My mother used to say she had a hard time disciplining me. "Send you to your room? You would be thrilled to have an excuse to read books uninterrupted. And it seems somehow wrong to take away books from a kid…"
I’ve always understood discipline in two basic lights, one negative and one positive. You either get disciplined, or you are disciplined. Both can result in positive change, but one is somewhat less painful than the other.
Like my mother years ago, my husband and I now wrestle with creative and effective ways to discipline our four children. Timeouts, spankings, grounding, withholding electronics or books (yes, I went there) …you name it, we've probably tried it. We have learned from experience that our family benefits more from giving corrective discipline than from withholding it. The writer of Hebrews explains that God acts as a loving Father when he disciplines us:
"…the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son he accepts….Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life?" (12:6, 9).
That kind of corrective discipline usually hurts even as it improves.
Pre-emptive discipline, not always pleasant but much more positive, can be defined as activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training.
One does not naturally become disciplined; we need guidance. As a parent, I not only discipline my kids but I also coach them on how to become disciplined. Let's take chores, for instance. My boys are more likely to be self-disciplined in cleaning the bathrooms correctly now and in their own future homes if I:
1. Show them how, step by step. "No, Lysoling the room isn't enough. Here's the scrub brush…"
2. Provide them with the best tools. "Personally, I'd put the plastic gloves on my hands instead of blowing it up over my head and nose."
3. Help them understand why disinfectants and hygiene are crucial to their health. (I can't think of anything printable.)
If the boys are disciplined in cleaning the bathrooms (correctly and on time), they avoid two things: gross, potentially infectious bathrooms, and any parental consequences we deem appropriate. They also gain two things: satisfaction for a job well done and my goodwill. (OK, a third positive: not getting sick from a nasty bathroom.)
I like to think of Lenten disciplines in light of the second definition. They are motivated from within by a desire to realign ourselves with God.
During this season of anticipating the death and resurrection of Jesus our Savior, many of us may choose to proactively deny ourselves certain pleasures or habits, or perhaps add an activity, as a way of focusing on what Jesus gave up for us. This habit of self-control takes strength of will, encouragement, and character. It should be hard to maintain all the way through 40 days.
Our brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe practice self-denial in many ways—not all of them relegated to Lent. In the Middle East, some were called on last week to give up their very lives for Jesus' sake. Others live constantly under threat of persecution or worship in underground churches. Yet these believers most often urge the worldwide church to pray for their courage rather than their rescue. They are focused on Christ, not themselves.
Giving up candy, music, electronics, social media, or even food can seem paltry—very "First-World Problem-ish"— in comparison. But we are called to live where God has put us, to pursue Him today wherever we call home.
Guilt at "having it good" or attempting to atone for our excess does not fulfill the spirit of Lenten sacrifice. If our chosen disciplines open up space in our days to "fix our eyes" on Christ (Hebrews 12:2), help us acknowledge where we have gone off track, and build strength of character, they are well worth the effort. Anything that points us to Jesus molds us into his likeness all the more.
We do not have to limit spiritual disciplines to Lent, but during this season many fellow believers are running the same race, and we can encourage one another along the way. The buddy system always helps.
Take the opportunity to be disciplined for a greater purpose. Self-discipline beats out getting disciplined every time, in my book.