Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace is one of those books that is worth reading slowly and meditatively, pausing often to reflect and, in my case, to write. I rarely dwell too long on a single book, but because of the sheer quantity and quality of Bible-based teaching within this book, I felt compelled to read it slowly and meditatively. It was well worth the effort and the time spent.
One of the areas of that book that has impacted in my life came when I read about the importance of disciplining myself to make choices that glorify God. Bridges says that “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living.” I was intrigued by this. I soon thought back to a time a couple of years ago when I discovered, much to my surprise, that I excelled in the not-too-spiritual gift of discouragement. I realized, through God’s work in my heart, that I was often being a discouragement to other people. I tended towards the pessimistic and sarcastic and seldom sought to bring encouragement. And so I put some effort into cultivating a spirit of encouragement. I initially found this to be a difficult task. One would not think it difficult to be an encourager, but I found that it truly was difficult to reverse course. I would be encouraging for a short time but would soon slip back into old patterns. I continued to be a discourager.
One day it occurred to me that I was going to have to discipline myself to encourage others. And so I took the strange and seemingly-artificial step of calendaring time to encourage others. It sounds strange, I know, but I opened up my Outlook calendar and created a 5-minute appointment recurring every three days. The appointment simply said “Encourage!” And so, every third day, while I was hard at work, a little reminder would flash up on my screen. “Encourage!,” it said. And I would. I would take the opportunity to quickly phone a friend or dash off an email to someone I felt was in need of encouragement. This felt very artificial. I felt like a fraud as I, with a heart of discouragement, attempted to be an encouragement to others. But as time went on, it began to become quite natural. I soon found that I no longer felt the same spirit of discouragement within me. Encouragement slowly became more natural. What had begun as a discipline that felt artificial, soon became a habit that felt natural.
There was a lesson in there for me. I agree with Bridges who often says “discipline without direction is drudgery.” Had I disciplined myself to be encouraging without first being convicted by the Spirit of my sin, and I had I attempted to be an encourager without first setting a direction that honored God, I doubt that He would have blessed my efforts. But I believe that He did bless them. I can still be as discouraging as anyone I know, but I also think that discouragement is no longer as quick to arise as it was before. More and more I find that I tend towards encouragement rather that discouragement. After a couple of months I was able to remove the recurring appointment from my Outlook calendar, for encouragement began to come naturally. Since then I’ve sometimes had to add the appointment back to my calendar just to encourage me to once again encourage others, but it never takes all that much effort anymore to get myself back into the mindset of being an encourager.
Bridges writes, “Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.” I believe this was proven true in my experience. “It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.” I think there are some who feel that discipline brings about holiness. These are men and women who are unbelievably disciplined. They get out of bed at the same time each day, spent 22 minutes praying and 17 minutes reading the Bible. They feel that this discipline leads them closer to God. But I disagree. It is not discipline or commitment or conviction that makes us holy. Rather, “we become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.” Conviction, commitment and discipline are necessary to making the right choices, but true spiritual growth can come only when we choose to obey God’s commandments, one at a time.
Discipline, commitment, conviction and Godly habits are closely related. It is important that we are disciplined, but only after we have been convicted and have set a direction towards godliness. At this time discipline and commitment can be used by God to work in us His holiness. Discipline is but a means to a much higher, more Christ-like end. It is a cruel master but a wonderful servant.