▶️ Prefer to listen? I discuss this topic on the podcast in RPS #62 — Practical Strategies for Learning Self-Discipline
In the previous article, I showed you why discipline is the gateway to Christian maturity. As promised, I will now present some practical strategies for cultivating discipline in your Christian life.
1. Remember that maturity does not come over night.
This first strategy is less of a strategy and more of a mindset. But it is important to begin here. You need to be patient. Don’t beat yourself up when you decide to become more disciplined but don’t suddenly start hitting the gym seven days a week, spending three hours in prayer and Bible study, or keeping your room spotless. Discipline takes time. So take it slow and remember God is gracious toward us in our weakness.
I remember being at a prayer meeting once and a girl who was at my table shared a simple prayer request. She said, “I’m just praying for a breakthrough.” Everyone else nodded in understanding, but I genuinely did not know what she meant. So, when we broke for lunch, I asked her to explain what she meant by a “breakthrough.” What she described was a feeling of frustration over her ongoing struggles with sin. She was praying that she would receive a sort of “zap” that would elevate her to the next level of holiness.
I think we all kind of wish we could get a zap that would make us instantly more disciplined. Like spiritual liposuction where God would just suck all the sin and laziness out of you at once. But short of glorification (which has the downside of requiring you to die first) no such procedure exists. There are no shortcuts to discipline and maturity. So be patient with yourself.
2. Don’t let emotions in the driver’s seat.
For many believers, their walk with the Lord is dependent upon emotional highs. They need pumping worship music or a weekend retreat to reinvigorate their affections. Without those aids they aren’t in the Word, they aren’t praying, and they aren’t walking with the Lord. So they keep seeking out those highs because they are the only thing that seems to work.
Those emotional highs are great when they come, but emotional highs will not sustain long-term, plodding faithfulness. “I don’t feel like it,” is never the right answer in response to Christian duty. Discipline is what helps us march faithfully through the valleys of life. If we let emotions drive our obedience, we will never get anywhere. Instead, discipline must begin in the mind.
3. Start by disciplining your mind with the truth.
Like any change we want to make, the choice to become disciplined is just that: a choice. And choices begin in the mind. More specifically, choices begin with a change in the way you view the world. Recognizing that our lives are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) creates a paradigm shift for how we view everything. That change in thinking will change your behavior. If you get your mind right, by meditating on Scripture and truths about God and the Christian life, your actions will follow.
But how do you discipline the mind with truth? By deciding what your mind dwells on.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”Philippians 4:8
When your mind is disciplined with truth, your behavior will follow. This is why I recommend starting your journey toward discipline with first building the habit of daily Bible reading.
4. Strive to have discipline mature into habit.
In the beginning, discipline requires willpower for us to do what we need to do. But as we continually make the right choices the need to draw on willpower diminishes. The disciplines you faithfully repeat eventually become habits. You simply become the kind of person who wakes up early or the kind of person who reads her Bible every morning. There ceases to be any debate of “will I, or won’t I?” You just do it because you do it. Once these habits are formed, you free up that willpower to be put toward forming new habits. This is one reason why it makes sense to just focus on one habit at a time. Willpower is for building habits not sustaining them.
5. Remember that discipline always requires sacrifice.
It’s easy to say something is a priority. It’s easy to make lists or write out a personal mission statement. But it is discipline that continually gives first place in our actions to what we say are our most important priorities: Family devotions over football, integrity over ease, holiness over temporary pleasure.
But notice there is always a choice involved. Discipline always requires something to be sacrificed. And this may be otherwise good things. But if they are not the priority, they must be put to death. The sooner we make peace with the fact that we can’t have it all, the sooner we will do what is necessary to become disciplined Christians.
6. Build on habits that are already working.
Building new habits is hard. But it’s easier when you build on what’s already working. There are things you do every day that you probably don’t even think about. You (hopefully) brush your teeth every night. Your discipline will go much further if you invest it in building off of habits that you are already doing. So if you are trying to become more disciplined about memorizing Scripture, write a verse on a notecard and put it on the mirror where you brush your teeth each day. As much as possible remove any unnecessary friction between yourself and the thing you want to become more disciplined at. The trick is to make discipline as easy as possible.
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7. Harness waves of motivation to create systems.
Have you ever been hit with a big wave of motivation? You think, “Today is the day I start reading the Bible from front-to-back!” So you dive in and get twenty chapters into Genesis before lunch. But that’s when things start to waver. The next day, you are still coming off the high of motivation so you knock out another ten chapters. But it was much harder this time. Then you start to realize there are still twenty chapters to go, and this is just the first book of the Bible, not to mention the rest of the Bible. And soon that boost of motivation is gone, and you drift back to the status quo.
What went wrong?
Motivation is fickle. It cannot sustain long-term progress. That is what discipline is for. But motivation is not entirely useless. Like a lightning rod, you need to capture and store the energy of those sudden bursts of motivation.
Next time you find yourself waking up on a Saturday, with a cup of coffee in hand, feeling like you can take on the world, don’t just dive right into some project. Instead, jiu-jitsu that wave of motivation to create a system that will enable you to produce sustained progress once the feeling has passed. Use the motivation to create a plan, organize a process, or write out a detailed to-do list.
8. Capitalize on every decisive moment.
Life is constantly presenting us with the choice between discipline or self-indulgence. When your alarm wakes you up, you have a choice: You can hit snooze or you can get up. Always choose the path of discipline, even in those smallest choices. When that alarm is ringing, that is the decisive moment. You will either get up and do what needs to be done, or you will indulge yourself and roll back over.
Get up. Get up every time.
Because when you practice discipline in the small choices of life, you will find that it becomes easier in the bigger choices too.