Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Godliness Through Discipline - Jay E. Admas

Do you remember the last time that you left a church service all fired up to change? You were determined to be different. "This time," you said, "I mean it; I am going to become the person that God wants me to be!" By Tuesday the fire had burned out. The last time that you read a booklet like this you may have decided: "From now on . . ." but here you are today, pretty much the same as always. You mean well, but nothing significant seems to happen; you have been trying, but not really making it.

There has been some change, some growth, some blessing, but not the kind that you so earnestly would like to see. Now that is the experience of many Christian people; you are not alone in this problem. Some have given up the hope of ever becoming significantly different. Perhaps you have too. "Another booklet full of impractical platitudes," you may be thinking, as you start to put down this pamphlet. Don't do it! I promise you, there is practical help inside. Read on, and find out for yourself. After all, there are Christian people whom you meet from time to time whose lives are different. Somehow they must have found the answer. You can too. You have the same God, the same Bible and the same power available as they. Yet, there is one difference between you and them.

Why is it that you have failed in your attempts? Why is it that you rarely succeed even in your determination to change in small ways? There must be something wrong. You want to do the right thing; yet you so rarely achieve it. Of course, there may be many reasons for this. At the bottom of it all is sin. But here let us single out one major reason (perhaps the major reason) why the gears don't seem to mesh, as they should. What is the problem? You may have sought and tried to obtain instant godliness. There is no such thing. Today we have instant pudding, instant coffee, instant houses shipped on trucks, instant everything. And we want instant godliness as well. We want somebody to give us three easy steps to godliness, and we'll take them next Friday and be godly. The trouble is, godliness doesn't come that way.

The Bible is very plain about how godliness does come. Paul wrote about godliness to Timothy. In his first letter to that budding young minister, he said, in contrast to all of the ways that will fail (mentioned in the first part of the verse), "Timothy, you must discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (I Timothy 4:7). Discipline is the secret of godliness.

The word discipline has disappeared from our minds, our mouths, our pulpits, and our culture. We hardly know what discipline means in modern American society. And yet, there is no other way to attain godliness; discipline is the path to godliness. You must learn to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.

The first thing to notice is that there is no option about being godly. Paul's words constitute a divine command by which God tells us to discipline ourselves for that purpose. God intends for His children to be godly. It is also clear that He wants them to be godly, since He orders them to discipline themselves for godliness. In other places He commands the very same thing. He says, for example, "Be holy as I am holy," and "Be perfect as I am perfect." It is certain that we will never reach perfection in this life (I John 1:8), but perfect godliness is the goal toward which every believer must discipline himself and toward which he must move every day. This means becoming more like God Himself each day. The godly man leads a life that reflects God. Godliness is the goal of the Christian life; we must please God by being, thinking, doing, saying and feeling in the ways that He wants us to.

Now notice that God says we are to discipline ourselves "for the purpose of (or, literally, toward) godliness." The original means, "to be oriented toward godliness." Your whole life ought to be disciplined (i.e., structured, set up, organized, and running day by day) toward the goal of godliness. Everything that happens and everything that you do should contribute something toward reaching that goal. Monday through Saturday, not only Sunday, you must move toward the goal, one step, or two steps or ten steps further down the road. You will become that much more like God only because of what you have done and thought and said each day. "But that is exactly the sort of impractical generalization that I thought you would write! Certainly I know God wants me to be godly, but that is just the problem. I don't live a disciplined life each day, and you haven't told me how I can." Well, I shall. But one thing at a time. If you are going to learn discipline, you must first learn patience. We'll come to that in due time. Remember, godliness is not instant, and neither is the explanation of how to attain it!

Let's get back to our train of thought. When your life is oriented toward (or focused upon) godliness, the goal will constantly come into your mind. You will think at work, at home, or in school, "I am to reflect Him in this project." Isn't that what you want? If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, you must want that. There are times, of course, when you are discouraged or that you get tired or become upset, when you lose sight of the goal. You may even rebel against the idea. But if you are a genuine believer in Christ, the well never runs dry; down in your heart the desire trickles back, and you find yourself saying, "That is what I want." It is true that you "hunger and thirst after righteousness."

When Paul writes, "You are a new creature; all things have become new," this is what he has in mind: the Holy Spirit has oriented you toward God and His holiness, putting a new focus on all of life. But that does not automatically make you godly. Because of the work of Christ you have been counted perfect in God's sight, but in actuality you are still far from the goal. Yet, your new life in Christ is oriented toward godliness; that is why at times you ache for it.

The problem is that although basically your orientation is new, many of your day-by-day practices are not yet oriented toward godliness. The "old man" (old ways of living) is still your unwelcome companion. So seldom do you see your life practically oriented as it ought to be that perhaps you have despaired. You must not. The reason why your good resolves have not been realized may be that you have never learned how to discipline yourself for godliness.

"How can I discipline myself?" you ask insistently. It is time to begin to consider the answer to that question. First you must recognize that the very word discipline makes it clear that godliness cannot be zapped. It cannot be whipped up like instant pudding. Godliness doesn't come that way. Discipline means work; it means sustained daily effort. The word Paul used is the one from which the English words "gymnastics" and gymnasium" have been derived. It is a term clearly related to athletics. An athlete becomes an expert only by years of hard practice. There are no instant athletes. Do you think that Brooks Robinson became one of the world's greatest third basemen simply by appearing at the stadium in Baltimore one afternoon after he had decided that morning that he was going to play ball? Do you think it is only when there is a game that he plays? You know otherwise. You know that he has spent countless hours practicing. When you watch him in action, it is hard not to conclude that he was born with a glove on his hand. He must have teethed on a bat! It takes years of regular practice to achieve such skill.

