Christian Self-Disciplines

Ben H. Swett
Bethany Christian Church
Lenten Contract Series
28 February - 4 April 1990

We call ourselves Disciples of Christ. That means, "We are students and Christ is our teacher." For the next five weeks, this course will provide an opportunity to intensify our efforts to live up to our name.

Tonight is merely an introduction. Those who elect to continue are invited to select one discipline to work on at home, to promise each other they will work faithfully, and be prepared to discuss their progress or the lack of it at subsequent meetings. Other than this introduction, there will be no lectures.

A discipline may be selected from the outline presented in this paper, or you may define a different discipline that you wish to pursue. If two or more people elect to work the same discipline, they may contract with each other to meet during the week, to telephone each other, or to otherwise provide mutual support.

This outline is largely based on the book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, by Richard J. Foster (Harper & Row, 1988). In his introduction, he states: "These disciplines are classical because they are central to experiential Christianity. The purpose of the disciplines is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear. The primary requirement is a longing after God." Later he points out, "The disciplines are for the purpose of realizing a greater good. In and of themselves they are of no value whatever."

Strictly speaking, however, we are not dealing with discipline, but self-discipline. Discipline is imposed from without; self-discipline is imposed from within. Both involve training that develops self-control, character, orderliness and efficiency. The over-all purpose is to replace old habits and inhibitions with carefully selected forms of self-control. Ultimately, the only mastery is self-mastery, and only after we have mastered ourselves to some degree can we voluntarily set aside our self-interest in order to follow Christ.

There is one conscious or unconscious assumption behind all efforts to discipline one's self--that is: the upward way is difficult, but the easy way usually runs downhill. Self-discipline is the opposite of self-indulgence. Therefore, I suggest that you select one of the disciplines that is not easy for you, something that you particularly need to struggle with in order to progress.

1. Elementary self-discipline

Any spiritual discipline is something that a person does, inwardly or outwardly, alone or in a group. Therefore, any treatment of this subject presupposes that one has taken responsibility for one's own actions. This includes what we do and what we do not do, what we receive and what we reject. It also includes self-discipline in such apparently mundane matters as keeping our promises, being on time, and basing decisions on inner values rather than external rewards or punishments. If you need more rigorous self-discipline in any such area, please feel free to make that part of your contract in addition to the spiritual discipline you select to work on.

2. Solitude

In our busy world, taking time to be alone may itself be a major self-discipline. However, solitude is a prerequisite for most of the other disciplines and it is essential to spiritual health. What you do with the time is up to you, but solitude usually means silence and freedom from distractions. Since it takes most people a little while to unwind, the recommended contract is for one hour a day, every day.

3. Study

This is the first discipline of intentional learning, an exercise in humility and teachability. Come to any subject you wish to study as a student, not as a teacher or critic. There are four axioms: (a) repetition--return to the same subject again and again; (b) concentration--focus attention; (c) comprehension-grasp the truth in what you study; and (d) reflection-look for the significance in what you study.
a. Study a book, or a book of the Bible, but don't just read it. Go all the way through it twice and take notes each time:
(1) read to understand what was actually said; and
(2) read to interpret what the author implied or assumed.

b. Study the source of anything you read or hear by looking for the implied purpose of the message. Ask yourself, "Where is this guy coming from? What is he trying to do? What does he want me to do, or be?" Write down the answers.

4. Contemplation

The deep study of specific objects, events or actions is often called contemplation. It is far more than observation, but that's where it starts. The purpose is to lay aside our own preconceptions and find the truth--the reality--in or behind the thing as it is. A contract for this discipline might be to:
a. Sit still and contemplate the same flower for five minutes every day. Notice what it does and what happens to it. Notice when your mind wanders away and gently bring it back to the flower. Practice increasing your attention span.

b. Observe the relationships between any two or three people as frequently as possible. Try to see them as they really are. Notice when you praise them or censure them in your mind, and set that aside. Teach yourself to look at people and their relationships more objectively.

c. Contemplate your inner life. Take time to review the events of the day, with special attention to your own thoughts and feelings. Notice if you tend to focus on what other people said and did, and set that aside. See what you did and did not do, what you received and what you rejected. Do not judge yourself; simply look for the truth in order to develop a more rigorous inner honesty.

