Self-discipline is out of fashion in our time, at least for some folks. Just in this week’s headlines, an elected political representative was again disgraced after his latest “sexting” surfaced. His wife is separating from him, and the world yawns. Where’s the self-discipline we should hope to find in our elected officials? Was it ever there to begin with?
Other headlines are consumed with demographics of race, gender, and carnality. We have “safe spaces” now wherein free speech is curtailed under the guise of sensitivity and the favorite system of silencing dissenters and thought not aligned with militant secularism–political correctness. And infamous athletes boycott the national anthem; some people burn our nation’s flag; yet others support the murdering of police, etc. The list is long of people who seem to lack self-control/self-discipline. And where self-discipline is absent, somebody else’s discipline will step in—usually in the form of a growing government.
How should the Christian view this? Should he capitulate to political correctness? Should she renounce the obvious distinctions between the genders? Should Christians give in to being exiled from the public square? Should Christians throw up their hands in postures of despair and exclaim, “Well, we know it’s going to get worse!”? (I have heard Christians say this.)
What does Scripture actually say about these things? In short, Christians are to be above the aforementioned follies. Christians ought to be the ones who exemplify self-discipline. They ought to be the ones whose examples the undisciplined world envies. Jesus did not obfuscate. He said Christians are to “let [their] light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16 ESV). Just as Jesus was the light who’d come into the dark world, his followers are to be lights amidst this darkness. And being light entails self-governance/self-discipline.
I am currently studying through Peter’s life and writing, and one text from Peter often cited as a ground for Christian apologetics (a reasoned and reasonable defense of the Christian faith) comes from his first letter. The text to which I refer follows: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pt 3:15-17 ESV).
It’s true, of course, that Peter teaches Christians the importance of being able to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. (May God bless the many faithful Christian apologetics ministries we have.) But what is easily overlooked in those same verses cited from Peter is his emphasis upon “having a good conscience” and knowing that Christians will be slandered for . . . “doing good.” That’s the battlefield of being a living sacrifice. Obedience is manifested via living a good life amidst an evil culture. This is why Peter writes that it’s a blessing when you’re reviled by the unregenerate. In other words, Peter’s echoing Jesus: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12 ESV). But “doing good” demands self-discipline, not unrestrained impudence.
The ancient Greek world birthed the Olympics, of course. And in the New Testament, Paul uses an athletic metaphor about self-discipline in 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor 9:24-25a ESV). What’s the hinge upon which Paul’s argument turns? Exercising self-control.
Just in case readers could misinterpret Paul’s emphasis upon self-discipline, he reminds them, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27 ESV).
Paul’s emphasis as a Christian was of course the gospel–the life-giving truth centered in God’s work in history concerning Jesus the Christ, his birth, life, substitutionary death, and physical resurrection. Paul’s metaphor of disciplining the new nature in order to receive the prize for a ministry led with faithfulness is analogous to disciplining one’s body as part of athletic competition. How appropriate, therefore, for Christian pilgrims, who ought to be the exemplars of self-discipline, to strive for the prize, to serve with distinction. In short, for a world that often lacks the quality of self-discipline, let the world behold in Christians lives worthy of the One who called them to himself.