We need discipline to be disciples

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul encouraged the Church at Corinth to think of their faith as an athlete thinks of a competition: run to win.

Mar 21, 2014

By Daniel S. Mulhall
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul encouraged the Church at Corinth to think of their faith as an athlete thinks of a competition: run to win.

“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

As Paul notes, athletes drive their bodies hard, training them to accomplish great things. They do not run aimlessly. Instead, they discipline their bodies and minds in every way so that when the race starts, they can strive to do their very best.

For us, as Christians, the race that Paul describes is how we live our faith. Each day is a competition, and the only chance that we have of winning is preparing for the contest that lies before us. To be successful we must be willing to train. To train successfully, we must bring discipline into our lives.

The joke goes like this: How does a musician get to Carnegie Hall? The answer: Practice, practice, practice. We are all born with innate gifts and talents, but for us to use those gifts and talents well, we must use them repeatedly.

Research made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers indicates that 10,000 hours of practice are needed to hone those gifts and talents so that we can use them proficiently.

Historically, Lent was a time of sacrifice. Christians were expected to fast and abstain from eating meat. People often gave up something they liked, such as candy or soft drinks, in order to deny themselves this pleasure. Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic understanding of Lent has changed.

What had once been understood as a period of mortification and penance can now be better understood as a period of preparation and training. During Lent we engage in a period of training, of developing the discipline we need to control our wants and needs. This control over our behaviour and cravings helps us prepare to live the life of discipleship.

The word “discipline” primarily describes the training done to produce a specific outcome. So if I want to be a mathematician, I would need to study the discipline of mathematics. If I want to be a musician, I would study the discipline of music. And if I want to learn to be a Christian, I would have to study the discipline of Christianity. I would then become a disciple of Christ and what he taught.

Throughout history humans have learned that certain practices promote discipline. These practices, which are considered virtues, are necessary for healthy, wholesome and holy lives.

For example, being able to control our desires has long been considered essential for strength of character. Self-control requires willpower, which is the internal motivation that allows us to delay immediate gratification in order to accomplish a more important or more desirable outcome. Controlling the mind and body requires self-discipline — doing what we know we should do even when we are tempted to abandon our efforts. Only by developing self-discipline and self-control do we gain power over our lives.

The research of Angela Duckworth provides a scientific confirmation of the value of these character strengths and virtues, which, along with grit — the determination to see tasks through to completion — are the key ingredients to success.

Learning to delay gratification has proven to be an important discipline as well.
A study conducted in the 1960s and 1970s at Stanford University by psychologist Walter Mischel showed that children who could control their immediate desires in order to achieve later rewards were far more successful later in life than those who couldn’t.
The challenge for us is to determine how we can best use the period of Lent to prepare our minds and bodies to follow Jesus in order to win the prize. Start by setting a goal and then doing what it takes to accomplish it. The idea is to go into Lent intent on becoming a better person and a more mature Christian. Decide what changes you want to make and what you need to do to accomplish those changes.

Next, establish a daily plan for accomplishing your goal. Let’s say you want to grow closer to God in prayer. Consider setting aside time each day to pray. For motivation, consider praying during your lunch time and giving the money you save to feed the hungry. Now you have two worthy goals to motivate you, and you will learn the discipline of prayer.
Whatever discipline you practise, take these words of St Paul to heart: “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).

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