5. Meditation

The purpose of Christian meditation is to develop one's ability to hear the "still, small voice" of God. It is based on centuries of testimony that God can place in our minds thoughts which are not our own. This kind of "hearing" involves the subconscious mind but not the ears. In practice, it means focusing attention on God and being aware of inner thoughts and feelings. As a contract for Christian meditation: find a quiet place free from interruptions; take whatever position you find most comfortable and least distracting; close your eyes and proceed with one of the following exercises for 10-15 minutes.
a. Spiritual shower. See the attached paper having that title.

b. Meditation with seed. Focus your mind on something like a short passage of scripture or a scene from the life of Jesus, or by singing one of the great hymns. Use your imagination to get into it and let it get into you. Then stop thinking for a moment and notice what pops into your mind. Write it down so you don't lose it.

c. Meditation on God. With your eyes closed, look up and lift your heart to God. Raise your hands if you feel like it. Look farther up, as you do when focusing your eyes on something at a distance. Let your heart say "Father"--then just wait and watch, without doing anything else, and notice whatever happens.

6. Fasting

There are three purposes for fasting: to purge toxins from the body, to develop self-control over a sensual appetite, and to weaken the hold of flesh upon spirit. This practice is a preparation for prayer throughout the Bible. As a contract, try either a partial fast or a normal fast for 24 hours once a week. If you wish, work up to a 24 hour normal fast twice a week, as some Jews and many early Christians did. Break either of these fasts with a light meal of fresh fruits and vegetables.
a. Partial fast: no food but plenty of water and fresh fruit juices. Continue your normal routine. Inwardly, practice Christian meditation, song and worship. Let every task be a sacred ministry to the Lord.
b. Normal fast: water only but plenty of it. You will probably experience some hunger pangs, and perhaps dizziness from low blood sugar. Continue normal routine, but take it easy. Inwardly, the same as a partial fast but spend more time in Christian meditation. A normal fast can be extended to about 40 days.
c. Absolute fast: neither food nor water. Absolute fasting is reported in the Bible, but only for extreme heavy-duty spiritual work. An absolute fast can produce the near-death experience in less than a week--if the person survives.

7. Confession

The purpose of confession is healing--specifically, healing of the damage done by the inner stress of trying to live a lie. It is an antidote for hypocrisy. Confession is difficult, partly because we each tend to think we are the only sinner in church. But, for the sake of our spiritual and physical health, we need to confess our sins to ourselves, to God, and to another person. Since all confessions are to be kept strictly confidential, reports will only cover the feeling of progress or the lack of it.
a. There are two roles in this discipline: confessing and receiving confession. Therefore, two people might contract to meet once a week and alternate roles.

b. An individual might meet with the pastor, an elder or some other friend, specifically to practice the self-discipline of confessing his or her sins.

8. Celebration

Although the words sound contradictory, celebration is the discipline of rejoicing. It is especially needed by those who take life too seriously. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and it is central to all the other disciplines--the leaven that helps us rise. Reverent joy empowers us and keeps us sweet and sane and strong.
a. Practice rejoicing by recalling a specific example of something that is true, beautiful, just, pure, lovely or gracious--and notice what happens within you.

b. Meet once a week specifically to rejoice. Sing and dance and "make a joyful noise unto the Lord." Camp and conference songs are recommended.

9. Worship

Worship is the most intense form of admiration, adoration and devotion. Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37). We need to improve our ability to do that. Since most of us find it easier to love God either with our heart, or with our soul, or with our mind, we need self-discipline in whichever kind of love we find most difficult.
a. Heart: praise the Lord. Sing praises to the Lord. Sing them silently as you go about your work. Recount his mighty works and manifold blessings. Let your heart know that God is good--and only then, invite him into your heart.

b. Soul: practice the presence of God. In solitude and silence, or while quietly going about normal duties, cultivate an inner expectation that he will "lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace." When you find yourself bathed in pure white light that you cannot see with your physical eyes, know what it is. Relish it and let it flow into your soul.

c. Mind: study the nature of God as revealed by Jesus. Set aside your own preconceptions and any church dogmas you may have inherited. Go to the four Gospels and the Book of Acts, and assimilate everything Jesus said about God. Learn for yourself how good the God who rescues really is.

