I hated doing homework when I was young, especially the tedious, rote math homework. I didn’t like anything that was repetitive. I’d learned it; why did I have to do it over and over again? So I would procrastinate and dodge the work until my mother would be distracted past reason trying to pin me down to a chair. “Just do it now!” she would say. “Get it done, and it’s over with!”
This went on into the first year of high school, and then all that discipline from my mother paid off, to some extent. I became more disciplined in getting the work done, although I’d skive off the math homework if I could.
We don’t have self-discipline unless we have learned to accept discipline from outside ourselves. And without self-discipline, our lives are continually restless and unsatisfying. A lack of self-discipline leads to a lack of accomplishments, large and small. We don’t finish the university degree; we leave piles of dirty dishes in and around the sink. We can’t seem to keep our mouth shut at work and lose the job; we channel surf to the point where we can’t follow the plot of an ordinary television show. It’s a lack of focus, a lack of discipline, a lack of direction.
Of course I don’t mean real neurological disorders such as ADHD. These are diagnosable, sometimes treatable. I mean the spiritual disorder that manifests as laziness and disaffection. It can look like busyness, too, as the undisciplined flit from activity to activity, leaving a wake of unfinished projects and forgotten friends behind.
The spiritual warriors we know as the desert monks fought lack of discipline as much as anything. Monastics need discipline, or the prayers go unsaid, the lessons unlearned, the praise forgotten. The repetition of monastic life is the result of discipline, but it also facilitates discipline. There is room for the spiritual work because the physical work is done according to rote and pattern. The prayers are said in certain order, the seasons kept in given order, and there is no room for heresies and false imagination.
Discipline within begins with discipline without. The parent disciplines and corrects the child, not harshly so as to drive it to anger and hatred and rejection, but gently and as necessary. I was not one to spank, but the firm and no-nonsense approach to corporal discipline isn’t wrong. There are limits. The purpose of spanking is to remind the child of what it did, with punctuation, and to remind of the superior position of the parent. It is to be a gentle shock, not a beating, a mild humiliation, not torture. It is not to be administered in anger, and it must never bruise or injure the child. A spank is administered to the sitting down part of the anatomy, and it is not a cuff or blow anywhere else. A child shouldn’t be spanked past the age of ten.
Other forms of discipline are effective, and often more effective than spanking. A quick word of correction, applied by a parent who is paying attention, may save both parent and child bitterness or failure. I train my dogs to respond to a fingersnap and a hand signal. Working closely with them, I can usually teach them this within days. Eventually all they need is to hear the fingersnap and they know they are expected to do something they are not doing. I don’t have to raise my voice or chase them or scold, very often. Not that we should train children the same way! But it is the putting them right when they don’t know the way, leading them time and again back to the proper course of action, without harshness and belittling, that will lead them to understand first the parental discipline and then their own self-discipline.
God disciplines us the same way. The people of God go astray more often than sheep. Sheep will eventually understand the fence, but Christians charge through it, over it, under it, all the time. Time and time, God sets His people right, even when it takes pain and sorrow. If we pay attention, we learn. If we don’t, we go farther astray and matters get worse for us. Just as the parent has to shout to the child running headlong into danger, sometimes God has to get our attention, because we were not heeding Him when His voice was gentle. Jesus promised us that the yoke was easy,the burden light, but we seem determined to make it difficult and heavy by carrying on with sin on our shoulders, rather than heeding the Shepherd’s voice to stop, rest and give up that burden.
Do we need explicit examples of how far from the path of Christ the church has gone? We can look around and see them. It is not just the human frailty of our leaders, but the petty disputes, the virulent distrust we see amongst the flock, as well! It is the disregard for the way the Lord gave us, disdain for the simple rules He calls us to follow. We act as if His commands are no more than mere suggestions. There is no humility and shamefacedness in the pews or the pulpits. The godliest of men and women are treated with contempt. The learned are belittled. The gentle are mocked.
Men act like women; women dress like men. Children are disrespectful. The proud prevail. The authority of the Word of God is ignored in favour of a cult of personality revolving around some priest, pastor, musician, speaker. Factions turn on each other in every denomination and jurisdiction, name-calling and slandering. Is this Godly behaviour? Did the Lord tell us to act as rats tearing at the wounded and weak?
Parents are afraid to discipline their children, and priests afraid to discipline their congregations. We might get sued, we might get fired. We must then obey man-made law and the rule of the mob rather than the Lord.