This morning as I write, while walking on the levee by the river, I chatted with a neighbor I’ve frequently seen but had never met. He has an unusual morning routine. Instead of walking a long distance up and down the levee, he has marked off 1,000 feet and goes back and forth. “I do eight laps,” he said. “That’s 16,000 feet. About 3 miles.” I congratulated him. It’s the same distance I get in each morning, and I know what an effort it can be sometimes.
The man said, “I’ve lost 70 pounds up here.” I was impressed, and this time I really congratulated him. Losing 5 pounds can be difficult, but imagine losing seventy!
I thought of a woman I met in Nashville this Spring. In the cafeteria at the Lifeway building, I was chatting with and sketching a number of church secretaries in town for their annual conference where I was a speaker. Several women walking by called greetings to the ones at my table. The lady I was drawing said, “See the one in the purple sweater? She works in our office.” I glanced at the cluster of ladies exiting the doors. The purple-clad was a large person and easy to spot.
“She has lost over a hundred pounds,” the woman said. She added, “There’s an interesting story behind it. She was desperate to lose weight and felt she couldn’t do it by herself. So, she looked into having stomach-stapling surgery. When the doctors examined her, it turned out she had a heart condition, and they refused to do the surgery until she lost a lot of the weight she was carrying.”
A classic Catch-22 situation: she cannot have surgery to lose weight until she loses weight to make the surgery safer.
“Anyway,” said the secretary, “she put herself on a diet and has lost half the amount she needed to get rid of. And she’s decided to skip the surgery. She discovered she’s strong enough to control her appetite without the aid of the doctors or drastic surgery.” I call that a wonderful discovery.
Self-control is one of the bigger issues in this life. There are many facets to it. Here are several.
a. First, you have to have a great purpose that drives the discipline.
Athletes discipline themselves in order to make the team. They cut out social activities and junk food, they eat a particular diet prescribed for the team, they go to bed early, and they put themselves through a rigorous program of exercise and training. A student trying to qualify for a demanding college studies hard, cuts out the parties, and applies herself. A musician trying to make the school band likewise cuts out unnecessary activities in order to train.
We’ve all known people with big plans who indulge their every whim but assure us they will still get all A’s or make the team or get the job. They see no connection between what they do today and what happens to them tomorrow. I’ll never forget how Yankee great Mickey Mantle, who retired early due to bad legs, watched the next generation of baseballers excelling year after year and commented, “They’re smarter than I was. I played in off-season, but they discipline themselves and keep training.”
b. With a great purpose, you can tell yourself ‘no.’
Ninety-percent of self-control and discipline is simply a matter of telling yourself “No.” Our appetites want far more than is good for us and they can be insistent. The person who can be firm with himself is one to be admired.
“I made a discovery about discipline,” my friend Tom said. He was a staff member of a United Methodist Church in our town and we’d begun getting together occasionally for coffee just to chat. “My son and I started going to the gym and working out.” He told how they got up early in the morning and put in 45 minutes before one went to school and the other to the office.
“What I discovered,” Tom said, “is that discipline in one area of your life overflows into other areas.” He went on to explain, “Once I started working out, I felt so good that I’m finally taking charge of my health and well-being that I found myself wanting to eat right. I can’t recall the last burger and fries I’ve had.”
That’s a great lesson, one that pertains to the spiritual life, also. Discipline yourself in the matter of reading your Bible each day and you’ll find yourself wanting to pray more and praying better. Soon, other areas of your life will begin shaping up also.
There’s at least one caution that needs to be made anytime we’re considering self-discipline. You’ve noticed that people who take up a diet or a jogging routine have to tell you about it. And therein lies the problem. Part of the self-control we exercise in disciplining ourselves should be to guard our tongue and not call attention to what we have done.
My youngest brother Charlie found this out the hard way. Just after he professed his faith in Christ and was baptized, he gave up cigarettes. Not only did he walk away from them, he became an evangelist for the dangers of smoking. Anyone he saw smoking had to endure his lectures. I tried to caution him about this, but the energy of his new commitment overrode his good sense.
A few weeks after he had made these life-changes, he picked up a cigarette and began smoking and was hooked once more. Now he was so humiliated to be seen smoking before all those people he had preached to, he quit coming to church. He would have done so much better to have kept his smoking-abstinence to himself until he had built a track record.
c. The purposeful person can make himself do the hard thing.
Self-discipline is most often a matter of telling oneself “No,” but there are times when it means making yourself do something positive which is extremely difficult.
As a pastor, there are times when you make yourself call on a difficult church member. You know you need to do it, you know you will feel better after doing it, but making yourself get in the car and drive over and knock on the door is the hardest thing you will ever do. I can think of times when I made that visit in order to apologize for something I had done or not done. I made that visit when I had let the person down, when he or she needed their pastor and I was not there. I made that difficult call when the individual and I had had a donnybrook in church and I knew that the least I should do was to make a good faith effort at reconciliation.
I once asked our deacon leadership to deal with a couple of particularly ornery members of their board. They met and came back to me with a plan, but not one I wanted to hear. “Pastor,” they said, “We want you to visit in the homes of all the deacons. Just make a pastoral call. While you’re there, ask them if you have failed them in any way since you’ve been our minister. If they say you have, then you and they can deal with it. But if they say you haven’t, that’s good and everything’s fine. In both cases, when you leave them, you start forward with a clean slate. Then, the next time one of those deacons spreads dissension in the church, we will deal with him.”
I would have preferred a clearer, more direct way of their dealing with problem-makers in their own ranks, but following my own advice elsewhere in these management principles, I submitted to them and made the calls. One or two of them were like pulling teeth, I hated to make them so much. But I went, sat there in their living rooms, made a good faith effort at reconciliation, and felt like I had scaled a mountaintop when I drove home. And to everyone’s surprise, those deacons did better after the pastor did his part.
Leaders sometimes have to deal with failures in their people. To be a real leader means one has the courage to confront issues and people.
One characteristic of the most successful people you will meet is their ability to make themselves take care of the most unpleasant tasks first. Rather than drop it to the bottom of the list and keep delaying a task that threatens to undo the entire project, they tackle it first. They get it out of the way, then enjoy the rest of the day, doing the projects they enjoy.
d. Discipline is a product of the controlling Holy Spirit.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, humility, and self-control,” according to Galatians 5:22-23. As I understand this Scripture, all nine qualities comprise the fruit of the Spirit and are produced in the lives of believers as they live their lives under His lordship. So, for a follower of Jesus Christ, rather than focusing on trying to love for a month, then on joy for a month, then peace, and so on, we have a simpler plan: put yourself under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live in obedience to His word. The Spirit of God will indwell you and produce a Christlikeness which is described by these 9 qualities.
The Greek word for “self-control” has as its root the word for “strength.” After all, that’s what self-control and discipline are: a person being strong with himself. I like to think of it as toughness.
I like the prayer of the man who prayed: “Lord, give me a heart of fire toward Thee, a heart of flesh toward my fellow man, and a heart of iron toward myself.”