10. Caring

Jesus said, "You shall love your neighbor as your self" (Matt. 22:39). This is not easy, and it is not something most human beings do naturally. It takes practice, and perhaps a lifetime of practice is not enough to become really good at it.
a. The act of blessing. (1) observe an individual person or living thing, visually or as a mental image. (2) appreciate that entity as it is, rather than as you wish it to be. (3) bless that entity by sending it an outward flow of unstructured white light and your own good-will. Then stop. Don't get hooked by wanting feedback, or to see results. Bless that entity as it is, go your way and let it go it's way.

b. Practice loving someone you don't like. Exercise good-will. Try to desire that only good come to that person, not because of, but in spite of the way he or she is. Work up to loving an enemy or praying for one who despitefully uses you.

11. Prayer

In real prayer, we begin to think God's thoughts after him, to desire what he desires, to love what he loves, and to will what he wills. I have a short paper entitled "Prayer as a Form of Two-Way Communication" that has been well received. It describes how prayer works, includes a checklist of seven specific steps, and lists some ways to tell whether a message is coming from God.
a. Individual: study the two-way prayer paper (discipline 3 above), and then set aside 15 minutes a day to practice the seven steps, one at a time. Keep a record of results.

b. Small-group (two or more): same as individual contract, except the group selects in advance one person for each day of the next week, to focus their caring on when they pray. Each keeps a record, so the group can compare notes.

12. Simplicity

Christian simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style. The purpose is freedom from anxiety about things and slavery to others' opinions. Both the inward and outward aspects are essential. If we merely simplify our desires, we may still be swamped by possessions that possess us. If we only get rid of excess accumulation, we may still retain the desires that lead to accumulation. This whole self-discipline centers around the question, "How much is enough?" and the instruction, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33).
a. Study whatever distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God--for example: job, position, status, family, friends, security, entertainment. Note that many of these things are good, but they get in the way and can monopolize your life. Decide how to prioritize your time.

b. Study your present life-style. Notice the things you have accumulated. List some of the things you would like to have. Ask yourself why you want them and whether you really need them. Decide how much is enough. Then act on your decision in what you keep, what you get rid of, and what you acquire.

13. Service

Service is the self-discipline of doing things for someone other than ourselves, without reward or recognition. The purpose is freedom from egocentricity and all the compulsions it creates. What we do is not nearly as important as why we do it. When our purpose in serving has no strings attached, we are free. When our real purpose is to get something--like attention, praise, approval or self-approval--we are hooked by the very strings we attach to our service.
a. Before you go to bed, note one thing you did for someone else that day, and look into your heart to see why you did it. Did you do it freely? Or were you hooked by the desire for some kind of feed-back? If so, note what the hook was. Review these notes once a week to see if there is a pattern in your motives.

b. Pick some little, mundane, trivial bit of service that you really don't want to do, and see if you can do it cheerfully. One such exercise every day for five weeks can cause a permanent improvement in spiritual self-control.

14. Submission

The purpose of submission is freedom from the terrible burden of needing to get our own way--from the obsession that demands things must go as we believe they should. In the self-discipline of submission, we free ourselves to drop the matter, let it go and forget it. This is how we teach our inner selves that most things in life are no big deal. The result is a vast sense of relief. Submission is also how we teach ourselves to follow--and followership can be more difficult than leadership, but we must learn how to do it in order to follow the Lord.
a. Submission to events. Before going to bed, review the day and note one thing that went wrong--like getting caught in traffic, finding no parking place, or having to drop what you were doing in order to do something else. Remember your feelings of irritation or anger, and what you said to yourself inwardly. Replay your memory and experiment with different things to say to yourself until you find one that frees you from irritation or anger in such situations.

b. Submission to persons. Focus on the way you view other people, especially when they place demands on you or disagree with you. Do you outwardly do what they ask but inwardly rebel against them? Do you feel like a martyr? Self-pity is lethal. Remind yourself that the real issue is your own spirit of consideration and respect for the other person. See what that reminder does to your feelings.

c. Self-denial. Practice setting aside your self-interest and personal agenda in order to follow Christ. This does not mean loss of self-identity or self-respect, but voluntary submission to the leadership of God through Christ. It has been called "the way of the cross" but the final examination takes place in some Garden of Gethsemane, in a test that calls for the answer, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done."