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

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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