Introductory Note:

A piece to read and re-read, this essay from 1982 lays out Richard Foster’s theology of spiritual disciplines:

Real discipline is no righteousness by works, no vain attempt to save one’s self. It is a humble act of placing ourselves before God in such a way that he can work into us the righteousness that we so desperately need.

Our working out, God working in— that is the divine synthesis.

Renovaré provides opportunities to learn, practice, and share with one another the “path of disciplined grace.” We embrace the good news that this path is provided to us by God for our transformation, so that we can live freely and lightly in the Kingdom of God, loving and blessing God and others.

Renovaré Team

The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

The disciplined person is the person who can live in the appropriateness of the hour. 

The extreme ascetic and the glutton have exactly the same problem: they cannot live appropriately; they cannot do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. 

The disciplined person is the free person. Demosthenes was free to be a great orator only because he had gone through the discipline of speaking above the ocean roar with pebbles in his mouth. George Frederick Handel was free to compose his magnificent Messiah” only because he had schooled himself in music theory. Joni Eareckson, who is a quadriplegic, is free to bless us with her art only because she was willing to go through the discipline of many painful and discouraging hours of painting, holding the brush between her teeth. 

The disciplined person is a flexible person. Rigidity is the first sign that discipline has gone to seed. The rigid person calcifies what should always remain alive and growing. The disciplined person is always free to respond to every movement of divine grace. 

The Christian disciplines anchor us in God which in turn frees us to be able to hear his voice and to obey his Word.

Jesus Our Model 

Jesus Christ is the perfect example of the disciplined person. When the need of the hour was to fast, he was able to fast; when feasting was appropriate, he was free to feast. When teaching was needed, he always had the life-giving message; when silence was appropriate, he had the power to speak not a word.” 

In contrast to the rigidity of the Scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus was always responsive to the word of the Father. He was able to disregard the traditions of men” when the appropriate response was to obey the word of God.” When a perfect sacrifice was needed for our redemption, Jesus was free to despise the shame and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”1 When we see Jesus, we understand that discipline is liberating, life-giving, jubilant. 

The March of Biblical Witnesses 

Think of Abraham, who disciplined himself against the security of life in Ur of the Chaldees and instead sought a city whose maker and builder was God. Think of Moses, who disciplined himself against the pleasures of sin for a season and sought instead a life pleasing to God. Think of David, who disciplined himself against the harassment of King Saul and waited patiently until his anointing as king became a reality. Think of Jeremiah, who endured the reproach and derision of his fellow countrymen in order to deliver God’s Word to them. Think of the Apostle Paul, who endured hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,”2 in order to bring the Good News of the Gospel to the Gentile world. Think of John the Beloved, who saw the glory of the new heaven and the new earth while enduring banishment on the deserted Island of Patmos.

After his famous litany of faith-heroes, the writer to the Hebrews reminds all of us that it is for discipline that you [have to] endure.”3 Discipline is the reward of endurance, and it is a great reward because it empowers us to obey God. 

Discipline in the Marketplace 

I have a friend who had a godly desire which conflicted with a perturbing personal problem. The desire was to have more time to minister to college students. The problem was an excessive and undisciplined use of television. In an act of personal discipline he gave away his TV set and invested his energies in human lives. Now he is free to enter into the real human drama because he turned away from the plastic drama of the screen. 

I have a student who has set a personal goal of memorizing one-third of the New Testament by the time he graduates from college. He is preparing for the ministry, and this single discipline will no doubt reap vast dividends in his future teaching and preaching ministry. 

I know a Christian executive who refuses to look at his mail until after 12:00 noon. Why? Because his creative energies are at their peak in the morning, and he wants to use every moment of that time in the most productive way possible.

Discipline is not meant to tie us down but to set us free. It is not some heavy burden to be endured, but a means of God’s grace to release us from ingrained habit patterns of sin. 

Without discipline would there have been an Augustine of Hippo, a Francis of Assisi, an Ignatius of Loyola, a Julian of Norwich, a Catherine of Siena, a Teresa of Avila, a Brother Lawrence, a Martin Luther, a John Wesley, a Hudson Taylor? Think of the legacy of spiritual renewal and vitality these men and women have left us simply because, in acts of discipline and dedication, they joyfully took up the cross and followed the Master. 

The Divine Synthesis 

Work out your own salvation,” declared the Apostle Paul, with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”4 Our working out, God working in— that is the divine synthesis. 

Real discipline is no righteousness by works, no vain attempt to save one’s self. It is a humble act of placing ourselves before God in such a way that he can work into us the righteousness that we so desperately need. 

More than any other New Testament writer, Paul held high the banner of salvation by faith alone. And yet Paul took discipline with utmost seriousness: I pommel my body and subdue it.5I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”6Endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”7Fight the good fight of faith.“8 These are not the words of a man who scorned discipline. 

We would do well to think of the Christian life as the path of disciplined grace. It is discipline, because there is work for us to do. 

It is grace because the life of God which we enter into is a gift which we can never earn. Lovingly God works his life into us by grace alone, joyfully we hammer out the reality of this new life on the anvil of discipline. Remember, discipline in and of itself does not make us righteous; it merely places us before God. Having done this, discipline has reached the end of its tether. The transformation that comes is God’s work. 

Our Undisciplined World 

In cheerful nonconformity to the tides of popular opinion the Christian calls for self-discipline in the face of self-indulgence. Modern culture has clearly lost both the desire and the ability to check its runaway passions. As a result, it is powerless to break free from the chains of egocentric self-indulgence. We hold the answer to the sickness of contemporary society. The power of Christ working through the spiritual disciplines emancipates us from the tyranny of our egotistical self-indulgence. We are ushered into a new life of unhurried peace and power. As Thomas à Kempis observed so long ago, True peace of heart is found in resisting passions, not by yielding to them.”9

  1. Philippians 2:8RSV. ↩︎
  2. Cf. 2 Timothy 2:3. ↩︎
  3. Hebrews 12:7NASB. ↩︎
  4. Philippians2:12 13RSV. ↩︎
  5. 1 Corinthians 9:27RSV. ↩︎
  6. Philippians 3:14RSV. ↩︎
  7. 2 Timothy 2:3KJV. ↩︎
  8. 1 Timothy 6:12KJV. ↩︎
  9. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, Revised Translation, Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, New York. ↩︎

Originally published in Decision, September 1982.

Photo by Victoria Chen on Unsplash

Text First Published August 1982 · Last Featured on July 2022