape!

We must put in diligent, habitual effort to grow in knowing and loving our God more and to be conformed to his ways. Our spirits need time under tension. And the good news is that the results are guaranteed! As we work out our salvation, we’re not doing it alone. As we put in the effort, “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). His supernatural power is at work in us, building our spiritual muscles in order to bring the work he began in us to completion (Philippians 1:6). That is enough to encourage us to keep going even on the hardest of days!

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