What is the Role of Self-Discipline in Our Faith Lives?

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Chapter 12 of Hebrews is a powerful reflection on the role of self-discipline in our faith lives as well as our daily lives. Self-discipline is the virtue most closely related to maturity. It includes the abilities to delay gratification and to take responsibility for one’s words and deeds, both the good and the bad. It includes a commitment to reality and truth, and the wisdom to find balance, to see the narrow path and to follow it.

“It is for discipline that you have to endure” (verse 7). As parents, how many times have we, out of love and concern for our children, tried to tell them of the importance of developing self-discipline, knowing that that is the source of happiness they seek. And how many times have we listened to a petulant, self-righteous response like, “Why should I do that? That limits my freedom to do what I want, when I want to do it. I am free! I should be able to just follow my passions without constraints from within or from without.” Of course, if we have done our best to bring them up in the faith, and modeled self-discipline in our own lives, the better the chances that they will remain open to the truth somewhere deep within themselves. Life will get their attention somewhere along the line and they will begin to see the wisdom of that message we were trying to lovingly give them. The irony is that those life lessons are always more painful than the hard work that is required to gain the self-discipline that makes us not only good, solid adults, but something even more important. When that self-discipline is rooted in God’s law, his commandments, it makes us righteous and beloved sons and daughters of God.

Developing this discipline is not easy, of course. It takes a commitment to hard work, trial and error, forgiveness and grace. As the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (verse 10) We are told not to take this discipline lightly for the truth is that, because we are sinners, we will fail in our efforts at times. Yet, we must remain committed to the efforts that are necessary for building the habits of self-discipline in accord with God’s word. We must not become disappointed, or grow weary. For he “disciplines the ones he loves and chastises every son and daughter he receives” (verse 6). We must learn to trust in his love for us. He will give us the graces we need to do this difficult work of developing the habits of holy and righteous self-discipline.

What are the habits of self-discipline then? First we must practice the work of studying God’s word and listening to it with humility. We must develop the courage to do the hard, and sometimes painful work of self-examination, to honestly recognize our failings, as well as our successes. We must listen to our consciences in the light of God’s word and repent our failures and give thanks for our successes. And, first and foremost, we must develop the habit of prayer. It is in the discipline of prayer, that intimate and personal relationship with God, that we find our support and our guidance. In studying the scriptures, we can find inspiration in the men and women of faith we encounter there. But above all, we can find it in Jesus. We see that even he had to endure the pain of the cross before he could receive the glory of his triumph. By reflecting on his sufferings we can be encouraged in our own. He is with us. He knows our suffering. He will not abandon us, especially not in the midst of our struggles. We can regard the sting of our conscience as affectionate correction given to us by a loving father. If we practice these disciplines, making them habits in our lives, we will be able to endure even the shedding of our blood for his sake. This kind of self-discipline is the natural bond between us and our Father. The reality is that this kind of self-discipline is the source of our truest freedom. If we develop this self-discipline in accord with God’s law, we will be able to more accurately discern between true and false, good and evil, and we will be able to choose more and more regularly to be truthful and honest and to do what is truly good. It is this that makes us free, not the ego.

Lord, help us in our struggles to be disciplined in the faith. Give us the strength and the courage to not grow weary in that struggle. Let us look to you, Jesus, more and more regularly, in order to learn the humility that is the source of the righteous self-discipline that makes us truly free. We pray in your name, Jesus. Amen!

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