In I Tim. 4:7, Paul said to Timothy, “Train yourself.” Timothy was his disciple that he poured his life, wisdom and experience into on a regular basis. As his disciple, Timothy was to watch and learn so that one day he could train others. In verse 11, Timothy is instructed to teach these things and to insist that everyone learn them. Discipleship is the theme of their relationship as Paul took Jesus’ command literally — “Go make disciples… and teach them to observe all things I have commanded you.” That is why spiritual disciplines are so vitally important to every believer as we also take Jesus’ command literally.
The words disciple and discipline come from the word family which means education. Biblical education has teeth because it sees to it that the job gets done. It is not only focused on information but also transformation. Paul’s challenge to Timothy was to train himself and be disciplined enough to do it. We see discipline as a negative more than a positive. We see it far more in the light of punitive than preventive, but Psalm 119:11 teaches to hide God’s Word in your heart so you will not sin against Him. That is preventive discipline. The function of discipline is to produce righteousness as a fruit in the discipleship process.
You are called to train yourself in this spiritual walk required by our Lord, and discipline is required to excel at anything in life. Focusing on your end goal and staying on God’s clear pathway for you will require your willingness to say no to many things. Discipline is required in athletes, musicians, plumbers, electricians, accountants and disciples of Jesus Christ for excellence to occur. One virtuoso violinist was asked how she became so skilled and gifted at her craft. She said the key was “planned neglect.” She planned to neglect anything else that got in the way of her journey. Training can be difficult, but the hard work pays off.
Discipline requires more than trying. It means you actually practice spiritual disciplines daily. God’s education system expects you to learn and apply what you have learned. Trying is not enough because you must be committed to doing all you can, then allowing God to do all that He can. Training connects you with a power greater than your own. Maybe Satan has a stronghold in your life that you cannot seem to get victory over. Have you considered the spiritual discipline of fasting? Fasting can become feasting as you learn that you can be sustained in the peace and joy of God by meditating on Scripture and prayer.
Spiritual discipline training requires developing new and healthier habits. You cannot and will not be good at most things without healthy habits for your body and for your soul. The word discipline means the denial of immediate gratification. There are many other things you want to do, but you discipline yourself to do what is best. A good golf swing seemingly has 100 different aspects. How do you hold your hands, bend your knees and where do you place your feet? The spiritual life is similar in requiring the development of physical habits that place us in the position to engage our minds and hearts with God.
Spiritual disciplines get your head in the right position — reading and studying the Word of God. They get your knees in the right position — bending them in prayer. They get your hands in the right position — focusing on how you can help others instead of what you can get for yourself. Spiritual disciplines make sure your feet are in the right position — sandaled with the readiness for the gospel of peace. They keep your heart in the right place — blessing those who persecute you and praying for them. You have disciplined yourself to walk with Jesus in intimacy and then the position of every area of your life becomes a Godly habit.
Spiritual disciplines are the regular spiritual exercises that are basic but also essential to your spiritual vitality. Have you designed a well-developed training schedule? There are disciplines of abstinence such as solitude, silence, fasting, sabbath, secrecy and submission. These are ways of denying yourself something in order to focus on what you actually need. Biblical discipleship rejects any focus on self-centered training. It is not about self-improvement, self-actualization or self-preservation but instead self-denial. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23 HCSB).
Solitude is disciplining yourself to be alone with God and refraining from interacting with others during that time. Silence is becoming comfortable with quiet in order to be attentive to God’s presence. Fasting is going without something for a period of time and being determined to pray intensely. Sabbath is learning to rest in God’s person and provision. This is a time to pray and play with God and others. Secrecy is making sure you are not promoting yourself and your good deeds by giving Him all the attention and praise (Matthew 6). Submission is disciplining yourself to pray daily, “Not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).
Spiritual disciplines are not only disciplines of abstinence (self-denial) but they are also disciplines of action (self-dedication). These are action steps that should become daily habits of how you connect with God and with others — disciplines such as Bible reading, worship, prayer, soul friendships, personal reflections and service. It is making sure you have firsthand knowledge of God’s sacred text and sound biblical theology more than politics, sports and/or entertainment. Spiritual disciplines will require discipline by saying yes to the right things and no to the wrong or lesser things.