No weight lifter, for example, says, "Here is a very heavy weight. I never lifted weights before, but that looks like the largest one. I'll try to press it. " He is likely to break his back. He can't do it that way. He must start out with a small weight the first week, then gradually over the months and years add heavier and heavier ones. He must work up to the heaviest one. Nor does he decide, "This week I'll lift weights for five hours on Friday and then I'll forget about it for the next six weeks." Athletes must practice regularly, usually every day for at least a short period of time. They work daily, day after day, until what they are doing is "natural" (i.e., second nature) to them.

That is what an athlete does. And that is exactly what is involved in the word that Paul used here. Continued daily effort is an essential element of Christian discipline.

Discipline, so conceived, is something that the Christian church lacks in our time. It is high time that we all recognize that God requires us to discipline ourselves by constant practice in obeying His revealed will and thus exercise (train) ourselves toward godliness.

Practically speaking, what does this involve? In Luke 9:23, Jesus commands His disciples: "Take up your cross daily," denying the self. He does not mean denying yourself something. There is no idea of doing penance in this. "For Lent I'll stop chewing gum," says the penitent. That is exactly not what is in view. Rather, Jesus insisted that Christians must deny the self within them. By the self, He meant the old desires, the old ways, the old practices, the old habit patterns that were acquired before conversion. They became so much a part of day-by-day practice that they became second nature. We were born sinners, but it took practice to develop our particular styles of sinning, the old life was disciplined toward ungodliness. That is why Paul says that the believer must daily deny (literally say "no" to) the self.

Daily denial of the self indicates the presence of a day-by-day battle inside of the Christian. He must "take up the cross" as an instrument of death upon which to crucify the self every day. Taking up the cross doesn't mean carrying some heavy burden. It is not enduring a trial ("I guess my cross is that I must live the rest of my life with my wife"). No, that isn't what is in view at all. Taking up the cross means going to the place of death. It means putting to death the old life patterns of the old man.

But that is not enough. Whenever God says "put off" He also says "put on." On the positive side, each day one also must seek to "follow" Jesus Christ. That is what it means to discipline oneself for godliness. It means to continue to say "no" to self and to say "yes" to Christ every day until one by one all of the old habitual ways are replaced by new ones. It means that by daily endeavor to follow God's Son, one finds at length that doing so is more "natural" than not doing so. The Holy Spirit thus enables a believer to put off the old man and put on the new man.

The new ways reflect the true righteousness and holiness that is in Jesus Christ. The image of God was ruined by the fall, but by this process of sanctification it begins to show up in the Christian's life as it originally did in Adam's life. That is what discipline toward godliness is all about. Godliness in the final analysis is becoming, by grace, like God once again.

When a Christian daily orients his life toward godliness through discipline, something happens; something truly amazing takes place. There was a time in the life of Brooks Robinson, no doubt, that he suddenly awakened to the fact that he wasn't even thinking consciously any more about much of what he was doing. It was just as natural for him to scoop up baseballs around third base as it is for Willie Mays to climb a fence without giving a second thought to it-in order to pick off one that really should have been a home run. It had become as natural as walking down the street. That is the way that God made us.

God gave man a marvelous capacity that we call habit. Whenever we do something long enough it becomes a part of us. For example, did you button your shirt up or down today? Ah, it took you a minute to answer that, didn't it? Maybe you don't even know yet. You don't think about where to begin any more; you just do it. You don't consciously say to yourself, "Now, I'm going to button my shirt this morning, I shall begin at the top." You don't think about that at all. You just do it without thinking about it. That is the capacity that God gave us. Take another example: think of the first time that you sat behind an automobile wheel. What a frightening experience that was. There you sat, thinking, "Here is a wheel [it looked about ten times bigger than it was], and here is a gear shift, and here is a complex instrument panel, and foot pedals down below. I have to learn how to use and to coordinate all of these! And at the same time I must look out for stripes painted down the middle of the road, and signs along the roadway and pedestrians and automobiles, and.... How will I ever do it?" Can you remember back to that time? But now-now what do you do? At midnight, on a moonless night, you slide into the car seat as someone else slips into the seat beside you. Deftly you insert the key into the slot without scarring the dashboard, turn on the motor, shift the gears, use that one pedal (if it's still there on your car), back out of the driveway into the street and start down the road, all the while arguing some abstruse point of Calvinism! What an amazing feat that is when you think about it! Well, just think about it. You have learned to perform highly complex behavior unconsciously. Think of what Brooks Robinson and Willie Mays have learned to do in the same way. How did you learn? How did they? By practice, disciplined practice. You drove the car long enough that driving became a part of you. It became second nature to you. That is what Paul was talking to Timothy about.

The writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:13 ff.) speaks dearly enough about this matter. There he is upbraiding the Hebrew Christians because, although they had received so much teaching of God's Word, yet they had not profited from it. The reason was that they had not used it.

Consequently, when they ought to have been teachers, they still needed to be taught. He says that everyone "who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a baby" (verse 13). He continues: "But solid food [meat and potatoes] is for the mature who because of practice [because they have done it so often] have their senses trained to discern between good and evil." There it is. The practice of godliness leads to the life of godliness. It makes godliness "natural." If you practice what God tells you to do, the obedient life will become a part of you. There is no simple, quick, easy way to instant godliness.

Continued Here


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